Question: How did American-Japanese relations (on the American side) provoke the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor?
Shari Kuroyama '08 - '09

American Provocation of the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor

Attack on Pearl Harbor¹

Previous State of Matters

Japanese-American relations had already been considerably strained before World War II and the events surrounding it. America and Japan had never been on extraordinarily friendly relationships, and they became more tense in the years before World War II.


Americans, and Europeans in general, had a history of discrimination against Asians. Whites in general had a history of discrimination against nonwhites. Asian leaders had been working against this discrimination since there had been contact between Asia and Europe. This feeling that whites had that they were superior to every other race asserted itself in several areas. In America, the first limit on immigration was against Asians, in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act². This was followed by more limits on immigration, felt heavily by the Asian population, and the restriction against foreign aliens (directed at Asians) becoming citizens.³ Persecution of Asians was also strong. Propaganda abounded, portraying Japanese as evil demons. In California, where the Japanese population was concentrated, Japanese had trouble getting jobs, and their children were not allowed, socially, to attend the same schools as whites.³
Japanese women preparing silkworm cocoons


America, directly after blatantly involving itself in World War I, retreated into itself under the policy of isolationism. This followed the famous warning of George Washington in his Farewell Address, to stay out of "foreign entanglements." The theory was that America could manage perfectly well on its own, and that involvement with foreign powers would lead to complex politics that might hinder America and its pursuit of democratic ideals. However, one negative about cutting off foreign relations was that foreign nations could come to any conclusion about America they wished. After America's anti-communist stance in World War I, many nations assumed that America would come to help the Allies at some point in World War II, and so acted accordingly.

Prewar Economy

Just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, several important economic factors influenced the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The economic situation in general supported economic greed, as well as specific matters of tension between America and Japan.


In general, the world economy was poor. Germany was stuck in a mountain of debts after World War I, and America was recovering from the Great Depression. Japan was in a situation such that Washington financial experts confidently predicted its bankruptcy after the war in China had exhausted its resources. So it was natural that the world powers should have been hungry for more economic power. As well, America was in a self-declared state of isolation. America's economic support for Allies through Lend-Lease policy was therefore seen to be hypocritically helping the Allied powers and most definitely not neutral. This hypocricy caused the US to seem to be preparing to enter war, not staying out of it, and so the Japanese attack was simply a preemptive action, trying to destroy the US in one blow and prevent it from actually joining in the fight against the Axis powers.

Japanese Ambition

the concentration camps

The Japanese believed that they were destined to rule the world, and were aiming for world domination, starting with Taiwan and Korea. Their next goal was the juicy trade opportunities offered in China. This was shown in the Japanese attacks on China, taking over Manchuria and renaming it Manchukuo, and installing a puppet government for the rest of China. This antagonized America after its Open Door policy, which was trying to defend American economic interests in China. Because the Japanese were also working towards economic domination, they were naturally opposed to America, the current world economic leader. America was also the best placed world power to oppose Japanese expansion in the Pacific area, so removing it from the scene would have basically opened up the Americas to Japanese reach. However, after World War II Japan entered an extreme economic recession, the opposite of what it had worked toward.⁴

American Ambition

American commercial tycoons, on the other hand, were hungry for more power, influence, and money through the world market. They were set on expanding America's influence worldwide, and did not welcome Japan's similar ambition. They thus defended America's right to trade freely in China with the Open Door policy. They also wanted to keep Japan from having means to dominate trade, as Edward Miller asserts in his book Bankrupting the Enemy: The U.S. Financial Siege of Japan Before Pearl Harbor that these American bureaucrats' greed indirectly caused support in Japan for the Pearl Harbor decision of war. He explains that they worked to keep a significant amount of money belonging to Japan out of Japanese reach. This lack of funds caused extremely deprivating living conditions in Japan, which contributed to the Japanese decision of war . American commercial interests also wanted to keep Japan from having funds to buy wartime and economic necessities such as oil.⁵


¹December 7, 1941 Attack on Pearl Harbor:
²US Immigration History:
³Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston
⁴ETF Trends:
⁵Edward Stokes Miller's book, Bankrupting the Enemy: The U.S. Financial Siege of Japan Before Pearl Harbor
⁶World at War: World War II:
⁷The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus:
also, for more general information learned in class, see AMSCO and LEP