When playing as Japan in Axis and Allies, 2nd edition, should Japan attack Pearl Harbor on its first turn?

If so, why and what force structure do you use? Do your actions depend on what Russia and the UK have done on their first turn (e.g. heavily fortified Eastern Russia or build an Indian factory)? Do you press on with the attack no matter what or is there a point at which you'd cut your losses and retreat? If you win, do you take your fleet back to home waters on turn two, or do you continue South or East?

If you don't attack, what's your rationale and what do you do with the units that might have participated?

6 Answers 6


About the "worst case" for Japan is "mutually assured destruction" of the two Pacific fleets. That's actually not too bad.

That occurs if the U.S. brings its bomber and fighter from the East coast, and uses its west coast fighter, battleship and transport in a counterattack on the Hawaiian Islands sea zone. The Japanese are likely to lose in all, one battleship, one carrier, one sub, and two fighters. The U.S. stands to lose one battleship, one carrier, one sub, two or three fighters, and one transport (in total), leaving the bomber and perhaps one fighter. That leaves a stand-off in the Pacific.

The U.S. may prefer this strategy if the Japanese player is better than the German player. But the U.S. loses at least a turn in the Atlantic by sending the bomber and fighters west.

Don Rae had a brilliant plan to defuse this threat: Move only the batttleship and sub into the Hawaiian sea zone, and leave the carrier in the Wake Island Sea zone, out of range of U.S. aircraft, while allowing two fighters to attack, and retreat to the carrier. You will lose the sub in the battle, and the battleship either in the battle itself, or in the counterattack. That's a total of 32 IPCs, versus 38 IPCs at stake for the Americans (possibly another 8 if they lose the transport from the Pacific in the counterattack.)

On the following Japanese turn, the lone U.S. battleship in the Hawaiian seazone is vulnerable to air attack from at least two fighters and a bomber, meaning that Japan stands to recover its "investment" of a battleship. And it still benefits from the setback to America's Atlantic buildup.


What the Expert Says...

In his excellent essays, Don Rae says Japan should always attack Pearl Harbor on its opening turn (see Essay #1):

The Pearl Harbor attack (this should be obvious to all players) should be conducted, always, without exception.

If this U.S. fleet is not removed, it will be used against you in the Pacific (non-optimal), or it can be driven through the Panama Canal to assist the U.S. Atlantic invasion front (optimal). Any anticipation of anything less than the optimal response movement from the U.S. player is generally considered as weak play....

Because of this, you must always use enough forces to take out this sea zone area decisively.

Don then goes on to describe what units to use, which depend on whether you follow his suggestions for "basic" tactical play or "advanced" play. In the basic approach, he suggests throwing everything you've got at it except for your transports. That is, you're going to send two battleships, your sub, two fighters, and the carrier.

If you use the advanced play, Don suggests a more muted attack:

  • 1 battleship (Japan)
  • 1 submarine
  • 2 fighters (one from Japan, one from the carrier)
  • 1 bomber

With the carrier stationed off Solomon Islands.

  • Don is awesome. Good to have his advice under this question. In fact, the rest of his essays are so spot on I've always felt a little pinch at being so unconvinced that Pearl is a no-brainer strategy for Japan. I agree that if you don't attack America can probably be most effective taking it to the Atlantic, but I wonder how effective it is there. The US/UK will have something unattackable anyway regardless of the Pearl fleet so does it buy them much? On the other hand, foregoing Pearl let's Japan get additional air units mainland end of turn 1. I'm curious to see other's calculus.
    – Adam Wuerl
    Feb 15, 2011 at 22:44
  • @Adam: Having the US battleship off the UK waters is quite helpful in launching an attack on WE, I've found. But I agree, the US carrier seems overkill. The problem with the US keeping a Pacific fleet is that it has to divert IPCs to sustain it, build transports, troops, subs, etc. to island hop. And that distracts from penetrating Europe. Feb 15, 2011 at 23:12
  • Agree a US Pacific fleet isn't worth the investment in IPCs, but this raises an interesting point. If NOT killing the fleet at Pearl encourages a less experienced US player to spend resources into the Pacific, and if the worst case is that they move the fleet East instead and get one more shore bombard roll in the Atlantic, then I think a case can be made for not attacking Pearl. It provides an opening for an unforced error by the US and sets you up as Japan to have a kick-butt turn 2. That said, I've had some luck island hopping with just the Pearl fleet and the Wake + HI infantry.
    – Adam Wuerl
    Feb 16, 2011 at 14:18
  • 1
    @Adam: One problem with a US fleet for Japan is that it pins Japan's navy around the Japan island. You can't venture south to Australia or send support to Africa, because you have to worry about the US fleet causing problems. On an aside, I like to play the "No new factories" variation every now and then, and that encourages the US to build a fleet because Japan is toast if they can't keep and maintain a large trannie presence. Feb 17, 2011 at 4:14
  • I'd say "almost without exception." The exceptions are if the British overreach with a "Kwabang" attack leaving India wide open, or the Russians overreach with an attack on Manchuria, leaving Yakut and/or the Soviet Far East wide open. Then Japan should head west and punish these Allies. Killing the Pearl Harbor fleet is "nice," but Hawaii has little strategic value. If you forego this attack and get India and/or Yakut (more than you can normally hope for), go for the latter.
    – Tom Au
    Jun 1, 2011 at 13:21

I have a strategy that I use for Japan. Take Pearl Harbor on turn one with your fleet-- don't purchase any units with your IPC's and build them up for 2 turns to purchase a battleship. On turn 2-3 go after India with all of your might.

In the first two turns, Germany needs to buy Infantry to use them to defend the western front-- meanwhile Germany should focus on crippling Moscow and going after Africa. Germany should also attack the British fleet, otherwise the German fleet is rendered useless.

On turn 3 Japan should use all of their force and go after USA, if USA and UK stockpile their warships, bombers, carriers and can combine their resources--- then Japan can't help much out on the western front. Japan should try to help and prevent this situation from occurring.

On turn 4 Japan should try and take the Caucaus (with help from Germany). If Japan gets this then they can help fortify the Western front... If Japan has India they can also purchase bombers to help for fly by attacks. Having the Caucaus is crucial for Germany and Japan to win-- because it allows for the two teams to work together. Solidarity is the key to the Japanese victory.

  • I have my doubts about this strategy. On turn 3 it is suggested to go after U.S. with all your might, even though you might not even have taken India by this time. And what does going after the U.S. mean? Full scale invasion of Alaska?
    – Halvard
    Apr 15, 2015 at 13:46

I have read and studied Don's essays with interest and appreciation. His analysis of the game mechanics and general strategic principles are masterly. However, I find myself in disagreement with him on both British and Japanese strategy. Ignoring Britain for the moment (a questionable proposition) I will limit my remarks to Japanese srategy. Historically, by the late spring of 1942, which is ostensibly when the first turn takes place, The battle of Pearl Harbor had been won and lost (and both sides knew which was which). So it helps me to think of it as the battle of Midway. This battle is often referred to as "the turning point in the pacific". My advice is: ignore America. The American fleet lacks the combat power to be more than an annoyance without significant re-inforcement. If the American player chooses to invest resources in attempting to attack Japan through a naval war of attrition, you will have provided sterling service to the Germans for every IPC the Americans devote to the Pacific. Instead, use your existing fleet agressively. The carrier and submarine are sent to Japan to screen the new transports. I agree whole-heartedly with Don on Jpan's first turn purchase, although for different long-term strategic reasons. The remainder of Japanese combat power in the central and south pacifc is massed off the coast of Burma. Your land based forces will be used to attack eastern China (it is critical to destroy the American fighter even at the cost of not capturing the territory), and possibly a strafe attack on India. This leaves the Americans with their pacifc fleet dispersed and ineffectual and the cores of two battle forces for Japan poised to strike either north or south to respond to any American move in the region. This gives Japan the tactical flexibilty to respond to any move that Britain might have made. America can certainly choose to be a pain in the logistics, but there are a lot more juicy targets out there to help the swing the economic balance back to the Axis side. Good Hunting!

  • So to be clear, Don’s main point is that if the Hawaiian fleet is not destroyed it can be moved to the Atlantic, where it can be used to devastating effect against Germany.
    – Adam Wuerl
    Dec 24, 2015 at 4:09
  • Not before its too late. US warships in the pacific will require 2-3 turns before they can threaten Germany, removing them from combat as effectivelt as if you had estryed them. This also represents an act of surrender on the part of the US. It will take even longer to move those ships back to the pacific. In other words these ships are rendered meaningless to Japan merely through the act of ignoring them.
    – Garygnu
    Dec 24, 2015 at 5:42

If Japan does not attack at Pearl Harbor, then the U.S. fleet has enough to hurt Japan seriously. When I am Japan, I usually spend my entire naval force (all that can reach) to Pearl. That way, the U.S. will either decide that it isn't worth it to keep the navy in the Pacific, or they will fight you and Germany will have a chance to do something significant.

If the U.S. focuses all of its attention on Germany and moving into the European theater (while keeping defensive units in the Western U.S.) then the game will be over shortly. Japan is not really a threat to the U.S. in all honesty. Japan needs to keep its navy strong and the only way to do that is to eliminate the U.S. from the Pacific. If the U.S. player is smart, they won't care. If they aren't then Japan needs to be ready for a mean hammer to come down from the U.S.

  • Can you give an example of how the US Pearl fleet can hurt the US significantly? Obviously the it's insufficient to defeat Japan's on the first turn, and even with the addition of the battleship and transport it's not much stronger. Couple that with the fact the fleets defend better than they attack, and I'm not sure how much havoc it can wreak. At most, I've seen the US pick up a couple of infantry and go around stealing piss-ant South Pacific islands. Annoying surely, but perhaps worth the additional good lead Japan gets by focusing it's first turn energy on the continent. Not convinced yet.
    – Adam Wuerl
    Apr 13, 2011 at 11:36
  • The fleet in Pearl is insignificant unless it is left unattended to by the Japanese. If the US player isn't attacked, they need to consider two things: 1. How good is the Japanese player; and 2. How good is the German player. The US is probably the most crucial player, in my opinion. Unfortunately, they are at the largest disadvantage since their entire force (East and West) are so far from battle. The US needs to decide to devote IPC's to Germany or Japan. It's your call. I've seen it work out in both cases for the better and for the worse. It depends COMPLETELY on who you are playing
    Apr 30, 2011 at 3:27

All in all, Japan is meant to last. Most strategies involve leaving your fighters behind to aid in invading everything to the West. In the basic game, you will probably want to send just your Navy (and 1-2 transports, if possible). You are virtually guaranteed to take out their AcC and might get to invade Hawaii. And why WOULDN'T you want to give your tanks and artillery teams a nice, tropical vacation? However, if you plan to abandon Japan and let Germany liberate it (which might just be crazy enough to work, with the right dice rolls,) then send everything you have against America and, if you get lucky, you might get the Western U.S. (you get the victory city AND a factory.) If that works, as you all know, build a sh*tzillion infantry. Or infantries, or whatever. All in all, though, I would recommend sending a naval force of at least a destroyer, a battleship, and at least one transport (with infantry and a tank). This'll guarantee that you get Hawaii and maybe even invade the Western seaboard. Playing by the 1942 SPECIAL rules, however, you can kamikaze the living shiznit out of Hawaii, if that answers your question. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Dear black baby jesus, I've been shot! Someone, please help me!"

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