Pearl Harbor Day Dec 7: Japan lived in 'infamy' ever after

Japan was blamed for unprecedented diplomatic folly attacking Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 without proper declaration of war, forcing US into World War Two

Now that December 7 Pear Harbor attack will be remembered throughout, Japan will strive to ward off the unprecedented diplomatic failure with repeated apologies and its leaders may visit the Pearl Harbor to subdue the rage over its World War Two adventure 78 years ago. However, the day remains a lesson in diplomacy to avert a world war.

Pearl Harbor, the US Naval base in the Pacific, was attacked by Japan on December 7 (ET), 1941 killing thousands of unprepared US sailors without proper 'announcement of war' and the unilateral attack forced a neutral nation plunge into World War Two, eventually winning the war for Allies.

Events preceding Pearl Harbor attack

Though forgotten on both sides of the Pacific, the events of the first week of December in 1941 vividly reflect the folly as Japanese ambassador failed to hand over war declaration to Washington DC on time. The Pearl Harbor attack on December 7 failed to precede the obligatory declaration of war. Ever since, the US blamed Japan for the folly that many Japan historians apologetically kept under wraps.

Pearl harbor attack

Prior to Pearl Harbor attack, Japan had, in fact, sent a diplomatic message announcing the cancellation of ongoing bilateral negotiations with the United States, which it maintained would have amounted to declaration of war. Even this message was scheduled to be handed over just 30 minutes before the actual attack was planned on Pearl Harbor. It would have left no time for the US naval base to prepare an effective retaliation.

Translation behind the delay?

While the raison d'être remains unrevealed, Kichisaburo Nomura, the Japanese ambassador in Washington DC blamed it on the lengthy 5000-word document as it took longer time to transcribe and hence, he was able to hand it over officially 'one hour' after the Pear Harbor attack took place. While some historians initially cited the time difference of one-day on either side of the Pacific for the confusion but it failed to convince many. On Pearl Harbor, it was December 7 while for Japan, it was December 8.

Pearl harbor attack
An officer on the Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku watches as planes take off to attack Pearl Harbor. The Kanji inscription at left is a commander order to pilots to do their duty to destroy (the enemy). Reuters

Washington DC refused to consider the message consisting annulment of negotiations as 'actual' declaration of war, but Japan insisted that the final part of the message was a declaration of war. It read:"The Japanese Government regrets to have to notify hereby the American Government that in view of the attitude of the American Government it cannot but consider that it is impossible to reach an agreement through further negotiations." No mention of war nor any escalation of hostilities inserted in the document.

Dec 7 will live in infamy

It was almost 60 years later, a Japanese historian Prof. Takeo Iguchi of the International Christian University in Tokyo, who discovered documents which revealed the conflicting view in the form of a December 7 entry in the war diary. "The diary shows that the army and navy did not want to give any proper declaration of war, or indeed prior notice even of the termination of negotiations ... and they clearly prevailed," said Iguchi, capping the controversy forever.

Pearl harbor attack
The forward magazine of the destroyer USS Shaw explodes during the second Japanese attack wave on Pearl Harbor. Reuters

Otherwise, the Japanese attack took place in two waves and 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 wounded. In all, 18 ships were sunk or run aground, including five battleships, as per the war records. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it as the day "which will live in infamy," and so it remains in human history.