From our American point of view, we usually think of the attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor
fifty-five 65 years ago as the main Japanese objective at the time. In fact, the attack on Pearl Harbor was merely a screening move, an attempt by the Japanese to limit the US's ability to respond to its main objective -- seizure of resource-rich targets in Indonesia and Southeast Asia.
The Japanese in 1941 shared many of the beliefs that are disturbingly common today. They believed that their country had to be "self-sufficient" in key industries and resources. And, they had a huge distrust of foreigners and international trade. Lou Dobbs would have been very comfortable with them. The end result of believing in self-sufficiency was that Japan eschewed peaceful trade as a way to gain resources in favor of colonialism and military intervention. To some extent, the European colonialism of the 19th and early 20th centuries stemmed from the same beliefs.
As an island nation, Japan had developed a rich and complex social
structure. It resisted westernization by sealing itself off from
contact with the outside world, particularly Europe and the United
States. By the early twentieth century, though, Japan's efforts to
achieve self-sufficiency were failing, for the nation lacked its own
raw materials and other resources. Some members of the ruling class
argued that Japan could grow and prosper only by modernizing and
adopting Western technology. Japanese nationalists, though, advocated a
different path: the establishment of an empire that would not only
elevate Japan's stature in the eyes of the world but also guarantee
access to the resources the nation needed. Moreover, many members of
the nation's traditional warrior class"”the Samurai"”were embittered by
the aftermath of World War I. Japan had backed the victorious Allies,
but the Samurai believed that in the peace negotiations following the
war the United States and Great Britain had treated Japan as a
second-class nation. They, too, longed to assert Japan's place in world
After WWII, the Japanese gave up colonialism and military intervention in favor of arms-length trade. And, as a result, grew through peaceful exchange into being the wealthy world power that militarism and "self-sufficiency" could never achieve.
Postscript: Some might argue that the Japanese were forced to give up on trade in favor of militarism by the US embargoes. This is a particularly popular explanation among the "America-is-the-source-of-all-evil" academics, that the Japanese would have peacefully traded for all their needs if only we had let them. This viewpoint is silly, and completely ignorant of the goals and philosophies of those running Japan.
The Japanese desire to be resource self-sufficient is always there, and the embargoes were a result of previous military adventures by the Japanese to gain colonies by force in Korea and China, as well as Japanese threats to invade southeast Asia. Japanese militarism to achieve "imperial self-sufficiency" predated western embargoes by many, many years. The western embargoes may have forced the Japanese hand to move quicker than they might have, but their moves into resource-rich Indonesia were probably coming soon anyway, just as similar moves in Korea and China had been going on for a decade.
To be fair, today's self-sufficiency advocates are passive and xenophobic rather than aggressive and xenophobic, as the Japanese were. This is at least a small improvement, and means that they prefer to quietly sink into squalor rather than going out with a bang (two bangs?) as the Japanese did.