Why did Japan invade China in 1937 and attack the British and Americans in 1941? Was it, as a Korean student once told his American instructor, "because the Japanese are mad dogs"? Or, did Japan's leaders, as the American prosecutors at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials alleged in 1946, conspire from the time of the so-called Tanaka Memorial in 1927 to fight an aggressive war to conquer Asia? Was this aggression and its subsequent wartime atrocities the outgrowth of a Japanese state with a uniquely intense nationalism, or of a particularly coercive social order, or of repressive methods of child-rearing, or of economic and social inequalities? Or had Japan by the late 1930s entered a stage of late capitalist development that naturally segued into fascism? Was there a direct causal connection between the West's forced intrusion into Japan in the 1850s and Japan's aggression in 1937 and 1941? Various wartime and postwar Western and Japanese scholars have forwarded all of these views in discussing Japan's involvement in World War II.
One cannot analyze Japan's entry into World War II without discussing the broader question of why any country goes to war. Do leaders think through their reasons for beginning wars? What are their goals in doing so, their prospects of achieving those goals, the anticipated costs-in lives, in money, in destruction, in the war's impact on their society's values? Do decision makers have a reasonably clear view of how to end the war and how the postwar peace will be better than the prewar peace?
In the case of World War II, did the Japanese military leaders ask themselves these questions before they invaded China in 1937 and attacked the British and Americans in 1941? And if Japan's decision-makers did not ask these questions, or asked them but answered them incorrectly, why so? What was the impact of nationalism on their decision to go to war? To what extent did the political and military leaders who initiated Japan's aggression in China and attack on the United States and its allies let their views of their nation's and soldiers' superiority to potential enemies influence the decision-making process?
Before describing Japan's road to World War II, it might be best to lay out the five premises of this essay. First, before Japan's Manchurian takeover in 1931-1932, and maybe even up until the mid-1930s, Japan's foreign policy was not significantly different from that of the United States or Britain or other powers. Japan was an imperialist state that operated within the constraints of what was acceptable imperialist behavior. Only after 1931, and especially after its aggression in China in 1937, did Japan leave that framework. Second, Japan had legitimate grievances toward Britain and particularly the United States: Western refusal to accept Asians as equal to Europeans and North Americans, restraints on Japanese trade, unwillingness to allow the Japanese the same kind of freedom in Manchuria that Americans and British regularly took for themselves in Latin America and the British empire, and the insulting policies of the United States toward Japanese immigration. Third, these grievances, real as they were, did not justify war-neither in policy terms, nor, given Britain's and United States's more powerful economies (the United States' GNP was then eight to ten times greater than Japan's), more highly developed levels of technology, and greater access to raw materials, in realistic terms. Japan undertook wars in China and against the United States that it could not win. Fourth, Japanese leaders like General Araki Sadao, who wrote in an interview in 1934 that "Japanese soldiers with bamboo spears are superior to Western soldiers with machine guns," let their chauvinistic views influence their decision-making.