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How Japan Could Have Won World War II

Let’s face it. Imperial Japan stood next to no chance of winning a fight to the finish against the United States. Resolve and resources explain why. But was there anyway for Tokyo to have changed history?

Iowa-Class Battleship during World War II. Image: Creative Commons.

Let’s face it. Imperial Japan stood next to no chance of winning a fight to the finish against the United States.

Resolve and resources explain why.

So long as Americans kept their dander up, demanding that their leaders press on to complete victory, Washington had a mandate to convert the republic’s immense industrial potential into a virtually unstoppable armada of ships, aircraft, and armaments.

Such a physical mismatch was too much for island state Japan — with an economy about one-tenth the size of America’s — to surmount.

Quantity has a quality all its own. No amount of willpower or martial virtuosity can overcome too lopsided a disparity in numbers. Tokyo stared that plight in the face following Pearl Harbor.

So Japan could never have crushed U.S. maritime forces in the Pacific and imposed terms on Washington. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have won World War II. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? But the weak sometimes win. As strategic sage Carl von Clausewitz recounts, history furnishes numerous instances when the weak got their way. Indeed, Clausewitz notes that it sometimes makes sense for the lesser contender to start a fight. If its leadership sees force as the only resort, and if the trendlines look unfavorable — in other words, if right now is as good as it gets — then why not act?

There are three basic ways to win wars according to the great Carl. One, you can trounce the enemy’s armed forces and dictate whatever terms you please. Short of that, two, you can levy a heavier price from the enemy than he’s willing to pay to achieve his goals. The value a belligerent assigns his political objectives determines how many resources he’s prepared to expend on those objectives’ behalf, and for how long. Taking measures that compel an opponent to expend more lives, armaments, or treasure is one way to raise the price. Dragging out the affair so that he pays heavy costs over time is another. And three, you can dishearten him, persuading him he’s unlikely to fulfill his war aims.

A disconsolate adversary, or one who balks at the costs of war, is a pliant adversary. He cuts the best deal he can to exit the imbroglio.

If a military triumph lay beyond Tokyo’s reach, the second two methods remained available in the Pacific. Japanese commanders could have husbanded resources, narrowing the force mismatch between the warring sides. They could have made the conflict more costly, painful, and prolonged for America, undercutting its resolve. Or, alternatively, they could have avoided rousing American fury to wage total war in the first place. By foregoing a strike at Hawaii, they could have enfeebled the opponent’s resolve or, perhaps, sidelined the opponent entirely.

Bottom line, no likely masterstroke — no single stratagem or killing blow — would have defeated the United States. Rather, Japanese commanders should have thought and acted less tactically and more strategically. In so doing they would have improved Japan’s chances.

Which brings us to Five Ways Japan Could Have Won. Now, the items catalogued below are far from mutually exclusive. The Japanese leadership would have boosted its prospects had it embraced them all. And granted, enacting some of these measures would have demanded preternaturally farseeing leadership. Foresight was a virtue of which Japan’s vacillating emperor and squabbling military rulers were woefully short. Whether it was plausible for them to act wisely is open to debate. With these caveats out of the way, onward!

Wage one war at a time

Conserving enemies is a must even for the strongest combatants. It’s imperative for small states with big ambitions to avoid making war against everyone in sight. Imposing discipline on the war was particularly hard for Japan, whose political system — patterned on Imperial Germany’s, alas — was stovepiped between the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy (IJA and IJN), with no meaningful civilian political oversight. Absent a strong emperor, the army and navy were free to indulge their interservice one-upsmanship, jostling for influence and prestige. The IJA cast its gaze on continental Asia, where a land campaign in Manchuria, then China proper, beckoned. The IJN pushed for a maritime campaign aimed at resources in Southeast Asia. By yielding to these contrary impulses between 1931 and 1941, Japan in effect surrounded itself with enemies of its own accord — invading Manchuria and China before lashing out at the imperial powers in Southeast Asia and, ultimately, striking at Pearl Harbor. Any tactician worth his salt will tell you a 360-degree threat axis — threats all around — makes for perilous times. Tokyo should have set priorities. It might have accomplished some of its goals had it taken things in sequence.

Listen to Yamamoto

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto reputedly cautioned his superiors that Japan must win a quick, decisive victory lest it awaken the American “sleeping giant” with fateful consequences for Japan. The IJN, prophesied Yamamoto, could run wild for six months — maybe a year — before the United States mustered its full power for combat. During that interval, Japan needed to stun American society into a compromise peace — in effect a partition of the Pacific — while firming up the island defense perimeter enclosing the Asia-Pacific territories won by Japanese arms. What if its efforts fell short? U.S. industry would be turning out armaments in massive quantities, while new vessels laid down under the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940 — in effect a second, bulked-up U.S. Navy — would start arriving in the theater. The balance would shift irretrievably. In short, Yamamoto warned military leaders against “script-writing,” or assuming the enemy would do precisely what they foresaw. The admiral knew a thing or two about the United States, and understood the American propensity to defy preconceptions.

Don’t listen to Yamamoto

If Admiral Yamamoto rendered wise counsel on the strategic level, it was suspect on the operational level. His solution to the problem of latent U.S. material superiority was to strike at what navalists saw as the hub of enemy power — the adversary’s battle fleet. For decades IJN planners had envisioned waging “interceptive operations” to slow down and weaken the U.S. Pacific Fleet as it steamed westward, presumably to the relief of the Philippine Islands. Once aircraft and submarines deployed to outlying islands whittled the Pacific Fleet down to size, the IJN battle fleet would force a decisive battle. Yamamoto, however, convinced IJN commanders to jettison interceptive operations in favor of a sudden blow at Pearl Harbor. But in reality, the battle line stationed in Hawaii wasn’t the core of American naval strength. The nascent Two-Ocean Navy Act fleet was. The best that Yamamoto’s scheme could accomplish, consequently, was to delay an American counteroffensive into 1943. Tokyo may have been better off sticking with the interwar plan, which would have driven up U.S. costs, protracted the endeavor, and potentially sapped U.S. perseverance.

Concentrate rather than disperse resources

Just as Japanese officials seemed incapable of restricting themselves to one war at a time, they seemed incapable of limiting the number of active operations and combat theaters. Look no further than Japanese actions in 1942. IJN task forces struck into the Indian Ocean, inflicting a Pearl Harbor on the British Eastern Fleet off Ceylon. They saw the need to shore up the northern flank at the Battle of Midway by assaulting the remote Aleutian Islands. And they extended the empire’s outer defense perimeter — and assumed vast new waterspace to defend — by opening a secondary theater in the Solomon Islands, in a vain effort to interrupt sea routes connecting North America with Australia. It’s incumbent on the weaker combatant to ask itself whether the gains from secondary enterprises are exceptional, and what it risks in the most important theaters, before undertaking new adventures. Japan, which had fewer resources to spare, raised the costs to itself — more than the United States — through its strategic indiscipline.

Wage unrestricted submarine warfare

Inexplicably, the IJN neglected to do what the U.S. Pacific Fleet set in motion while Battleship Row was still afire: unleash its submarine force to sink any ship, naval or merchant, that flew an enemy flag. By 1945, American boats dismembered the island empire by severing the shipping lanes connecting its parts. Japanese submarines were the equals of their U.S. Navy counterparts. IJN commanders should have looked at the nautical chart, grasped the fact that U.S. naval forces must operate across thousands of miles of ocean simply to reach the Western Pacific, and directed sub skippers to make the transpacific sea lanes no-go zones for American shipping. It’s hard to imagine a more straightforward, cost-effective scheme whereby Japan’s navy could exact a heavy toll from its opponent. Neglecting undersea warfare was an operational transgression of the first order.

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James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. The views expressed here are his own.
Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. David Chang

    May 19, 2023 at 3:57 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    The strategy of Admiral Yamamoto is correct, but his war plan and tactics are limited by the Japan Socialism Army. The Japan Socialism Army has already consumed too many people, currency, weapons,  ammunition and supplies in the invasion of China. Price controls were implemented during World War II. Although Japan government tried to hold the exchange rate of currency during World War II, the Japan socialism government could control prices and exchange rates temporarily, and failed after 1945.

    After the Japan army officers made a rebellion before World War II, the army controlled the Japan government and forced the navy. The Japan navy was also limited by insufficient shipbuilding budgets, so the Japan navy was forced to rely on the strategy of the army to determine the plan of naval battle.

    Therefore, after 1952, King Hirohito objected to put the tablet of the army general who incited the war into the Yasukuni Shrine for worship.

    The Japan navy cannot defend the entire western Pacific Ocean, because the army’s battlefield in East Asia is too large. Even the U.S. Navy is difficult to defend the East Pacific at the same time.

    The book “Crusade in Europe” written by Eisenhower tells a story. He said that after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, although the U.S. aircraft carriers were not damaged, the U.S. Navy was worried that Japan would attack the Philippines, but the USN didn’t send fleets to defend the Philippines immediately, because the U.S. Navy was worried about the attack during the voyage to the Philippines. So Eisenhower told Gen. Marshall that the United States should first establish a base in Australia, and would provide the logistics from Australia to the Philippines with submarines.

    Soldiers and weapons are limited and precious. Even though the United States had a huge shipbuilding industry in the first half of World War II, the U.S. Navy had to wait for completion, so fleet commanders worried about unexpected situations.

    Fiscal, Industry, Agriculture, Education, Strategy, Tactics and Faith are necessary conditions for victory, because the losses caused by weapons are more and more much, and most people only want to win, since the world war I, people cannot prevent from the attrition war to total war, so the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps could learn a painful lesson of the 20th century.

    God bless America.

  2. David Chang

    May 21, 2023 at 1:29 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Thanks Dr. Holmes.
    This important question of attrition war is the question that has been debated in our country for a long time. After the failure of the China Communist Party’s Great Leap Forward plan, the Republic of China prepared for a counteroffensive in mainland China. How we could defeat the China Communist Party and take back mainland China.

    The counteroffensive project is called Project National Glory. According to the memoirs of retired officers of the ROC Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, it is impossible for the ROC to defeat the Communist Party in the counter-offensive of the China socialism warfare.

    The first strategy reason was that the U.S. Democratic Party did not agree to provide more weapons to the ROC.
    The second strategy reason is that the Republic of China counterattack the CCP with insufficient army. The active army of the Republic of China could attack Fujian Province with five infantry divisions, but needs to be reinforced by the reserve force to 500,000 people for defending Fujian Province and attacking Peiping directly.
    The third strategy reason was that the ROC didn’t have sufficient supplies. The ROC was prepared to occupy Hebei Province in six months, but the expected logistic supplies were for three months.

    Counteroffensive in mainland China and defending Taiwan Province and Fujian Province are two sides of a coin. Because the people in the Republic of China, including Hong Kong, believe socialism and evolution and help the Communist Party to occupy mainland China, so it is difficult to oppose the CCP. Moreover, the U.S. should worry that the counteroffensive operations in mainland China will cause nuclear war, and Taiwan Province will be attacked by nuclear weapons.

    However, people who believe socialism and evolution make the independence war in Taiwan province and laugh at the Project National Glory. They criticize the Project with the thought of Communist Party, claiming that the counteroffensive was only to implement authoritarian politics to oppose Soviet imperialism, but they don’t confess this counteroffensive plan is also the total war, just like socialism and criticize thought they believe, and don’t confess the authoritarian politics is the same as cancel politics they always  promote, and don’t confess imperialism is always the same as democracy. Because they want democracy and no morality, they think of themselves as kings, they won’t sacrifice their lives to protect other people. So the casualties in the defense war of Taiwan Province of the Republic of China will be much more than the prediction of Project National Glory, and the USMC should remember the lesson of the Vietnam socialism warfare.

    As the Project National Glory, we would see the future of the Japan Socialism Army’s defeat in the first half of World War II and the Ukraine Socialism warfare in the second half of World War II. Therefore, people in the world should not worship democracy and science, but obey Ten Commandments to prevent nuclear war.

    God bless America.

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