Pearl Harbor: A Rational Decision for Japan – Part 1

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor is considered a major turning point of the 20th century because it prompted the United States to formally enter World War II and marked a peak in Japanese aggression. Scholars and historians have provided historical insight as to why Japan declared war against the United States, although there is not yet consensus on if the empire’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor was rational or imprudent.

Japan’s rationale for going to war with the United States in the Pacific can be comprehensibly explained when examining Japan’s circumstances and the world scenario before December 1941. Even though the empire suffered heavy losses by mistakenly outweighing the short-term benefits over the long-term costs of fighting a war against the Allied forces, the processes at which decisions were made to go to war are fundamentally rational given the historical context of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

While it may appear contradictory that Japan’s losses and defeat in World War II as a result of attacking Pearl Harbor is being argued as ‘rational’, the following definition of ‘rational’, central to the this article’s clarity and consistency, will help provide the understanding of why Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor is rational.

Rational choice theory, the reasoning involved in weighing the benefits, costs, and other consequences, will be employed in lieu of the familiar definition of ‘rational’ because it is best designed to analyze political economies and international relations, which this paper will examine.

A common definition of ‘rational’ would describe something as having understanding or reason whereas rational choice theory seeks to investigate the motivations and decisions of individuals and nation-states on a larger scale. In addition, rational choice theory states that a decision is rational even if it is illogical or practical, so long as it is made by examining the costs and benefits. Therefore, Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor was rational since its leaders weighed the costs and benefits, despite their significant miscalculation. Lastly, rational choice theory offers the perspective of the military and political leaders on why they authorized a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Coming Soon:  Part 2