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Posted on May 9, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

The War in the East – Part One

By Wild Bill Wilder

War Clouds and the Rising Sun

By the end of World War One, Japan was seen emerging from a dark medieval past into a growing industrial might. Of all the countries of the Far East, Japan was fast becoming a candidate in the arena of world powers. The plan among its leaders was the establishment of a “Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.” This would a conglomerate of Asian nations that would be self sufficient in the world economy with no need of western participation.

Japan’s planning for this war had been done, not impetuously, but carefully, over many years. Of all the nations of the east, Japan was the most ambitious and progressive. By the end of the 19th century, she had developed a strong military arm, with well-disciplined troops and up to date equipment. At that time, she too began assimilating other land areas. This would include the Ryukyu (including Okinawa), the Bonin (including Iwo Jima), and the Kurile Islands.

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Using her growing naval and military strength, Japan also began to seek further expansion at the expense of her neighbors. After a short conflict with China in 1894-95, Japan annexed Formosa and the Pescadores to the south. A victory over Russia in 1904 enabled the takeover of Korea. By this time, the entire world began to recognize Japan as a world power in the Far East.

Japan took the side of the Allies in World War One, using her participation as a springboard to annex German territories in the Pacific. These included the Marianas (Saipan, Tinian, and Guam), Caroline and Marshall Island groups. This would later be confirmed with a League of Nations mandate.

After the war, the United States became apprehensive about the situation in the Pacific. The US was more concerned about Britain than Japan. Many American naval officers believed that Great Britain’s historic dominance of the oceans should be challenged as a matter of course. Others, however, saw an inherent danger in Japan’s growing navy.

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Japanese Battleship Nagao, completed in 1920

It seemed at the time that this fear needed to be addressed on a world level. To exercise some sort of control over the situation, an international conference in 1921 set certain guidelines for future development of naval arms. The United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan signed a Five-Power Treaty in February 1922. It sought to avoid a naval armaments race by imposing limits of capital ships.

A 5-5-3 formula was adapted between the three greatest naval powers of the world. This meant that for every five tons of capital ship constructed by England and the United States, Japan would have the right to construct three tons. Further, no new capital ships would be built by any of these countries for the next ten years. Such an agreement caused the scrapping two million tons of battleships, or some sixty-six vessels.

It must be remembered at this point that "capital ships" referred primarily to battleships or battlecruisers. Aircraft carriers were considered largely experimental and thought to be of little significance in naval warfare (How that would change!). To avoid a total loss of some shipping, the treaty allowed the US and Japan the right to convert two ships each, originally designed as battle cruisers, to aircraft carriers. Air power at this time was also being minimized, although the experimental bombing and sinking of German battleships by General Billy Mitchell began to change that concept.

Japan seemed to be on the losing end of the treaty, but certain concessions were made in her favor. One, for example, was the prohibition of any sort of strong fortifications or large naval bases in the western Pacific, between Pearl Harbor to the East and Singapore to the west.

Japan, however, was given permission for limited defensive construction. With no one to really to take an interest in what was happening on those small and largely unknown Pacific islands, the builders had a free hand to lay the foundation for defenses that would later claim the lives of thousands of young Americans.

Later, by playing with the terms of the agreement, Japan secretly increased the size of her carrier fleet. Smaller carriers were constructed that would not conflict with the terms of the treaty. Further, secret fortifications, airfields, and extensive communication facilities were built by Japan on various key islands. The lack of interest or concern by the US or Britain during the 1930s allowed this to happen.

By 1931, Japan was reaching a crisis. The group of islands that form the Empire of Japan do not contain the natural resources for industrial development. Japan’s population was growing at over a million a year. Agriculture alone could not sustain its economy. The severe economic depression in the United States had affected the entire world, and one of Japan’s few exports, silk, had no market. Strapped due to a lack of raw materials, Japan saw the only way out as expansionism. It would mean taking by force, if necessary, the land areas that would provide the materials needed to sustain the people and the country.

Of course, to accomplish this goal, Britain, France and other European countries would be forced to relinquish their hold on countries that they considered to be an integral part of their economy. A massive amount of wealth in oil, rubber, steel and other vital production goods were available in the islands of the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, Malaya and Burma. The United States presence in the Pacific, including the major US bastion in the Philippines, as well as Wake and Guam Islands, would also have to be eliminated.

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