Sunday, December 07, 2014

Five reasons Japan could never have won WW2


In honor of the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, I wrote an article trying to explain why Japan had made such a boneheaded decision (my explanation was high-level disorganization). Commenters mostly agreed with that diagnosis, which is consistent with a lot of the things political scientists have said about Japan. But many disagreed with my assertion that Japan's war against the U.S. was unwinnable. For example, one commenter writes:
Moreover, the odds against the Imperial Japanese Navy weren't nearly so long as the ONI had erroneously calculated. The IJN quickly gained the upper hand in the early stages of the war, and would have swept the Americans from the Pacific altogether and secured Japan's hold over the Dutch oil fields but for certain shortcomings of the Pearl Harbor attack itself (with the sunk battleships proving to have been relatively unimportant targets) and but for the success of codebreakers in giving the Americans an upset victory at the Battle of Midway. Advantages in GDP and population by themselves are no guarantee of victory, especially in a naval conflict where it can take years to build fleets but only hours to destroy them.
Another writes:
Japan's strategy was simple: strike first, strike hard, occupy as much territory as possible, dig in, and make it incredibly expensive for the US to remove them. It was not a bad strategy, it very nearly worked. Had Pearl Harbor been a victory, had the carriers been there, had the Japanese hit the oil depots, the war would have had a very different flavor to it.
Sorry, guys, I just don't think this is the case. Here are five reasons why I think Japan could not possibly have won the war against the U.S.:


1. Size matters. 

They say "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog." But that saying deserves an addendum: For roughly comparable amounts of fight, it really is the size of the dog that matters. GDP is not a deterministic predictor of who wins wars, but when you have as lopsided a ratio of war material as in the Japan/U.S. war, you basically have to be so much better than the enemy that you win all the battles.

That can happen. In the Russo-Japanese war, Japan's navy demonstrated that it could decisively defeat the Russian navy again and again. It didn't matter how many ships Russia threw against Japan - Japan could sink them as fast as they showed up. Japan's advantages in technology and training were just too great.

But in WW2, the U.S. had technology and training roughly equivalent to Japan's. The battles of the Coral Sea, Midway, the Eastern Solomons, and the Santa Cruz Islands showed that over time, clashes between the two nations' carrier fleets would result in significant attrition for both sides. That meant Japan was doomed, because while the U.S. could afford to suffer attrition, Japan could not. Game over.


2. U.S. technology never stopped improving.

At the beginning of the war, Japan held several technological advantages over the U.S. Its Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters were better dogfighters than anything the Allies possessed. Its Type 93 Long Lance torpedoes outranged the torpedoes on American ships by a factor of about three to one. And Japan's night optics allowed Japanese ships to spot American ships first (actually this was a combination of technology and training, because the U.S. focused on radar instead of on trying to train the best night spotters). These latter two advantages were key to Japanese victories at the Java Sea, Savo Island, Tassafaronga, and Kolombangara. Meanwhile, 1942-vintage U.S. technology had some major weaknesses, in particular torpedoes that went too deep and failed to detonate.

But because the U.S. had big research budgets, and focused on technology over training, by late 1943 the U.S. had amassed a huge technological advantage over Japan. Radar advanced to the point where hit-and-run attacks left Japanese surface ships largely at the mercy of their American counterparts, as demonstrated in the battles of the Vella Gulf, Cape St. George, and (to a lesser extent) Empress Augusta Bay. By this time, of course, the U.S. had torpedoes that worked.

In the air, the U.S. built the Grumman F6F Hellcat, which took advantage of a totally new type of aerial combat ("boom & zoom" high-speed attacks, pioneered by the Germans) that replaced dogfighting. The Hellcat had much better speed and armament than the best Japanese planes, and made short work of the legendary Zero.

Radar also allowed U.S. fighters to coordinate much better, giving them an insurmountable advantage in battles like the Philippine Sea. U.S. signals intelligence was also way beyond that of Japan, 

There were many other examples of U.S. technological advantage, e.g. the nuclear bomb. In comparison, Japan made relatively few advancements over the course of the war, and its much smaller manufacturing capacity meant that it could not afford to deploy the advancements it did make on a large enough scale to make a difference.


3. The U.S. was able to take even the best-fortified positions.

Time and time again, the U.S. demonstrated that it was able to take even the best-fortified positions from the Japanese military. The strategy of "island hopping" - starving out islands instead of storming them - dramatically cut down on the number of assaults the U.S. had to make. But when the U.S. did make assaults, it always won. If you can overrun positions while taking less casualties than the defenders, and if you have more resources than the defenders, it's game over.

The only battle in which a U.S. assault cost the U.S. more casualties than it cost Japan was the battle of Iwo Jima (of flag-raising photo fame). But even in that case, most of the U.S. casualties were wounded, and most of the Japanese casualties were KIA, so the Japanese resource loss was probably higher.

In other words, digging in might have slowed down the U.S. - it did slow down the U.S. - but it never would have been decisive.


4. The U.S. had oil, Japan did not.

The whole Pacific War began over oil, which Japan needed if it was going to continue conquering China. The U.S. had tons of oil, and was by far the biggest oil producer at the time. Japan, in contrast, had only the oil it managed to seize in Southeast Asia. This oil shortage chronically limited the mobility of Japan's navy, and also limited the amount that the Japanese Army could rely on tanks.

Many have suggested that Japan's critical mistake was not to destroy the U.S. oil infrastructure at Pearl Harbor - indeed, Chester Nimitz said that if they had done so, it would have prolonged the war by two years. He was probably exaggerating, but even if not, the fact is that it would not have affected the outcome of the war. Since the U.S. produced so much oil - almost a quarter of total world production in 1937 - it would have eventually brought those resources to bear.


5. China was unconquerable.

"We could only control the cities and railroads," lamented a Japanese friend, recalling the Japanese invasion of China (in which his grandfather fought as a high-ranking officer). The immensity of China - a country with six hundred million people and few natural resources - meant that Japan's attempt to conquer that country could never have succeeded. When Japan invaded China, the country was in a period of extreme chaos and civil war, and Chiang Kai-Shek's nationalists were forced to fight a rearguard action against Mao Zedong's communists even as they tried to hold off the Japanese. Nevertheless, by 1939, the Chinese nationalists had begun to win battles

This doesn't mean the Chinese military was ever more effective than its Japanese counterpart - even late in the war, Japan won a pitched battle against the Chinese in Operation Ichi-Go. But what it does mean is that Japan suffered massive attrition against China, and with China's enormous population advantage, that couldn't go on. 


The fact is, this is not some crazy revisionist history or 20-20 hindsight on my part. Japan's military leaders knew in 1941 that, barring a U.S. political collapse or coup or wholesale unwillingness to fight, they were going to lose the war. 

39 comments:

  1. The Axis killed much more people, both civilians and soldiers. I think a lot of people look at these numbers and assume that maybe they had better armies.

    Actually the difference is much lower if you consider that many millions of the Allied dead soldiers were killed as POWs by both the Germans and the Japanese.

    At the end of the war there were 11 million German POWs, most of whom survived. In just two weeks the Soviets captured half a million of Japanese army troops in Manchuria who also survived the war. The ratio of Allied to Axis dead could have been reversed if the former had the same taste for war crimes.

    A different story is about destroyed allied ships and tanks; often the Germans counted them as casualties, even though many armored vehicles were easily repaired and showed up for the next battle. German generals were determined to win the war on "points" or paper...

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    1. The ratio of Allied to Axis dead could have been reversed if the former had the same taste for war crimes.

      That's why the Axis were the bad guys! ;-)

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    2. Torry Kane4:18 PM

      "The ratio of Allied to Axis dead could have been reversed if the former had the same taste for war crimes."

      What makes you think they weren't?

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  2. Or we could blame the economists. Everything Japan wanted was available to them in the world economy. They could have waged economic warfare and done much better, although not as well as with mutually beneficial trade agreements. Allying themselves in fact as opposed to lying propaganda with the anti-colonial sentiments of the time would have given them enormous influence.

    Russia could well be doing the same in the Ukraine. Offer passports, medical insurance, guaranteed pension plans to the Russian language people, and slowly extend the benefits. It would have been much cheaper - and more effective.

    Oh wait, there probably were economists telling the Japanese this then, and the Russians now.

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    1. Sure - and America could have bought off all of North Vietnam for less than it spent fighting the war.

      Japan (and the rest of Asia) would have been better off if it had been able to achieve open markets. That may not have been politically possible in the 1930s.

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    2. Japan was sanctioned by a lot of countries. It was prohibited from buying oil and iron ore for example.

      Also hopefully Russia will not kill Ukraine with kindness.

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  3. The best strategy in the board game risk is, as you all probably know, to build up an army in Australia while everybody else is fighting each other. The problem is that you have to determine when your army is big enough to conquer the whole world because once you've started, you become vulnerable. The problem with the Axis, I guess, is that they set out to conquer the world but soon realised that they were too small to do that, because the world is really big. On the other hand, their whole plan right from the start only made sense if they really succeeded in conquering the world, because the USA, the Empire and the Soviet Union would not stand idly by to watch Japan conquer China or Germany conquer Europe.

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    1. I have relatives in Europe. They have no real concept of how large North America really is. I suspect that the German leadership fell prey to the same blind spot.

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  4. Before the war started, the United States had authorized the construction of eleven Essex class aircraft carriers. The F4U Corsair was already in the pipeline before the war started and so was the P38 Lightning. The weapon designs that were already in the works in 1940 would have been sufficient to win the war.

    One of the ironies of the Second World War and its aftermath surely is that the United States was drawn in to the war as a result of its attempt to protect China from Japan.

    Watching a documentary on Japan before the war I was struck by the sense of grievance and the sense of entitlement to lead the world in both Japan and Germany in the immediate pre-war period. The point of view seemed to be that the old powers should stand aside and let the "new" powers dominate the world. I hear the same tone coming from China and Russia today. It was wrong and dangerous then. It is wrong and dangerous now.

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  5. Anonymous4:43 PM

    Takuan Soho here.

    Since you quoted me, allow me to first respond by saying that the argument wasn't "Japan could have won the war", but rather "was it rational for the Japanese to think that they could have won the war".

    That was why I said it wasn't a "bad" strategy, not that it was a "great strategy".

    As for your arguments. Allow me to counter:

    1) Vietnam. Both vs. France and the US. Afghanistan vs. the United Kingdom. So not the "End Game" you state. Japan's strategy against the US was never to occupy the US, but rather make war so costly for the US that the US would come to some peaceful equitable resolution with Japan. As Vietnam shows, this is not an impossible dream.

    2) Hindsight. As you said the Japanese had several technological advantages over the US at the start of the war. In that the innovation is unpredictable, why should the Japanese have assumed that the US would so outpace them (particularly since the Japanese were no slouches themselves). Also, see 1 above. Technology helps, but it is not the end all be all.

    3) The US did prove better at attacking islands than the Japanese foresaw, however the "Island hopping" strategy worked in large part because the US was able to stop the Japanese in the Coral Sea. Had the Japanese been able to complete its encirclement of Australia, denying it as a base for island hopping, things as I said would have been much more difficult. Instead of 3 or 4 islands, imagine 10-20 such campaigns.

    4. That Japan did not have oil was one of the reasons Japan HAD to attack the US. And once they seized the Dutch Indies they had access to oil, but because the US was able to rebound so quickly from Pearl Harbor the Japanese had difficultly exploiting this access.

    5. China was not unconquerable. China had been conquered by many countries over its long history with much less technology. Besides it was never Japan's desire to "conquer" China, as the Magic telegrams show the Japanese were willing to settle with China, but the Chinese, encouraged by the US and USSR, would not let them.

    Many of the "victories" the Chinese won were victories only to the extent that they stalled the Japanese advance for a while. But as the maps your own link provides, the Japanese continued to conquer Chinese territory throughout the Pacific war.

    And your final quote is hindsight cherry picking. Many people predicted that Singapore would never fall, but it did. Yamamoto's quote seems inevitable not because it was inevitable, but because what actually happened makes it seem prophetic.

    Now of course the US did win the war, so any argument about something else happening is speculative "What ifs" which is a very fun, but ultimately pointless exercise.


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    1. Hey, Soho! Allow me to respond...

      1) Vietnam. Both vs. France and the US. Afghanistan vs. the United Kingdom. So not the "End Game" you state. Japan's strategy against the US was never to occupy the US, but rather make war so costly for the US that the US would come to some peaceful equitable resolution with Japan. As Vietnam shows, this is not an impossible dream.

      But that had not ever happened as of 1941. The U.S. stayed in the Philippines, a very Vietnam-like situation, for decades, with no sign of leaving. Now, I'm sure Japanese leaders hoped that the U.S. would quit, but there wasn't much evidence that the U.S. would do that.


      Hindsight. As you said the Japanese had several technological advantages over the US at the start of the war. In that the innovation is unpredictable, why should the Japanese have assumed that the US would so outpace them (particularly since the Japanese were no slouches themselves). Also, see 1 above. Technology helps, but it is not the end all be all.

      It should have been possible to see the enormous difference in research budgets. I think it's more likely that Japan simply underestimated the degree to which technological progress could make a difference. Maybe WW1 had convinced them that technological innovations can't be implemented fast enough to make a huge difference in a war.


      That Japan did not have oil was one of the reasons Japan HAD to attack the US.

      That's not true. They could have attacked only the British and Dutch possessions, and left U.S. possessions alone. Alternatively, they could have withdrawn from China, which was a dumb, doomed war anyway.


      China was not unconquerable. China had been conquered by many countries over its long history with much less technology.

      Temporarily. The Mongols conquered China for a little while...and were eventually thrown out and destroyed permanently as a military power, with half their territory absorbed by China.

      Also, Japan could see by 1941 that its offensives were bogging down. Leaders knew that conquering China and incorporating it into the Japanese Empire was impossible. The best they could hope for was to make a deal with Chiang Kai-Shek, annex some Chinese territory on the border with Manchuria, and then support Chiang against Mao in the civil war. But nationalists in the Japanese army would never have allowed that. So Japan was doomed.

      Besides it was never Japan's desire to "conquer" China, as the Magic telegrams show the Japanese were willing to settle with China, but the Chinese, encouraged by the US and USSR, would not let them.

      That's why the best Japanese move would have been a complete withdrawal from China, which was what the U.S. demanded. That would not have destroyed the Japanese empire. But whoever ordered the withdrawal would certainly have been assassinated by rightists.


      Many of the "victories" the Chinese won were victories only to the extent that they stalled the Japanese advance for a while.

      And they caused attrition. Look at the casualty figures. Japan was not getting a high enough kill-to-loss ratio to keep that up.


      And your final quote is hindsight cherry picking. Many people predicted that Singapore would never fall, but it did. Yamamoto's quote seems inevitable not because it was inevitable, but because what actually happened makes it seem prophetic.

      Oh, but there were many other such quotes. Even the emperor thought attacking the U.S. was a terrible idea:
      http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/10/japan-emperor-hirohito-pearl-harbor-attack-biography

      The idea that the war was a long shot was very, very common.

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    2. Also, note how much trouble Japan could have avoided by following a simple rule of thumb: "Don't start hugely destructive wars in an attempt to subjugate other countries."

      In fact, that has proven to be a good rule of thumb for almost every country at almost every point in history!

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    3. Anonymous8:45 PM

      The Mongols ruled China for nearly 100 years, the Manchu for 267 years (only ending in 1911), if those are temporary, then everything is temporary.

      It has only been during the past 30 years that you "rule of thumb" became a truism. Are you saying Rome would have been better off remaining a city? The UK without colonies? The Rus only sticking to the area between St. Petersburg and Moscow? Would the US have been better staying as only 13 states? China staying in the Yellow River region? History says the opposite.

      It is only in modern times, when technology combined with commerce when peace really became far more profitable than war, but is that a constant or is it just a blip in history? We don't know, and to be honest, I wouldn't bet on it. History is not always progressive.

      As for "subjugating other countries" that was what the Europeans were doing. After WWI the French and British added the Levant to their Empires, and by all appearances it seemed that once they recovered from their WWI losses they would be stronger than before. In both cases the world remained silent, so it isn't surprising that when the Japanese did the exact same thing that every "civilized" country did at the time and they were singled out for attack, they sort of noticed the hypocrisy of the argument (during the Russian Civil War the Japanese, supporting the US and other European powers, occupied Russia's Outer Manchuria - they were told to give it back and they did. They were good "global partners" and what did they get for it? The USSR seizing Outer Mongolia with nary a word).

      Would leaving China really have benefited Japan? Why should Japan have trusted the US? What was to prevent the US from continuing to blockade oil to Japan even if Japan retreated? The Exclusion Act showed that the US looked down on Japan as an inferior and an enemy, so why should Japan have thought that the US would suddenly turn into a lamb when they had the knowledge they could browbeat Japan (given how the US treated its own minorities, can you blame the Japanese for being skeptical)? Without its own source of oil Japan was exposed and would increasingly be so as technology advanced and they knew it. Time was not Japan's ally. (I suggest reading the pre war Magic interceptions. They are illuminating in how the Japanese were obsessed with the Exclusion act and Roosevelt's prevarications that he couldn't do anything because it was a Legislative act struck the Japanese as disingenuous). Another interesting "what if" would be "what if" the US had shown Japan ANY goodwill from 1924 onwards (for Japan emigration was necessary, they couldn't feed the population they had).

      A couple of other points:
      I think the important paragraph from the Guardian article concerning Hirohito was "He had expressed similar doubts about the "predisposition" of army leaders who waged war in China in the 1930s, but he celebrated victories by troops who fought in his name." So I would take any quote by a Japanese leader with a grain of salt. For most of Japanese history it has been very prudent to play both sides of an issue, to have something on record just in case things don't go well. When it came down to Hirohito's actions, he was far more on the "strong Japan" side then the "peace Japan" side.

      As for China and attrition. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had the West and the USSR not been able to supply the KMT. The USSR had been playing China off against Japan in order to weaken both since 1930, but Hitler's invasion ended that support. Had the British and Americans likewise been diverted, it would have been an interesting "what if" scenario to see what would have happened.

      If there was something I missed, please point it out, I know this is getting long so I am cutting my response short.


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    4. I seem to have responded to most of these points already.

      But the answer about conquest is: The more bloody a conquest has been, the less fruitful it usually is. With many exceptions, of course. But when you subjugate a people by bloody force, they tend to resent you forever. When you step in and resolve a civil war, then take over, they tend to resent you less. When you slowly establish dominance through trade and co-opting elites, they tend to resent you even less.

      Although when you ethnic-cleanse people and leave no trace of them, as we did to most of the Native Americans, they tend to resent you even less, since they're dead.

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    5. Anonymous9:41 AM

      That's Machiavelli for you.

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    6. "The Mongols ruled China for nearly 100 years, the Manchu for 267 years (only ending in 1911)"

      And of course we do not say that Scotland took over England after Elizabeth I, or the Germans took over England after George I and the Hanovers.

      Royals have a peculiar and unique relationship with the countries they rule. Most of the English did not see these changes as an inappropriate takeover by a foreign power, although a minority did.

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    7. "2) Hindsight. As you said the Japanese had several technological advantages over the US at the start of the war. In that the innovation is unpredictable, why should the Japanese have assumed that the US would so outpace them (particularly since the Japanese were no slouches themselves). Also, see 1 above. Technology helps, but it is not the end all be all."

      The relative sizes of the economies were known to anybody who bothered to look. And as said above, by 1941 the US was seriously rearming and bringing in a new generation of weapons. IIRC, the US basically gave a lot of material to the UK, figuring that the US could replace it.

      " The US did prove better at attacking islands than the Japanese foresaw, however the "Island hopping" strategy worked in large part because the US was able to stop the Japanese in the Coral Sea. Had the Japanese been able to complete its encirclement of Australia, denying it as a base for island hopping, things as I said would have been much more difficult. Instead of 3 or 4 islands, imagine 10-20 such campaigns. "

      Nimitz. The USA pursued two island-hopping campaigns, one across the Central Pacific, and the other up from Australia. If Australia had been taken out of the war, the US might have simply poured the South Pacific Resources into the Central Pacific campaign, possibly defeating the Japan earlier (in that universe, Australia would have been much worse off, of course).

      And the heart of Japan's island fortress strategy was the expectation that the US would play to its weaknesses against Japanese strengths, taking most or all of the garrisons, rather than only those needed. BTW, this strategy was being worked out and adopted by the USA as of ~1930.

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  6. I cannot lay my hands on the reference but I believe I once read that during the Second World War, an American factory worker was twice as productive as a German factory worker and five times as productive as a Japanese worker.

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  7. Anonymous8:45 PM

    I should also add nothing I wrote should be seen as support for the Japanese invasion of China or seeking to create moral equivalency. My only goal is to contextualize Japan's situation in order to illuminate why Japan's decision made sense from a Japanese POV (and to be clear, though I am sure you guessed, I am American, not Japanese, and I defend Truman's decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki in large part because I believe that Japan needed to be defeated quickly - but that is an argument for another day!)

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  8. I thought the Germans' initial hope was that Japan would invade Russia from the east. It's interesting to speculate about how the war would've gone if Japan did. As Beevor noted in his Stalingrad book, once the Russians realized that wasn't going to happen, they were able to bring in Siberian troops to slow the Germans' advance on Moscow.

    Of course, Beevor also noted that the Japanese were wary of the Red Army after getting their clocks cleaned at Khalkin Gol in '39.

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    1. That is, in fact, the winning strategy for the Axis in Axis & Allies.

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    2. "The Siberian troops", are a misnomer that comes from German sources, which were convinced that the Soviets had no reserves left. They actually from different regions in European Russia.

      Regardless, I don't see how a Japanese invasion of the Russian Far East or Siberia (in Russian these two mean two distinct areas) would be of any use.

      The East is/was underdeveloped, underpopulated and vast. Many of the currently known natural resources there weren't even discovered yet. Scorched earth tactics wouldn't leave much to be exploited. Europe and the Ural region are thousands of kilometers away from the Chinese border. In fact during the Russian Civil War the Bolsheviks didn't pay much attention to the fact that they didn't control Siberia, Ural or the Far East..

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    3. "I thought the Germans' initial hope was that Japan would invade Russia from the east. It's interesting to speculate about how the war would've gone if Japan did. As Beevor noted in his Stalingrad book, once the Russians realized that wasn't going to happen, they were able to bring in Siberian troops to slow the Germans' advance on Moscow."

      I don't think that this would have happened. The USSR could afford to lose a lot of Siberia, but not any more in the West. Stalin would have pulled those troops out anyway.

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  9. I'm not an expert on the Pacific war, but I know the eastern front very well, and a very similar argument has been made that Germany's attack on the Soviet Union was obviously doomed. Those who argue it deem Germany led by a nutter, not disorganized, otherwise it's very similar. I certainly agree Hitler was nuts, but I think he stood some chance, and maybe a better one than if he hadn't attacked. Because he really was desperate for fuel. Hitler as he plainly wrote believed he would lose the war if he didn't get the Donbass coal and Caucasus oil. And he didn't get them and he lost. (He got the Donbass mines, but so badly wrecked he hardly got use of them.)

    So I suspect Japan's strike on the US and Britain was a similar act of calculated desperation, and not a stumbling result of disorganization. Oil was absolutely crucial. The strategy was to scare the US into a truce, not to defeat the US. Likewise Hitler's hope was clearly that if he could beat the Soviets the US and UK would sign a truce. The other option was to wait for the probably inevitable US entry into the war in Europe.

    Your examples of the disorganization of Japan then and now are all fun to read. But I can't agree that the crumbling of the structural reform arrow or the delay of the promised consolidation are symptoms of any unusual disorganization. I see it more like promising to eat boiled spinach but first a bowl ice cream, finishing the ice cream, taking a bite of spinach, and then promising to eat the spinach tomorrow. Japan is obviously not autocratic and there are plenty of forces that would push back if Abe were serious about structural reforms, but it seems obvious Abe isn't serious about structural reforms.

    I don't know how you imagine consecutive 7.1% and 1.9% qoq ar contractions could be mere statistical noise. That's a roughly 2.8% contraction of GDP, with the bulk of it that came in the first of those quarters confirmed by the further contraction in the second. The likelihood of that being noise is very close to zero. And with a 3pp increase in the consumption tax, it's about exactly what you'd expect.





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    1. And come to think of it, the parable of the bowl of ice cream today, boiled spinach tomorrow (or maybe the next day, or the next) is what I think of every time I hear someone say we need fiscal stimulus today and a plan for consolidation in the medium term. Granted, some times I might wink because I know you're healthy and you'll be fine never eating the spinach. Just don't try to act as if you don't know what you're doing.

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    2. We know very well what would have happened if they hadn't attacked. It's written in the history of those countries after the war!

      The oil embargo only existed because of Japan's atrocious conquest of China. The threat of Soviet Russia only existed because Germany had dismembered almost the entirity of Western Europe. Both countries had entered into the idea that the only solutions to their problems was military domination, and that once they had embarked on this route, like a drug, they had to keep invading and attacking more and more countries until they eventually hit an obstacle that was too much for them.

      It's a joke to suggest those countries had no options except to fight. With the end of WWII, Japan became an economic powerhouse under the option of 'don't try to colonise China'. Germany came to dominate the European economy and successfully hold off the USSR (an USSR that was indeed a lot stronger than pre-war) under the option of 'build friendly relations with the rest of the West.' The correct choices were always right in front of them, but Hitler and the Emperor were too blind and too hateful to see it.

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    3. Tom:
      "And come to think of it, the parable of the bowl of ice cream today, boiled spinach tomorrow (or maybe the next day, or the next) is what I think of every time I hear someone say we need fiscal stimulus today and a plan for consolidation in the medium term. Granted, some times I might wink because I know you're healthy and you'll be fine never eating the spinach. Just don't try to act as if you don't know what you're doing."

      Aside from the fact that it's wrong, it's a great analogy!

      Read your Krugman.

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  10. The key Japanese leaders seems to have believed that war was inevitable, if only because the junior military who had a veto on policy would not countenance any peaceful resolution either with China or the US. So they found reasons why they could maybe win (the dynamic was kind of like the current Republican leadership and the Tea Party). German views were coloured by their racialist thinking: they saw themselves in a darwinian contest where the alternative to conquest was extermination. BTW, Pearl Harbor was preceded by 6 months of talks between Germany and Japan. They agreed that Japan would stay neutral vis a vis the Soviet Union, and that Germany would declare war on the US. The German hope was that Japan's navy would tie down the US long enough to finish the war in Europe - Hitler saw he was already in a de facto war with the US, given lend-lease and naval escort.

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    1. Surely it would still have paid Hitler strategically to double-cross the Japanese (only a bunch of yellow Asians) after Pearl Harbour? Declaring war on the USA was a suicide note. It only makes a kind of sense in an extreme and delusional anti-Semitism in which the Aryan race was fighting an exterminatory Jewish conspiracy run by Jewish Bolsheviks in Moscow and Jewish financiers in Wall Street.

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  11. Don't forget the Soviet Union. If the Japanese manage to hold off the US navy for the duration of the war, still at some point the USSR will invade Manchuria, roll back all of Japan's holdings in China in a few weeks, and render the whole idea of making war to secure Japan's colonisation efforts pointless.

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    1. That's a good point.

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    2. See http://firedirectioncenter.blogspot.com/2013/06/decisive-battles-khalkhin-gol-nomonhan.html

      Soviet vs. Japanese forces; Japanese forces got their *sses handed to them.

      In land warfare, Japan didn't seem to have true mid-20th Century forces, at least no with depth.

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  12. The Japanese must have known that Operation Barbarrosa had not met its objectives. Why jump into a war on the losing side? Since a long war did remain in Europe would not a policy of supplying the Allies have led to a build up of their manufacturing base? The oil cartel would not have cut off their supplies for long in that event. Did not the history of the first World War show that Western European powers were willing to engage in every horror of war and shed blood endlessly?

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  13. Anonymous3:46 PM

    And of course by the middle of 1945 we had the atom bomb. Even if Japan had managed to destroy the American fleet and hunker down in their island fortresses, eventually the B-29s would have made it in.

    The Germans don't know how lucky they were to lose by early June. The A-Bombs were meant for them. If they had held on for a couple more months, it would have been Berlin, not Hiroshima.

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  14. There are times where superior organization and weaponry make military empire building profitable. In ancient times there were the Romans and the Han Chinese who conquered, absorbed and held their territories. More recently, starting in the late 15th century, European nations could build and run very profitable empires. They had the advanced military technology and the organizational power of the nation-state. You can see the bands of expansion moving east, starting with Spain and Portugal, followed by France, England and Holland, and finally Germany and Italy.

    Japan had been extremely isolated, but started playing catch up in the mid-19th century, and they did it very well. In the late 19th century, the US built a world empire by taking over the old Spanish empire. Kipling even wrote a poem about it. Japan built itself into a modern nation-state, adopted modern weapons and began to build itself an empire. Like the US, they had to carve their empire out of someone else's. It should be no surprise that they saw the US as a rival and thought of the Pacific strategically.

    At Pearl Harbor, Japan was relying on shock and awe. It had worked very well for Germany. One powerful, unexpected attack could lead to complete victory. Blitzkrieg was a new form of warfare. No one had figured out how to fight back. The same tactics that worked for Germany on land, they figured, would work for Japan at sea. The Americans wouldn't know what to do. The Japanese figured that a good hammer blow would have the US suing for peace and retreating from the Pacific.

    No one had fought a war of industrial attrition before, except for the US during its Civil War. The Great War had been constrained by manpower, not production. The Greeks and Trojans took time out of their war to plant and harvest crops. A war of industrial attrition was non-stop and involved complex systems of production, logistics and technological development. For most of the world, including the Japanese, it was as novel as blitzkrieg. I seriously doubt the Japanese general staff considered these issues, save in the most cursory manner.

    I agree that the only way the Japanese could have won their war was if the US had folded after the first hard blow. This is hindsight, of course. Only a handful of political scientists realized that the Soviet Union was at the edge of collapse in the late 1970s and through the 1980s. In hindsight, one of the architects of the Cold War, George Kennan, admitted that the US strategy most likely prolonged the existence of the USSR. The Japanese pursued what seemed to be a sensible, practical policy. It was only later that they learned just how poor a choice it was.

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    1. At Pearl Harbor, Japan was relying on shock and awe. It had worked very well for Germany. One powerful, unexpected attack could lead to complete victory. Blitzkrieg was a new form of warfare. No one had figured out how to fight back. The same tactics that worked for Germany on land, they figured, would work for Japan at sea.

      But it wasn't really the same strategy. Blitzkrieg on land involved rapid outmaneuvering, encirclement, and destruction of enemy armies, leaving the rest of the country open to conquest and occupation by the invading army (as in Poland, the Low Countries, France, Yugoslavia, etc.). Eliminating the bulk of the US Pacific Navy capital ships, as the Japanese hoped to do, would allow them to operate unimpeded in the western Pacific for a time, but would hardly have threatened US cities with occupation. And, of course, the Japanese were directly inspired by the British carrier-aircraft raid on the Italian fleet at Taranto in 1940, which gave the British Navy a freer hand in the Mediterranean for about a year, but certainly didn't knock Italy out of the war.

      No one had fought a war of industrial attrition before, except for the US during its Civil War. The Great War had been constrained by manpower, not production.

      I suspect that's understating the role of attrition in WWI, both in terms of the German U-boat war against Britain the increasingly creaky German and (especially) Austro-Hungarian economies in the latter years of the war.

      I seriously doubt the Japanese general staff considered these issues, save in the most cursory manner.

      Given that the Japanese experience of WWI was basically snapping up various (mostly undefended) German colonial possessions in the Pacific, that's a plausible view. (Though Japan had been fighting an ongoing war in China for several years when they decided to go for Pearl Harbor, etc.; as has been pointed out, one of their motives was logistical, in the sense of securing access to oil, rubber, etc.)

      The Japanese pursued what seemed to be a sensible, practical policy.

      Well, if extreme overconfidence in their own abilities and racially/culturally-biased underestimation of the enemy is "sensible" and "practical"... One of the mistakes that both German and Japanese leaders made (Yamamoto being a notable exception) was to assume that their inherent militaristic cultural superiority was worth any amount of material inferiority (given their relative lack of wealth, more of a mistake for the Japanese than the Germans): the US was rich, sure, but it was fat and lazy, lacking the true discipline, dedication, and warrior spirit necessary for victory.

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  15. 1. China was conquered more than twice. As long as the invaders were willing and able to co-opt enough of the Chinese elite, military dominance could turn into political victory. Japan began with Manchuria (1931), Korea (1910) and Taiwan (1895) as part of its empire. My sense is that they were pretty well integrated by 1940, particularly Taiwan. The presence of Manchuria however meant that much of Japan's best "China" resources were left there against a Russian threat, hampering the conquest side. In principle Japan had good knowledge of China, one path for the elite was to spend time at the Toyo Bunko [I may have garbled the name, that's the current archive] including a study year or two wandering around China, with language preparation in advance and a mandatory book-length report after the fact. but this didn't feed into the military strategy, and the chain of command was weak. A war run in a more centralized manner might have gone far better, and with political input to develop a strategy of co-option better yet.

    2. Japanese wartime planning was particularly inept, see books edited by Eric Pauer (1999) and Sakudo & Shiba (1994). There's a lot of recent scholarship on the Japan side of things by historians, but as an economist I've not kept up. I occasionally come across items doing fellowship reviews for Fulbright and the Japan Foundation. Separately, there's a whole wave of work on the colonial empire, helped by students starting grad school who already have both Japanese and Chinese language skills (and Russian, Malay, etc depending on their focus).

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  16. "They could have attacked only the British and Dutch possessions, and left U.S. possessions alone."

    True, & it's my hobbyhorse that the US would've been staggeringly unlikely to go to war to defend European colonialism. I think the Japanese got hypnotized looking at the Philippines on a map: IF America was going to defend the Europeans, then the Philippines were a huge problem. But when the military runs the country, everything gets treated as a military problem.

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