Japan and the Two World Wars

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The history of Japan and the two world wars reveals that Europe was integral to the policy calculations of the Japanese government from 1914 to 1945. Although the United States became an increasingly important power in East Asia, especially after World War I, Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union remained powerful players in the international relations of Japan.


On 23 August 1914 Japan declared war on Germany as one of the Allied Powers. The Japanese reason for entering the war was to uphold Japan's obligations arising out of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, which dated back to 1902. Ironically, however, the Japanese had failed to consult beforehand their alliance partner, Britain, and this fact tainted the relationship between the two allies during World War I. The signing of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance had been a coup for the Japanese, who rejoiced at concluding a military alliance with the world's foremost naval power. The primary objective of the alliance was to keep Russia at bay, as Russian encroachment into northeast China and Korea had been a grave security concern for Japan and Britain at the turn of the twentieth century. By the time of World War I, the Russian threat had become more manageable, as a result of the concerted efforts made by the Japanese government in the post-1905 period to conclude four agreements with Russia, in order to safeguard Japanese interests in northeast China, Korea, and Mongolia. As for Britain, the primary threat after the Japanese defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) became its alliance partner, Japan, itself. Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour famously stated, "a paper alliance was crucially important where there was no natural alliance."

The key Japanese military leaders of the time, such as General Aritomo Yamagata, saw the preoccupation of European powers with the European theater of war as a "godsend" for Japan's expansion into China. Having first fought off the Germans effortlessly in the Shandong province of China, the Japanese followed with a swift campaign in the Pacific, capturing the German colonies in Micronesia. Throughout the war, however, the Japanese remained reluctant to assist militarily the Allied war effort in Europe because they perceived the war primarily as a "European war" in which Japan had a small role to play. As a result, Japan refused to send naval enforcements to the Mediterranean, or to send troops to the western front. The few instances in which they agreed were in response to requests to assist in nearby waters, such as in the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca in February 1916, and in generally enlarged naval cooperation with the British in January 1917. Japan's limited wartime involvement, and transparently self-centered interests, meant that there existed among the Allied Powers the general view that Japan gained more than it gave in the war effort.

The Siberian intervention (1917–1918) was another sticking point in Japan's relationship with Europe during World War I. The British government's decision in January 1918 to ask the Japanese government to deploy troops to Vladivostok on behalf of the Allied Powers had caused a rift with the United States. This was one of a series of problems that the British had with the United States with regard to Japanese participation. On the whole, the United States remained highly suspicious of Japanese motives for expansion in China. The crisis within the Allied Powers was finally resolved when the United States agreed to a joint deployment of Japanese troops together with Czech forces in June 1918, to assist the White Russian forces against the Bolsheviks and the Germans. The Japanese deployed seventy-three thousand troops as opposed to the Allied request of seven thousand, and what was more, expanded the geographical scope of deployment from the Vladivostok area to a much larger one, reaching up to the east of Lake Baikal. The United States had correctly predicted that the Japanese were motivated principally by expansionist desires.

At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the Japanese were given the rank of one of the five Allied great powers. This was largely a result of the strength of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The Japanese made three demands at the peace conference: two were territorial in nature, involving the Shandong settlement and the Micronesian islands; and the third was a demand for racial equality. The series of secret agreements that the Japanese had signed with Britain, France, Russia, and Italy over the Micronesian islands was a reminder of how intimately entwined the Japanese had become in European great power politics. Like their European counterparts, the Japanese shared their skepticism of Wilsonian liberalism.


The Anglo-Japanese Alliance, which had been the backbone of Japanese foreign policy since 1902, came to an end through the Washington Conference (1921–1922). The series of treaties leading to its abrogation in August 1923 were as follows: the Four Power Treaty (the United States, Britain, Japan, and France) instigated that powers should consult each other in order to avoid confrontation in the Pacific; the Five-Power Treaty (the United States, Britain, Japan, France, and Italy) was the most important, and established the naval ratio in the Pacific as 5:5:3:1.75:1.75, respectively, thereby demoting Japan to the position of secondary naval power; and finally, the Nine-Power Treaty, which included the five main powers plus Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, and China, promised to uphold the territorial integrity of China. Together, these treaties established the so-called Washington system as a new international order in East Asia. In Japanese historiography, the Washington system is usually used as a counterpoint to the so-called Versailles system, which was the new international order based on the League of Nations. Notably, the Soviet Union, which had been the most important European Pacific power until World War I, was not party to these treaties. Japan's diplomatic relations with the revolutionary Soviet regime started in January 1925. This belied, however, the substantial unofficial influence that the Comintern had on the left-wing movement in Japan (and China).

Elsewhere during the 1920s, Japan "worked" side by side as an imperial power with Britain, France, Italy, and the United States in China. One of the noteworthy events was the May 30th Movement in Shanghai in 1925, which began as an anti-Japanese boycott by the Chinese workers, but spread to become an anti-British, and more generally, anti-imperialist, movement. In spite of Japan's geographical advantage, Britain had an upper hand in the China trade until Japan turned northeast China (commonly known as Manchuria) into a Japanese puppet state in 1931. In fact, there was a principal difference between Japanese objectives, and Western (both European and U.S.) objectives in China: whereas the Japanese were keen to expand territorially to build a contiguous land empire, the Western powers were keen to hold onto their economic interests in China within the framework of an "informal" empire. The Manchurian Incident of September 1931 was, thus, a turning point in Japan's expansionist policy in China, as the Japanese began to show a clear preference for noncooperation with the British, French, and Americans over the "China problem." International criticism from the Lytton Commission, which was set up to investigate the Manchurian Incident, pushed Japan to withdraw from the League of Nations on 27 March 1933. With the aforementioned Washington system now in tatters, Japan's withdrawal from the League was a signal to Britain, France, and other League powers that Japan no longer deemed cooperation with these powers as beneficial to its national interests, and instead, Japan turned its attention to Germany and Italy. Significantly, some Japanese historians date the incident as the beginning of Japan's "Fifteen-Year War."

Japanese domestic politics became increasingly marred by military coups and a culture of violence in the 1930s. On 25 November 1936, Japan signed a defense agreement with Germany that was ostensibly an anti-Comintern pact, but in reality was a containment policy to check Soviet advances. Apart from a brief period after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union took over Imperial Russia's mantle as the most threatening enemy of Japan in the "north." In November 1937 Italy joined Germany and Japan, forming the "have-not" nations, as opposed to the "have" nations led by the United States and Britain. Japan by this time had completely separated itself from the earlier alliance with the "have" nations, and was now forming the core of the Axis Powers.


The Japanese Army used the pretext of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident to expand territorially in China in July and August 1937. In September, China made an appeal to the 18th Plenary Session of the League of Nations to end Japanese hostilities, on the basis of their contravening the Nine-Power Treaty and the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928). Even Germany attempted to mediate a peace because it considered the Japanese invasion as going against the primary German interest of having Japan act as a containing power against the Soviet Union, Britain, and France in Asia. The Germans, however, became more amenable to Japanese policy in China in 1938 when they began their preparations for war in Europe. Needless to say, Japanese relations with Britain and France deteriorated rapidly in this period as the Japanese held Britain responsible for keeping afloat the Chinese Nationalist regime under Chiang Kai-shek. As a result, anti-British sentiment was very high in Japan in 1939, with mass demonstrations in Tokyo's Hibiya Park.

Within the Japanese armed forces, views divided as to which side the Japanese should ally with. The army, which had been a traditionally pro-German institution, strongly advocated a tripartite agreement with Germany (and Italy), with a clause that did not limit its possible military engagement against the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the navy, a stalwart pro-Anglo-American institution, considered it suicidal to be drawn into a war against the two strongest naval powers in the world. In this period, the navy came under tremendous pressure from the ultraright-wingers, with assassination plots against the top brass, including Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbor. In the meantime, Japan's Kwantung Army clashed with Soviet forces on the border between northwestern Manchuria and Outer Mongolia in May 1939, an encounter known as the Nomonhan Incident. The army and its pro-Axis lobby, however, had to retrench temporarily with the shocking news of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 23 August 1939. But this setback was short-lived, as the pro-Axis lobby gained new ground with the news of successive German victories in Europe in 1940, and once again there surfaced the possibility of joining hands with Germany at this favorable juncture, and invading the British, French, and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia.

The Tripartite Pact between Japan, Germany, and Italy was signed in Berlin on 27 September 1940. The basis of the "Matsuoka diplomacy" (named after Foreign Minister Yōsuke Matsuoka in the second cabinet of Prince Fumimaro Konoe), which led to the signing of the pact, was twofold. First, it was based on preventing U.S. entry into the war, by applying the united threat of the three Axis Powers. Second, it was to promote a rapprochement between Japan and the Soviet Union with the help of Germany. As mentioned before, the navy had agreed to the Tripartite Pact out of political expediency, though it remained convinced that Japan would never be able to win a war against the United States. In March and April 1941, Matsuoka made a last-minute attempt to persuade the Germans to work toward rapprochement between Japan and the Soviet Union. It was already too late, however, and Germany, instead, encouraged Japan to attack Singapore, in order to prevent America's entry into the war. Undeterred by the unhelpful response of the Germans, Matsuoka stopped over in Moscow on the way back from Germany and signed a Soviet-Japan neutrality pact with Joseph Stalin on 13 April 1941.

Meanwhile, to prosecute its war of attrition in China, Japan had to do two things urgently: first, to cut off the main supply routes buttressing the Chiang Kai-shek regime, the French route from Indochina and the British route from Burma; second, to secure alternative sources of raw materials from the Dutch East Indies. In July, Japan invaded southern Indochina. On the Pacific side, tension was fast rising, and the United States imposed a complete oil embargo against Japan on 1 August 1941. Japan was feeling the pinch of the so-called ABCD encirclement (Americans, British, Chinese, and Dutch). Within Japan, prowar sentiment against the United States was rising daily. The final blow to the antiwar lobby in the Japanese government came with the Hull Note, which reiterated the principles of U.S. foreign policy on China, and a Japanese imperial conference (gozen kaigi) was held on 1 December 1941, which concluded that Japan would go to war against the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands on 8 December (Japan time). The inability of the Japanese to resolve the war in China satisfactorily eventually pushed them to open two further fronts in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans and the British declared war on Japan on 8 December. The Japanese tried to consolidate the Tripartite relationship with Germany and Italy by signing an agreement on 11 December that prohibited any one country from concluding a separate peace. Furthermore, the three countries signed a military agreement on 18 January 1942. From the Japanese perspective, however, the Axis alliance simply prevented Japan from becoming isolated in the war, but did not provide much practical military cooperation, as Japanese and German interests did not necessarily coincide.

The story of the rapid Japanese advance in Southeast Asia and the Pacific during the one hundred days after Pearl Harbor is well known. The Japanese conquered Guam on 10 December, Wake Island on 23 December, Hong Kong on Christmas Day, Manila on 2 January 1942, and Singapore and Sumatra on 15 February. On the same day as the fall of Rangoon on 8 March, the Dutch, British, Australian, and U.S. forces surrendered to the Japanese in the Dutch East Indies. The fall of the European colonies in Southeast Asia resulted in a sudden increase in the number of prisoners of war, whose maltreatment by their Japanese captors continues to be a source of contention in the postwar era. The Japanese experienced a rude awakening, however, when the American Doolittle raid successfully penetrated Japanese airspace, and bombed Tokyo, Nagoya, and Kobe, among other cities. As in the case of the rapid Japanese expansion in China, the Japanese then faced the problem of how to defend the huge defense perimeter that had now expanded to include East Asia, almost all of Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. Henceforth, Japan's wartime actions centered on defending and retrenching its vastly overstretched perimeter.

World War II in Asia was a colonial war, with the Japanese trying to expand their colonial empire, whereas the British, French, and Dutch were fighting to hold onto their colonial possessions. Not only were these possessions important for Japanese prestige, but they also secured for Japan the crucial supply of raw materials that it desperately needed to continue its war on now multifarious fronts. Japanese nationalists insisted all along that the war in Southeast Asia was a "war of liberation of Asia from the yoke of Western colonialism." The Japanese government paid lip service to its grandiose and ill-conceived plan of conquering Asia under Japanese domination through the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. Under the elaborate facade of the Co-prosperity Sphere, Japan gave nominal independence to Burma on 1 August 1943, and also to the Philippines. Malaya and Indonesia were considered to be too important as suppliers of raw materials and were kept under the direct military occupation of the Japanese forces. On 5 November 1943 Japan convened the Greater East Asia Conference, at which the heads of all the Japanese-occupied territories gathered in Tokyo. Although the Japanese had effectively replaced themselves as masters of the former Western colonies in Southeast Asia, the Japanese "interregnum" nevertheless had an impact on national liberation movements in these territories.

As early as November 1944, Stalin mentioned to Winston Churchill that the Soviet Union could defeat the Japanese. In fact, Stalin formally stated at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 that the Soviet Union would invade Japan within three months of the German defeat. The Soviet Union took unilateral steps to abrogate the neutrality pact with Japan on 5 April 1945, coming into effect one year later. On 7 May, Germany surrendered and Soviet forces occupied Berlin. By this time, Japan was the only Axis power holding out, and was completely isolated in the war. The Potsdam Declaration, issued on 26 July, called for unconditional surrender by Japan. True to his words, Stalin declared war on Japan on 8 August 1945, two days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. After the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on 9 August, the Japanese decision makers desperately sought to end the war, despite the indefatigable wish of the army to fight to the bitter end. The Shôwa emperor (Hirohito) made the announcement of unconditional surrender on 15 August 1945, notwithstanding a last-minute, desperate coup attempt by the army to prevent the surrender from taking effect. With defeat, the wartime Japanese empire vanished overnight, and the colonial struggle in Southeast Asia resumed under the former European "masters" once they, in their turn, had taken up again the reins of power where the Japanese had been turned out.

See alsoWarfare; World War I; World War II.


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Naoko Shimazu

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