Pen#5 The Art of Waiting: How Japan Could Have Won the War

By Henk Warnar

Too often debates on the Pacific Theatre of War in WWII primarily focus on analysing the Battles of the Coral Sea (May 1942), Midway (June 1942) or Guadalcanal (Aug – Dec 1942), deepening agreement of these battles as ‘the turning point’ of the war. These comparisons reflect discussions that took place within the Japanese forces on its strategy; should it expand in a westerly (Indian Ocean), southernly (Australia) or Easterly (Hawaii) direction? Which chain of islands would best support a sustainable defence of the Japanese Empire? The Japanese focussed too much on detailed geographic decision points that obscured the essence of strategy. Their strategy should have instead consisted of defining a coherent logic for the application of Japan’s military capabilities through a set of principles to guide responses to opportunities provided by the opponent, instead of a pre-scripted sequence of actions. 

The logic of the Japanese quest seems to be defined in geographical terms. This is somewhat understandable in the Pacific theatre, with huge distances, straits that are difficult to defend and vast sea lines of communications. The rising importance of airpower made physical space even more important. Land based aircraft required a network of airfields so naval manoeuvring under an umbrella of airpower resulted in island hopping campaigns, pushing vital air cover farther forward. 

Pacific Strategy Map (Source: National WWII Museum, New Orleans)

As Evans and Peattie demonstrate in their seminal work on the Japanese Navy, this approach could not yield a defendable bastion for the empire. Japan could not decide whether or not to fortify the Marshall or Mariana Islands. Distances between the islands were too large to provide effective support to both.[1]Evans, D. C., & Peattie, M. (2015). Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941. Naval Institute Press. pp465-7. Plans to attack or expand in one direction would lead to insufficient defence of the opposing flanks. The number of forces was insufficient to defend such an expansive archipelagic perimeter. Arguably, a smaller defensive circle, centred around Borneo and Sumatra, would have been sustainable. It would require fewer forces and still safeguard the strategic objective of oil supply from those islands. This approach would have validated views held by the Japanese Army but were unacceptable. Not only would the IJN’s role be marginalised, but they also understood that the Dutch East Indies campaign would make war with the United States inevitable.[2]Ibid, p455. This war would be a ferocious, protracted naval war in which the Philippines would be in the centre of a wide theatre of war.

Yamamoto, Commander of the Combined Fleet, advocated another strategy. If the IJN’s logic above could be described as a strategy of geography, Yamamoto’s strategy was maritime in nature and focused on destroying America’s Centre of Gravity – its naval force. Naval operations are part of a maritime strategy that Corbett described as “the principles which govern a war in which the sea is a substantial factor”.[3]Corbett, J. S. (1988). Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (Annapolis, MD. Naval Institute Press, p15. Naval warfare is not about conquering or defending territory. Instead, it aims to ensure unhampered flow of resources via controlled lines of communications. Command of the Sea (CotS) enables defence against threats, bearing from any direction. To achieve CotS, favourable conditions need to be created in which forces are concentrated and the opponent is either seduced or forced into battle.      

Pearl Harbor and Midway were both battles that originated from this maritime strategy. In Pearl Harbor US battleships were caught by surprise and struck in port. The Battle of Midway consisted of seducing the US Navy into battle by threatening to invade the outer island in the Hawaiian island chain. This complex and detailed strategy should have reached its apotheosis through the destruction of the US fleet by three IJN battleships – including the largest battleship ever built, the Yamato. Unfortunately, the plan was leaked to the US and the American fleet did not follow the IJN’s script; they kept their battleships clear and set up a destructive counterattack by carrier and shore-based aircraft. Nevertheless, the IJN was far from defeated. Although initiative was lost, years of protracted attrition warfare would follow until the battle of Okinawa (March-July 1945) including large scale amphibious operations and the sinking of Yamato on April 7 after being attacked by more then 300 aircraft.    

The first year of the Pacific Campaign included switching between two conflicting strategies: geography and maritime. The initial strike on Pearl Harbor was queued by a maritime strategy that eliminated a substantial number of American battleships. Unfortunately for the Japanese, no US carriers were destroyed as they were at sea. The next moves were geographic in nature. The Dutch East Indies campaign (Jan-Feb 42) secured vital natural resources to sustain the war. Strikes against Darwin, Papua and the conquest of Rabaul (East of New Guinea, January 1942) secured a forward base. The US responded with raids by carrier aircraft and the Battle of the Coral Sea signified the first substantial obstruction to Japanese progress when they aborted their plan to land in Port Moresby (southern coast of Papua). Securing Port Moresby would have aided Japanese defence against attacks from Australia. These setbacks from the south helped Yamamoto gain support for a switch to his maritime-focussed Midway strategy. Midway’s objective was not to seize territory, but to lure the American fleet into destruction. When this failed, Japan’s expansionist focus switched back to geography-enabled operations in the south. Operation FS was initiated with the intent to attack the south easterly islands of Fiji, Samoa and New Caledonia in order to cut off American supply lines.

Building a Japanese airbase at Guadalcanal was part of this geography-focussed strategy as it would provide air coverage for south easterly expansion. However, American amphibious forces intervened and landed on August 7 1942 on the north easterly coast of Guadalcanal island, securing Henderson Airfield. Until the Japanese evacuation from the island in early February 1943, fierce fighting by ground, air and naval forces continued. The US could not allow its lines of communication to Australia to get cut off and Japan could not allow the Americans to gain the first stepping stone for their island hopping campaign to Tokyo. The American gained the victory by successfully breaching Japanese perimeter defences. From there the US had the initiative, forcing the Japanese into a protracted and defensive position until the end of the war.    


A strategy that switches between two divergent logics cannot provide sufficient concentration of effort and force to win a war.

A strategy that switches between two divergent logics cannot provide sufficient concentration of effort and force to win a war. The internal debates surrounding Japanese campaign planning resulted in the division of forces. The Naval General Staff (NGS) led by Admiral Nagano attributed only half of the eight IJN carriers to Yamamoto’s Midway operation fighting against three American carriers and Midway serving as a fourth aircraft operating base. Two IJN carriers were allocated to a competing operation near the Aleutians, on the northerly edge of the perimeter. Two carriers participated in the southern Battle of the Coral Sea during which, one of the two was lost and the other delayed, preventing participation in Midway. The lack of numerical superiority contributed to failure in each of those operations.

Parshall and Tully’s study on Midway provides an interesting insight into the Japanese planning debates prior to Midway.[4]Parshall, J. B., & Tully, A. P. (2005). Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. Potomac Books, Inc., pp34-6. During staff meetings on 2-5 April, arguments reflecting both conflicting strategies were exchanged by CDR Miyo (representing the NGS who advocated for operations in the south in order to secure territorial defence) and Captain Watanabe (representing Yamamoto advocating for a maritime strategy and a naval battle near Midway in the North East) in order to defeat the American Navy. Miyo’s objections made sense. Midway would force the Japanese fleet to operate outside their air umbrella (which provided vital self-defence and deterrence in all previous successful operations) and logistic supply to Midway would be unsustainable. Interestingly, they shared the same view on using a maritime strategy that aimed for a decisive battle with the American Navy. Miyo, however, argued that this logic could work much better in the south, close to Australia. American carrier operations in this southern area indicated American interest in keeping supply lines to Australia open. So chances to lure the US Navy into battle here would be much higher than in Midway area. Unfortunately, their decisions were not grounded in rationality or logic. Instead, Yamamoto’s ego and status that was built upon many successes at sea such as Pearl Harbor, allowed him to push through with his short-sighted plans. The NGS and Nagago, incapable of overruling Yamamoto allowed him to carry on but IJN-forces were divided into competing factions.      

Japanese battleship Yamato in WWII

The middle ground is infertile for ambitious military campaign plans. Imagine if the Japanese forces had unity of command and a logical, coherent strategy – Miyo may have been able to compel Watanabe. The loss of four IJN carriers in Midway would have been avoided and Yamamoto’s maritime strategy could have been applied to Guadalcanal. In such a scenario, Henderson airfield would not have been the objective but part of the method to destroy US Naval forces as the US’ key centre of gravity. This would be similar to Tojo’s approach when he used Port Arthur as bait, drawing the Russian fleet into a decisive battle and defeat at Tsushima in 1905. Although not recognised by the Japanese, the Americans were determined to succeed in Guadalcanal and were prepared for battle. Frank’s study highlights unexploited Japanese opportunities during the period mid-September to mid-October 1942 in which IJN combat readiness could have been higher.[5]Frank, R. B. (1992). Guadalcanal: the definitive account of the landmark battle. Penguin Group USA, p606. Full IJN concentration of forces, instead of just enough support to protect weekly Japanese supply convoys (Tokyo express) to the Japanese army fighting on Guadalcanal island, would have increased its numerical superiority. Imagine the psychological impact on America if the battleship Yamato served the purpose it had been built for and defeated the newly built battleships USS Washington and South Dakota, instead of acting as a Headquarters moored in the distant island of Truk. The global strategic situation was in favour of this scenario. The Allies had decided in May 1941 to concentrate the war effort on a Germany first strategy in accordance with war plan Rainbow 5. This would draw away naval forces from the Pacific theatre and a negotiated deal, as pursued by the IJN, would have been within reach.

Key in such a strategy is to wait and optimise your own manoeuvres in reaction to the adversary’s. Waiting in Japan’s situation was difficult as most agreed that time was short and a quick victory was needed before America’s military power reached its zenith. In this context, competing Japanese factions pushed for divergent plans and due to the absence of a coherent strategy, these plans were not mutually supportive. Japanese bureaucratic rivalry between army and navy prevented tactical awareness and led to an underestimation of the American forces in Guadalcanal. An opponent’s actions are difficult to predict. Strategy should not be so rigid that it is a script of the perceived future but should rather provide guiding principles to create advantageous conditions and respond to disadvantageous ones. A fighting force requires several tactical opportunities to achieve a single victory. Being fond of card games, Yamamoto must have understood these stochastic laws but domestic rivalry forced him to take ‘all in’ gambles.[6]Agawa, H., & Bester, J. (1982). The Reluctant Admiral: Yamamoto and the Imperial Navy. Kodansha Amer Inc. p229. Missed opportunities are unavoidable but losing ships is irreversible. So combat power should be used when the enemy presents the most favourable opportunity. As Corbett wrote, naval commanders need to be aggressive, but campaign design and orders need to reflect “restrained boldness.”[7]Corbett, p183.     

Interestingly these dynamics do not only contradict Confucian views – Sun Tzu highlighted the importance of understanding the enemy and the timing of a decisive blow[8]Griffith, S. B. (1963). Sun Tzu: The art of war (Vol. 39). London: Oxford University Press. –  but also contradict Japan’s traditional strategy based on the principle of ‘wait and react’.[9]Evans, D. C., & Peattie, p464.  Using this approach Japan would initially conduct gradual attrition (eg. by submarines), slowly degrading the opponent during its Pacific transit, waiting for a favourable moment of superiority at which a decisive battle could be achieved.[10]Koda, Y. (1993). A Commander’s Dilemma: Admiral Yamamoto and the” Gradual Attrition” Strategy. Naval War College Review46(4), pp63-74. ‘Waiting’ is not at odds with naval warfare theories. The essence of concepts such as ‘Fleet in Being’ is not ‘deterrence’ but ‘waiting’. Corbett understood that defence is the stronger form of war that could exploit the counter strike. He did not reject decisive battle but contrarily payed more analytical attention to the complex conditions to achieve it. Conditions of ‘elastic cohesion’, situational awareness and responsiveness are key elements.[11]Corbett, p132.  By studying Nelson’s fleet manoeuvres, Corbett recognised that his operational art consisted not only of fighting battles but also understanding and anticipating his opponent’s manoeuvres and clearly defining command aims grounded in his maritime strategy of sea control and trust in the Royal Navy’s discipline and fighting spirit. For some, this culminated in the way he seduced the French and Spanish fleets into battle at Trafalgar, but ultimately naval might could provide such a level of control that fighting itself may not even be necessary. Corbett understood the art of waiting.   

Henk Warnar is a Captain in the Royal Netherlands Navy and graduate of the US Naval War College, Newport RI. Henk currently serves as Associate Professor in Maritime Strategy at the Netherlands Defense Academy. He holds a Master’s degree in Public Administratrion from Leiden University, The Netherlands. 


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