The Japanese navy had a fundamental misunderstanding of the American navy, in large part because of its experience with other, European navies such as those of Russia and Britain. And perhaps they were confused by America's War Plan Orange," which preached similar doctrine, but was more "honored in the breach than the observance."
In the 1905 war with Russia, that country had a (Far East) naval base at Port Arthur, Manchuria. The Japanese won the naval war by defeating the Russian fleet there, and then winning a second battle at Tsushima Straits against a reinforcing fleet headed to Port Arthur, and took the most obvious route there. Likewise, the Japanese destroyed a British task force that was detailed to defend Singapore and Malaysia.
The Japanese thinking had some merit for the Japanese Empire up to about 1920, which included the Home Islands, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Korea, Formosa, and a bit more. But the 1920s and 1930s militarization of the islands (Marianas, Caroline, and Marshals) acquired in the South Pacific Mandate after World War II (which specified de militarization) made it very dangerous to for the Americans to leave these islands in the rear during a "main force" strike. Also, during the 1930s, "dissidents" in both the American and Japanese navies opined that advances in air and submarine warfare had made such "main force" naval tactics obsolete. The difference was that America eventually allowed its dissidents to prevail, and Japan didn't.
And when World War II began, Japan began expanding far beyond what original plans envisioned, including to Papua New Guinea in the south, Midway Island to the East, and the Aleutian Islands in the Northeast. With a huge bubble of that sort, the Americans found through trial and error that a more expeditious strategy than its original Plan Orange was to "pick off" Japanese forces along the perimeter (as they did at Coral Sea, Midway, and the Aleutians), instead of trying to fight the main Japanese navy near the Home islands. Eventually, the Americans did "get there," but only after the Japanese navy had been greatly weakened by attrition.
In sports terms, the Americans used a "full court press" over the whole Pacific, fighting a series of "duels" that would deplete Japanese naval power at a faster rate than American naval power. In this regard, they were using an "attrition" strategy like that of U.S. Grant against Robert E. Lee. (During the course of the war, the Americans outbuilt the Japanese 3 to 1, and that's not counting the material they used against Hitler.) The Japanese were hoping that the Americans would send their fleets against the Japanese fleet for one all out battle after another, and that the Japanese would destroy three or four American fleets in the process without losing her own.
The Americans preferred to bleed the Japanese to death by "trading shots." Coral Sea, one Japanese carrier sunk, two put out of action, versus one American carrier sunk, one damaged (the Yorktown, repaired for the Midway battle in one weekend). At Midway, the Americans sank four carriers while losing one, but that hardly mattered; a four to three "kill" ratio would have been sufficient. Basically, the Japanese would have had to sink all three American carriers with the loss of no more than one to maintain the 1 to 3 parity dictated by the countries' relative productions. Anything "worse" (e.g. two Japanese carriers lost for three Americans), and the Americans would win.
Put another way, the Japanese (reasonably) believed that the Americans would follow a "script" laid down by the Russians, British, and the Americans themselves. The Russian navy at Tsushima in 1905 followed essentially the same tactics after the surprise attack at Port Arthur as before (even to the point of using the route the Japanese expected them to). This British didn't seem to care that they could "lose the war in one afternoon" at Jutland in 1916. But the Americans departed from a script of one "all or nothing" battle when their numerical superiority could make the "law of averages" work for them in numerous "knife fights." Give credit to Admirals Halsey, Nimitz, and others for that.