Japan’s Decision to Attack Pearl Harbor in 1941

Countries strive to promote a sense of international association while trying to retain as much sovereignty as possible. The most powerful actors in the world typically maintain a strong military and economic foundations. Prior to the 1930s, Japan appeared to be a small island nation that had launched itself out of a near-medieval status into economic prosperity and significant investment in a robust military.

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Japan’s newly acquired military strength was evident from the victories secured during the initial six months of war against the United States. Though they were positioned for short term success, many scholars, as well as several Japanese leaders at the time, were keenly aware that Japan had little chance of emerging victorious in an extended war against the United States. Once the United States intervened, the balance of power, to which Japan had become accustomed, began to deteriorate rapidly. By 1941, Japan’s options for promising diplomatic outcomes seemed limited unless they conceded significant regional power. To many, Japan seems to have ‘acted out’ in attacking Pearl Harbor because they felt disrespected by other world powers.

In an effort to strengthen its aggressive plan for regional dominance, Japan had formed strategic alliances with Germany and Italy to further leverage their balance of power position. Before the United States intervention, Japan was aggressively acquiring geographical possessions through take-over and re-settlement. Also, during the period leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States imposed significant trade restrictions on Japan which, in return, severely constricted their economic engine and created significant hardships within Japanese society. Japan’s once strong economic interdependencies unraveled and they were highly exposed and desperate for critical resources.

Essentially, Japan was shut out of the vital global marketplace and had no confidence that normal peaceful trade or economic stability might be restored in a timely fashion. This paper will address the economic interdependence and balance of power theories as applied to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. It will also analyze and evaluate key background facts, assumptions, variables, logic, and other important aspects of the two theories. Understanding the irrational behavior that led to Pearl Harbor is critical today because the world faces several actors, state and otherwise, whose frightening decision making appears similarly illogical.

Japan: Waking the Sleeping Giant

In the early 1900s, Japan had achieved a good trade position vis-à-vis, other state actors. Their strong per capita income and trade stability expectations allowed the country to excel economically and militarily. By the 1920s, Japan had experienced nearly fifty consecutive years of unprecedented population growth which prompted a massive population exodus from the island. As the country’s internal standard of living and economic condition declined, people sought to improve their situation. A primary strategy of Japanese leadership was to secure more territories throughout the Pacific Rim and, perhaps, even Russia.

They pursued this strategy both to secure natural resources and to become a Great Power, tilting the balance of power in their favor. At that time, Japan’s emperor was largely a figurehead and government leadership was fragmented. Many senior government officials feared the aggressive approach of junior officers. This arrogance and perception of superiority to the USA would lead to irrational decisions that proved detrimental to the nation’s immediate future.

The Manchurian incident in 1931 was a critical setback for Japan because the United States initiated trade restrictions on critical resources, including petroleum. The United States also focused on changing its power position in the Pacific Rim and began to build up the American Naval fleet at Pearl Harbor. Because Japan was overly dependent on essential natural resources from the United States, Japan was also in a war with China that had already extended well beyond its initially anticipated timeline. With the trade barrier in place, Japan sought to secure natural resources through expansion into new territories. Additionally, in an effort to balance its power position vis-à-vis the United States, Japan allied with Germany and Italy.

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Leading the negotiations for the United States, Secretary of State Hull,” was unconvinced of Japan’s peaceful intentions; Japan, after all, was allied with the most flagrant aggressor who has appeared on this planet.” As conditions for lifting the embargo, Hull laid out a four-point plan that, essentially, required Japan to not assert itself militarily toward other actors in the region and to respect others’ sovereignty. It also required Japan to withdraw its troops from China and Indochina.

Conversely, a senior military officer in Japan’s Army, Tsukada, comment, “we insist that diplomacy not interfere with strategies,” represented the prevailing tone throughout Japanese leadership. After months of negotiations, little compromising occurred, and the longer the embargo extended, the weaker Japan’s economy and military became. Though not publically vocal, most of the Japanese leadership knew that winning a long-term war against the United States was unlikely. Eri Hotta’s Book, Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy details the breakdown of the United States and Japanese relationship. It describes how a state actor embarks on risky behavior to assert their national interest.

Balance of Power Theory: Level of Threat and Alliance Formation

The balance of power theory addresses issues in international relations as well as internal affairs. It holds that countries are “constantly engaged in building, maintaining, and defending the international balance,” which is central to world stability and peace. Its major principle is that countries seek resources and alliances to ensure their sovereignty. The common pursuit of this goal by all countries means that international balance is achieved as countries balance each other. Two variables described by Balance of Power (BOP) theorists, alliance formation and level of threat, are essential to understanding how balancing might occur.

BOP theory assumes all countries strive for power. Some seek the preponderance of power while others seek safety and avoidance of the imperialistic aims of other state actors. Two primary patterns of the BOP have been identified, direct opposition and competition. The pattern of direct opposition implies one nation seeking control of another that “refuses to yield.” The alternate scenario of the competition involves three actors. The two superior and powerful actors’ are considered equal, balancing each other, thereby precluding either gaining control over the third actor.

The strategies used to gain or maintain power include armaments, territorial compensation, buffer zones, alliances, interventions, and dividing and conquering. Armaments, meaning a strong military and a robust arsenal, are a straightforward means to attain control over the actions of another actor. The strategy of seizing territories occurs when a more powerful country (country A) prepares to swallow up a weaker nation (country B) but must share it with another powerful actor (country C).

Country A is compelled to sacrifice a part of seized territories in B as compensation for the disturbance in the balance of power. Setting up buffer zones ensures the neutrality of a weaker nation located between two powerful countries. Intervention is commonly seen when powerful countries interfere with smaller and less powerful nations’ internal affairs. Alliances amplify the effective power of a nation that may lack military might. A final key strategy is dividing and conquering, which deploys tactics to break alliances that could block a state actor’s goals. To fully appreciate the theory, it is helpful to understand the key variables, and for purposes of this paper, the focus is on alliances.

For present purposes, the independent variable is the level of threat. This includes the potential risks faced by a country internationally as well as domestically. As applied in the context of BOP theory, the level of threat can be considered the measurement of risk of the aforementioned strategies being used against a country. The degree of power of the alliance, either existing or possible, is also considered a threat because weak alliances make actors vulnerable to other risks.

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The risks vary for each country because every country potentially faces every threat. Country size, resource availability, and power gained all affect threat level. Even large and powerful countries experience pressure, and threat levels higher even than their smaller neighbors. For instance, threat levels to small countries can be quite low if they have formed strong alliances with other state actors. Because of this, threat levels to powerful countries can grow due to increased power, real or perceived, of other actors. Understanding the independent variable of the threat level is critical to assessing a state actor’s stability.

The dependent variable, alliance formation, also critical to national stability, is associated with state actors’ willingness to participate in alliances, and the size of their contribution to increasing alliance power. As previously noted, alliances are seen as an effective tool in addressing high threat levels. Oddly, a nation’s power and size seem to have little impact when measuring alliance formation.

As a general hypothesis, the level of threat the country (independent variable) faces positively correlates with the alliance formation (dependent variable) that can be measured by the affected country’s willingness to form an alliance and keep it strong and viable. Although it is challenging to assign quantitative values to these variables, trends can be identified. The contributions of the country to the development of the alliance are also important. For example, Figure 1 below depicts that if country A is facing a high level of threat from countries B and C, then country A becomes more willing to form alliances with county D, or perhaps even B or C.

The Correlation Between the Threat Level and Alliance.
Figure 1: The Correlation Between the Threat Level and Alliance.

Leadership Decision Points: Power of Balance Theory

The power of balance theory demonstrates how countries face and respond to various threats. The threat level affecting a country helps define their pursuit of increased power or retention of independence. Often, this is achieved through alliance formation. The level of threat affects the way actors collaborate within alliances as well. While numerical quantification of these variables is difficult, identifying directions of trends may be possible.

Japanese Leadership Dilemma: Power of Balance Theory

Consistent with other countries after WW I, Japan desired expanded borders and spheres of influence. They sought to dominate the Pacific Rim through “imperialist expansion abroad and militarization at home.” Japan shared with other countries a goal of increased power status, and, consistent with BOP theory, sought it as a signatory of the Axis Alliance and Tripartite Pact. As previously stated, it is hypothesized here that the level of threat, (independent variable) correlates with alliance formation (dependent variable). In Japan’s case, armament, intervention, and alliance as well as intervention, were important to Japan’s regional expansion strategy.

Because of the military sector’s rapid growth in so many nations, armaments became a threat to many state actors in the 1930s. Such great powers as the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, Germany, and France as well as Japan were all developing powerful military capabilities. Because of this, power balances were changing, and actors were positioning themselves for potential conflict. Like any other country, Japan saw alliance formation as a way to increase its power and respond to the military threat (if any). Without the pursuit of alliances, Japan alone would be unsuccessful in withstanding aggression from powerful actors like the United States or Great Britain.

The conflict between Russia and Japan at Nomonhan in Mongolia in 1939 is an example of the threat of intervention. At that point, the territory of Japan was unlikely to be under threat and the spheres of influence were the basis of Japan’s international relations policies. Japanese leadership did decide that intervention in China or Mongolia was necessary. Communism’s spread in China also constituted a type of outside intervention threatening to their ideological platform and interests. Other state actors (e.g., USA, Germany, and Italy) also tried to prevent the expansion of an ideology alien to their economic models.

Ironically, the threat of other actor alliances also contributed to Japanese leaders’ desire to form alliances. As noted above, ideologies played an important role in this process. Thus, the Soviet Union formed various alliances with countries with sufficiently strong communist forces. The support of the Chinese Communist Party is one of these alliances that forced Japan to ally with Germany and Italy. Thus, in 1936, Germany and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact aimed at resisting the spread of Communism.

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Hotta stresses that the Axis alliance was not a “natural outgrowth” of the alliance, as Japan invited other countries to sign the pact. The Japanese leaders’ decision to join the Axis was driven by the worsening relations with the United States. Japanese leadership knew that they could not confront the military power of allied forces alone. Japanese leadership believed that aligning with Germany would speed up trade barrier negotiations with the United States.

Being an industrialized country, they also had visions of advancing their regional power, therefore they had to pick a side and form an alliance to withstand the United States. Germany, on the other hand, was also making a power balancing move with the alliance as they believed that it would prevent the United States from engaging in the war in Europe.

In relationship to the balance of power variables, it is clear that the increase in the level of threat, mainly by the United States, led to increasing Japan’s desire to ally with Germany and Italy. As stated by Hotta, “The Japanese,…, saw the fascist alliance as a way of balancing power.” Also noteworthy from the research is the way Japanese leadership’s perception of the military strength of other actors (United States), intervention activities through the expansion of ideologies (Russia), and Clearly, the Balance of Power theory is applicable in Japan’s decisions to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor as they believed that their alliances provided strategic value in the power arena.

Economic Interdependence: Expectations of Future Trade and Conflict

The foundation of the economic interdependence theory suggests that countries become critically linked due to their need to exchange essential resources. The basic theory is complex because of the co-dependence and co-functioning of the actors around the world. Countries become highly dependent on reliable and consistent exchanges of products to maintain their economic status. As it relates to international relations, even countries with high political and economic power engage in trade. Understanding the economic interdependence theory, it is evident that all countries participate in different complex trading networks geared toward exchanging resources and products, which they cannot fully or partially manufacture on their own.

The economic interdependence theory suggests that a country’s overall level of economic growth (GNP) is a dynamic result of gains acquired through trade. The presence of GNP (which includes income from trade with other countries) establishes the equilibrium in demand and supply of the country, as the required goods are delivered to the country in need. As countries exchange commodities, it also begins to open up additional opportunities. Therefore, exchange rates are a key aspect of the theory because the exports of one nation are dependent on the currency exchange in another country. It further defines the interdependency and assures the sufficient flow of resources.

The importance of an actor’s policy decisions and sanctions is directly correlated with economic growth or contraction for the actors involved in the pact. Therefore, favorable political relationships between actors are essential so that they can maximize the benefits of their agreements. Having such strong partnerships allows for heightened confidence in the commercial relationship and more precise governmental budgeting and forecasting of imports and exports. Ultimately, economic relationships can result in peacebuilding because the actors are invested in each other’s well-being.

The primary variables associated with economic interdependence are expectations of future trade (independent variable) and conflict (dependent variable). Although it is challenging to assign quantitative values to these variables as well, trends can be identified. In general, future trade can be referred to like the trends and expectations related to behavioral patterns of the actors engaged in trading relationships. Alternatively, conflict occurs when countries have differing viewpoints on economic growth and developments. Conflict situations are usually tied to critical natural resources that are essential to economic stability and growth.

Based on the rationale associated with the conflict, it may also jeopardize compliance agreements with other actors in the economic pact. The outcome may also include actors distancing themselves from the agreement regarding future economic exchange opportunities. These trade agreements between actors form economic relationships that could result in aggression, should countries elect to fight over important commerce issues essential to economic power. Strengthening of peaceful relationships between actors occurs most when the focus on meeting trade commitments is evident, division of resources is clear, economic expectations are being achieved, and GNP is increased.

Under the economic interdependence theory, the expectation of future trade (independent variable) is associated with the degree of the positive or aggressive attitudes and behaviors of the political leaders. Conversely, conflict (dependent variable) is associated with the probability of peace or war (conflict). The correlation between expectations of future trade and conflict is described graphically in Figure 2.

In this example, it is evident that the lack of agreement with future trade can be considered as the primary reason for the conflict, as it drives the negative attitudes of the political leaders. In turn, it leads to the increasing necessity of interventions by other countries to assure the distribution of required resources. Peace is tightly associated with the ability of the actors to find compromises and meaningfulness in the exchanges for the development of economies of scale and economic growth. The peaceful environment is the primary cause of the economic, social, and political stability, and core to the establishment of trusting trade relationships.

Interdependence between expectations of future trade (vertical axis) and Conflict (horizontal axis).
Figure 2. Interdependence between expectations of future trade (vertical axis) and Conflict (horizontal axis).

When testing this theory, a generic hypothesis can be formulated: if actor A does not comply with the expectations of actor B and deliver the essential resources, actor B may change its attitudes and behavior to aggression, and a lack of compromise and stability may lead to conflict. On the contrary, a trusting relationship and compliance with expectations being met between actors A and B will eliminate risk and increase stability. Confidence in expectations of future trade affects the presence of conflict, and the development of policies can help introduce new approaches to optimize the commercial exchange and to find equilibrium between supply and demand.

Figure 3 depicts the flow of events related to the hypothesis.

Responsiveness of actor A to actor B’s requirements.
Figure 3. Responsiveness of actor A to actor B’s requirements.

Japanese Leadership Dilemma: Economic Interdependence Theory

The Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 can be analyzed from the standpoint of the economic interdependence theory because this conflict was triggered by the unrealized expectations of Japan regarding failed future trade relations with the United States in the Asian Pacific region. The oil embargo imposed in the summer of 1941 by the United States, censuring the aggression of Japan in Indochina, changed the Japanese leadership’s visions of their economic stability and trade potential in the region significantly.

In this context, following the premises of the economic interdependence theory, it is possible to conclude that Japan reacted to the United States’ actions to freeze a critical resource through the embargo as an act of aggression (negative attitude). Japan’s expectations regarding the progress of regional economic and future trade relations were not addressed, leading to the development of the military conflict.

In consideration of other different international relations theories to explain the onset of Japan engaging the United States in war, the economic interdependence theory does provide a legitimate explanation to the onset of the attack on Pearl Harbor. According to Hotta, “the U.S. oil embargo of August 1 became a turning point in United States-Japan relations because Japanese leaders had failed to take a chance on the proposal that had preceded it.” Thus, the Japanese leaders’ expectations regarding the development of future trade in the region were not realized, and the situation led to fears regarding future access to oil. The overall trading environment outlook for Japan was poor, and according to the theory, such a situation could make the Japanese leaders consider the possibility of the war.

From this perspective, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor can be viewed in the context of variables associated with the economic interdependence theory. The Japanese unmet expectations of the future trade that were prompted by the strict oil embargo can be discussed as an independent variable because the access to resources was limited. Therefore, further military conflict constitutes a dependent variable. This framework links well to the theory and applies to Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor.

The causal relationships between these variables are also supported with references to Hotta’s discussion of the Japanese leaders’ actions: “surprised and overwhelmed by what they saw as undeservedly harsh punishment for the “peaceful” occupation, some began to see war with the United States in much less abstract terms.” The theory explains the expectations of future trade from the perspective of positive and negative attitudes to the other countries, and the Japanese authorities’ attitudes to the embargo as a “harsh punishment” can be viewed as negative and directly leading to discussing potential options related to war.

Japan’s economy’s future was extremely vulnerable, and the progression to the conflict was the logical outcome of material changes in trade relations. In relationship to the economic interdependence theory, this validates Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor.

The changes in the Japanese leadership attitudes to the United States could predict two possible scenarios; they could allow economic collapse or choose aggressive measures. The pursuit of conflict arose because Japanese leaders were pessimistic about their potential to overcome the future trade dilemma and eventual economic failure. According to Hotta, the United States embargos affected the country significantly, and Japan “was now completely isolated economically,” moreover, “it would have to go farther into Southeast Asia to procure resources by force.” These statements indicate that the Japanese leaders discussed the war as the preferable choice. The examples presented by Hotta in the book are in line with the main principles of the economic interdependence theory.

As previously highlighted, economic relations play a significant role in an actor’s expectations concerning the development of the war. Japanese leaders gambled and went “all-in”, deciding to attack Pearl Harbor as a means potentially to re-acquire resources. Engaging in military conflict is a complex process that depends on a variety of factors. Hotta states that in addition to economic factors causing the fears amongst Japanese leaders, their irrational behaviors and arrogance was also a factor. Their bold decision to engage in a war against the United States was driven by a desire to change Japan’s distribution of power and influence among countries in the region.

Theory Alignment and Strengths and Weakness

The combination of the balance of power and economic interdependence theory is complementary to one another in explaining why Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Additionally, both theories appear to be equally weighted as it relates to the decisions made to go to war against the United States. Therefore, the factors of threat and expectations of future trade are directly correlated to the formation of alliances and conflict (war).

The balance of power theory has strengths and weaknesses as related to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The theory adequately addresses Japan’s quest to gain superiority and expand its power in the region. Due to this strategy, they rapidly invested in building out their military and armaments capabilities. They also formed strategic power alliances and extended their territories to access more resources.

One of the major weaknesses of the theory is its inability to explain why countries want to gain more power. For example, Switzerland, despite industrialization, avoided the war and seemed disinterested in acquiring additional power. At the same time, Germany and Japan were ready to pay a very high price (as both countries understood that the war would cost both treasure and blood) for gaining power. Another weakness is the difficulty in measuring power.

Evaluating the economic interdependence theory, it too is possible to identify strengths and weaknesses when applied to Japan’s Pearl Harbor decision. The theory’s strength is the fact that it discusses how Japan’s negative attitudes towards the United States can lead to the pursuit of military conflict when expectations of future trade are limited, and the economic stability of the dependent nation is questionable. On the other hand, the theory’s weakness is an apparent narrow focus on economics as a trigger for one actor’s attitude towards another. Though this theory highlights the value of compromise, other important factors should also be considered as conflict escalates.

Though the two theories hold up very well in the analysis of Japan attacking the United States at Pearl Harbor, the gaps in the evaluation that remain unsettling and troubling are not related to international relations theories, but the human behavior element. Research for this paper led to Randall Schweller’s observations on how a nation’s internal politics might impact a country’s balance of power.

Further insight into Schweller’s perspectives might assist scholars in better understanding how a powerful country like Japan could operate with internal governmental processes that did not compensate for irrational behaviors by policymakers in their critical decisions regarding war or peace. (Schweller 2006) In reviewing the facts laid out in the Hotta book, it is clear that many Japanese leaders could have (and should have) more assertively intervened to curb the headlong rush down a path to war that most felt that they had little chance of winning. Nonetheless, both the balance of power and economic interdependence theory is appropriate to describe and evaluate processes that led to Japan attacking Pearl Harbor.


Japan’s attack has spawned a recurring interest in analysis and dissection to uncover its causes and motivations. Of the myriad theories generated by scholars to explain Pearl Harbor, two seem useful. The balance of power theory, favored by neo-realists, does demonstrate that Japan, by undertaking military buildup, alliances, territorial take-overs, colonization, and finally, their pre-emptive and surprising first strike, was acting in a manner consistent with previous efforts to establish and maintain their identity as a Great Power. That theory does not explain, however, why one nation pursues power while another nation elects not to.

The balance of power theory also suffers from a lack of a consistent and reliable way to measure power because there are so many areas where power can be exercised, and most of them are difficult to quantify. The economic interdependence theory also shows that Japan was acting following their perceived interests, and consistently with prior behavior. The economic interdependence theory demonstrates that for Japan their trade expectations were an important factor in their decision making. Both these theories suffer from the recurrent problem that determining cause and effect can be challenging.

Many actions can act as both independent and dependent variables. Both theories, and perhaps all theories in international relations, are also limited in that they cannot cover the unimaginable complexity of actors on the world stage. However, they provide an organized way to see commonalities among state actors of otherwise vastly disparate characteristics. These theories also permit observers to perceive order and some degree of predictability in frightening events.

Despite a half century’s distance, understanding this historical tragedy is keenly relevant. Modern state actors (e.g., North Korea, Iran) can also behave irrationally, with weapons of nuclear or biological annihilation undreamed of mere generations ago. Non-state actors (e.g., ISIL) can assume the roles of nations and declare war on whole demographic sectors of the world. Thus, comprehending what led Japan to undertake the Pearl Harbor attack has immediate importance, since this could help national leaders to anticipate any another actor perpetrating an analogous tragedy.


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