Modern history


Japan and Racial Equality

IN THE SPRING OF 1919, the French press was temporarily distracted from the Italian crisis by an intriguing question. Was Prince Kimmochi Saionji, the distinguished statesman at the head of the Japanese delegation, in Paris at all? He had scarcely been seen and it was rumored that he was seriously ill or had even gone back to Japan. Stephen Bonsal, House’s ubiquitous eyes and ears, argued that this was typical Oriental behavior, that the prince preferred to stay in seclusion and “pull the wires that made the manikins dance.”1

Westerners dealing with Japan tended to fall back on stereotypes about the mysterious East. So much about Japan was curious, including its status in the world. Was it a major power or not? And was it entitled to have the same number of delegates as the other Great Powers? There were arguments both ways. Japan was very new on the world scene and until 1914 had confined its attentions to nearby East Asia. Even though it had declared war on Germany, it had not made a major effort on the Allied side. On the other hand, it did have one of the world’s three or four biggest navies (depending on whether the German one was counted), an impressive army and a very favorable balance of trade. In the view of Borden, the Canadian prime minister, there were “only three major powers left in the world: the United States, Britain and Japan.” When the League of Nations finally came into existence, Japan had the dubious honor of being ranked fifth in terms of contributions expected.2

The Great Powers simply could not be consistent. At the insistence of Britain, Japan’s ally, they gave Japan five delegates to the Peace Conference, just like themselves, but in the Supreme Council the Japanese were generally ignored or treated as something of a joke. “To think,” said Clemenceau in an audible aside to his foreign minister during one meeting, “that there are blonde women in the world; and we stay closed up here with these Japanese, who are so ugly.”3 When it was decided to expedite business by setting up the Council of Four, Japan was not included. The excuse given, and it was just that, was that the Japanese delegation, unlike those of the other Great Powers, was not headed by a prime minister or president.

The Japanese delegation was like Prince Saionji—distinguished but retiring. Although the fashionable Hôtel Bristol was filled with experts covering everything from naval to labor questions, the Japanese representatives on the various bodies of the conference played, as one British commentator put it, “mainly a watching part.” It did not help that many spoke only rudimentary English or French. When, on one committee, the chairman asked the Japanese member whether he voted aye or nay, “Yes” came the reply. In any case, Japan was like Italy; it had certain goals in Paris, but not much interest in anything else. “They were the one-price traders of the Conference,” wrote Wilson’s press officer, Baker; “they possess the genius—perhaps the oriental genius—of knowing how to wait.”4

The most public figures in the Japanese delegation were two experienced diplomats, Baron Nobuaki Makino, who had been foreign minister, and Viscount Sutemi Chinda, who was ambassador to Great Britain. House found them “silent, unemotional, watchful,” and there were little jokes among the other peacemakers about how similar they looked. The two mikados, the Americans called them. But there were significant differences between the two men. Makino was a liberal who liked Wilson’s new diplomacy and supported the League of Nations. Unfortunately, since his English was not very good, he failed to communicate this. Chinda’s English was better and he appeared a hard-liner when awkward questions came up. All the Japanese delegates were tightly controlled from Tokyo, except Prince Saionji, who was too eminent to control.5

And he was in Paris, although he had arrived late, at the beginning of March. When Japan realized that Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Orlando were leading their own delegations to Paris, its government hastily decided to send him, to compensate for not having sent their prime minister (whose political position was too shaky to risk the journey) or the foreign minister (who was too sick). Saionji’s appointment was an indication that Japan took the conference seriously. The government also hoped that, if Japan did not gain everything it wanted at the conference, his prestige would protect it from attacks from its enemies and from riots such as those that had followed the end of the Russo-Japanese War.6 In Paris, Saionji chose to remain in the background, facilitating his colleagues’ work through informal personal meetings much as he would have done in Japan.

On April 15 Bonsal paid a courtesy call on the elusive prince in his apartment near the Parc Monceau. He was renewing an old acquaintance, but his call was also an attempt to mend fences between Japan and its allies; relations had become rather strained. He was greeted by two formidable Japanese detectives, then led through a series of rooms to the inner sanctum. “A subdued, an almost religious light pervaded this room and some seconds elapsed before I caught sight of a tall, slim, and rather emaciated figure in Japanese dress advancing with outstretched hands toward me. . . . His countenance was as serene as that of the Great Buddha at Kamakura looking out to sea.” 7

The two men chatted amiably about past times in Japan and old friends. They touched on the problem of Russia and the Bolshevik government but they carefully stayed away from the tensions between Japan and the West—except for one oblique and highly telling exchange. Bonsal asked about an experiment that a Japanese foreign minister had conducted in the 1890s, when he had tried to graft cuttings from abroad onto a dwarf pine tree from the Ise shrine, the most sacred in the state-approved Shinto religion. The prince brought him up to date: “He grafted on the sacred stem shafts and cuttings of pines from Norway and from Scotland, from Russia and from California. As a result of these shocks there were temporary setbacks, but soon the noble Shinto type of pine from Ise prevailed.”8

The prince knew well what message he was conveying. In his lifetime he had seen his country transformed from an insignificant collection of islands in the north Pacific into a major power. It is still difficult for the Japanese, let alone outsiders, to grasp the magnitude of that change. What had been an inward-looking nation ruled by a feudal nobility had been made into a modern power with all the underpinnings: an industrial economy which by 1919 was fast coming to rival that of France; a military that had exchanged its steel swords and pikes for machine guns and battleships; and an infrastructure of railways, telegraphs, schools and universities. The feudal lords, like the prince himself, had become diplomats, politicians and industrialists; their retainers had joined the army or the police.

The prince was a complex, enormously subtle man, as much a hybrid as his nation. His journey to Paris had been one not just of miles but of centuries. He was born in 1849, into a Japan still largely isolated from the outside world. His long family tree, kept with the utmost care, showed marriages with the other great houses and even the imperial family itself. By contrast, the Tokugawa clan, which had ruled Japan since the 1600s in the name of an impotent emperor, were vulgar parvenus. He had the usual education for a boy of his class: classical literature, in Chinese as well as Japanese; calligraphy; the traditional instruments and the cultivation of tiny, perfect bonsai trees. He also shocked his elders when he learned to ride, something considered demeaning for one of his rank. If things had gone in their customary procession, he would have lived out his life in the stifling, enclosed world of the old court, with an honorary position and a wife selected from among the small number of suitable girls. He would never have traveled abroad, because that was forbidden and, more important, unthinkable. He would never have enjoyed real power, because that lay in the hands of the military nobility.9

The Japanese have a myth that their islands are balanced on the back of a giant turtle; when the turtle moves, earthquakes result. In 1853 an earthquake of a different sort came. An aggressive American sailor, Commodore Matthew Perry, acting on behalf of the American government, appeared in Tokyo Bay demanding the opening up of trade between Japan and the United States. His expedition was followed by British, French and Russian gunboats bearing similar demands for trading privileges, for the right for their citizens to enter Japan, and for diplomatic relations. Japan’s ruling circles argued for the next decade and a half over whether to refuse the impudent foreigners or try to cope with them, but the hard-line isolationists could not withstand an aggressive, expanding West. Even among the nobility, young radicals urged the Tokugawa rulers to open up to the outside world and let them travel abroad. Echoes of the debate made their way to the quiet, secluded court in Kyoto, and the young Saionji took the side of the radicals. He decided that he, too, would go abroad if he could.

In 1868 reforming nobles seized power from the old Tokugawa regime in the name of an old schoolmate of Saionji, now the Meiji emperor. Saionji fought on their side in the brief civil war that followed. When he returned to court, he caused a new scandal by appearing in Western dress with his hair cut short.10 The Meiji Restoration (the misleading name given to the coup) saw the start of an extraordinary national effort as young Japanese were shipped abroad by the hundreds to study and Western experts were paid handsomely to come to Japan so that their brains could be picked. The government slogan summed up the goal: “Enrich the nation and strengthen the army.” Japan chose Britain as a model for its navy, Prussia for its army and its constitution, the United States for its banking system and the world at large for its economy.

Saionji turned down offers of comfortable government jobs and set off to see the world. In 1870 he arrived in France, where he was to spend the next ten years. He took a degree in law at the Sorbonne, where one of his friends and classmates was the young Clemenceau, who remembered him as “amiable” and “impetuous.” He met the Goncourt brothers and Franz Liszt. He loved the French, their culture and their liberal traditions. He even spoke French in his sleep. To the end of his life he drank Vichy water and used Houbigant cologne, which had to be imported specially for him.11

The elegant figure who arrived back in Japan was charming, ironic and slightly detached in his manner. He was also deeply puzzling to his fellow Japanese. One critic fell back on three English words to describe him: “intelligence, indolence, and indifference.” For all his pride in his family, he never bothered to get married, although he had long liaisons with mistresses. (When he came to Paris in 1919, he brought a young woman nearly fifty years younger than himself; she was sent away because she was indiscreet.) He never had to worry about material wealth; a younger brother became head of one of Japan’s enormous new industrial combines and as a matter of course provided for him. 12

Saionji served the new Japan as a diplomat, foreign minister and then, in the 1900s, as prime minister. In 1913 the new emperor made him a genro, a term inadequately translated as “elder statesman.” While genro had no official role under the new Japanese constitution, they wielded enormous influence, especially over the formation of new governments and foreign policy. In times of crisis, a word from the genro was usually enough to decide an issue. In American terms, it would have been as though William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt had not only chosen Wilson as president but kept an eye on his policies.

Saionji’s country was an amazing success story before 1914: it was the only Asian nation both to resist the Western imperialists and to join them. Its gross domestic product—the total value of all goods and services— increased almost three times between 1885 and 1920, mining and manufacturing by almost six times. Such rapid change brought strains as well as rewards; many Japanese looked back nostalgically to a simpler past. But Saionji urged his countrymen to look forward to a liberal democratic future and warned against relying on military strength alone. The warning was needed because as Japan grew more powerful, there were influential voices raised to argue that it must impose its will on its neighbors, by force if necessary.13

In the years before 1914, force seemed to be paying off, as Japan won a string of military victories, the first over China in 1895, when it acquired Taiwan and a dominant position in Korea. In 1902, in a tribute to Japan’s growing power, Britain abandoned its long-standing hostility to alliances. The Anglo-Japanese naval alliance, still in effect in 1919, was a sign, especially to the Japanese, that Japan had arrived on the world scene. In 1904 Japan took on the formidable power of Russia in Manchuria, defeating its armies on land and sinking not one but two of its fleets. In the peace signed in 1905, Japan gained extensive rights in Manchuria. A few years later, in 1910, it formally annexed Korea, thus confirming what the world had conceded anyway. (A sad little delegation of Koreans appeared at the Peace Conference to ask for their independence.)

The other powers watched with a mixture of admiration and apprehension. By 1914, for example, a quarter of the world’s cotton yarn exports were Japanese. 14 The British grew concerned about Japanese dominance of markets in China and India. The United States worried about its interests in Asia, which included not only the China trade but also its new possession, the Philippines. Among Asians, though, Japan was an inspiration, proof that it was possible to defeat the Western imperialists. Even the Chinese, who had most to lose from a strong Japan, saw hope in the Japanese example. Thousands of young Chinese sailed across the north Pacific to study in Japanese universities.

In all Asia, only Japan itself was skeptical of Japanese power. The war with Russia had been almost too much for the fledgling modern economy to bear. Was it worth it? What did the other powers think of Japan’s victory? The Japanese could not help but see that the Western world was slow to accept them as equals. One leading statesman complained bitterly to a German friend, “Of course, what is really wrong with us is that we have yellow skins. If our skins were as white as yours, the whole world would rejoice at our calling a halt to Russia’s inexorable aggression.”15

The Japanese were painfully aware of their own vulnerability. They had very few resources of their own. What if other nations chose to cut their access to raw materials and markets? The nationalists’ solution was for Japan to follow the example of other powers and establish an empire. There was talk of Japan’s historic mission to lead Asia. China, in particular, offered an irresistible temptation. Its last ruling dynasty was moribund and the country was splintering in the face of uncontrolled corruption, regionalism and banditry. An abortive revolution in 1911 only led to more anarchy. China had so much that Japan needed, from raw materials to markets. And Manchuria, just beyond Korea, was so empty, an important consideration in a country whose population had increased by 45 percent between 1885 and 1920 and whose leaders feared that overpopulation would lead to social unrest, even revolution. But if the other powers were willing to give Japan a relatively free hand in Manchuria, they drew the line at China proper, where they had their own interests to protect.

Nationalist dreams worried liberals such as Saionji. “I am not worried about any general lack of patriotism,” he said, “but afraid of where an abundance of patriotism might lead us.” He was first and foremost an internationalist, who believed that a stable international order would allow Japan, along with other nations, to flourish peacefully. If expansion into Asia hurt Japan’s good relations with the other powers, then it must be stopped.16 The outbreak of the Great War only intensified the debate.

The Japanese watched the conflict itself with detachment—in the words of an elder statesman, “like a fire on the far bank of the river.” The government initially hesitated over what it should do. Should it stay clear of the struggle? Back the Central Powers? (Many officers in the army had been trained in Germany and had a profound respect for its forces.) Back the Allies? (The view of the navy, which had close links with Britain.) The debates in the cabinet were largely pragmatic and revolved around where Japan would get the best deal. The decision was for the Allies. “Japan must take the chance of a millennium,” said the government when it declared war on August 23, 1914, “to establish its rights and interests in Asia.” In attacking Germany, Japan was choosing a low-risk way of advancing those interests. Germany had some concessions in China in the Shantung (Shandong) peninsula and a string of small islands in the north Pacific— the Marshalls, the Carolines, the Marianas—and no means of defending them. The campaign was over by November 1914.17

The rest of the war was equally good to Japan. It not only brought orders for Japanese manufacturers but handicapped much of the prewar competition. Japan’s merchant marine doubled in size as exports to Britain and the United States doubled, those to China quadrupled and those to Russia sextupled. In 1918, Hughes warned Balfour that the industrious Japanese were moving in everywhere. “We too must work in like fashion or retire like my ancestors from the fat plains to the lean and rugged hills.” And it was not just the economic threat that worried the British; at sea, Japan was more powerful than it had been in 1914, and on land, it was extending its influence over China and moving into Russian Siberia.18

The Japanese were worried by the resentment. During the war, the elder statesman Prince Aritomo Yamagata noted: “It is extremely important . . . to take steps to prevent the establishment of a white alliance against the yellow peoples.” In 1917 the Japanese general staff said that it was out of the question to send troops to fight in Europe. They would be needed, when the war ended, to help Japan resist Western competition in China. Shortly before the war’s end a Japanese journal asked leading figures what, in their opinion, Japan should get out of the war. The answers showed a considerable pessimism about Japan’s international position and about the designs of Britain and the United States in Asia. The fears of an anti-Japan coalition of white powers were not as fanciful as they seemed. By the end of the war even responsible Western leaders had reluctantly come to the conclusion that there might have to be a showdown one day. In 1917, in a memorandum to the War Cabinet, Balfour commented, almost as an aside, that Britain would almost certainly defend the United States if Japan attacked. Japan’s dilemma, which was to become more acute by the 1930s, was whether to trust the white powers, work with them in strengthening the international order, or assume that it had better look out for itself.19

The government also had to listen to its own public opinion, which was demanding compensation for the costs of the attack on Germany, which in China alone amounted to two thousand Japanese lives and fifty million yen. And public opinion was something of which the élites who ran Japan were becoming afraid. The prosperity of the war had not touched all sections of society equally and there was significant resentment of the newly wealthy. The Russian Revolution gave a troubling example of what might happen. In the middle of 1918 serious riots over the cost of rice led to the fall of the government.20

The new government that took over was determined to hang on to Japan’s gains but hoped to do so without alarming the other powers. Japan’s delegation was dispatched to Paris with three clear goals: to get a clause on racial equality written into the covenant of the League of Nations, to control the north Pacific islands and to keep the German concessions in Shantung. Otherwise, according to instructions, it was to go along with Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The prime minister personally told Makino to cooperate with the British and the Americans.21 This was easier said than done.

The Pacific islands—the Marshalls, the Marianas and the Carolines— came up first at the Supreme Council. Thousands of tiny atolls and reefs dotting the vast stretch of the Pacific between Hawaii and the Philippines, they had passed the centuries in peaceful obscurity, and so had their peoples. Imperial rivalry, the spread of modern technology and the growth of modern navies had made them valuable to outsiders, first the Germans and now the Japanese. The Japanese military insisted that Japan should be able to control enough of the Pacific to protect itself and to control access to markets and raw materials on the mainland of Asia. That in turn meant being able to deal with other naval powers. Japan had defeated both China and Russia before 1914 and it had a naval treaty with Britain—but it had not come to a satisfactory accommodation with the United States. Nor was it likely to.

In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the United States had taken charge of the Philippines and the important base of Guam to the east. Partly to protect its new acquisitions, it had also annexed Hawaii. At one step the United States had moved thousands of miles closer to Japan. Until the First World War, the American navy was still based in the Atlantic, but there were signals that American strategy was shifting to cope with its Asian responsibilities. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt sent a fleet steaming around the world. He pushed increased naval appropriations through Congress and started work on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. By 1914 the United States had the third largest navy in the world, after Great Britain and Germany. The following year the Panama Canal, built with American money, opened, making it easy to move ships from one ocean to another. By 1916 the American government was openly committed to a “two-ocean” navy. 22 Some Americans were talking about manifest destiny, about how the United States was bound to go on expanding westward. Unfortunately, American destiny was bound to clash eventually with Japanese, and what looked like defensive moves by one country might well be seen as aggression by the other.

Both Japanese and American military planners were aware that their countries were starting to bump up against each other. Each side drew up plans for a possible war with the other, mainly as a precaution. On both sides, though, there were those who took the prospect of war quite seriously, even enthusiastically. In the United States, novels appeared in the years before 1914 to terrify their readers with the nightmare of a successful Japanese invasion. These sold particularly well on the West Coast. The sensational Hearst press made much of the “yellow peril” and had a field day with talk of plots by the Japanese government to build a naval base when a group of simple Japanese fishermen tried to take a lease on a bay in Mexico’s Baja California. Japan experienced strangely similar scares, and the phrase “white peril” began to appear in the Japanese press. A retired Japanese naval officer wrote a novel, Our Next War, about a future in which Japan attacked the United States and seized American islands in the Pacific. When Japan prepared to move on the German concessions in China in 1914, many officers and men apparently thought that they were being mobilized to fight the United States. The Japanese navy advised its government that Japan must keep the islands as an outer perimeter to screen a hostile American advance or, conversely, as bargaining chips to exchange for an agreement on demilitarization in the Pacific.23

Japan could count on some support in Paris. In February 1917, in return for Japanese naval assistance, Britain had recognized Japan’s claims to the islands, and Italy, France and Russia had followed suit. But the British dominions of New Zealand, Australia and, to a lesser extent, Canada were nervous, and vocal, about the growth of the Japanese presence in the Pacific. In Britain there was a feeling that Japanese help in the war had come slowly and reluctantly. The marmalade that the head of a large Japanese shipping company sent to British soldiers in the front lines and the more useful contribution of a squadron to the Mediterranean in 1917 did not entirely appease the British. (Their view of Japan’s contribution was shared by the French; as Clemenceau told his fellow peacemakers in January 1919, “Who can say that in the war she played a part that can be compared for instance to that of France? Japan defended its interests in the Far East, but when she was requested to intervene in Europe, everyone knows what the answer of Japan was.”) Few of the European statesmen, engaged as they were in a life-and-death struggle, had the detachment to see that there was no good reason for Japan to intervene in Europe. Relations were not improved by the peace feelers that Germany put out to Japan. Although Japan did not respond to them, the impression created was of an unreliable ally. The British navy started to contemplate a future war against Japan.24

Nevertheless, the official British position at the Paris Peace Conference was to support Japan’s claims. Members of the British delegation made this quite clear when the Japanese asked anxiously for reassurance. Why did Britain only say that it would support Japanese claims, rather than guaranteeing that Japan would get the territories it wanted? Because that was all that Britain had promised to do in the secret agreement of 1917. Lloyd George himself said that Britain intended to stick by that promise.25

Wilson had no use for secret diplomacy and he made it quite clear that, as far as he was concerned, the 1917 agreement was a private arrangement that did not involve the United States. He was also under pressure to be tough with Japan. Anti-Japanese feeling was strong among the American public, partly because of Japanese immigration, a perennial irritant, but also because of the German peace moves. Mexico was another problem; Japan had sold weapons to what many Americans considered the wrong side in Mexico’s bloody civil war, and then in 1917, in a clumsy attempt to win Japan to the side of the Central Powers, the German foreign minister, in the notorious Zimmerman telegram, had asked Mexico to invite Japan to join an alliance against the United States. Again, this left a bad impression. At the war’s end, when Japan expanded enthusiastically into Siberia, under the mantle of Allied intervention against the Bolsheviks, Wilson shared the general distaste for what was seen as a conniving Japan. Now he worried that if Japan kept control of the north Pacific islands, it would have a series of stepping-stones across the Pacific toward Hawaii. His naval advisers warned of future Japanese bases and airfields.26

On January 27, 1919, Makino read a statement to the Supreme Council in which he reminded his audience how seizing the islands from Germany had kept the shipping lanes safe during the war. The locals, he said, sounding like any other imperialist, were a primitive people who could only benefit from Japan’s protection and benevolence. Wilson mildly reiterated his preference for mandates as opposed to outright possession. He was not prepared to confront Japan on the islands, because he was disputing its other demands, for instance for the German concessions in China. He confined himself to saying that the United States could not accept a Japanese mandate over Yap, which lies at the western end of the Carolines and was a major nexus for international cables. The Americans were to raise the issue of some form of international control from time to time over the next few years, but with no success. When the mandates were finally divided in May 1919, Japan got all the islands it wanted.27

In the interwar years Japan did what the American navy had feared. Although the mandate terms forbade the establishment of military bases or the building of fortifications, this proved impossible to enforce. While foreigners found it increasingly difficult to visit the islands, Japan moved in settlers and the military. Japanese contractors built big new harbors and Truk, in the Carolines, was turned into Japan’s main South Pacific naval base.28 In the war to come, what had been obscure islands—Tinian, Saipan, Truk—became the sites of great battles.

What came to be known as “the racial equality clause” in the League covenant turned out to be far more problematic. In the years before the war, Japanese businessmen complained that they were frequently humiliated when they traveled abroad. In California, Japanese nationals first lost the right to buy land, then the right to lease it, and finally the right to bring their wives to join them. In 1906 the San Francisco School Board voted to send Chinese and Japanese children (of whom there were fewer than a hundred in total) to segregated classes lest they overwhelm the white children. Japanese (and Chinese and Indian) immigrants found it more and more difficult to get into Canada and the United States, and impossible to enter Australia. Even during the war, when Japan was fighting as an ally of the British empire, its nationals continued to be excluded.

The Japanese government had been conciliatory, offering to limit emigration, but it was under pressure from its own public opinion. In 1913, twenty thousand Japanese cheered when a speaker pronounced that Japan should go to war rather than accept the California laws on land ownership. In 1916 the government sent what was by Japanese standards a blunt message to Britain: “a general feeling of regret is prevalent in the Imperial Diet that anti-Japanese feeling is still strong in British colonies.” As Japan prepared to take its place at the Peace Conference, Japanese newspapers were full of exhortations. “Now is the time,” said one editorial, “to fight against international racial discrimination.”29

Senior statesmen warned the government that Japan should approach the proposed League of Nations with great caution. What if it was simply another way to freeze the status quo and keep Japan in the second rank? Even Wilson’s promises of a new diplomacy were suspect. Democracy and humanitarianism were nice sentiments, wrote a young patriot in an article that caused a considerable stir, but they were simply a cloak for the United States and Britain to maintain their control over most of the world’s wealth. If Japan was to survive, wrote its author, Prince Fumimaro Konoe, it might have to be more aggressive. The Japanese delegation was dispatched to Paris with instructions to delay the creation of the League, and, if that were not possible, to make sure that the League’s covenant contained a prohibition on racial discrimination. Konoe went along as an aide to Saionji. Years later he was to be Japan’s prime minister when his country slid toward war with the United States. In 1945 he drank poison before he could be tried for war crimes.30

Since Wilson insisted that the League be the first item of business at the Peace Conference, the Japanese delegates worked quietly behind the scenes for the racial equality clause. At the start of February, Makino and Chinda called on House, who was, as usual, encouraging and friendly. He had always, he said, hated racial prejudice and would do his best to help them. When House met with Balfour a couple of days later, he was less optimistic. The British envoy had tried several different formulas but the difficulty was that the Japanese did not want completely anodyne wording, while for others—the Australians, for example—any mention of racial equality was unacceptable. Balfour was his usual detached self: the notion that all men were created equal was an interesting one, he found, but he did not believe it. You could scarcely say that a man in Central Africa was equal to a European. He also warned House that people in the United States and the British empire were seeing the proposed clause as a first step to outlawing restrictions on Japanese immigration. He was aware of this, House replied, but Japan did have a problem of overpopulation. Perhaps, he added hopefully, they could all go to Siberia—or Brazil.31

In the Commission on the League of Nations, Makino and Chinda discreetly let it be known that they were working on a clause that they would, in due course, bring forward. On February 13, as the first draft of the covenant was being readied, Makino read out a long statement. He wished to amend the “religious liberty” clause, which included a promise by League members not to discriminate against anyone within their jurisdiction on the basis of creed, religion or belief. He read his amendment:

The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord, as soon as possible, to all alien nationals of States members of the League equal and just treatment in every respect, making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality.

Makino recognized that racial prejudice ran deep, but the important thing was to get the principle accepted and then let individual nations work out their own policies. The League, he went on, would be a great family of nations. They were all going to look out for each other. It was surely unreasonable to ask nationals of one country to make sacrifices, perhaps even give up their lives, for people who did not treat them as equals. In the Great War, different races had fought side by side: “A common bond of sympathy and gratitude has been established to an extent never before experienced.”

It was a moving and liberal statement, and it made absolutely no difference. Cecil, speaking for Britain, said that, alas, this was a highly controversial matter. It was already causing problems within the British empire delegation. He thought that it would be better to postpone the whole matter to a future date. There was a general murmur of agreement. Perhaps, Venizelos suggested helpfully, they should drop the whole clause on religious liberty, since that was also a tricky subject. This brought a solitary objection from the Portuguese delegate, who said that his government had never yet signed a treaty that did not call on God. Cecil, in a rare moment of humor, replied that this time they would all have to take a chance. There was no mention of racial or religious equality in the draft which now went forward to a full meeting of the Peace Conference for discussion. The Japanese made it clear that they intended to raise the issue again.32 The next day, February 14, Wilson left for the United States, and the League was put to one side.

The racial equality clause, however, was starting to catch public attention. In Japan there were public meetings and demands to end “the badge of shame.” Along the West Coast of the United States political leaders warned of the serious consequences to the white race if the clause passed. The clause, Lloyd George said, repeating another common misunderstanding, was also aimed at the discrimination suffered by Japanese who were already living in places such as Australia and the United States.33

The Japanese had, at best, lukewarm support in Paris. The Chinese, whose nationals suffered from similar discrimination, felt they would probably vote for the clause but, as one Chinese delegate told an American, they had much more important things to worry about—in particular, Japan’s claims in China. Wilson had to worry about opinion at home, and he was becoming suspicious of the Japanese. Although he had trusted them before, he told one of his experts, “in fact they had broken their agreement about Siberia.” Moreover, Wilson himself was not especially enlightened when it came to race. He was a Southerner, after all, and although he had appealed for black votes in his first campaign for the presidency, he had done little for blacks once in office and had refused to allow black combat troops to fight alongside white Americans in the war, preferring to place them under French command.34

The loudest opposition to the racial equality clause came from the British empire delegation, in particular from Billy Hughes. Like many of his compatriots, Hughes firmly believed that the clause was the first breach in the dike protecting Australia. “No Govt. could live for a day in Australia if it tampered with a White Australia,” wrote one of his subordinates from Paris. “The position is this—either the Japanese proposal means something or it means nothing: if the former, out with it; if the latter—why have it?” Hughes refused to accept any of the compromises House came up with. “It may be all right,” he scribbled on one attempt. “But sooner than agree to it I would walk into the Seine—or the Folies Bergeres—with my clothes off.” Massey of New Zealand followed in Hughes’s wake.35 This put the British in an awkward position. They wanted very much to maintain the alliance with Japan but, yet again, they had to pay attention to their dominions.

While Wilson was away in the United States, the British did their best to resolve the issue. The French, who had nothing at stake, watched with amusement. Borden and Smuts went back and forth between Hughes and the Japanese delegation. They arranged for Makino and Chinda to call on Hughes. (Saionji remained, as always, in the background.) The Japanese thought Hughes “a peasant”; he complained that they had been “beslobbering me with genuflexions and obsequious deference.” The Australian allowed that he might accept the clause if it contained a proviso that it did not affect national immigration policies. It was the turn of the Japanese to refuse. Makino and Chinda appealed to House repeatedly for help, but they were looking in the wrong quarter. House was not prepared to fight for something that was bound to be unpopular in the United States. Privately, he was delighted that the British were taking the heat. “It has taken considerable finesse to lift the load from our shoulders and place it upon the British, but happily, it has been done.”36

The Japanese delegates, under pressure from Tokyo, decided to go ahead with the clause. As Chinda told House, a defeat would at least show their own public that they had tried. On April 10, at a meeting of the Commission on the League of Nations, the Japanese let it be known that they would be introducing their amendment the next day. They had put it off so often, said House’s son-in-law Gordon Auchincloss, that it had become something of a joke. On April 11, the commission met until late in the evening, trying to come up with a formula that would allow the United States to keep the Monroe Doctrine and join the League. Everyone was exhausted when the Japanese finally moved that a reference to racial equality be included in the preamble to the covenant. They had by now watered down their original proposal so that the clause would simply ask for “the principle of equality of nations and just treatment of their nationals.” Makino and Chinda both spoke moderately and calmly. They made a very good impression. One by one the other delegates on the commission— Venizelos, Orlando, Wellington Koo from China, the French delegates, Bourgeois and Larnaude, and the Czech prime minister—spoke in favor of the amendment. Looking extremely uncomfortable, Cecil said briefly that he could not support it, then sat glumly with downcast eyes.

While the others were speaking, House slipped a note to Wilson, who was chairing the meeting: “The trouble is that if this Commission should pass it, it would surely raise the race issue throughout the world.” Wilson knew that any reference to racial equality would alienate key politicians on the West Coast, and he needed their votes to get the League through Congress. He urged the Japanese to withdraw their amendment. It was a mistake, he said, to make too much fuss about racial prejudice. That would only stir up flames that would eventually hurt the League. Everyone in the room knew that the League was based on the equality of nations. There was no need to say anything more. He was speaking in the most friendly possible manner to the Japanese. He knew that they meant well, but he felt that he had to warn them that they were going about things the wrong way.

The Japanese delegates insisted on a vote. When a majority voted for the amendment, Wilson, with the dexterity he had no doubt learned as a university president, announced that because there were strong objections to the amendment it could not carry. The Japanese chose not to challenge this dubious ruling and so the racial equality clause did not become part of the covenant.37

The Japanese press was bitterly critical of the “so-called civilized world.” Liberal, internationally minded Japanese were dismayed. They had played the game, they had shown themselves ready to participate in the international community, and yet they were still treated as inferiors. If nations were denied just and equal treatment, Makino warned a plenary session of the Peace Conference on April 28, they might well lose faith in the principles that guided the League: “Such a frame of mind, I am afraid, would be most detrimental to that harmony and co-operation, upon which foundation alone can the League now contemplated be securely built.” He was right. The failure to get the racial equality clause was an important factor in the interwar years in turning Japan away from cooperation with the West and toward more aggressively nationalistic policies.38

In the short term, however, Japan was able to use its defeat to its advantage. “The Japanese told me with all oriental courtesy,” Wilson reported to his fellow peacemakers toward the end of April, “that, if we didn’t take their side on this article of the treaty, they couldn’t sign the rest.” Lloyd George appeared unperturbed. “Dear! Dear!” Clemenceau added, “If that doesn’t bother you any more than that, I can’t seem to be more bothered than you.” In fact, they were all worried. The conference could not afford another defection. Wilson, desperate to save the League of Nations but unable to accept the racial equality clause, now faced giving Japan what it wanted in China. What made his position difficult was that China also had a strong case.39

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!