I am trying to understand the Japanese Grand Strategy in WW2 when it comes to handling the US. My current understand, based primarily on extensive Wikipedia reading is as follows:

Motivation: The Japanese industry had an unmet need for resources that they couldn't meet through import (partially because they were embargoed by the US). It was felt necessary to get control of Indonesia to fix this, and seen as certain that the US would intervene. The attack on the US was meant to preempt this, and the main war goal against the US was to simply get them to back down. The odds were not seen as good though.


  1. Cripple the US pacific fleet.
  2. Grab all the pacific islands.
  3. Weaken the Americans as they fight their way across the Pacific.
  4. Annihilate the US fleet in a decisive battle.
  5. ???

Analysis: Clearly, the plan was off the rails by the end of Midway (somewhere around moving from 2. to 3.); and it seems near impossible to imagine Leyte Gulf ending with a resounding Japanese victory.

My question: I don't follow how the Japanese planned to transition from success in Step 4 to achieving US withdrawal from the war. Given the massive disparity in production and training capacities, the US could have just created another fleet and tried again. What was the level of understanding the Japanese decision makers had about how the US would decide whether to keep fighting or not? Stuff like the timing of Pearl Harbor vs the official war declaration or the treatment of US PoWs seem to me as hardening the views of the US public, and making it harder to imagine them accepting a "white peace" of some sort.

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    Roll unending run of 12 on 2d6 until the U.S. exhausted it's "will to fight"? Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 23:57
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    I think that everyone, not just Japan, and not just enemies, but even allies like the British, were grossly underestimating the U.S. at the time Commented Jan 2, 2021 at 13:47
  • @MarioTrucco I agree. But not for Britain in '41. They received massive aids in that year. As the U.S. entered officially, Churchill said that from now on, winning the war is just a matter of time. So, he must be very aware of this "sleeping giant".
    – StefanH
    Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 21:23
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    The answers already sum it up quite well. It is important to consider that Japan did not go from peace to world war at once, rather they were sliding into this step by step for decades, starting with expansion into Korea, Manchuria, then a long drawn stalemate in China. Combine this with strong nationalism and a sense of superiority, ambitions to follow the Europeans to being a colonial power. When things got really bad in China, backing our was impossible without losing honour (a strong factor in japanase society) and US embargo just added to a feeling of being pushed into a corner...
    – Manziel
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 15:40

5 Answers 5


I am not sure Japan had a strategy, as exemplified by a coherent assessments of risks and rewards, and most importantly, a plan to force the US out of the war. Rather it decided it was going to expand and had had a good measure of success to date fighting China and taking over Korea.

The Japanese military had not fought a real war with a peer military for centuries - discounting the massive incompetence of Russia in 1905. Quagmire as it was, China had a limited capacity to do more than static defense or waging guerilla warfare - Japan could always disengage from it. Inter-service rivalry was also massively dysfunctional.

So Japan in 41 is looking at the following facts:

  • China is not going well, but it's the Army's show.

  • USSR is too much to handle after Khalkin Gol in 39. Also Army's fail.

  • They don't have the oil to fuel their fleet and the US is pressuring them to leave China alone by not selling them oil.

  • Europeans colonies nearby have resources and their owners are busy with Germany.

  • Unlike today's 1-3 ratio, Japan's population was at 73M to the US's 132M in 1940 and the US military did not have the recognition it has today.

Shattered Sword claims, without going into details, that while Yamamoto might have warned about the US's industrial capacity, IF there a war then he was a proponent of ALSO attacking the US alongside with the Dutch, English and French colonies.

Another strand of the military establishment instead argued that they could take over oil producing regions like Java while staying well away from the US which would not fight so far from home without a good reason.

Yamamoto and the attack-the-US group won that argument. With that they made the following miscalculations:

  • kill enough Americans and they will back out.

  • unlike the Japanese code of honor the US is weak-willed and isolationist.

  • our military is supremely competent and will win by offensive power and fighting spirit.

After an initial highly successful attack Japan would:

  • fight a high seas battle using super-battleships like the Yamato to take out the US Navy

  • consolidate defenses on islands far away that would force the US to mount very costly invasions till they gave up and went home. (by 44 and 45, that thinking had, by necessity, shifted over to making the home islands un-invadable except by totally unacceptable losses).

  • last but not least, the distances in the Pacific are huge. That must have, reasonably, seemed like deterrent to determined US operations.

You could say that Japan was planning to get to a stalemate by a strategy of pure defense, albeit with tactical offensives, and killing enough Americans, after having secured enough advantage by its early offensive. Having captured Indonesia's oil fields it could develop its economy without being held hostage by the US.

This type of win-by-bodycount thinking would, in most cases, be laughed at by Western military thinkers (well, except for Westmoreland in Vietnam).

Yes, sometimes conventional wars are won just by inflicting massive casualties, as other answers have pointed out. But that is very much the exception.

Remember, the Japanese supreme high command, for all its militaristic dominance, had not fought peer opponents in centuries. Aside from the attempted Mongol invasions, Japan's wars had almost always been internal, except for a foray into Korea in the 1590s. Even internal warfare had largely ceased after the Tokugawa takeover. And whatever setbacks they had encountered were the Army's fault, not the Navy's.

The core problem was that Japan never had a credible way to knock out the US, only to make this a painful war. Once started, the initiative was to the US to fight on or to back down.

In short, arrogance and early successes made them hubristic and they miscalculated.

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    Note that the "win-by-bodycount" thinking was endemic on the western front in WWI. But yes, I think that this is exactly right in that the Japanese fatally misunderstood the American psyche.
    – user15620
    Commented Jan 2, 2021 at 23:04
  • @GorttheRobot The Western front in WWI was in fact won by body count, meaning count 9f warm bodies, not cold ones
    – C Monsour
    Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 1:05
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    In the end, it was won because the Germans realized that "bleed them white" was going to fail with fresh American troops arriving in large numbers. In any case, had the Japanese looked closely at that conflict, they should have seen that a western democracy was fully capable at absorbing immense causalties without giving up.
    – user15620
    Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 2:18
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    discounting the massive incompetence of Russia in 1905. One might say, however, that Japan was somewhat emboldened by their success in this campaign. It was a fresh taste of victory that left them wanting more.
    – J...
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 13:24
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    @GorttheRobot re. the meatgrinder aspect of WW1, not sure it was avoidable. People pay much tribute to innovations like accurate artillery ranging or infiltration tactics. Yes, they improved local tactical penetration, but trains meant the defender could reinforce easily while the attacker would be cut off from theirs as soon as they went past the front lines and could only move at walking speed, so no breakthrough exploitation would happen. The defender would then just adopt whatever tactics worked. Trenches + Machine gun + Trains - Tanks may naturally gravitate to Stalemate. Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 15:49

It is a mistake to think of "Japan" or "the Japanese" as a single entity. They were individuals in various positions. Some analysts were convinced that war with the US was unwinnable, and briefed the government on that. Some militarists were convinced that the Yamato spirit would prevail. Others saw no alternative to a war they were unlikely to win, it is this last group who might be blamed for not having plans.

  • Japan had a decision making process where domestic concerns overrode rational foreign policy. They're hardly unique in that, but it was an egregious case. Japan 1941 by Eri Hotta is a nice description.
  • The Japanese had the experience of having beaten the Imperial Russian navy with about the same strategy. The Czar did fold, why not the US? After all, the Western Pacific was not vitally important to the US.
  • Some Japanese had a belief that discipline and dedication would overcome materiel deficiencies, and that they had this discipline. Supposedly Napoleon said something like In war, the morale is to the physical as three is to one.
  • They had grossly unrealistic production plans for synthetic fuel that would have allowed strategic mobility for their (well-trained) carrier crews.
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    Regarding your first point, are you saying that the very different political situation in the US vs Imperial Russia was just completely ignored? If so, was this a fluke or was a suitable understanding not available to the decision makers?
    – Arno
    Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 13:40
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    @Arno, compare the outcome of Korea and Vietnam. Once the US stuck it out until the armisitce, once they disengaged. Same US, right? Different conditions. That's the third bullet point on a national basis. Japan had a much greater stake in the war than the US, so they figured that they would pay the price and the US wouldn't.
    – o.m.
    Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 13:46
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    @JLK, some of them thought that after a decisive naval victory, the US would simply go away rather than fight a two-ocean war. Not much of a plan, but a plan. Others did not think that realistic, but they were ignored or never spoke up.
    – o.m.
    Commented Jan 2, 2021 at 12:21
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    While I don't agree with @JLK that this answer deserves a downvote, perhaps you could say more about just how egregiously bad Japanese decision making was in 1941. The point of the Hotta book is (if I remember correctly) that the majority of decision makers knew (or strongly suspected) that going to war with the US was a disastrously bad move, but the dynamics of Japanese decision making prevented these private reservations from playing much of a role. In effect, your second point relegates the other points to little more than wishful thinking. Commented Jan 2, 2021 at 14:22
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    I have seen suggestion, for example at nytimes.com/2009/12/06/opinion/06bradley.html that somebody in Theodore Roosevelt's administration gave the Japanese the impression that they had carte blanche in the Pacific in the same way that the USA's Monroe Doctrine was intended to keep everybody else away from the Americas. The justification was allegedly that the USA considered imperial Russia and its successor the USSR to be barbaric, while Japan was progressive and potentially friendly. It's ironic how, after the minor unpleasantness of the Pacific War, that impression became fact. Commented Jan 2, 2021 at 16:02

How do you get from decisively defeating the Americans to getting them to agree to peace? It's not that complicated - many negotiated peaces in the past have not been unconditional surrenders for the same reason: it is not trivial to force the opponent to surrender.

Let's say step four of your description happens and the Japanese annihilates the US fleet in battle. Now the US could just build another fleet and try again. Or they might not. Check out this paragraph from the Wikipedia page on Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands in 1945.

Japan's geography made this invasion plan quite obvious to the Japanese as well; they were able to accurately predict the Allied invasion plans and thus adjust their defensive plan, Operation Ketsugō, accordingly. The Japanese planned an all-out defense of Kyūshū, with little left in reserve for any subsequent defense operations. Casualty predictions varied widely, but were extremely high. Depending on the degree to which Japanese civilians would have resisted the invasion, estimates ran up into the millions for Allied casualties.

(emphasis mine)

Let's say you're the American president and your fleet has just been annihilated by the Japanese. Your planners tell you that you can probably win by military force, but it will cost millions of casualties, not to mention billions of dollars to build more ships and planes. Do you do it? It's not just as simple as "doing it" as well: you need to convince Congress, and by extension the American public, that it is worth doing it. This political will is not necessarily present. If the Japanese had landed an invading force on the US mainland, then we can be confident that the political will to resist the invasion would be there, because the existence of the country is threatened. It's not so clear when it comes to forcing a distant country to submit. What is the benefit of prosecuting the war to the bitter end? What could go wrong if we agree to an armistice with terms favorable to us?

Some historical examples where the more powerful side didn't muster the political will to destroy the weaker side:

  • First Chechen War: obviously the Russians are not going to lose (i.e. get conquered), but they certainly didn't feel like winning.
  • Vietnam War: I don't doubt that the US could have destroyed North Vietnam, with a mix of mass conscription, mobilizing a war economy, unrestricted bombing campaigns, and/or nuclear weapons.
  • Continuation War

Finally: not exactly what you are asking, but it's worth pointing out that Japan didn't actually anticipate the events you describe. They were hoping that the war will not last for very long. See the Wikipedia article on the Attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese attack had several major aims. First, it intended to destroy important American fleet units, thereby preventing the Pacific Fleet from interfering with Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies and Malaya and to enable Japan to conquer Southeast Asia without interference. Second, it was hoped to buy time for Japan to consolidate its position and increase its naval strength before shipbuilding authorized by the 1940 Vinson-Walsh Act erased any chance of victory. Third, to deliver a blow to America's ability to mobilize its forces in the Pacific, battleships were chosen as the main targets, since they were the prestige ships of any navy at the time. Finally, it was hoped that the attack would undermine American morale such that the U.S. government would drop its demands contrary to Japanese interests and would seek a compromise peace with Japan.


Japanese confidence in their ability to achieve a short, victorious war also meant other targets in the harbor, especially the navy yard, oil tank farms, and submarine base, were ignored, since—by their thinking—the war would be over before the influence of these facilities would be felt.

(Again, emphasis mine)

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    "It's not that complicated ..." surely the surprise attack and treating POWs atrociously was a major complicating factor. As OP points out, Japanese actions in the first several months of the Pacific War seemed like they were calculated to make a negotiated peace less likely. Commented Jan 2, 2021 at 14:31
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    The First Chechen War's example is somewhat nullified by the Second one following it. As much as its tactics were woeful Russia never lost the strategic initiative, it could choose to withdraw and return, which it did. Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 8:26
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    @JohnColeman: perhaps Japanese planners didn't anticipate the realities of how their troops would behave, and/or how that would be perceived from an American PoV? Or didn't take that into account when comparing how other conflicts between other nations had gone. It seems from this and other answers that Japanese high command thinking was pretty wishful and/or disconnected from reality in other ways. Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 9:26


  1. Cripple the US pacific fleet.
  2. Grab all the pacific islands.
  3. Weaken the Americans as they fight their way across the Pacific.
  4. Annihilate the US fleet in a decisive battle.
  5. ???

This is known as the Southern Strategy, which was favoured by the navy. The army favoured the Northern Strategy. However, the Northern Strategy derailed after the Japanese army got trashed during the battles of Khalkhin Gol.

The Japanese army and navy weren't really cooperating, more like competing against each other. (That was one of the reasons why Japan didn't have an independent air force. Both weren't very keen on setting up another competitor.) Once the Northern strategy didn't work, the navy got enough political support to pursue the southern strategy.

The Japanese were well aware what they were up against. They knew America would be a formidable enemy. However, they only had bad options to choose from. So they picked the least bad option.

What were the options?

  • Withdraw from Manchuria and China - unacceptable
  • Continue the conquest of China - They did that, but the conquest was already stalling
  • Pursue the Northern Strategy - had already failed
  • Submit to the demands of the US - unacceptable
  • Do a surprise attack on the fleet in Pearl Harbor, to try to force the USA to accept the destruction of the fleet and the consequent inability to do anything about it as fait accompli.

The Japanese were well aware they had to strike fast and hard to accomplish that. As surrender was not in their vocabulary, they choose the least bad option, being the attack on Pearl Harbor. Even Yamamoto himself said Japan would have 6-12 months to accomplish their goals. After 12 months the USA would outproduce and outgun Japan in any field. With hindsight: he was right, almost up to the day...

What went wrong? The attack itself, of course. The Japanese embassy wasn't going to hand over a declaration of war, as has been suggested by many. About 30 minutes before hostilities were to begin, they were to break of negotiations. Not to deliver a declaration of war. The official declaration of war followed one hour after the attack. Even if the Japanese diplomats followed the plan exactly, it would still have been considered a sneak attack by the American public.

Analysis: Clearly, the plan was off the rails by the end of Midway (somewhere around moving from 2. to 3.); and it seems near impossible to imagine Leyte Gulf ending with a resounding Japanese victory.

Midway was indeed the turning point in the Pacific War, but even a Japanese victory would merely have postponed the inevitable. Supposing the USA lost that battle and all carriers, they were already building 12 replacement carriers. The Japanese lost 4 carriers, and weren't able to replace any of them. Partly because they lacked the industrial resources, and partly because they simply lacked the pilots and mechanics to replace what was lost.

They were able to launch two new carriers (one by converting a super battleship under construction into a carrier), but they didn't have the planes or the pilots to fly them, the mechanics to service the ship and the planes, not even the enough fuel for both. Remember that the Yamato was on a one way mission to Okinawa. At that time Japan didn't have enough fuel for anything else.

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    Even if they had declared war just before the attack, the US would have been outraged by the sucker punch.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jan 2, 2021 at 3:56
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    @RonJohn I fully agree, that's why I added that complete paragraph. It's still common knowledge or at least widely perceived, the Japanese would have declared war if only for that decoding hiccup. They weren't, never even planned for it.
    – Jos
    Commented Jan 2, 2021 at 5:46

Prior to WWII Japan's strategy was to draw the US Navy into a conflict relatively near to the Japanese home islands where a decisive battle could be fought. Japan's objective was to allow their fleet to operate near their own bases while forcing the US fleet to operate far from theirs. This would allow the Japanese to conduct a battle of attrition against the US fleet as they advanced across the Pacific so that by the time the US fleet arrived in the battle area - which Japanese planners had moved further west and south as their capabilities improved - the Japanese fleet would be numerically superior to the US fleet and could win a fleet-on-fleet engagement due to superior technology and morale.

Of course, this never happened. The preemptive attack against Pearl Harbor was a contradiction of the plans the Japanese had formulated in the 1920s and 30s, which relied on taking a defensive stance against the United States and forcing the US fleet to bring the war to Japan. As Yamamoto had every reason to understand, once the United States was attacked - and most importantly was attacked without a declaration of war having been made - there was little hope that the United States would ever sue for peace, and there was equally little hope that Japan could hold out once the industrial capabilities of the United States were redirected to produce war materials. In effect, Japan lost the war on December 7, 1941.

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    I checked with Gaia on this and she said, "IT'S NOT MY FAULT! I was building a nice little set of volcanic islands next to a subduction zone - I was NOT putting up a future industrial site! If someone had said, 'Hey! In about 30M years we're going to need natural resources and oil and iron and coal and etc' I would have said 'Wrong place! What you want is a former shallow seabed area that got a bunch of iron precipitated out during the Great Oxygenation Crisis a couple billion years earlier, etc, etc!'. But did anybody ask? NO! SO IT'S NOT MY FAULT!". Geez - you'd think she was Han Solo Commented Jan 2, 2021 at 3:50
  • Pearl Harbor was indeed the turning point of the war in more ways than one. Winston Churchill wrote that when he heard of the attack, his first thought was that we've won the war! and that night he “went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved."
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 16:02

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