Rising Sun, Sinking Fleet

From Pearl Harbor to Okinawa

The Imperial Japanese Navy played a significant role during the war, particularly in the Pacific theatre.

Their naval doctrine was centred around achieving a decisive battle, at least partially in recognition of their precarious state regarding natural resources – they didn’t really have any.

Japan’s whole ability to wage war was based on obtaining access to various, vital war materials such as rubber, oil etc.

An aggressive strategy

In terms of strategy, the Japanese were nothing if not ambitious and aggressive. They focused on seizing territory and resources in the Pacific to support their war effort. This involved the capture of key islands and ports, such as the Philippines and Singapore in order to provide bases across their vast territory.

The Japanese employed a tactic known as "island hopping," whereby they would seize small islands and use them as bases for further expansion. This allowed them to gradually extend their control over the Pacific and made it difficult for Allied forces to mount a coordinated defence.

One of the key elements of the Japanese naval strategy was their use of aircraft carriers, which were considered to be the most effective means of projecting naval power over long distances. The Japanese Navy had a total of 10 aircraft carriers at the start of the war, compared to the United States' three, and used them to devastating effect in the early years of the conflict.

Imperial Japanese Navy torpedo/bombers Nakajima B5N flying over fleet units at Truk Atoll. This was the main Japanese torpedo attack aircraft during all the war and performed torpedo and level bombing attacks on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the main air-naval battles of the Pacific.

However, as the war progressed, the Japanese Navy began to suffer from a lack of resources and manpower, and their aggressive tactics began to backfire. The loss of key battleships and carriers, as well as skilled naval personnel, made it increasingly difficult for the Japanese to compete with the United States and its allies.


The Japanese Navy during World War II employed a variety of tactics in its quest for naval dominance in the Pacific. One of their most effective tactics was the use of surprise attacks.

The most famous of these was the attack on Pearl Harbor, which effectively neutralized the US Pacific fleet and allowed the Japanese to expand their control over the region.

Other surprise attacks included the sinking of the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse in December 1941, and the attack on the US base at Midway in June 1942.

Crew abandoning the sinking HMS Prince Of Wales. The loss of both the Prince of Wales and the Repulse was a blow to the British and boosted Japanese prestige. 

The Japanese also utilized a tactic known as "night fighting," whereby they would use the cover of darkness to launch attacks on enemy ships.

The Japanese Navy's superior night vision equipment and training gave them a significant advantage in these engagements, and they were able to inflict significant damage on Allied forces.

Examples of successful night attacks include the Battle of Savo Island in August 1942, and the Battle of Tassafaronga in November 1942.

Kiyoshi Ogawa (left), 22, and Seizō Yasunori, 21, the Japaense pilots who flew their aircraft into the USS Bunker Hill, killing hundreds of sailors and inflicting massive damage on the vessel.

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...Kamikaze attacks were aimed at causing maximum damage...

Most notoriously, the Japanese employed a tactic known as "kamikaze," which involved the use of suicide attacks by aircraft, ships, and submarines. Kamikaze attacks were aimed at causing maximum damage to enemy vessels and were carried out by highly trained pilots who were willing to sacrifice their own lives for the cause.

The most famous kamikaze attack was on the USS Bunker Hill in May 1945, which killed over 390 sailors and caused significant damage to the ship.

A struggling industry

One of the biggest challenges facing the Japanese Navy during The Second World War was the industrial and technological superiority of the US. The Japanese were unable to match the production and quality of US warships and aircraft, and their lack of resources also limited their war effort.

The Imperial Navy also suffered from a lack of experienced pilots and crew, as many had been lost during the early stages of the war. Additionally, the Japanese naval tactics, such as kamikaze attacks, were seen as desperate measures and reflected a lack of viable alternatives.

Aerial photo of the Japanese naval base at Kure. Visible are two Unryū-class aircraft carriers attacked by USN aircraft from Task Force 38 as part of a major raid on Kure in July, 1945. The sunken "Amagi" is in the lower-left foreground and "Katsuragi" at top right.

...it was inevitable that the Japanese – with their aggressive, expansionist views – would look to strike the US first...

The Japanese were grimly aware of how much they lagged behind countries such as the USA in regard to industrial capabilities yet, as they increasingly expanded, would be destined to face them across the battlefield.

With this in mind, it was inevitable that the Japanese – with their aggressive, expansionist views – would look to strike the US first, to have any chance of succeeding with their longer-term, global aims.

Although US and Japanese merchant ship production was on a similar level in 1939.

A decisive blow

Counting on a superior martial attitude to the Americans, they felt that a sudden, powerful blow would shake the US so much as to discourage it from ever trying to retaliate, or at the very least significantly delay them from entering the conflict.

They believed that if they could defeat the US Navy in a single, decisive battle, they could force the US to sue for peace and retain their empire in the Pacific.

This doctrine was embodied in the idea of the "kantai kessen," or "decisive battle." By their calculations, a crippled or badly damaged US Navy would allow the Japanese a free hand in the Pacific.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet and played a key role in the development of the Japanese naval strategy during The Second World War. He was also responsible for planning the attack on Pearl Harbor, despite his own personal misgivings.

...the Japanese gamble ultimately failed though, the US Navy escaping a knockout blow...

However, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 certainly hurt the US Navy, leaving them reeling and bleeding, like a boxer on the ropes.

However, the Japanese gamble ultimately failed though, the US Navy escaping a knockout blow, leaving them to slowly and inexorably regroup, rebuild and by refocusing its efforts on its carrier force, eventually grind the Japanese down.

Ultimately, the Japanese were never able to achieve a decisive victory against the US Navy. They certainly tried though, with the Battle of Midway being another engagement which ended badly for the Japanese, with the loss of four Fleet carriers effectively signalling the end of any realistic Japanese hopes.

Further naval engagements such as the Battle of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf in 1944, further drained the Japanese resources, inflicting losses that they were unable to replace. Meanwhile, the Allies - their production of war materials running at full steam – continued to go from strength to strength.

Aircraft trails above Task Force 58 during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, 19 June 1944; photographed aboard light cruiser Birmingham.

[Photo] Aircraft trails above Task Force 58 during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, 19 Jun 1944; photographed aboard light cruiser Birmingham | World War II Database (ww2db.com)

...the Japanese navy launched a massive assault...

When the Allies landed on Okinawa on the 1st of April 1945, it was the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific Theatre, such was the military might that the Allies now possessed at this stage of the war.

In response, the Japanese navy launched a massive assault on them, using submarines, torpedo boats, and aircraft to attack the Allied fleet, which was anchored off the coast of Okinawa.

It was a brutal battle lasting several months: Between the 26 March to 30 April, 20 American ships were sunk and 157 damaged by enemy action while the Japanese had lost more than 1,100 planes to Allied naval forces alone.

U.S. Navy LSM(R) (Landing Ship Medium, Rocket) shelling Japanese positions on Okinawa, 1945.

Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The Japanese navy inflicted significant losses on Allied ships, sinking several carriers, destroyers, and other vessels.

Despite the damage caused though, the Japanese navy was unable to prevent the Allies from using Okinawa as a staging area for their upcoming invasion of Japan, such was the overwhelming material advantage the Allies held at this stage of the war.

It was the final throw of the dice for the Japanese.

Timeline of events

  • Pearl Harbor (7th December 1941): This surprise attack by the Japanese on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was the catalyst for America's entry into World War II. Japanese forces launched a surprise air strike on the American fleet, sinking or severely damaging eight battleships, three cruisers, and four destroyers, and killing over 2,400 people.
  • Battle of the Java Sea (27th February 1942): In this naval engagement, the Japanese navy defeated a combined Dutch, American, British, and Australian force in the waters around the island of Java, in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia). The Japanese sank five Allied warships and several transport ships, effectively ending Allied naval presence in the region.
  • Battle of Coral Sea (4th – 8th May 1942): The first naval battle in history fought entirely by aircraft, this engagement saw Japanese forces attempt to invade Port Moresby, in Papua New Guinea. Allied forces, including the U.S. and Australia, successfully defended the port, sinking one Japanese aircraft carrier and damaging another, at the cost of one American and one Australian carrier.
  • Battle of Midway (4th – 7th June 1942): This pivotal engagement marked the turning point of the war in the Pacific, as American forces sank four Japanese carriers and shot down 248 Japanese aircraft while losing only one carrier and 145 aircraft. The battle effectively ended Japanese naval superiority in the Pacific.

The Imperial Japanese Navy heavy cruiser Atago. It was sunk by an American submarine during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October, 1944, causing the death of 360 of the crew.

794275c94702998c226dd978736fe184.jpg (1209×810) (pinimg.com)

  • Guadalcanal Campaign (August 1942-February 1943): This extended campaign for control of the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands saw Japanese forces repeatedly attempt to retake the island, but ultimately fail. The campaign was fought mainly by naval and amphibious forces and resulted in heavy losses for both sides.
  • Battle of the Philippine Sea (June 19-20, 1944): Also known as the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot," this engagement saw American forces destroy nearly 350 Japanese aircraft and three carriers while losing only 29 aircraft. It was the largest carrier-to-carrier battle in history and marked the end of Japan's ability to conduct large-scale carrier operations.
  • Battle of Leyte Gulf (23rd – 26th October 1944): Considered the largest naval battle in history, this engagement saw the combined forces of the U.S., Australia, and the Philippines defeat the Japanese Navy's attempt to invade the Philippines. The battle resulted in the loss of most of Japan's remaining surface fleet, including four carriers, and effectively ended Japan's naval power.
  • Battle of Iwo Jima (February-March 1945): Although primarily a ground battle, the Japanese Navy played a supporting role in this engagement as they attempted to disrupt American naval operations. American forces ultimately prevailed, securing the strategically important island and paving the way for the eventual invasion of Japan.
  • Battle of Okinawa (April-June 1945): The final major engagement of the war in the Pacific saw American forces invade the Japanese island of Okinawa, with the goal of establishing a base for the planned invasion of Japan. Japanese forces launched numerous kamikaze attacks on American ships, resulting in heavy casualties for both sides.

The battleship USS Idaho shelling Okinawa on 1st April 1945.

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The Japanese naval strategy during the Second World War ultimately failed due to a combination of factors, including overconfidence, resource limitations, and strategic miscalculations.

The aggressive expansionist strategy and reliance on aircraft carriers allowed the Japanese to initially dominate the Pacific, but as the war progressed, they suffered significant losses in both ships and personnel.

...the United States' overwhelming military and economic superiority....

Additionally, the strategic decision to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor drew America into the war and ultimately led to the United States' overwhelming military and economic superiority.

By the end of the war, the Japanese Navy was largely destroyed, and the legacy of their once-great naval power served as a cautionary tale for future military planning.

Japanese aircraft carrier Jun'yō, a Hiyō-class aircraft carrier and one of the few Japanese Carriers to survive the war., pictured here in September 1945.  She was scrapped between 1st June 1946 and 1st August 1947 .

Imperial Japanese Navy in colorized photos | Page 2 | Indian Defence Forum (defenceforumindia.com)

Further reading


United States Navy photograph, photographed from USS West Virginia (BB-48). - Official U.S. Navy photo 80-G-K-3829 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command

Public Domain





Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

James D. Hornfischer, The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific”, 1944-1945, (2017)

James D Hornfischer. Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal. (2011)

Craig L. Symonds, The Battle of Midway (2011)

John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986)

Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (1985)

Richard B. Frank, Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (2001)