In Japan, Pearl Harbor is seen as just another battle in a decades-long war

The battleships USS West Virginia and USS Tennessee appear after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The battleships USS West Virginia and USS Tennessee appear after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. MCT

For Americans, Sunday marks the 73rd anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese sneak attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, the air raid on the Hawaiian base that killed 2,403 Americans and drew the United States into World War II.

But with the exception of a fireworks display to honor the dead in Nagaoka, Honolulu’s sister city, the anniversary of the attack, which took place Tokyo time on Dec. 8, will pass largely unremarked in Japan, even though it marked a sea change in Japan’s place in the world.

For Japanese, the Pearl Harbor attack wasn’t the start of war, but the continuation of a Japanese struggle to remain free of outside influence that had been going on since Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853 and ordered the Japanese to open their country to trade with the outside world.

Until then, contact with outsiders was a crime punishable by death. Afterward, Japan found itself hardly able to compete with the Western powers that wanted to trade with it.

Without abundant natural resources, Japan imported the vast majority of its oil and raw materials from the United States, Great Britain, and the Dutch East Indies. In this telling, fear that it was losing its independence forced Japan to seek its own source of raw materials, expanding into territories under Western control. War with the United States was virtually inevitable as a result of modernization, this version holds.

Current Japanese textbooks have little to say on the attack itself, and Japanese, questioned about the subject, say they know little of what took place. What they do know places the attack, which involved more than 300 aircraft, two bombing waves and six aircraft carriers, in the context of the many wars that were going on at the time.

Mayako Shibata, a university student, said that she can’t remember any class where she learned why the attack on Pearl Harbor happened. She did learn, she said, that some in the government opposed it.

Other Japanese, uncomfortable with the topic, declined to talk on the record about Pearl Harbor, including educators.

But a picture of how Japan views the conflict can be found at the Yasukuni Shrine, one of the most controversial sites in Japan. Visits by current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the shrine anger Japan’s neighbors, who accuse Abe of trying to beautify and rewrite Japan’s war history.

The shrine memorializes among Japan’s war dead 14 former Japanese officials who after World War II were found guilty of crimes against peace, including Hideki Tojo, the general-turned-prime minister who approved the attack on Pearl Harbor and was hanged after the war.

But it’s the museum to Japan’s military history at the shrine that lays out Japanese thinking on why the Pearl Harbor attack took place.

A Mitsubishi A6M Zero Fighter, once the pride of Japan’s military, dominates the lobby. Dozens of images decorate the walls showing the Japanese military in heroic form, often shooting down American aircraft.

After sections devoted to earlier centuries of history and military artifacts comes the section devoted to World War II. It’s here where you learn Japan’s official line on the war.

A timeline leaves the impression that Japan was forced into the Pearl Harbor attack by the United States, which had demanded that Japan unconditionally withdraw from China and other territories, or face severe consequences. After negotiations broke down, the U.S., Great Britain and the Dutch East Indies froze Japanese assets and imposed an oil embargo with the goal of pushing Japan into a corner.

The timeline makes clear the Japanese feel they were manipulated into attacking America.

“At the White House, the President, Secretary of State and Secretaries of War and the Navy meet and discuss war with Japan,” the text says. “They explore means to maneuver them (Japan) into the position of firing the first shot without allowing much danger to ourselves.”

Roosevelt, the explanation goes on, orders his subordinates “to prepare for a surprise attack, which is likely to occur on December 1.”

This text is written in English and Japanese so that visitors won’t miss the Japanese position on what led to the attack.

Experts on the Japanese view of the war, again speaking not for attribution, said no Japanese official at the time entertained the idea that Japan could win a war with the United States, whose industrial capacity was far greater.

But they did hope that by crippling the U.S. Pacific Fleet they could buy time to conquer their Asian neighbors, acquire more oil to add to Japan’s two-year supply, and stockpile other natural resources from other parts of East Asia in hopes of forcing the United States into negotiations on more equal terms.

It was a strategy doomed to fail.

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