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  • From Mahan to Pearl Harbor: The Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States
  • Kathryn Ragsdale
From Mahan to Pearl Harbor: The Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States. By Asada Sadao. Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2006. xii + 385 pages. Hardcover $36.95.

At the opening of Sadao Asada's From Mahan to Pearl Harbor the central character indeed is the American naval theorist Alfred Mahan (1840-1914). Asada introduces us to Mahan's career, writings, and international influence. As Asada's account unfolds, however, he gradually recasts Mahan as a consistent but indirect participant in the real story he aims to tell, that of how a faction of the Imperial Japanese Navy—propelled by middle-echelon officers—became a driving force behind the decision to attack Pearl Harbor. [End Page 501]

Mahan famously argued for a doctrine of naval warfare based on a concentration of forces (specifically battleships) in decisive confrontation with the enemy; but he linked this with the concept of a nation dedicated to what some naval historians have termed "mercantilist imperialism." The late nineteenth-century leaders of the Japanese navy embraced the military aspect of Mahan's theories and subsequently found it validated by Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō's definitive, battleship-based victory against the Russian navy in 1905. Mahan's argument for a national navy's essential role in maintaining trade and access to resources also served Japan's naval leaders in their demands for an increasing share of the national budget. Yet many in the Japanese navy knew that Mahan, while useful and revered for his arguments on behalf of naval strength, also devoted articles in the American press to the "yellow peril" posed by Japanese immigration and to the threat of the growing Japanese navy.

Asada shows how Mahan's complicated influence persisted as Japan entered the era of naval arms limitation in the 1920s and '30s. It was during this period that the critical split within the Japanese navy occurred over U.S. arguments that Japan, as a one-ocean navy, should have fewer ships in various key categories than were maintained by the two-ocean British and American navies. At heart, this was a conflict between navies under the influence of the same Mahanian postulate: that a nation must maintain a fleet sufficient for a decisive encounter against its most formidable potential enemy. The "treaty faction" within the Japanese navy regarded arms limitation as benefiting Japan by sparing its budget from ruinous expenditure while inhibiting an arms build-up by its major potential enemy; to those in this camp, negotiating such a treaty also had the virtue of giving Japan a voice in the new era of international accommodation. Members of the rival "fleet faction," however, took Mahan's principles not only as a guide for their own larger goals for fleet strength, but also as a basis for interpreting U.S. motives. To this element within the navy, U.S. arguments for naval ratios represented nothing but a way for the United States to ensure its own dominance in the Pacific and to protect the commercial interests embodied in its Open Door policy toward China; they, moreover, regarded the U.S. proposal as a racially based effort to contain Japan. While members of the fleet faction were, in fact, not too far off in their judgment of the thinking within the U.S. navy, this viewpoint led to what some characterized as a "ratio neurosis" that left fleet-faction members disproportionately enraged by Japan's ultimate acceptance of fleet reduction and disposed ever after to calculate the feasibility of a war with the United States in terms of relative fleet strength.

Asada takes care to introduce the various individuals who became key players in the rivalries that developed within the Japanese military and to present the style of decision making that evolved in the Japanese navy. Many of the phenomena he cites are widely known at a general level, but he makes a valuable contribution by providing precise details, relying on documents of the time and the subsequent, often rueful, reflections of those involved. Of particular moment, given Asada's ultimate argument, were the ever-more assertive...


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