Internationally, this was a time when "free trade" was in disrepute. The great powers not only jealously protected their special economic rights within their colonies and spheres of influence, but sought to bolster their sagging economies through high tariffs, dumping of goods, and other trade manipulation. The Japanese, with few natural resources, sought to copy this pattern. They used cutthroat trade practices to sell textiles and other light industrial goods in the East Asian and U.S. markets, severely undercutting British and European manufacturers. They also developed sources of raw materials and heavy industry in the colonies they established in Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria. Japan used high tariffs to limit imports of American and European industrial products.

The Japanese military faced a particular tactical problem in that certain critical raw materials — especially oil and rubber — were not available within the Japanese sphere of influence. Instead, Japan received most of its oil from the United States and rubber from British Malaya, the very two Western nations trying to restrict Japan's expansion. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's embargo of oil exports to Japan pressured the Japanese navy, which had stocks for only about six months of operations. Columbia.edu

Almost every source is scarce in details, but the fact they only got oil from two sources seems to suggest some colonies didn't allow other countries to buy oil from them severely limiting growth for countries without raw natural resource access.

Could Japan buy natural resources from European colonies before WW2? I am wondering if Japan could buy natural resources from their colonies and if not I am wondering if there was any support for liberalizing market access to other non-Imperial countries and if there was any progress made on that front during that time, because if it's the case, then I don't understand why Japan wanted colonies for itself.

  • 1
    What does your preliminary research show?
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 5, 2022 at 19:52
  • I think the second sentence of the first quotation seems to answer the question (the resources that Japan lacked were locked behind high tariffs). Can you clarify why it does not?
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 5, 2022 at 20:49
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    Prior to WWII, Japan was able to purchase these resources, but this would to a trade imbalance that would have been problematic for Japan. Commented Mar 6, 2022 at 4:46
  • @axsvl77 Yes, agree. It is worth noting that Japan was a poor country, and selling silk as the main export didn't exactly cover that much.
    – Greg
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 6:35
  • It would be nice if you specify what time period are we talking about. The American embargo happened in '41, during war, after Japan has signed the Tripartite Act, attacked (among others) French Indochina, and showed clear signs that intend to attack the East Indies. The main reason Japan needed oil was for the Navy ready for war, and for the war on land in China. On the other hand, you are asking about "before WW22" and talk about growth, so clearly a different era. Also, note that the 4 main oil exporters were the US, Iran, Roumania, and East Indies: only one colony.
    – Greg
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 7:06

2 Answers 2


It could, and they pressured for instance the Netherlands (cabinet in exile) to sell them more (via the Royal-Dutch Shell), threatening to invade the Dutch East Indies in case their request was not satisfied.

But the Netherlands largely refused fearing that they'd be diverting supplies from allies to a potential enemy. On Nov 12, 1940, two Dutch companies (Shell and Stanvac) agreed to provide Japan (only) with a third of the supply Japan was demanding from them. Moreover, the contract specified that Japan was to arrange for tankers to pick up the oil.

The British then applied behind the scenes pressure convincing a lot of third party tanker owners not to ship to Japan, so ultimately Japan was not even able to pick up the oil that was contracted with the Dutch. (This does somewhat reminds me of how Maersk [openly, though] embargoed Russia, recently, even though technically they aren't required to.)

Additionally, the contract was in US dollars, and in late July 1941, the US froze the relevant Japanese accounts (in response to them taking over Vichy Vietnam territory). So further payments for the Dutch oil could not go through either, from then on. (Think how Bank of Russia is presently sanctioned.) The last Japanese tanker with Dutch oil sailed in early August.

Reference: Irvine H. Anderson, Jr., "The 1941 De Facto Embargo on Oil to Japan: A Bureaucratic Reflex", Pacific Historical Review, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3638003

  • So indeed there was no free market back then since they had to threaten war to get it?
    – Sayaman
    Commented Mar 6, 2022 at 17:17
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    @Sayaman: well, it was certainly a producer cartel, to a good extent, even if not formalized like OPEC is today. On the other hand, a lot more of the supply was controlled by US & British companies, in Arabia etc. Germany needed all the oil it could get for itself, so them allowing exports e.g. from Romania was out of the question, even for (would be) allies like Japan. Never mind that it lacked a way transporting anything sizeable over the oceans given the Royal Navy. The did send some technical materials by sub later in the war en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_submarine_U-234 Commented Mar 6, 2022 at 17:33
  • @Fizz If I can recall, one reason the Dutch refused the Japanese ultimatum was that they actually demanded more oil than their whole oil production of the Dutch Indies was. Also, we are not in a middle of a world war, so the situation of Maersk and the British in 40-41 was somewhat different when Japan was already in a war coalition with Germany (Tripatite Act) and already attacking French Indochina.
    – Greg
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 6:52

You're mixing two elements that are concurrent in the war, but not complementary. This false premise leads to your question.

On one hand, the fact that Japan needed resources for war and even during time of peace. On the other hand, the fact that Japan wanted to control European colonies. But the first hand is not the only cause of the other hand.

The main cause for the war is the idea of a powerful Japan able to control China and parts of Asia and Pacific. For that, two things are necessary:

  • Secured access to raw material
  • Geographical security

The problem is that USA pressured British and the Netherlands to enforce the oil embargo against Japan and to keep opened the road to supply China through Burma. So Japan was forced to attack all the European coloniesto secure raw material access.

  • 1
    This answer could probably benefit from picking out the sequence of events better, with links where relevant since process was complex and multi layered en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Commented Mar 6, 2022 at 1:50
  • Thanks for the input but it seems you misunderstood: this is not a sequence of events in the need of resources and the political control willingness. Those elements were present at the same time and they led ultimately to the war. The "sequential" event is the oil embargo Commented Mar 6, 2022 at 9:38

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