Rome, Italy · October 8, 1941

Two months before Great Britain joined the United States in declaring war on Japan, Italian dictator Benito Mus­so­lini used this date in 1941 to blast the Japa­nese for not carrying their weight in the Tri­par­tite Pact, a poli­ti­cal, eco­no­mic, and mili­tary agree­ment that Italy, Ger­many, and Japan had signed the year before. Italy had declared war on Great Brit­ain and France on June 10, 1940, but Japan had not joined its treaty part­ners in declaring war on any of Ger­many’s and Italy’s ene­mies. Mus­so­lini assured Tokyo that the U.S. would not come to Brit­ain’s aid in the event of war between Japan and Brit­ain. If Japan failed to join the con­flict now, said Il Duce (Italian, “the leader”), no matter which side won, the loss to be sustained by Japan “will be great.”

The Japa­nese waited two more months before un­leashing a Blitz­krieg-style offen­sive against British and Amer­i­can in­ter­ests in the Asia Pacific region. The first steps they took against the Brit­ish occurred on December 8 when they bombed Singa­pore, the hugely impor­tant British base on the tip of the Malay Penin­sula, and sent ground forces from Thai­land (occupied Decem­ber 9) into the British colony of Burma (present-day Myan­mar) to threaten the British defense of India. Between Decem­ber 10 and 13, Japa­nese forces moving south from their ini­tial landings in Thailand secured major air­fields in the north of Malaya. On Decem­ber 16, 1941, the Japa­nese captured Victoria Point (today’s Kawthaung), a vital British air­field half­way up the Malay Penin­sula; in so doing they cut off aerial re­supply of local British forces. From Victoria Point, Japa­nese fighter air­craft were able to escort bombers on raids into South­ern Bur­ma, partic­u­larly against the Bur­mese capi­tal of Ran­goon (Yan­gon), 500 miles to the north­west. The Malayan capi­tal, Kuala Lum­pur, fell to the Japa­nese on Janu­ary 12, 1942, followed by Singa­pore a little over a month later and Burma’s capi­tal on March 8. By occu­py­ing French Indo­china and the states to the west, the Japa­nese were in a pre­eminent position in Southeast Asia.

In mid-Janu­ary 1942, Mus­so­lini with­drew his criti­cism of Japan when the three Axis powers re­newed their Tri­par­tite Pact in Ber­lin. The pact divided the globe into areas of opera­tion, and gave Japan com­plete free­dom of action in all areas from the Western Pacific to the western border of India (see map).

Axis Division of the World into Spheres of Operation and Influence

German/Italian and Japanese spheres of military control, 1942

Above: German/Italian and Japanese spheres of global reach. Arrows show planned move­ments of the three Axis powers, their occu­pied terri­tories, and spheres of in­flu­ence (red and tan) to the agreed demar­cation line at 70 degrees east longitude, which was the western frontier of British India.

Signing Tripartite Pact, Berlin, September 1940Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival negotiating surrender of Singapore, February 1942

Left: On September 27, 1940, the Axis Powers (Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy) grew by one when Japan’s am­bas­sa­dor Saburō Kurusu (left in photo), Italy’s foreign minis­ter Count Galeazzo Ciano (to Kurusu’s left), and Germany’s foreign minis­ter Joachim von Rib­ben­trop (standing at podium at right) signed the Tri­par­tite Pact. Adolf Hitler (slumping in his chair) wit­nessed the gala pro­ceedings. The treaty recog­nized the right of Ger­many and Italy to estab­lish a “new order” in Europe and of Japan to impose a “new order” in Asia (see map above). Inter­estingly, Kurusu was Japan’s “special envoy” to Washington, D.C., in the three-week run-up to Japan’s surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and American, British, and Dutch interests in South­east Asia. Kurusu had been sent from Tokyo to communi­cate to the Roosevelt administration his nation’s last best offer for peace in the region.

Right: Led by a Japanese officer, Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival walks under a flag of truce to nego­ti­ate the capit­u­la­tion of Com­mon­wealth forces in Singa­pore, Feb­ru­ary 15, 1942. The siege and the igno­min­i­ous sur­render of Singa­pore, Britain’s “Gibral­tar of the Orient,” to a much smaller Japa­nese force (36,000) was the greatest defeat in British mil­itary history. Over 80,000 Brit­ish, Aus­tra­lian, and Indian troops fell into Japa­nese hands. Im­pri­son­ment, torture, illness, and many, many deaths awaited the captured ones.

Western bankers escorted to Hong Kong detention center, December 1941Japanese troops advance through Kuala Lumpur, Malaya, January 1942

Left: The Japanese occupation of Hong Kong began on Decem­ber 25, 1941 (locally known as “Black Christ­mas”), after two-and-one-half weeks of fierce fighting against over­whelming Japa­nese forces that had invaded the British Crown colony. Hong Kong’s sur­render initi­ated almost four years of brutal Japa­nese admin­is­tra­tion. Some 7,000 Brit­ish, Cana­dian, and Indian sol­diers and civil­ians were kept in pri­soner-of-war or intern­ment camps, where famine, mal­nourish­ment, and sick­ness were per­va­sive. In this photo Japa­nese sol­diers escort Brit­ish, Amer­i­can, and Dutch bankers to deten­tion in a small Chi­nese hotel; some bankers were exe­cuted as ene­mies of Japan. The Japa­nese govern­ment sold the Hong Kong dollar to help finance their wartime economy.

Right: Japanese troops advance through the streets of Malaya’s capi­tal, Kuala Lum­pur. The Malayan Cam­paign lasted from Decem­ber 8, 1941, to Janu­ary 31, 1942. For the Brit­ish, Indian, Aus­tra­lian, and Malayan forces defending the colony, the cam­paign was a total dis­aster: 40,000 men were cap­tured, 5,500 killed, and 5,000 wounded. On the last day of January the last orga­nized Allied forces left Malaya for Singa­pore, which the Japa­nese in­vaded on Febru­ary 7, 1942. The Japa­nese com­pleted their conquest of the island on Febru­ary 15, capturing 80,000 more prisoners out of 85,000 Allied defenders.

Color Documentary of Asia Pacific War, 1937–1945, Using Contemporary Japanese and American Films