Why did Japan select Pearl Harbor, and not some other U.S. military base, as the site to surprise attack in 1941? Why didn't Japan attack, for example, the Philippines, or the Panama Canal, or Wake Island, or even California? Why did they select Pearl Harbor instead?

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    Because PH was the home of the Pacific Fleet, and in one attack they pretty much decimated almost all US Naval power in the Pacific. And they did attack the Philippines and Wake Island at the same time.
    – CGCampbell
    Jan 15, 2017 at 4:46
  • This is just my personal thoughts, I always believed that Yamamoto thought that he could so weaken the American navy in the pacific that until the US industrial might could be brought to bear he could bring Japan into a powerful negotiating position with America. I think Yamamoto believed that Japan could never match the industrial output of America so they had to strike fast and achieve a position of dominance giving them the best possible bargaining position at the table. The only place where they could strike to most affect the war material of the Navy of course was at Pearl Harbor.
    – ed.hank
    Jan 15, 2017 at 17:21
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    Other answers here explain why it simply wasn't practical to attack California and/or the Panama Canal. Basically the Japanese would have to sail their fleet twice as far, requiring additional tankers for fuel, and increasing the risk of discovery. Also, attacking the Canal would be of little military value, while "California" is a pretty big target.
    – jamesqf
    Jan 15, 2017 at 18:54
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    WRT attacking California, presumably a large naval base like San Diego, I think people don't appreciate just how much of a logistical stretch attacking Pearl Harbor was for the Japanese, well out of their range requiring refueling at sea from commercial not military tankers. San Diego is almost twice the distance and through American patrolled waters. I cover some of this in my answer to why they didn't bomb the Panama Canal.
    – Schwern
    Jan 15, 2017 at 20:04
  • If i could answer I would say because it was there - or within striking range. the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, and other US bases and possessions because they could reach them. Attacking Fort Myers outside Washington DC might have impressed the US government more, for example, but it was thousands of miles outside of any possible Japanese attack range. The Japanese military was lucky that there were as many US bases in attack range as there were - and that luck was soon proven to be bad luck.
    – MAGolding
    Jan 16, 2017 at 5:43

1 Answer 1


Pearl Harbour was (edit) the base where most of the US Pacific Fleet was deployed, and the intention was to attack the fleet in harbour. That was because ships that are stationary are much easier to hit with bombs and torpedoes. Staging the attack required knowing that the fleet was actually at its base, but that was hard to hide - ships are big and easy to see - and the Japanese had a consulate nearby that could make reports.

The point of the attacks was to cripple the Pacific Fleet and thus prevent it from interfering with the attacks that the Japanese intended to make on US possessions nearer to Japan (The Philippines, Wake Island and Guam were also attacked over the next few hours) and on British and Dutch possessions that were also attacked.

If the Pacific Fleet's aircraft carriers been present at Pearl Harbour at the time of the attack, they would also likely have been damaged or sunk. It was a matter of chance that they were away on missions.

Wikipedia has a decent overview of the reasons for the attack and an account of the action.

(edit) Any fleet going to attack the Panama Canal or California would have to be fairly small, so as to be able to take enough fuel along in tankers for the return trip. The obvious reason for not doing that is that the fleet would be intercepted by the US Pacific Fleet on its way back, and sunk. Attacking the Panama Canal effectively is tricky. Attacking California is pointless - you can't do damage that will cripple the US war effort. But destroying the whole Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour would cripple the warfighting ability of the USA. The Japanese attack was intended to do just that, but did not succeed.

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    The important thing was to knock out all possible naval opposition in the Pacific prior to the landing of troops on the north coast of Malaya and in the Philippines, preparatory to the extension of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere almost as far as Australia. Three days after the Pearl Harbour attacks, the two British battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse were also sunk whilst on exercises in the South China Sea. Desperately short of aircraft for the defence of Britain and the war against Germany the ships in the Far East were operating with no air cover.
    – WS2
    Jan 15, 2017 at 12:19
  • Wasn't also the japanese minority in Hawaii a factor ?
    – Bregalad
    Jan 15, 2017 at 17:12
  • San Diego was the main base at the time. The fleet was forward positioned to Pearl Harbor as part of the increasing sanctions and tensions in 1940/41. Early enough to become the target.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 15, 2017 at 18:12
  • @Jon Custer: corrected. Jan 15, 2017 at 19:32
  • 1
    That question has already been asked and answered. Jan 16, 2017 at 11:03

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