Racial Equality Amendment, Japan

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Racial Equality Amendment, Japan

Japan participated in the great post-World War I (1914–1918) peace conferences in Paris in 1919 with three goals. Japan had declared war against Germany early in the war, and expected the resulting treaty to recognize Japan's contribution. The Japanese delegation sought to take over German-held islands in the Pacific Ocean, to keep the German concession in Shandong, China that the Japanese army had seized during the war, and to secure approval for an amendment on racial equality among nations in the final Versailles Peace Treaty.

The so-called racial equality amendment challenged the comfortable European, Caucasian-controlled world. It aroused furious opposition from Australian Premier William H. Hughes. Hughes felt it threatened his clearly racist "white" Australia policy, and he worried at this early date about Japanese expansion in the Pacific. Hughes received support from Arthur Balfour and Robert Cecil and Dominion leaders who feared the amendment might threaten their control over native peoples. One reading of the amendment implied it could limit the sovereignty of nations in controlling immigration and rights of aliens. Britain worried about roiling the waters of its expanded Middle Eastern empire; French and British ruling classes in Africa and Asia had similar concerns. And Hughes threatened to lead a campaign to arouse opposition in the British Dominions and the United States.

The amendment and the opposition it aroused threatened the goals of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson. He wanted to contain Japanese expansion and obtain Japanese support for America's Open Door policy in China so that American business could find markets for trade. He believed the racial equality amendment would appease Japanese pride while he worked to return Shandong to China and to have Japan remove its 70,000 troops in eastern Siberia, which Japan initially sent as part of the effort to help keep Russia on the Allied side in the war. But Wilson could not afford the kind of vicious debate that Hughes was threatening. Japanese immigration was a sensitive issue on the U.S. West Coast and a series of anti-Japanese measures, including the San Francisco School Board decision on segregation and alien land laws in California, indicated how contentious such a debate could be. This reflected the general racism in America, including the rise of Jim Crow laws in the South.

In the end, Japan was frustrated. The clause became merely an "endorsement of the principle of equality of nations and just treatment of their nationals," and even this mild statement failed to secure approval. The continuing threat of public debate in America and elsewhere caused President Wilson to rule against it even though the conference vote somewhat favored it.

To assuage Japanese sensibilities, Wilson conceded on Japan's territorial demands in the Pacific and in China, although he did receive approval of a "mandate" system that implied that the occupying nations would return control of the lands at some unspecified future time. Events in the 1920s would further inflame Japanese pride. The Washington Naval Conference of 1921–1922 appeared to many Japanese as a case of Anglo-American ganging up against them as it established ratios for capital ships, and seemingly favored the United States and Great Britain. Finally, U.S. immigration laws in the 1920s seemed particularly biased, and the act in 1924 barred legal entry to Japanese.

see also Empire, Japanese; Wilsonianism.


Dallas, Gregor. 1918: War and Peace. London: John Murray, 2000.

Dickinson, Frederick, R. War and National Reinvention: Japan in the Great War, 1914–1919. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Goldstein, Erik. The First World War Peace Settlements, 1919–1925. New York: Longman, 2002.

Kajima, Morinosuke. The Diplomacy of Japan, 1894–1922. Tokyo: Kajima, 1980.

Shimazu, Naoko. Japan, Race and Equality: The Racial Equality Proposal of 1919. New York: Routledge, 1998.

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