Japan Begins Attacks on Southeast Asia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A surprise attack by the Japanese Imperial Army was successful, resulting in the capture of the Philippines, the Netherlands Indies, Malaya, and most of Burma.

Summary of Event

In the 1930’s, the Imperial Japanese Army, controlled by Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, developed long-range plans for the domination of all of Asia by the Japanese Empire. These plans entailed expelling the European colonial powers from the continent. In December of 1941, the Japanese military launched simultaneous attacks on a wide range of geographical targets under the control of the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. Categorizing their aggression under the appellation of the Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere[Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere] Anticolonial movements , the Japanese told the colonial subjects of the three Western countries that the Japanese army had liberated Burma, Malaya, the Netherlands Indies (now Indonesia), and the Philippine Islands from domination by the white race. Thenceforth, “Asia would be for the Asians.” World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Pacific theater Southeast Asia, Japanese occupation of World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Philippines campaign World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Indonesian campaign World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Malayan campaign [kw]Japan Begins Attacks on Southeast Asia (Dec. 7, 1941) [kw]Attacks on Southeast Asia, Japan Begins (Dec. 7, 1941) [kw]Southeast Asia, Japan Begins Attacks on (Dec. 7, 1941) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Pacific theater Southeast Asia, Japanese occupation of World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Philippines campaign World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Indonesian campaign World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Malayan campaign [g]Southeast Asia;Dec. 7, 1941: Japan Begins Attacks on Southeast Asia[00370] [g]Philippines;Dec. 7, 1941: Japan Begins Attacks on Southeast Asia[00370] [g]Burma;Dec. 7, 1941: Japan Begins Attacks on Southeast Asia[00370] [g]Indonesia;Dec. 7, 1941: Japan Begins Attacks on Southeast Asia[00370] [c]World War II;Dec. 7, 1941: Japan Begins Attacks on Southeast Asia[00370] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 7, 1941: Japan Begins Attacks on Southeast Asia[00370] Tojo, Hideki Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;World War II military leadership[World War 02 military] Yamashita, Tomoyuki

The Japanese army and navy demonstrated strategy, tactics, and fanatical courage in defeating their rivals. All of their military units were well trained and in splendid condition. Moreover, many were veterans of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). In contrast, the troops of the colonial powers—the United States United States;colonial possessions , Great Britain, British Empire;World War II and the Netherlands Netherlands;colonial possessions —were ill prepared, poorly armed, and taken completely by surprise by the Japanese attack. The colonials proved to be incapable of withstanding the invading forces for any length of time.

The British surrendered to the inferior numbers of their enemy in Malaya. On December 7, General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s Twenty-fifth Army went ashore on the Kra Isthmus in northwestern Malaya and quickly ran the length of the peninsula, often using bicycles to move down the jungle paths until they reached Singapore itself. On February 7 the city surrendered and more than 100,000 British prisoners fell into Japanese hands.

Burmese resistance proved to be ineffective as well. General Shoyin Ida’s Ida, Shoyin Fifteenth Army quickly overran most of Burma. Both British general Harold Alexander, leading an army of British and Indian troops, and American general Joseph Stillwell, commanding an army of Chinese Nationals, had to retreat to India in the face of the ferocious Japanese attack.

The colonial forces of the Dutch in the East Indies also proved to be no match for the invaders. As was the case in Malaya, the Dutch troops, numbering more than 100,000, surrendered to a Japanese army group one-fourth their size. The Dutch colonial army was composed mostly of native Indonesians, who were convinced by the motto of “Asia for the Asians” and saw little reason to fight the Japanese. The single entirely Dutch division in the East Indies was not well equipped, nor large enough, to prevent the Japanese from capturing the capital, Java. At the same time, in a naval battle on the Java Sea, the Japanese defeated a combined force of American and Dutch warships, ensuring the Japanese capture of their last major economic objective, the oil fields of the Netherlands Indies.

The Philippine Island campaign proved to be a tougher challenge for the Japanese. After some initial successes, the Imperial Army found itself tied down in a lengthy struggle against the combined American and Filipino forces on the Bataan Peninsula. It was not until May 27, 1942, that the Japanese could finally announce a victory. In the interim between the hostilities on Bataan and the ultimate surrender of the American and Filipino soldiers, General Douglas MacArthur MacArthur, Douglas [p]MacArthur, Douglas;World War II , their commander, had been ordered to leave the Philippines by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He escaped to Australia and assumed the role of the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in the southwest Pacific.

In addition to the vital oil supply, the Japanese Empire now had quantities of rice, rubber, tin ore, cotton, and sugar to be taken from its recent conquests, providing the wherewithal to feed its war machine. At this point, the Japanese had reached the apex of their Southeast Asian military campaign. However, the Japanese concept of the Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere turned out to be a myth. The people of the colonies now under their control learned quickly not only that their new masters were worse to deal with than the previous colonial officials but also that the Japanese occupiers were stripping the wealth of the islands and sending it back to Japan. So much of the agricultural produce of the islands was seized that serious food shortages developed.

Moreover, the Japanese had not planned for the development of an administrative section to supervise and govern their newly acquired properties. Management ended up in the hands of the Imperial Army, almost by default. Local commanders were given full license to administer the occupation. Many officers literally turned their troops loose on the local peoples. As a result, physical abuse, theft, and insults became the regular fare for the locals. Soon, the initial approach of freedom and cooperation promised under the Coprosperity Sphere turned to one of exploitation. The population came to hate their Japanese overlords who starved, beat, tortured, and often murdered their charges. Underground resistance on the part of the former colonists began and continued throughout the war, seriously affecting the transfer of goods to the home islands.

Troops marching through Pandu Ghat on their way to Myithyina, Burma, in October, 1944.

(National Archives)

Japan’s operations in the Philippines demonstrated its ineptitude in managing the countries that it conquered. Initially, the government believed that if it planted a local puppet infrastructure composed of native Filipinos and announced its intention to grant the islands “independence,” the Philippines would be controllable and would provide a wide variety of raw materials for the Japanese war machine. However, the harsh rule of the military, combined with the complete lack of control by commanders over the depredations of their troops in dealing with the local citizenry, resulted in the formation of Filipino guerrilla groups. Not only did such groups make it more difficult to exploit the resources of the Philippines, but they also meant that Japan was required to commit more troops to the occupation, leaving fewer to fight the war. In the three and one-half years of occupation, the conquerors managed to alienate most of the Filipino population. The same conditions developed, albeit to a lesser degree, throughout the occupied territories.


President Roosevelt, earlier in 1941, had demanded that Japan leave China or face restrictions on U.S. exports of critical supplies needed by the Asian nation, such as aviation fuel, lubricating oil, and heavy melting scrap. Faced with this threat, Hideki Tojo’s government, dominated by its military clique, opted to begin the island nation’s conquest of Southeast Asian countries. Tojo and his military supporters saw Burma, the Philippines, Malaya, and the Netherlands Indies as potential sources for the raw materials they required to continue the Imperial Army and Navy’s operations. For this plan to work, however, Japan had to control the entire Pacific Ocean, which required the elimination of the American naval presence there. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on the same day it attacked Southeast Asia.

In the first few months following its attacks, Japan was able to exploit the resources of the conquered nations. However, as the war continued, the United States was able to reestablish its Pacific naval power. The Japanese had been right to believe that they could not operate with impunity if the U.S. Navy sought to prevent them from doing so: U.S. naval operations successfully interdicted Japan’s supply line between Southeastern Asia and the home islands of the empire. Ultimately, Japan’s plan for Southeast Asia failed as a result American military pressure, as well as the internal opposition of the local populations. Ironically, however, the specious promises made by Japan to forestall indigenous resistance to the occupation were fulfilled. The Southeast Asian colonies that Japan occupied during the World War II were able to achieve their independence from their colonial masters in the global decolonization that followed the end of the war. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Pacific theater Southeast Asia, Japanese occupation of World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Philippines campaign World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Indonesian campaign World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Malayan campaign

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoyt, Edwin P. Japan’s War: The Great Pacific Conflict. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001. Hoyt, a former soldier and a historian of World War II, utilizes the official 101-volume, Japanese-language history of the war to provide a careful and accurate assessment of the Japanese viewpoint on the conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ienaga, Saburo. The Pacific War, 1931-1945. New York: Random House, 1978. A Japanese college professor, Dr. Ienaga is a committed pacifist and opponent of his country’s rearmament. He furnishes a detailed analysis of the Japanese domestic experience during World War II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. New York: Random House, 1970. The author’s wife is Japanese, and she aided him with interviews of Japanese participants and survivors, as well as in his review of a massive amount of stenographic notes, transcripts, and a variety of other official records.

World War II: Pacific Theater

Bombing of Pearl Harbor

Canada Declares War on Japan

Japan Invades the Philippines

Battle of the Java Sea

Thai-Burma Railway Is Completed with Forced Labor

Central Pacific Offensive

Battle of the Philippine Sea

Categories: History