Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, December 8, 1941
Western accounts generally consider the war to have started with the Pearl Harbor attack of December 1941. Chinese accounts date it from Japan's invasion of central China in July 1937, or even their expansion into Manchuria in 1931. The war ended with Japanese surrender in August, 1945; an important factor was that the first, and so far the only, atomic bombs used in warfare had just been detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Japan began to expand in the late 19th century, annexing Okinawa in 1879, then defeating China in a short decisive war in 1894/95 and annexing Taiwan. In the same period, the US became more active in the Pacific, taking over the Philippines in 1898 after a war with Spain, and annexing Hawaii and Guam. Various European powers also expanded their holdings or influence in the region.
Japan won a war with Russia in 1905, annexed Korea (a Chinese protectorate at that time) in 1910, took over Manchuria in 1931, invaded central China in 1937, and tried to expand into Mongolia and Siberia until a sound defeat by the Soviets at Kalkhin Gol in 1939 made them abandon their hopes to take Siberia; instead they began planning to move south.
During the course of the war, the Japanese managed to occupy much of the coastal regions of China, including the then-capital Nanjing. However, the resistance they were to encounter in the more inland parts of China was much fiercer than expected, and they never managed to occupy the entire country. The conflict in China went on until the war ended in 1945, and killed at least 10 million. Western powers backed China, sending supplies via the Burma Road and imposing sanctions on Japan. American and British sanctions, in particular restrictions on oil imports, were the main reason Japan gave for going to war with those nations.
Meanwhile, World War II in Europe began with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, and became more complex when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.
The conflict became global in December 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, other US bases in the Pacific, the Philippines, and British possessions such as Hong Kong and Malaya. The United States and the entire British Empire immediately declared war on Japan, and Germany declared war on the US. The Soviet Union did not declare war on Japan until after the end of the war in Europe.
After that, Japan proceeded to invade and occupy much of Southeast Asia and parts of Oceania; they even managed to bomb the city of Darwin in Australia. By the middle of 1943, virtually all of Southeast Asia had been conquered by Japan, with the colonial powers of the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United States all having suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of the Japanese. Thailand, the only Southeast Asian country that was never colonised, was also the only Southeast Asian country that was spared from Japanese occupation, as the Thais signed a treaty of friendship with the Japanese, allowing Japanese troops free passage through Thailand, as well as allowing the Japanese to set up military bases there.
Japanese propaganda claimed they were driving out Western imperialists, leading an "Asia for Asians" movement, and this got them some support; countries such as India had both pro-Japanese and pro-Allied movements. In China both the Kuomintang and the Communists opposed Japan, but they were sometimes more interested in fighting each other. Everywhere, the local political movements were jockeying for control and trying to use the war to gain independence and/or domestic political influence for the time after the war.
In general though, Japanese rule in the occupied territories was brutal, and by the end of the war, the Japanese had lost the support of much of the local population who initially supported them (eg. Burmese independence hero Aung San). The ethnic Chinese — both in China and in Southeast Asia — were singled out for the harshest treatment; in all the occupied territories, they were rounded up for "screening" by the Japanese, and the unfortunate ones who were identified (often arbitrarily) as anti-Japanese were brought to remote locations and shot. The Japanese also performed inhumane experiments on captive locals from the occupied territories, the most famous being Unit 731 in Manchuria (listed below), though other similar units existed throughout the occupied territories.
The Japanese suffered their first major defeat at the Battle of Midway in June 1942, when the Americans successfully intercepted and decoded Japanese communication, and surprised the Japanese by destroying their aircraft carriers when the planes were away on a bombing raid. This marked the turning point in the Pacific War, and by 1945, the Americans were able to re-take the Philippines, while the British were able to re-take Burma with the help of the Chinese, and reopen the Burma Road to supply Chinese forces. The Japanese had also spread their forces too thinly in China, and the Chinese, with the support of the British and Americans, were able to counterattack and reclaim some of the occupied territories. The Americans prepared to invade Japan itself, culminating in the battles of Okinawa and Iwo Jima, in which the Americans managed to score decisive victories and occupy the islands, from which they were able to attack the Japanese mainland. Subsequently, the Americans dropped the first (and to date only) atomic bombs to be used in actual combat on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, followed by Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies on 15 August 1945, bringing World War II to an end.
Following the surrender, Japan was forced to give up all its colonies. While the Emperor remained on his throne, the political and military leaders were indicted in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, many of whom were sentenced to be executed. Taiwan and Manchuria were returned to China, though the Chinese Civil War would resume following the Japanese surrender, eventually resulting in victory for the communists in the mainland, and the nationalists being forced to retreat to Taiwan, which continues to be governed separately to this day. Korea regained its independence, but would be split into the communist North Korea and the capitalist South Korea, leading up to the Korean War. The Western colonial powers also got their colonies back, but the war had galvanised many nationalist movements, which were to come of age in the years to come and eventually lead to the independence of the colonies.
Many places that were sites of battles, atrocities or other wartime activities can be visited.
- 1 Nanjing Massacre Memorial. Commemorates the late 1937 slaughter of a huge number of civilians in and around the city by the invading Japanese army.
- 2 Burma Road. This road ran from Western China into Burma (now Myanmar) and connected to Assam in Eastern India as well. It was originally built by the Chinese in the late 30s, upgraded by the Americans later, and used throughout the war.
- 3 Khalkhin Gol. Site of a battle in 1939 in which the Soviets demolished a large Japanese force. This turned Japanese thinking away from expansion into Mongolia and Siberia; instead they adopted a "strike south" strategy which led directly to Pearl Harbor and their attacks in Southeast Asia.
- 4 Pearl Harbor. Site of the bombing in Western Honolulu that caused the United States to enter the war.
- 5 Wake Island. This US-controlled island was taken by Japan shortly after Pearl Harbor and held by them throughout the war. There are ruins of Japanese fortifications, a monument for the American defenders who put up a stiff fight despite being badly outnumbered and outgunned, and a monument for a group of 98 POWs executed by the Japanese. Today the island is a US military base, off limits for most visitors.
- 6 Henderson Airfield. The Japanese began constructing an airfield in May 1942 in Honiara. Knowing that if they completed it, they'd be able to both isolate Australia from its allies and launch potentially devastating attacks, America quickly moved to take control of the airfield. It took six months to secure the airfield, after which the Americans finished construction on it and used it to launch attacks on other islands.
Henderson Airfield was later expanded to become the international airport of the Solomon Islands, so of course it can be visited. Other sites around the airport include Bloody Ridge (where America defended against the Japanese), The Gifu (named after the city by the same name, it was a Japanese post attacked by the US), Mount Austin (used by the Japanese to get a full view of the airfield in their plan to retake it), as well as memorials for both the Americans and Japanese that fought here.
- 7 Betio Island. Within a few days of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese took the Gilbert Islands, then a British colony, now part of the independent nation Kiribati. America's first attack on Japanese forces occurred in Butaritari, in the Gilberts, shortly after that.
In late 1943, the Americans came to oust Japan from the islands, which by then had been heavily fortified. Betio Island in Tarawa was the site of the Battle of Tarawa, considered to be one of the bloodiest battles of the war. While war relics can be found on multiple islands throughout Kiribati, Betio Island is where the main battle took place and also where the most remains. Visitors can see tanks, bunkers, shipwrecks, guns, and memorials built by the Japanese, Americans, and Australians and New Zealanders.
- 8 Kokoda Track. An important battle line in Papua New Guinea, between Australia and Japan, it is now a trekking destination, especially for Australians.
- 9 Darwin. The only Australian city to have been attacked by Japanese air raid has a memorial monument on its wharf, and a veterans' cemetery nearby.
- 10 Coron. This town in Palawan Province in the Philippines has excellent wreck diving; the US Navy sank about a dozen Japanese ships in shallow water in 1944.
- 11 Unit 731 Museum. A museum in Harbin located in a former bio-chemical weapons testing facility built by the Japanese and used to perform experiments on Chinese citizens and POWs. After the war, the Americans agreed to cover up their actions and grant immunity from prosecution to the scientists involved in exchange for being granted exclusive access to the data, as they feared that the data would end up in the hands of the Soviet Union, and many of those scientists ended up having successful careers in academia.
- 12 Okinawa Peace Park and Himeyuri Monument. Considered to be the site of one of the most brutal and bloody battles of the war, Okinawa island has many war remnants and memorials. Outside of Japan, Okinawa is often viewed as the first battle on Japanese soil however, like the other Pacific Islands, Okinawa was also colonized territory so the local population was not fully trusted by the Japanese and often treated as expendable. With the Americans being obvious enemies and the Japanese not being complete allies, the question on many Okinawans' minds was not "How am I going to survive?" but "How do I want to die?". The museums here show the war from a uniquely Okinawan perspective, including life for citizens, students and military. It also depicts well how they were mistreated by both the Japanese and the Americans during and after the war. The Peace Park and the Himeyuri Monument in Itoman are the best places to learn about the battle, but remnants and reminders of the war can be found throughout the island.
- 13 Iwo Jima. Another group of islands close to Japan, scene of some extremely fierce fighting. An image of victorious US Marines raising the Stars and Stripes there is quite famous. Note that currently US Military Tours has exclusive rights to the island and only US citizens who are members of the Iwo Jima Association of America, WWII veterans, or WWII prisoners of war are eligible to join the tours.
- 14 Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots. As the war approached the home islands, the desperate Japanese began sending out young men to fly aircraft packed with explosives into American ships. The museum is located in Minamikyushu over the former spot where the tokko pilots (known abroad as kamikaze pilots) were trained and flew from. The museum contains information about the pilots, artifacts and letters from them, and recovered kamikaze planes.
- 15 Hiroshima Peace Park and Memorial Museum. Hiroshima was the first place in the world to be attacked with an atomic bomb. The museum shows how devastating the bomb was to the city and the effects it had on the people both in the immediate aftermath to the present day.
- 16 Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Memorial Hall. Museums located on the site where the atomic bomb was dropped on August 9, 1945. The Nagasaki bombing led to Japanese surrender and is also noted as the last place to have an atomic bomb dropped on it.
- 17 Changsha. The site of four separate battles between the Chinese and Japanese in 1939, 1941, 1942 and 1944. The first of those was the first significant victory scored by the Chinese over the Japanese during World War II. The Japanese were only able to capture Changsha on their fourth attempt in 1944.
- 18 Chongqing. The "temporary capital" of China during World War II, after Nanjing had fallen to the Japanese. Despite numerous attempts by the Japanese to take it, Chinese resistance in the inland areas was much fiercer than the Japanese expected, and though it was heavily bombed, Chongqing managed to avoid Japanese occupation for the duration of the war.
There are also many other sites that commemorate parts of the war.
- The 19 US Marine Corps Memorial at Arlington, Virginia, depicts the famous scene of the raising of the (American) flag on Iwo Jima, whose history is told by the movie "Flags of our Fathers" directed by Clint Eastwood. One of the soldiers involved, Ira Hayes, is commemorated in a fine song by Johnny Cash.
- 20 US National Museum of the Pacific War. Located in Fredericksburg (Texas), home town of Admiral Chester Nimitz who commanded US forces in part of the Pacific, this is a large museum complex with many exhibits.
- 21 Changi Museum. A former POW camp-turned-museum has information about the Japanese occupation of Singapore and what life was like in the POW camp. It focuses on the general history and conditions as well as containing personal accounts and artifacts donated by former prisoners.
- 22 Sandakan Memorial Park. This memorial located in the Malaysian city of Sandakan was built at the site of a former Japanese POW prison camp with funding from the Australian government to commemorate the Allied POWs who lost their lives during the Sandakan Death Marches. Only 6 people out of several thousand survived the march, and only because those 6 managed to escape. Incidentally, all 6 surivors were Australian.
- There is a small war memorial and museum in the former Bank Kerapu building in Kota Bharu, Malaysia, which served as a secret police station during the Japanese occupation; it might not merit a special trip but is worth visiting if you are in Kota Bharu
- There are Commonwealth War Cemeteries in Taukkyan, Thanbyuzayat, Kranji, Taiping, Labuan, Sai Wan, Kanchanaburi, Imphal, Chennai and Yokohama as well as an American War Cemetery in Manila, in which many of the Allied war dead are buried.
A number of sites in the US commemorate the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war.
- 23 Manzanar Internment Camp. The largest internment camp in the United States where approximately 110,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals living in the United States during the war were forced to live after being ordered to leave their homes. This museum contains information about the camp, the experiences of those who were forced to live here, and life after the war.
- 24 WWII Japanese American Internment Museum. A former internment camp turned into a museum to educate people about the lives of Japanese-Americans at the Rohwer Relocation Center.
- 25 Topaz Museum. The Topaz Relocation Center (internment camp) housed over 11,000 Japanese-Americans. Because people were moved here before it was finished, internees were actually hired to build the wire fences to pen themselves in.