Not long after World War I ended, Japan was quick to revisit its quarrels with China. The tense cultural history between the two nations has often resulted in conflict. After the First World War, there didn’t seem to be any extended period of peace between the two nations, especially as Japan considered the option of pushing through China and taking territory that the Japanese felt rightfully belonged to them.
Though the United States had no involvement in this long history of contention, it’s really this deeply-rooted conflict that was in many ways responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor. When the Japanese launched an assault on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, it did so in large part due to a trade embargo that the US and other Allied nations placed on the Imperial nation. The reason for the embargo circled back to the Second Sino-Japanese War.
The United States started to take a greater interest in Japan’s aggression against China in September of 1931, after an event that became known as the Manchurian or Mukden incident.
The explosion was a small one, doing virtually no damage to the Japanese-owned South Manchurian Railway line, but it was enough to get Japan’s attention. Or, rather, make it seem like it grabbed Japan’s attention.
Looking for a viable reason to invade Chinese Manchuria, Lt. Suemori Kawamoto took part in a ruse that would place the blame on China for an explosion near an asset owned by Japan. Though damage from the explosion was minimal, Japan used it as an excuse to invade Manchuria, immediately blaming China for the planted dynamite.
After its invasion of Manchuria, Japan established Manchukuo, a puppet state. After the state was established, in January of 1932, the United States spoke out, stating it would not recognize any government established from Japan’s invasion of Manchuria. On October 2nd, 1932, the Lytton Report exposed Japan’s plan, forcing the expansionist nation to leave the League of Nations and enter into diplomatic isolation.
It was during this incident that Japan planted the seed for future American involvement, and over the course of just under ten years, the two nations would butt heads constantly over Japan’s claim to not only large parts of China, but also to much of East Asia.
Despite attempts at negotiation, the United States was eventually pushed to cut off Japan’s supply of vital resources, a move that convinced them that they would have to deal with the United States in some form. A decade after the Mukden incident, Pearl Harbor was assaulted, forcing the United States to join the war and ultimately push Japan out of Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
Though the Mukden Incident may not have been directly responsible for Pearl Harbor, it started a ripple effect that eventually led the United States to give Japan an ultimatum that was answered with bombs and machine-gun fire on December 7th, 1941.