Why Japan Really Lost The War


It's no secret that Japan was, shall we say, 'economically disadvantaged' in her ability to wage war against the Allies. However, the sheer, stunning magnitude of this economic disparity has never ceased to amaze me. So, just go give you an idea of the magnitude of the mismatch here, I decided to compile a few statistics. Most of them are taken from Paul Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" (which, among other things, contains an excellent analysis of the economic forces at work in World War II, and is an all-around great book) and John Ellis' "World War II: A Statistical Survey." In this comparison I will focus primarily on the two chief antagonists in the Pacific War: Japan and the United States. They say that economics is the 'Dismal Science'; you're about to see why....


By the time World War II began to rear its ugly head (formally in 1939 in Poland, informally in China in 1937), America had been in the grips of the Great Depression for a decade, give or take. The net effect of the Depression was to introduce a lot of 'slack' into the U.S. economy. Many U.S. workers were either unemployed (10 million in 1939) or underemployed, and our industrial base as a whole had far more capacity than was needed at the time. In economic terms, our 'Capacity Utilization' (CapU), was pretty darn low. To an outside culture, particularly a militaristic one such as Japan's, America certainly might have appeared to be 'soft' and unprepared for a major war. Further, Japan's successes in fighting far larger opponents (Russia in the early 1900's, and China in the 1930's) and the fact that Japan's own economy was practically 'superheating' (mostly as the result of unhealthy levels of military spending -- 28% of national income in 1937) probably filled the Japanese with a misplaced sense of economic and military superiority over their large overseas foe. However, a dispassionate observer would also note a few important facts. America, even in the midst of seemingly interminable economic doldrums, still had:

Nearly twice the population of Japan.
Seventeen time's Japan's national income.
Five times more steel production.
Seven times more coal production.
Eighty (80) times the automobile production.

Furthermore, America had some hidden advantages that didn't show up directly in production figures. For one, U.S. factories were, on average, more modern and automated than those in Europe or in Japan. Additionally, American managerial practice at that time was the best in the world. Taken in combination, the per capita productivity of the American worker was the highest in the world. Furthermore, the United States was more than willing to utilize American women in the war effort: a tremendous advantage for us, and a concept which the Axis Powers seem not to have grasped until very late in the conflict. The net effect of all these factors meant that even in the depths of the Depression, American war-making potential was still around seven times larger than Japan's, and had the 'slack' been taken out in 1939, it was closer to nine or ten times as great! In fact, accroding to Kennedy, a breakdown of total global warmaking potential in 1937 looks something like this:

Country % of Total Warmaking Potential
United States 41.7%
Germany 14.4%
USSR 14.0%
UK 10.2%
France 4.2%
Japan 3.5%
Italy 2.5%
Seven Powers (total) (90.5%)

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the sleeping giant was awakened and came looking for trouble. And even though the majority of America's war-making potential was slated for use against Germany (which was by far the most dangerous of the Axis foes, again for reasons of economics), there was still plenty left over for use against Japan. By mid-1942, even before U.S. force of arms was being dramatically felt globally, American factories were nevertheless beginning to make a material effect in the war's progress. The U.S. churned out seemingly endless quantities of equipment and provision which were then funnelled to not only our own forces, but to those of Great Britain and the USSR as well. By 1944, most of the other powers in the war, though still producing furiously, were beginning to max out their economies (i.e. production was stabilizing or plateauing). This resulted from destruction of industrial bases and constriction of resource pools (in the case of Germany and Japan), or through sheer exhaustion of manpower (in the case of Great Britain and, to an extent, the USSR). By contrast, the United States suffered from none of these difficulties, and as a consequence its economy grew at an annual rate of 15% throughout the war years. As scary as it sounds, by the end of the war, the United States was really just beginning to get 'warmed up.' It is perhaps not surprising that in 1945, the U.S. accounted for over 50% of total global GNP.

War Production

What, then, were the concrete outputs, in terms of 'beans and bullets', of the two competing industrial bases? I have presented some statistics on this matter in the following tables. I start with naval vessels, because they were a very important index of power in the Pacific War.

Warship Production
United States CV/CVL/CVE BB CA/CL DD Escorts Subs Japan CV/CVL/CVE BB CA/CL DD Escorts Subs
1941 - 2 1 2 - 2 1941 6 1 - - ? -
1942 18 4 8 82 - 34 1942 4 1 4 10 ? 61
1943 65 2 11 128 298 55 1943 2 - 3 12 ? 37
1944 45 2 14 74 194 81 1944 5 - 2 24 ? 39
1945 13 - 14 63 6 31 1945 - - - 17 ? 30
Total 141 10 48 349 498 203 Total 17 2 9 63 ? 167
[Key: CV/CVL/CVE = Aircraft Carriers of all kinds; BB = Battleship; CA/CL= Heavy Cruiser, Light Cruiser; DD =Destroyer; Escorts = Destroyer escorts, frigates, sloops and corvettes]

A couple of points need to made here. First, the majority of the carriers listed in the U.S. totals were 'Jeep' carriers, CVEs carrying a couple dozen aircraft and suitable mostly for escort duties rather than front-line combat (which didn't subtract a whit from their effectiveness as antisubmarine or ground-support platforms). But it should also be noted that the American CVs on average operated substantially larger air wings than their Japanese counterparts (80-90 vs. 60-70 aircraft). The net result; by 1944, when Task Force 38 or 58 (depending on whether Halsey or Spruance was in charge of the main American carrier force at the moment) came to play, they could be counted upon to bring nearly a thousand combat aircraft with them. That kind of power projection capability was crucial to winning the war -- we could literally bring more aircraft to the party than any island air base could put up in its own defense, as the neutralization of both Truk and the Marshall Islands attests.

The other important figure here is the DD/Escort totals. Japan, an island empire totally dependent on maintaining open sea lanes to ensure her raw material imports, managed to build just sixty-three DDs (some twenty or so of which would have been classified by the Allies as DEs) and an unspecified (and by my unofficial count, relatively small) number of 'escort' vessels. In the same time span, the US put some eight hundred forty-seven antisubmarine capable craft in the water! And that total doesn't even cover the little stuff like the armed yachts and subchasers we used off our Eastern seaboard against the German U-Boats. All in all, by the end of the war, American naval power was unprecedented. In fact, by 1945 the U.S. Navy was larger than every other navy in the world, combined!

The Pacific War was also very much a war of merchant shipping, in that practically everything needed to defend and/or assault the various island outposts of the Japanese Empire had to be transported across vast stretches of ocean. Japan also had to maintain her vital supply lanes to places like Borneo and Java in order to keep her industrial base supplied. A look at the relative shipbuilding output of the two antagonists is enlightening.

Merchant Ship Production (in tons)
Year United States Japan
1939 376,419 320,466
1940 528,697 293,612
1941 1,031,974 210,373
1942 5,479,766 260,059
1943 11,448,360 769,085
1944 9,288,156 1,699,203
1945 5,839,858 599,563
Total 33,993,230 4,152,361

Every time I look at these number, I just shake my head in amazement. The United States built more merchant shipping in the first four and a half months of 1943 than Japan put in the water in seven years. The other really interesting thing is that there was really no noticeable increase in Japanese merchant vessel building until 1943, by which time it was already way too late to stop the bleeding. Just as with their escort building programs, the Japanese were operating under a tragically flawed national strategy that dictated that the war with the United States would be a short one. Again, the United States had to devote a lot of the merchant shipping it built to replace the losses inflicted by the German U-Boats. But it is no joke to say that we were literally building ships faster than anybody could sink them, and still have enough left over to carry mountains of material to the most God-forsaken, desolate stretches of the Pacific. Those Polynesian cargo cults didn't start for no reason, and it was American merchant vessels in their thousands which delivered the majority of this seemingly divinely profligate largesse to backwaters which had probably never seen so much as a can opener before.

Finally, no examination of the Pacific War would be complete without taking a look at air power. For all the talk of the Pacific War being a 'Carrier War', an aircraft carrier is really nothing more than a vehicle to deliver an airplane to an area of operations. While airplanes certainly couldn't take and hold islands by themselves, air supremacy was vital in ensuring that such bastions could be reduced and captured. Below is a table depicting the aircraft production of the two antagonists.

Aircraft Production
Year United States Japan
1939 5,856 4,467
1940 12,804 4,768
1941 26,277 5,088
1942 47,836 8,861
1943 85,898 16,693
1944 96,318 28,180
1945 49,761 8,263
Total 324,750 76,320

Again, a pretty staggering difference. Not only that, but as Paul Kennedy points out, the Allies were not only cranking out more planes, but many of them were of newer design as well, such as the new F4U Corsair and F6F Hellcat fighter aircraft. Japan, on the other hand, pretty much relied on variants of the Zero fighter throughout the war. The Zero was a brilliant design in many respects, but by 1943 had clearly been surpassed by the newer American models. This pattern was repeated across every category of airplane in the two opposing arsenals. In addition, a large part of the American production total (some 97,810 units) was composed of multiengined (either two or four engines) bombers, whereas only 15,117 of the Japanese planes were bombers (which were universally two engine varieties). Thus, if one were to look at aircraft production in terms of total number of engines, total weight of aircraft produced, or total weight of combat payload, the differences in production would become even more pronounced.

Strategic Implications

So America had an advantage; so what? Well, as an example, let's take a moment to consider the importance of the Battle of Midway. Midway is often cited as the 'Turning Point in the Pacific', the 'Battle that Doomed Japan,' and a string of other stirring epithets. And there's no question that it broke the offensive capability of the Japanese Navy. The question I ask is: what difference would America's economic strength have made if the Americans had lost badly at the Battle of Midway? Let's take the worst case scenario (which, incidentally, was very unlikely, given our advantage of strategic surprise) in which a complete reversal of fortune occurs and the U.S. loses Enterprise, Yorktown, and Hornet, and Japan loses none of the four carriers which were present. After such a hypothetical battle, the balance of carrier forces available for Pacific duty would have looked like this:

Midway: Before and After American CVs / CVLs
(# of aircraft)
Total Ships / Total Aircraft Japanese CVs / CVLs
(# of aircraft)
Total Ships / Total Aircraft
Saratoga (88), Wasp (in Atlantic) (76), Enterprise (85), Yorktown (85), Hornet (85) 5 CV

Kaga (90), Akagi (91), Soryu (71), Hiryu (73), Zuikaku (84), Shokaku (84), Ryujo (38), Zuiho (30) 6 CV

Saratoga (88), Wasp (in Atlantic) (76), Enterprise (85), Hornet (85) 4 CV

Zuikaku (84), Shokaku (84), Ryujo (38), Zuiho (30) 2 CV

Saratoga (88), Wasp (76) 2 CV

Kaga (90), Akagi (91), Soryu (71), Hiryu (73), Zuikaku (84), Shokaku (84), Ryujo (38), Zuiho (30) 6 CV


The question is, would losing Midway really have mattered? How long would it have taken America's shipyards to make good the difference and dig us out of the hole? Let's find out. We'll take the table just presented above and extend it out until the end of the war (in 6-month increments). Here are the assumptions I'll use while doing so:

I am only including carriers which were capable of conducting fleet operations. In practice, this means the vessel must be capable of speeds of 28 knots or more and be able to both launch and recover conventional aircraft. That leaves Junyo, Hiyo, Ryuho and the converted Mogami, Ise, and Hyuga out of the picture. [Yes, I know the Japanese tried to use Junyo, Hiyo, and Ryuho with Combined Fleet, and they had some limited success. But they also were either too slow and mechanically unreliable, or too structurally unsound (in the case of Ryuho) to be really useful to the Combined Fleet. Furthermore, we used our little CVEs all the time in combat areas, and some of them participated heavily in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Not only that, we also had the older but still somewhat capable Ranger available for refit as well. So, if you want Hiyo, Junyo, and Ryuho in the picture, you really have to count Ranger and all those American CVEs, too, and that adds about a zillion (i.e. 2,000+) planes to the American totals. I just didn't feel like messing with all that, so I didn't. The point is clear enough without including the marginal players.]
A carrier could be placed in combat within three months of its completion date.
The war will probably last longer, so I am extending the build totals into the first half of 1946
As part of the longer war scenario, I further assume that the Japanese and Americans complete some vessels which were discontinued late in the actual conflict. I have taken my best guess as to their likely completion dates under wartime conditions.

Here's how the numbers work out:

Date American CVs / CVLs
(# of aircraft)
(ships in bold indicate new builds)
Total Ships / Total Aircraft Japanese CVs / CVLs
(# of aircraft)
(ships in bold indicate new builds)
Total Ships / Total Aircraft
Saratoga (88), Wasp (76) 2 CV

Kaga (90), Akagi (91), Soryu (71), Hiryu (73), Zuikaku (84), Shokaku (84), Ryujo (38), Zuiho (30) 6 CV

Saratoga (88), Wasp (76), Essex (82), Independence (33), Princeton (33) 3CV

Kaga (90), Akagi (91), Soryu (71), Hiryu (73), Zuikaku (84), Shokaku (84), Ryujo (38), Zuiho (30) 6 CV

Saratoga (88), Wasp (76), Essex (91), Bunker Hill (91), Yorktown (91), Lexington II (91), Intrepid (91), Independence (33), Princeton (33), Belleau Wood (33), Cowpens (33), Monterey (33), Langley (33), Cabot (33) 7 CV

Kaga (90), Akagi (91), Soryu (71), Hiryu (73), Zuikaku (84), Shokaku (84), Ryujo (38), Zuiho (30) 6 CV

Saratoga (88), Wasp (76), Essex (91), Bunker Hill (91), Yorktown (91), Lexington (91), Wasp II (91), Intrepid (91), Hornet II (91), Franklin (91), Independence (33), Princeton (33), Belleau Wood (33), Cowpens (33), Monterey (33), Langley (33), Bataan (33), San Jacinto (33) 10 CV

Kaga (90), Akagi (91), Soryu (71), Hiryu (73), Zuikaku (84), Shokaku (84), Ryujo (38), Zuiho (30), Chiyoda (30), Chitose (30) 6 CV

Saratoga (88), Wasp (76), Essex (91), Bunker Hill (91), Yorktown (91), Lexington (91), Wasp (91), Intrepid (91), Hornet (91), Franklin (91), Ticonderoga (91), Hancock (91), Bennington (91), Shangri-La (91), Independence (33), Princeton (33), Belleau Wood (33), Cowpens (33), Monterey (33), Langley (33), Bataan (33), San Jacinto (33) 14 CV

Kaga (90), Akagi (91), Soryu (71), Hiryu (73), Zuikaku (84), Shokaku (84), Taiho (60), Unryu (65), Amagi (65), Ryujo (38), Zuiho (30), Chiyoda (30), Chitose (30) 9 CV

Saratoga (88), Wasp (76), Essex (91), Bunker Hill (91), Yorktown (91), Lexington (91), Wasp (91), Intrepid (91), Hornet (91), Franklin (91), Ticonderoga (91), Hancock (91), Bennington (91), Shangri-La (91), Bon Homme Richard (91), Randolph (91), Antietam (91), Independence (33), Princeton (33), Belleau Wood (33), Cowpens (33), Monterey (33), Langley (33), Bataan (33), San Jacinto (33) 17 CV

Kaga (90), Akagi (91), Soryu (71), Hiryu (73), Zuikaku (84), Shokaku (84), Taiho (60), Unryu (65), Shinano (45), Amagi (65), Katsuragi (65), Ryujo (38), Zuiho (30), Chiyoda (30), Chitose (30) 11 CV

Saratoga (88), Wasp (76), Essex (91), Bunker Hill (91), Yorktown (91), Lexington (91), Wasp (91), Intrepid (91), Hornet (91), Franklin (91), Ticonderoga (91), Hancock (91), Bennington (91), Shangri-La (91), Bon Homme Richard (91), Randolph (91), Antietam (91), Coral Sea (120), Lake Champlain (91), Boxer (91), Independence (33), Princeton (33), Belleau Wood (33), Cowpens (33), Monterey (33), Langley (33), Bataan (33), San Jacinto (33) 20 CV

Kaga (90), Akagi (91), Soryu (71), Hiryu (73), Zuikaku (84), Shokaku (84), Taiho (60), Unryu (65), Shinano (45), Amagi (65), Katsuragi (65), Kasagi (?) (65), Ryujo (38), Zuiho (30), Chiyoda (30), Chitose (30), Ibuki (?) (27) 12 CV

Saratoga (88), Wasp (76), Essex (91), Bunker Hill (91), Yorktown (91), Lexington (91), Wasp (91), Intrepid (91), Hornet (91), Franklin (91), Ticonderoga (91), Hancock (91), Bennington (91), Shangri-La (91), Bon Homme Richard (91), Randolph (91), Antietam (91), Lake Champlain (91), Boxer (91), Kearsarge (91), Princeton II (91), Oriskany (91), Tarawa (91), Coral Sea (120), Franklin Roosevelt (120), Independence (33), Princeton (33), Belleau Wood (33), Cowpens (33), Monterey (33), Langley (33), Bataan (33), San Jacinto (33) 25 CV

Kaga (90), Akagi (91), Soryu (71), Hiryu (73), Zuikaku (84), Shokaku (84), Taiho (60), Unryu (65), Shinano (45), Amagi (65), Katsuragi (65), Kasagi (?) (65), Aso (?) (65), Ikoma (?) (65), Ibuki (?) (27), Ryujo (38), Zuiho (30), Chiyoda (30), Chitose (30) 14 CV


In other words, even if it had lost catastrophically at the Battle of Midway, the United States Navy still would have broken even with Japan in carriers and naval air power by about September 1943. Nine months later, by the middle of 1944, the U.S. Navy would have enjoyed a nearly two-to-one superiority in carrier aircraft capacity! Not only that, but with her newer, better aircraft designs, the U.S. Navy would have enjoyed not only a substantial numeric, but also a critical qualitative advantage as well, starting in late 1943. All this is not to say that losing the Battle of Midway would not have been a serious blow to American fortunes! For instance, the war would almost certainly have been protracted if the U.S. had been unable to mount some sort of a credible counter-stroke in the Solomons during the latter half of 1942. Without carrier-based air power of some sort there would not have been much hope of doing so, meaning that we would most likely have lost the Solomons. However, the long-term implications are clear: the United States could afford to make good losses that the Japanese simply could not. Furthermore, this comparison does not reflect the fact that the United States actually slowed down its carrier building program in late 1944, as it became increasingly evident that there was less need for them. Had the U.S. lost at Midway, it seems likely that those additional carriers (3 Midway-class and 6 more Essex-Class CVs, plus the Saipan-class CVLs) would have been brought on line more quickly. In a macro-economic sense, then, the Battle of Midway was really a non-event. There was no need for the U.S. to seek a single, decisive battle which would 'Doom Japan' -- Japan was doomed by its very decision to make war.

The final evidence of this economic mismatch lies in the development of the Atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project required an enormous commitment on the part of the United States. And as Paul Kennedy states, "...it was the United States alone which at this time had the productive and technological resources not only to wage two large-scale conventional wars but also to invest the scientists, raw materials, and money (about $2 billion) in the development of a new weapon which might or might not work." In other words, our economy was so dominant that we knew we could afford to fund one of the greatest scientific endeavors in history largely from the 'leftovers' of our war effort! Whatever one may think morally or strategically about the usage of nuclear weapons against Japan, it is clear that their very development was a demonstration of unprecedented economic strength.


In retrospect, it is difficult to comprehend how Japan's leadership managed to rationalize their way around the economic facts when they contemplated making war on the U.S. After all, these were not stupid men. Indeed, internal Imperial Navy studies conducted in 1941 showed exactly the trends in naval shipbuilding I have outlined above. In the end, however, the Tojo government chose the path of aggression, compelled by internal political dynamics which made the prospect of a general Japanese disengagement in China (which was the only means by which the American economic embargo would have been lifted) too humiliating a course to be taken. Consequently, the Japanese embarked on what can only be described as a suicidal venture, against an overwhelmingly large foe. However, their greatest mistake was not just disregarding the economic muscle which lay partially dormant on the other side of the Pacific. In actuality, their chief error lay in misreading the will of the American people. When the American giant awoke, it did not lapse into despair as a result of the defeats that Japan had inflicted upon it. Rather, it awoke in a rage, and applied every ounce of its tremendous strength with a cold, methodical fury against its foe. The grim price Japan paid -- 1.8 million military casualties, the complete annihilation of its military, a half million or so civilians killed, and the utter destruction of practically every major urban area within the Home Islands -- bears mute testimony to the folly of its militarist leaders.