Updated: Dec 11, 2021
Why did the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor (December 1941)? 
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor as they wanted to make sure that powerful American fleet there will not be able to intervene in their expansion into Southeast Asia. The Japanese decided to expand into Southeast Asia because of their continued ambitions to become a world power that dominates East Asia and the Pacific, and because of certain developments in the world that convinced Japan that their strategy was the only viable alternative.
After invading China full on in 1937, Japan found that capturing the whole of China was becoming increasingly difficult. Not only was the Chinese resisting the Japanese fiercely in China, but also China was continuously supplied by the Americans to keep on fighting. In addition, the Americans were beginning to use economic sanctions and trade embargoes to force the Japanese to stop their aggression in China. However, due to their ambitions, the Japanese refused to stop their war in China. This finally led America to implement a crippling oil and scarp iron embargo on Japan in the middle of 1941. As Japan depended on America for 80% of their oil and iron, this effectively threatened to stop all Japanese industrial and military activities in the near term.
However, Japan was still unwilling to give up her expansionist policies of conquering and dominating East Asia and the Western Pacific. As a result, the Japanese started looking at other potential places where they can secure their vital oil, iron, and other war materials. They found out that Southeast Asia has rich sources of raw materials like oil, tin, rubber, and other materials. Around this time, Japan had also noticed that the Southeast Asian colonies of Britain, France and the Dutch were weakly defended. France and the Dutch had already surrendered to the Germans in 1940, and Britain was on her own fighting the Germans in Europe, North Africa and the Atlantic. Hence, these three countries could only spare limited and weak forces to defend their Southeast Asian Colonies. As a result, the Japanese made the decision to invade Southeast Asia to secure their vital raw materials.
However, they calculated that if they invade Southeast Asia, the Americans in the Philippines and their large Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor would definitely intervene. Hence, in order to prevent this from happening, the Japanese secretly prepared to attack and destroy the American Fleet at Pearl Harbor. On 7 December 1941, Japanese air and naval forces struck Pearl Harbor with complete surprised. The bulk of the American Fleet was either sunk or heavily damaged. The next day on December, the Japanese simultaneously started attacking the Philippines, Malaya and Indonesia, triggering the start of World War 2 in the Asia Pacific.
Another reason why the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor was to eliminate the American Fleet so that the Americans would offer peace terms to Japan. The Japanese knew that if they went to war with the USA, they would not win in the end as America is industrial, economic and military might was too strong if allowed to grow. As a result, the Japanese were looking for a short conflict in which they would come out on top. The Japanese, knew, that the USA did not have sufficient aircraft carriers in the Pacific. If they could eliminate the flagships, America would not have anything left to check the Japanese advances and control in the Pacific. Japan could than threaten American territories like Hawaii and the US West Coast. Under such threats, America would probably need to sue for peace in order from preventing the Japanese from attacking American territories and lives. Japan was hoping that the destruction of their Pacific Fleet would force the US to negotiate an end to conflict with them.
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