Fighting On Empty

TEN MONTHS BEFORE IT was to bomb Pearl Harbor, Japan's economic planning was still in disarray, astonishing considering how difficult the struggle would be against the financial and resources power of the United States. Shipping was just one of the problems. The Japanese military required so many vessels to maintain supplies for its army in China — in the first half of 1939 some 1.6 million gross tons, about thirty per cent of the Japanese merchant fleet, was monopolised by the military to ship troops and equipment to the Chinese theatre and also supplying Japanese forces up the Yangtze River — that it left Tokyo with insufficient numbers of merchantmen to maintain its foreign trade and, consequently, maintain its earnings of foreign exchange. But this foreign exchange imperative, and the need to conserve spending as the scope of the war effort widened, also worked against chartering of foreign vessels to fill its trade gap.

Japan as an island nation faced a similar marine logistics challenge to that of Britain, yet its merchant marine was less than one-third the size of Britain's. Nor could Japan turn to foreign-flagged vessels to help: the numbers of those plying routes across the Pacific was diminishing due to the war in Europe. The British had declared Danish vessels to be belligerents because of Copenhagen's decision not to resist the Wehrmacht, and the U.S. took more than thirty of those ships into protective custody. Italian and German cargo ships also were withdrawn or seized. The Royal Navy's blockade of German-occupied France also meant French vessels were bottled up in their home ports, or unable to reach them. In February 1941, it was reported by the Christian Science Monitor that a shortage of shipping was impeding timber exports from the Canadian province of British Columbia. Japanese companies still owned some 500 million feet of standing timber at the northern end of Vancouver Island but their shortages of money and ships was expected to lead them to sell off the timber into the domestic market.

How do you contemplate becoming part of a world war when you do not even have enough electric power to support your domestic manufacturing industry? Well, apparently, you could if you were running Japan in 1939. Power rationing had to be introduced in 1939 when chemical and metallurgical plants were not able to get enough electricity. The shortages were caused by inadequate coal supplies. In late January 1940, Associated Press reported to the world that industrial centres in fourteen Japanese prefectures were at a standstill apart from those plants producing urgently needed supplies for the front in China. Coal shortages had meant power plants in Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto and elsewhere had shut down, leaving three million factory workers idle. Even when mines could produce the coal, they often faced delays moving it to customers due to the fact that Japanese railways and merchant shipping was already congested shifting needed supplies for the war in China. Even electric clocks in railway stations were switched off. (It did not help, either, that Japan's hydro-electric stations were operating far below capacity due to drought.)

At the time, American commentators were watching, astounded, at Japan's coal problems, with production in 1939 seen by them as having fallen about fifteen per cent on the 1938 output figure. That year the newspaper Japan Advertiser told its readers that one coal mine had been closed because its machinery had been idled due to a broken bearing, and the company was still waiting to get a replacement part. There was also intense competition for what mining machinery was being made as Japanese companies producing coal in Manchukuo and North China were also demanding equipment. The coal supply situation just before Japan went to war with the United States was further exacerbated by the fact that the mines in Manchukuo were not producing sufficient quantities to meet industrial needs in areas of China controlled by Japan, let alone to ship much to Japan.

Then there was the critical matter of oil supply.