The most cited motive for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was to deal enough damage to the U.S. Navy such that the United States would be either unwilling or unable to contest Japanese dominion in Asia and the Pacific Ocean. While this may be true to some degree, there were more pressing and realistic reasons that require understanding the greater context of Japan’s position in the Pacific.
The Pacific and Asian theatre of World War II can be thought of as a continuation of the Second Sino-Japanese war, which had its origins in the Japanese incursion into Manchuria in 1931 and began in earnest with the onset of total war in 1937. It is a popular misconception that the Japanese conquered much of China with ease – although the Chinese (who were already fragmented by the rift between the nationalist Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party) initially suffered devastating defeats at Shanghai and Nanjing, they were able to mitigate these tactical losses into a strategic stalemate in which land was essentially traded for time. This non-committal, scorched earth policy proved costly for the Japanese, and it was soon apparent that the 145,925 square mile country did not have enough natural resources to sustain such a massive military operation. The atrocities of the Japanese military in Nanjing and elsewhere also turned Western opinion against Japan, and supplies from the United States, United Kingdom, and France began to make their way to China.
In response, the Japanese invaded French Indochina in 1940 in an effort to blockade China’s supply routes. This prompted the Western allies to place an embargo on crucial exports, particularly oil and metal, that the Japanese relied on for their war effort. At this point, the Japanese were forced into two decisions: they had to either appease the Allies by withdrawing from China, or look to conquer European colonial territories that were rich in natural resources. Prior to the war, an attempted coup by the Japanese military had effectively given the military control over foreign policy, and under their jurisdiction there would be no peace with China. Thus, the inevitable continuation of the war with China and the economic sanctions imposed by the United States left no option for Japan but to invade the oil and metal-rich Dutch East Indies. The problem was that the American-controlled Philippines and British-controlled Malaya lay between Japan and the Dutch colonies, and any attempt to land troops on the Dutch East Indies would be threatened by a flank from the Western navies. Japan was in an untenable position, and launching a pre-emptive strike on Pearl Harbor and other Anglo-American holdings in the Pacific was the only possible way to reconcile this problem, no matter how ludicrous it appeared to be.
On a strategic level, the Japanese naval command understood the threat of the American military-industrial complex and recognized that simultaneous victory over China, the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands was not possible. Their naval doctrine was to form a defensive perimeter of islands where land-based aircraft could compensate for Japanese inferiorities in fleet size and industrial output. Japanese naval command also held the belief that the Pacific War would be determined by one decisive battleship engagement, an obsolete idea that had persisted from Japanese naval victories in the 1904 – 1905 Russo-Japanese War. Thus, the military objectives of the Pearl Harbor operation were to buy time for the Japanese to secure and build land-based airbases throughout the Pacific and to deal as much damage as possible to the U.S. battleship fleet.
Ultimately, the goal was not complete victory over the United States, but rather a military and diplomatic situation in which the Japanese could continue their enterprises in Southeast Asia without risking all-out war. Even if the Japanese objective was to achieve military dominance and prevent U.S. entry into the war, the attack failed spectacularly (and was doomed to do so) because 1) aircraft carriers and, to a lesser extent, submarines ended up being the most decisive combatants in the war, 2) American industrial output easily shrugged off the losses sustained from the raid, and 3) both American foreign policy and public opinion were far from isolationist by 1941, and there was no possibility that Roosevelt would not declare war on Japan.