Japan's Attack on Pearl Harbor

Japan’s Attack on Pearl Harbor

On the December 7, 1941, the world awoke to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by the Japanese. Yet, this was not the first time Japan had executed such an attack. The Japanese surprise attack could trace its history with the Russo-Japanese war that erupted in early 1904 and which lasted for slightly over one year ending in late 1905[1]. In fact, many historians agree that the Russo-Japanese was the first major war of the twentieth century[2] as it was a war that led to the first defeat of a major European military power by an Asian military. In the Russo-Japanese War, Japan had successfully showed the importance and relative effectiveness of preemptive attacks when its units attacked the Russian bases in the middle of the night. The Japanese surprise attack began by targeting Port Arthur, previously heavily fortified by the Russian Imperial Army. The war entirely gave a heavy blow to Russia as it lost Fleets in the Pacific and Baltic Sea and made Japan victorious. This war was also an important fillip for Japan’s future military and economic policies as it planned to conquer regions in the Asia. Nevertheless, the causalities for both countries involved in the Russo-Japanese war were heavy. On the December 7, 1945, Japan put its surprise attack techniques to use by attacking Pearl Harbor. While the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was intended to be a surprise attack to the US Pearl Harbor Naval Base, Japanese plans and execution of these plans not only led to failure in achieving their goals, but also would severely affect their chances of victory in WWII.

This attack, which led to several casualties and damages, was a culmination of the Japanese desire to achieve a short-term victory over the US and the ultimate decision to attack the US Naval Base. The main intention of targeting the US naval base at Pearl Harbor was to thwart the capacity of the US naval military fleet in the Pacific in intervening in case the Japanese made good their plans to prevent overseas territories from occupying and influencing the Southeast Asia[3]. Therefore, the attack on Pearl Harbor was executed as a preventive measure against the US Pacific Fleet.

Rationale and Objectives of the Pearl Harbor Attack

As already mentioned in the introductory part, one of the major objectives of the Pearl Harbor attack was to ensure that the preventive attack deterred the US Pacific Fleet from interfering in the Japanese military plans of safeguarding the Southeast Asia against foreign military interests that included the US itself, the UK and Netherlands[4]. With this objective, the Japanese were determined and had already put plans in place to attack and conquer the Philippines (which was a US territory in the South-East Asia), British Borneo, Burma, Malaya and Dutch East Indies (currently Indonesia). However, the attack on Pearl Harbor was just a short-term objective of deterrence. The long-term objectives of the attack lay in the long-term ambitions of the Empire of Japan[5]. With these conquests well planned and if successful, access to oil, minerals and other natural resources would be within the reach of the Japanese empire. These resources would not only help the Empire of Japan sustain its aggressive military objectives but they would also help in stamping its authority in the region as a formidable economic and military power.

Planning and Execution of the Attack

Planning for the attack included preparing the necessary resources besides training the military personnel that would carry out the attack and all the needed logistics. Planning also included establishing the actual targets to be attacked or destroyed at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base[6]. Admiral Yamamoto was the commander-in-chief behind planning and giving the encouragement and reasons for the efficacy of the surprise attack. Admiral Yamamoto was appointed as the Commander-in-Chief of the Japan’s combined Fleet in early 1941. He did not support the cautious policy that was being taken by the country’s naval general staff. He believed that the US Pacific Fleet would respond in the event that Japan attacked or conquered the Philippines or other foreign territories in the South-East Asia.[7] For this reason and belief, Yamamoto’s plans considered this possibility hence the need to cripple the US Fleet in the Pacific at Pearl Harbor to mitigate the possibility of an attack from the US military. He further believed that the attack should coincide with the attack on the other target foreign territories that included US, British and Dutch interests in the Southeast Asia.

Yamamoto used his strong conviction to consider a shocker carrier-launched air attack at Pearl Harbor and time this attack such that it would simultaneously occur as the Japan’s military aggression on the target Southeast Asia countries was unleashed. Yamamoto gave instructions to Takijiro Onishi, Rear Admiral and Chief of Staff of the Eleventh Fleet, to carry out an assessment of the feasibility of an attack on Pearl Harbor from carrier-launched aircraft[8]. With enlisting of Commander Genda’s assistance, four major factors were determined to be essential in ensuring the feasibility of the attack as follows.

  1. The attack must be completely made by surprise so that it takes the Americans by utter surprise
  2. It should be carried out early on Sunday since then most Americans would either be attending Sunday mass or preparing for it hence unprepared for defensive move
  3. Japan’s six best aircraft carrier to be deployed in the mission
  4. Use of highly skilled aircrews only

For these factors to make the attack a complete surprise to the Americans, Commander Genda admonished against giving any warning of an attack to the Americans or declaration of war prior to the attack.[9] The planned attack became easier to plan on the side of Yamamoto as a result of the decision made by US President Roosevelt when he ordered for relocation of US Pacific Fleet to Hawaii from its bases in California. By destroying this fleet, Japan would have sufficient time to seize and gain control of the Philippines and the other target foreign interests in the region[10].

One flaw that was later evident in this approach and notion in planning was that America would be willing or prepared to enter into peace treaty and allow Japan to take hold of its new conquests in the Southeast Asia[11]. It was a mere demonstration of hope on the part of Yamamoto.

During the early stages of the plans by Yamamoto, the Japanese Naval General Staff rejected Yamamoto’s proposition of the attack on the basis that it was not only extremely risky but also too great a gamble. Their fears and doubts were founded because the striking fleet would be at sea for about two weeks before reaching positions for attack on Pearl Harbor. This means that Japanese best aircraft carriers were at great danger and risk of the gamble; hence leaving the main attacks without proper naval protection. Japanese Naval General Staff were in favor of defensive naval war. However, only when Yamamoto threatened to resign were his plans taken into consideration. As mentioned in the introductory part, the Russo-Japanese war was very essential in preparing the Japanese in terms of their years of night warfare and greatly accurate long-range torpedoes. Even though the Japanese undertook these years to strengthen their accuracy in long range torpedoes and night warfare mainly as a measure of defensive naval war these advantages would prove even more advantageous during the attack on Pearl Harbor. The tactics gave the Japanese Navy an added advantage and edge over the Allied navies when it came to night warfare[12].

Training for the Attack

Despite the fact that Chief of Naval General Staff had not yet given the go-ahead for the surprise attack, Admiral Yamamoto directed that intensive planning and training should begin for the attack on Pearl Harbor early 1941.  Meanwhile, most of the naval aircrews had already bolstered their skills when they flew raid maneuvers against the Chinese air force and army. Despite these prior knowledge and skills, Pearl Harbor had its own challenges and needed more training to be undertaken.[13] The first challenge is that of distance since it was far away and the navy fleet would take longer before getting there. Secondly, the Chinese air force and army and were a poorly trained lot and did not provide a formidable challenge to the Japanese. Another special challenge was that Pearl Harbor had a relatively shallow harbor[14]. An island at the center of the harbor narrowed the area between the eastern shores and the battleships, meaning that the training had to include redesigning of the Japanese torpedoes, to allow deployment in shallow waters such as Pearl Harbor. It also implied that the aircrew had extra lessons to learn that had to target increased precision in shallow waters with narrow stretches. This training was carried out with dedication and enthusiasm that saw the crew ready for the attack by November of 1941. Following the completion of the training exercise, the Chief of the Japanese General Staff approved the plan to attack Pearl Harbor on 3rd November 1941.

Departure and Attack

One of the tactics used by the Japanese government to ensure that the American was distracted long enough for the attack to succeed was the instruction given to the Japanese envoys in Washington to engage the American government in diplomatic talks; thus, distracting them from the imminent attach.[15] These diplomatic talks were meant to enable the Japanese military to surreptitiously position a powerful aircraft carrier attack force for the “stealth surprise attack” on the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor[16]. This force departed from Japan on 26th November that year.

The attack comprised two waves of attack from 353 Japanese fighters and bombers besides torpedo planes[17]. The attack failed to destroy important installations at the base including submarine piers and shipyard. Maintenance and storage facilities were also not destroyed and these made it easier for the US to service the damaged ships and take them back to battle. This serves to prove that the attack on Pearl Harbor achieved the element of surprise but failed to consider the long-term objective of crippling the US naval power beyond getting into the war in the Pacific.

Results of the War

When the attack ended, there were about 2,400 Americans dead and more than 1,200 wounded. Besides these figures, there were also about 100 civilians wounded or killed. The number of American aircraft destroyed or damaged as provided by the Americas Government Library is 310 (160 of them were destroyed while 150 damaged)[18]. In addition to these aircraft destroyed or damaged, the attack completely destroyed an American battleship and sank another one. These battleships were U.S.S. Arizona and U.S.S. Oklahoma respectively. Nine ships were damaged while twelve were either sank or beached[19].

Flaws in Planning and Assumptions

Surprise attack would mean leaving out important targets like oil tank farms and the navy yard. Even the submarine base would be left. The thinking behind this was that the object of the attack was cripple US naval ability at the base. The thinking was that crippling the US naval at the base would limit any form of response in the aftermath of the attack[20]. This, intermarried with the erroneous timing highlighted below, proved that Japanese planners failed in their planning.

Timing was erroneous as the important US carriers were not at the Pearl Harbor at the time of attack[21]. The erroneous timing had relied on faulty intelligence, which made them believe that they would find U.S.S Lexington, US.S Saratoga, US.S Enterprise and US.S. Yorktown all based at Pearl Harbor when they strike.[22]

Another flaw that was evident in this approach and notion in planning was that America would be willing or prepared to enter into peace treaty and allow Japan to take hold of its new conquests in the Southeast Asia[23]. It was a mere demonstration of hope on the part of Yamamoto. This mistake was probably due to lack of consideration for what impact the attack would have on American people. Initially, Americans were opposed to the US joining any war including the World War. The Japanese planners did not consider the moral outcome that would put the Americans together and support war as opposed to peace as they had thought in their planning.[24]


With the conclusive investigation of the way the Japanese Military planned and executed their attack on Pearl Harbor, and juxtaposing this against the outcomes of the attack and the objectives or aims of the attack, the results indicated in this paper show that Japanese Military fell short of achieving their long-term objectives. First, they did not cripple the US military as they had thought even though they achieved their element of surprise. In fact, this failed attempt to cripple US military made the US to officially declare war on Japan the next day and officially joined the world war. This made Japanese chances of achieving any success in the war to shutter. With US contributing in terms of the great naval assets and military personnel, Japanese could not hope for anything more than total defeat. Secondly, they did not deter the US from joining the war nor did they make it seek peace. In addition, the Japanese failed to achieve their long-term objective of conquering its targets foreign territory interests in the Southeast Asia region. All these support the stand that even though the Japanese were successful in achieving the element of surprise at Pearl Harbor when they attacked, they failed in achieving the intended long term objectives of the attack due to several flaws and errors in their planning and assumptions.


Bruce, Russett “Pearl Harbor: Deterrence Theory and Decision Theory” Journal of Peace Research 4 (1967): 89-105

Ephraim Kam and Ephraim, Kam “Surprise Attack: The Victim’s Perspective, With a New Preface” (Harvard University Press 2004): 112-230

Fredrick, Borsch “Comparing Pearl Harbor and” 9/11″: Intelligence Failure? American Unpreparedness? Military Responsibility?” Journal of Military History 67 (2003): 845-86

John, Stephan “Hawaii Under the Rising Sun: Japan’s Plans for Conquest After Pearl Harbor”(University of Hawaii Press 2002): 69-150

Kahn, David “The Intelligence Failure of Pearl Harbor” Foreign Affairs Hein Online 70 (1990-1992) 138

Kowner, Rotem “The Impact of the Russo-Japanese War” (Routledge Publications 2007): 87-117

Library of Congress “The Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941” Accessed January 14, 2013 http://www.americaslibrary.gov/jb/wwii/jb_wwii_pearlhar_3.html

Naoko, Shimazu “The Myth of the ‘Patriotic Soldier’: Japanese Attitudes towards Death in the Russo–Japanese War” War & Society, 19 (2001): 69-89

Porch, Douglas and Wirtz, James “Surprise and Intelligence Failure” Journal of Contemporary Conflict 5 (2002): 5

Ronald H. Carpenter “Admiral Mahan, “narrative fidelity,” and the Japanese attack on pearl harbor” Quarterly Journal of Speech 72 (2009) 290-305

Wallin, Homer “PEARL HARBOR: Why, How, Fleet Salvage, Final Appraisal,” Naval Engineers Journal 80 (1968): 897–900 accessed January 14, 2013 doi: 10.1111/j.1559-3584.1968.tb04583.x

Wolff, David and Steinberg John “The Russo-Japanese War in Global Perspective: World War Zero, Volume 2” (Brilling Publications 2002) 44-203

[1] Kam and Kam, Surprise Attack, 112-230

[2] Russett,  Deterrence Theory, 89-105

[3] David and John, World War Zero

[4] Russett,  Deterrence Theory, 89-105

[5] David and John, World War Zero

[6] Carpenter , Admiral Mahan, 290-305

[7] Russett,  Deterrence Theory, 89-105

[8] Carpenter , Admiral Mahan, 290-305

[9] Douglas and James, Intelligence Failure, 5

[10] Carpenter , Admiral Mahan, 290-305

[11] Shimazu, Patriotic Soldier, 69-89

[12] Shimazu, “Patriotic Soldier”

[13] Russett,  Deterrence Theory, 89-105

[14] Homer “PEARL HARBOR”

[15] Borsch, Pearl Harbor and” 9/11″, 845-86

[16]Library of Congress,  “December 7, 1941”

[17] Stephan, Hawaii,  69-150

[18] Library of Congress, “December 7, 1941”

[19] Library of congress, “December 7, 1941”

[20] Shimazu, Patriotic Soldier, 69-89

[21] Borsch, Pearl Harbor and” 9/11″, 845-86

[22] David, Intelligence Failure, 138

[23] Russett,  Deterrence Theory, 89-105

[24] Shimazu, Patriotic Soldier, 69-89

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