Here’s some thoughts and experiences I’ve had with Japan recently:
If you’re a pretty confident Japanese player, I would suggest completely skipping Pearl Harbor. It is a waste of your time because the fleet there poses no real threat in either the Pacific nor Atlantic theaters. Any units you lose there (especially aircraft) is a detriment to your war effort, and any fighters you have left positioned there are way out of reach to be useful in the next round.
Now, why do I say that the Pearl Harbor fleet poses no real threat?
In the Pacific theater, it is simply a waste of time for the US to pursue attacking Japan head-on, provided the Japanese player is skilled. Japan will outdistance the US in IPCs soon enough, and starts with a tremendously stronger navy that’s even stronger on defense. If Pearl Harbor survives and the US says “gee, I’ll go after Japan”, then you have won a victory right there already. This means Germany will have an easy time in Africa, as well as have a fairly easy time keeping the UK from landing anywhere and force him to buy lots of defensive navy. The US really has to pour their entire income into navy to screw with the Japanese; while it can possibly be effective when islanding hopping using solomon islands, this lets a whole lot of steam off of Germany which is deadly.
The Japanese navy really shouldn’t fall provided you expand at even a moderate pace. You start with 2 carriers and 6 fighters, and if you need to you can put another carrier in the water to create a ridiculously strong defensive force, as well as add subs periodically, all the while dumping troops into Buryatia and walking them through Russian territories. The only way that Japan will have trouble is if all 3 Allies come at him from the start, and that will certainly end in swift defeat as Germany runs roughshod over Africa and the Russians.
Now in the Atlantic, what threat does the Pearl Harbor fleet pose? Except for that one extra fighter, nothing at all. The carrier and sub take something on the order of 4+ rounds to get into a position to defend the transport system. By round 4 you shouldn’t be needing protection unless something went horribly wrong. By round 4 the Baltic fleet should be scrap or very nearly scrapped, and you should already have sufficient defense from the first couple rounds of purchases.
So what do I do with my forces when I skip Pearl Harbor? For one, I’ll use the extra aircraft to increase the chances of the China fight going down in one round. Usually the bomber/fighter in Japan are used against Harbor, but now they can be used against China, which gives you great chance to knock out all that equipment in one go, thereby decreasing chances of you losing infantry which you need early on to keep your gains.
With the Philippines fleet, I will sink that UK transport that’s off of Egypt, instead of sinking the destroyer in Kwangtung. This heavily decreases the attack force that the UK can bring on his next turn; usually with that transport alive he can bring 2 infantry (1 from rhodesia, 1 from persia) and along with the infantry from Trans-Jordan to attack Egypt again (there’s nothing you can do to prevent the first time UK attacks Egypt, but you can mess with his second turn chances).
The destroyer in Kwangtung poses no real threat in any case, especially since I retreat all navy to defend SZ60 instead of using them against Harbor. There is some variability here such as where the carrier/fighter went, but it shouldn’t matter. If there’s a carrier + fighter defending the transport, then I’ll still sink it and be glad. If the carrier went with the destroyer to ensure the kwangtung’s transport’s death, then I don’t care as it poses no offensive threat. Fighters from the Philippines fleet can land in Libya if the dice went bad and you had to lose your Japanese carrier.
I will use that fighter from the Carolines to sink the British sub or transport if they’re around because it has nothing better to do, then it goes to SZ60 with the rest of the fleet to defend the newly built transports.
And recently I’ve been messing around with the idea of starting with a 2 complex buy. It does sound crazy, but hear me out: this ramps up the pressure against Russia much faster than transport builds because of tank’s movement vs infantry. You give up fast island hopping, but you gain Russian territories faster as you can have a nice constant stream of tanks that are mostly in range of each other to counterattack if the Russians decide to push back. With infantry swapping in Bury/Indochina and their slow movement, it’s hard for them to adjust and support each other, as well as push quickly.
You can still island hop with your initial transport. It will be slower, but on the other hand, you do not have to worry about letting up land pressure. If you rely on transports mostly then you’d have to replace the transports or build a complex to keep the land pressure going if you island hopped. With the double complex buy, that’s the end of having to buy more infrastructure right there. Island-hopping slowly isn’t so bad anyways, since it’s not worth a ton of IPCs and you can use free troops from islands and battleship shots. IPCs you miss out on the islands earlier on is very much offset by the territories you can take earlier on the Russian front.
Now, definitely with a 3 tran “normal” buy, you have more flexibility. You can screw with the US and keep him somewhat honest; with a 2 complex buy he can go with a 4x4 fleet but if you have transports potentially invading Alaska/West Canada, he’ll have to run a 3x3 or risk getting snared up easily later on. You can do some pretty fast island hopping, and the transports will help a lot if you’re getting KJF’ed. Of course if you’re getting KJF’ed you should see it coming and definitely in that case go with transports, but if not, then I would definitely recommend trying 2 complexes some time.
And on a parallel note, there is a nasty/tricky move you can do to upset the Allies a bit. It starts with the concept of swapping, where you alternate dropping between Buryatia and Indochina every turn, which is a solid basic strategy since it secures more avenues of attack and lets you drop all troops you build in Japan every turn due to SZ60 bordering Buryatia. Now the tricky move is to actually drop 4 tran of stuff into Africa after you drop troops into Indochina, instead of going back and dumping in Buryatia. 1 tran can go take Madagascar while the other 3 take Egypt, Trans-Jordan, and Italian East Africa.
Now I don’t suggest counting on this or doing this all the time for a couple of reasons: 1) it disrupts your flow of troops against Russia. 2) sometimes the Allies already have a large force in Africa and can deal with you handily.
But if you want to risk it, it can throw a wrench into the Allies’ plans. If they have already shut Germany out of Africa and don’t have significant troops there, suddenly they’re going to have to do a big drop there which is going to mean less troops in Europe this turn. They will be forced to deal with it very soon or else your tanks will blitz up most of Africa next turn and eat up a very significant chunk of UK IPCs.