CHAPTER 2

Japan in International Affairs

JAPAN followed this resolute policy of establishing its ascendancy over China for half a century down to 1945. It was hampered in its execution by the jealousy of the Western Powers, which believed that they had a monopoly in exploiting China. In asserting itself in China and the Pacific Ocean, Japan ran the risk of increasing opposition from these Powers. It had discovered early that they would not willingly leave it in peace to bully China: not because they were sympathetic to China, but because they objected to Japan’s rise.

In pursuit of its purpose, Japan had to resort to one of the oldest devices of diplomacy. Ringed by a group of unsympathetic powers, Japan set itself to split their united front, to woo one of them as its ally and advertise its useful role in return for patronage. If it could enlist the friendship of one of the larger Powers, for which it was prepared to pay a price, it reckoned on being able to hold in check the others, and to avoid being compelled by them to forgo advantages at China’s expense (as had happened in 1895).

Where could it find the friendly patronage? Which Great Powers could it woo away from the conventional attitude of suspicion of Japan as an upstart? Above all, how could Japan supply a Great Power with an inducement to take certain risks to gain its friendship? These problems exercised Japanese statesmen at the turn of the century.

Opinion was divided. It was generally agreed that the extreme enemy of Japan, the frustrator of all its schemes of advance, was its immediate neighbour, Russia. Nevertheless one school favoured an apparently direct appeasement of Russia, and, when it had the upper hand, began negotiations which might have found a way for Japan and Russia to co-exist. Another school wanted an alliance with Germany. Already Japan felt the attraction of Germany; in its programme of modernization it had borrowed from Germany the outline of its Constitution, and also it had copied much in the organization of its Army. In the formative years of Japan’s foreign policy Japan had soundings with Germany which looked towards a much closer link.

But eventually another school prevailed. It was the group which was inclined to rely on the Japanese Navy. Japan was a group of islands; it was a maritime Power; it felt that it was obeying its predestined fate in accepting a maritime solution of its problems. It did so by throwing in its lot with Britain. Japan, perched offshore of the land mass of Asia, was aware that its conditions of life were very much the same as those of Britain, which was similarly an island nation offshore of the land mass of Europe. The geopolitical attractions of an alliance with Britain were reinforced by a strong emotional reaction in Japan. The political attitudes of the Western Powers since the enforced opening up of Japan to foreign trade in the middle of the nineteenth century had been marked by galling restraints on its mainland explorations, for instance, in the restriction of its spoliation in China in the war of 1894–5, and in some quarters by a cultural insensitivity, of which the term ‘yellow peril’ was an example. The British readiness to come to an understanding not only promised a political alliance of real value but also wiped out a sense of previous humiliations and produced a response of warm friendship in Japan. Thus in 1902, there was concluded the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, which gave Japan the partner which it sought.

The Alliance was an event of fundamental importance in Japanese history. The complicated diplomacy which preceded and followed it are a clue to all that happened in East Asia. History had taken hold of Japan, and placed the Japanese eventually in a position from which their nation drove on, blindly, but with a certain exhilaration, to its fated part in the Second World War, and to doom. Too much attention cannot be given to these events by anybody wishing to find out what really happened. With one eye turned towards Pearl Harbor, and, what lay beyond, to Hiroshima, the complexities of these years must be unravelled.

From the Japanese point of view, the desire for an Anglo-Japanese Alliance sprang from the expectation that the final disintegration of China was imminent and that a major conflict between Japan and Russia must ensue from Russia’s ever-increasing military and political power in the region. Still impressed by the vigour and resourcefulness of British imperialism, which the whole world regarded as the most highly evolved imperial system in history, a powerful faction within the ruling Japanese oligarchy came to believe that Japan’s only means of protecting its own security and achieving relatively modest objectives on its own East Asian doorstep lay in reaching an effective military and political alignment with Britain. This view, in the end, prevailed against others who regarded such steps as premature, or who instead perceived that the British Empire was passing into a period of appeasement and decline rather than of driving ambition, and who therefore desired that Japan should avoid hazarding all on an alliance with an irresolute, diffident Power but rather seek a rapprochement with Russia aimed at establishing an East Asian condominium between just the two of them. The Russophils had been more influential than those who pressed for an alliance with Britain during the decade that followed the Triple Intervention, but the impetuosity and aggressiveness which characterized Russian penetration into Manchuria, Korea and North China gradually tipped the balance.

At the same time, the British, feeling the harsh condemnation of the world over the Boer War, and fearing any potentially hostile combination of the European states in a world of uncertainties, began to seek alliances: the time had come to choose sides. Approaches were made to Russia in hopes of detaching it from an alliance with France: the British proposed what would have amounted to an Anglo-Russian condominium that would take in most of China, the Balkans and the Middle East. These breathtaking overtures were misunderstood by the Russians, however, and so the moment was lost. Britain then turned to Japan, the sole remaining rising military Power in East Asia. At first it seemed that a Triple Alliance might be possible between Britain, Japan and Germany to further their individual interests in East Asia. This prospect faded as the Germans neglected to pursue the matter, and in January 1902 the first Anglo-Japanese Alliance was concluded.

That Alliance was in effect a neutralizing arrangement so far as Japan was concerned. The two Powers declared that their motives were to maintain the status quo and general peace of ‘the Extreme East’, particularly with reference to ‘the Empire of China and the Empire of Korea’, and in securing ‘equal opportunities in those countries for the commerce and industry of all nations’. It went on to acknowledge Britain and Japan’s special interests in China and, revealingly, recognized that Japan ‘is interested in a peculiar degree politically as well as commercially and industrially in Korea’. They agreed that ‘it will be admissible for either of them to take such measures as may be indispensable in order to safeguard those interests if threatened either by the aggressive action of any other Power, or by disturbances arising in China or Korea’ – which in other words gave them a free hand to do what they liked within their respective spheres of influence. The Treaty next provided that if either of the two partners became involved in war with a Third Power, the other partner would remain strictly neutral and endeavour to dissuade other states from joining in the fray against its ally. However, if these efforts proved unavailing and ‘any other Power or Powers should join in hostilities against that ally, the other High Contracting Party will come to its assistance, and will conduct the war in common, and make peace in mutual agreement with it’. The Treaty had a nominal five-year term but with provision for its indefinite extension in the absence of any notification to the contrary.

The effect of this upon Japan was that probably it would be relieved of the prospect of war with more than one adversary. The Treaty virtually guaranteed that the neutrality of the other Powers was likely to be assured. For example, under the protection of the Treaty, Japan could safely make war on Russia, being reasonably assured that it would not be assailed by any Power which otherwise might be inclined to come to the aid of Russia. British power, promising war against any ally of Russia, or any combatant of Japan, was enough to secure the neutrality of all other Powers. So, by a minimum use of actual force, the danger of war against several countries simultaneously was very much reduced.

The Russians and French were outraged by the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and in March 1902 issued a joint declaration opposing it. But some vestiges of caution remained intact in St Petersburg, and in April 1902 the first positive result of the Alliance could be perceived when a Russo-Chinese Accord was announced which provided for a staged withdrawal of Russian troops from Manchuria. Its first phase was concluded without difficulty a month later. But the Russians soon appeared to have had second thoughts about continuing with the process. Fresh Russian units flooded into southern Manchuria to areas where no Russian forces had penetrated before, and the Russians began to establish themselves in strength near the mouth of the Yalu River, directly across the Korean frontier.

The British, United States and Japanese Governments protested. They were unavailing. A diplomatic resolution of the crisis was sought in vain. Finally, Japan gave Russia a deadline. It expired, unheeded.


Seen from the Russian perspective, there was a ghastly inevitability in the progression of events leading to the Russo-Japanese War. Once the Maritime Provinces had been acquired, it seemed a natural step to build a railway to bind the ends of the Empire together. That in turn produced demands for concessions in Manchuria and Korea and, then, led to attempts to seek ice-free naval and commercial ports in the East. All of this required huge investments of capital, and that in turn had to be protected. Japan stood in the way: her opposition could not be tolerated. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance brought matters to a head. Those who advocated conciliation were overborne by jingoistic voices on both sides. War, finally, appeared to become inescapable.

On 6 February 1904 Japan severed diplomatic relations with Russia and launched a surprise attack upon the Russian Far Eastern Fleet two days later. A number of Russian warships were sunk, scuttled or badly damaged at Chemulpo (the port of Seoul, capital of Korea) and at Port Arthur. The remainder fled back to harbour and were bottled up in Port Arthur.

This first of Japan’s great wars also set what many have regarded as a precedent of undiplomatic conduct. Japan began it by a surprise attack on the Russian Navy: it dispensed with a declaration of war. This point has been exaggerated beyond all proportion by virtually all commentators, but it is not difficult to place within its proper context: when a British survey conducted in 1883 reviewed ‘all the circumstances under which hostilities have been commenced by different countries against others, prior to a declaration of war, from the year 1700 to 1871’, it could enumerate fewer than ten conflicts where hostilities had been preceded by a declaration of war during that period compared with 107 cases where no such declaration had been pronounced. Every one of the European Great Powers – and the United States – had ‘engaged in such transactions again and again’. Even where there had been declarations of war in the past, it had been exceptional for a state to declare war with the intention of preventing its enemy from being taken by surprise (a point to which we shall return later). Thus Japan’s freedom to launch a surprise attack against the Tsar was not fettered by customary international law, and no international agreements to refrain from undeclared war existed until a convention was signed at The Hague in 1907 (where it would evolve as a direct result of the Russo-Japanese War). Moreover, even those who framed the 1907 Convention did not intend to prohibit surprise attacks but merely to clarify a sense of the seriousness, justification and responsibility for such a conflict.

In view of the appalling record of barbarism which the Japanese soldier so richly came to deserve in later years, it is also worth pausing to reflect that in this war, as in the Boxer Rebellion a decade earlier, Japan’s treatment of prisoners and scrupulous regard for international conventions on clemency were exemplary. Foreign observers attached to the two opposing sides in considerable numbers likewise remarked upon the high standard of medical services and hygiene that they found on the Japanese side compared to the Russian side’s deplorable neglect of such matters. Given the ferocity of the fighting, the inhospitable climate, and the appalling losses suffered by both sides, Japan went to extraordinary lengths in caring for the wounded and ill, and for captives for whom it was responsible. Japanese and western commentators alike comprehended that there was a considerable difference between the humane and civilized conduct of the Japanese and that of other peoples.

The watching world was surprised at Japan’s temerity in challenging such a mighty antagonist, and was astonished at Japan’s survival. The Russians, handicapped by the Trans-Siberian Railway’s single track and scarcity of rolling stock, strove to bring up fresh troop reinforcements, munitions and supplies while trying desperately to complete the final hundred miles of track round the southern shores of Lake Baikal. The Russians began the conflict with 110,000 regular troops and 30,000 railway guards in the war zone. The Japanese began with 180,000 men in the field and dispatched another 30,000 to Korea with the outbreak of hostilities. As the war progressed, these large opposing forces were heavily reinforced. The Russians transported a further 210,000 troops out to the operational theatres of the war (which still left Russia with more than four million trained soldiers and militiamen in reserve or deployed elsewhere within the Russian Empire). The Japanese Army comprised fewer than 250,000 men under arms at the beginning of the conflict and had only 400,000 in reserves, but Japan threw its full weight into the war as it developed, managing to maintain a local superiority in forces throughout the conflict. The campaign was characterized by gross incompetence within the Russian command and by brilliant recklessness on the part of the Japanese (who showed a breathtaking disregard for the expenditure of human life, repeatedly launching massed assaults against heavily fortified and entrenched positions). The besieged Russian garrison at Port Arthur finally surrendered in January 1905. Elsewhere, a succession of mammoth battles, involving more than a quarter of a million men on each side, culminated in a final battle which took place in March for possession of Mukden. It ended with a shattering defeat for the Russian forces, which then withdrew northwards in disarray. The Japanese by now were too exhausted to pursue their enemy and so let them go.

Several weeks later, a classic victory by Admiral Tōgō over the Russian Baltic Fleet in the Straits of Tsushima annihilated what was left of the Russian Navy. Ten years before, Tōgō had captained the man-of-war which sank the British merchant ship Kowshingat the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War. Now he confirmed his position in the pantheon of Japanese naval heroes. In the greatest naval battle fought since Trafalgar, four Russian battleships were lost and four captured out of a total complement of eight; seven cruisers out of twelve were sunk; five destroyers out of nine were sent to the bottom; one cruiser and two destroyers reached the safety of Vladivostok, and several other vessels fled to the safety of foreign ports where they were promptly interned. The only losses sustained by the Japanese during the battle were three torpedo boats. It was a victory almost beyond comprehension, and it led the Russians to accept the good offices of the United States (extended by President ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt following a secret approach to him by the Japanese Government). An armistice was agreed and serious peace negotiations were opened. All of this was to be recollected by the Japanese as they calculated their chances of following up the projected attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 – or the Battle of Midway in 1942 – with a negotiated peace settlement.

The world was astonished at Japan’s survival. The Russians had lost every engagement of the war and yet Japan’s victory was less complete than popular legend might suggest. Japan was exhausted and grasped at peace after eighteen months of war. The conflict cost Japan more than 86,000 dead and an additional 6,700 reported missing or taken prisoner by the Russians, who in turn suffered 43,300 dead and 39,500 missing or taken captive. Japan was in no position either to sustain such losses in future or to carry the financial burden of continuing such a war.

Although the Japanese military and naval victories were spectacular, the Russians had time on their side. In the peace negotiations conducted at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the Russians proved effective negotiators and stoutly resisted a number of the Japanese demands. Russia finally agreed to acknowledge ‘the paramount political, military and economic interests of Japan in Korea’, and transferred to Japan Russia’s Kwantung Leased Territory on the Liaotung Peninsula, including Port Arthur and Darien, together with a railway zone extending along part of the Russian-built Harbin to the Port Arthur branch of the Chinese Eastern Railway from Changchun (’Hsinking’) to the sea. The Japanese failed in their efforts to acquire the whole of Sakhalin Island, which had served as a remote Russian penal colony, but secured possession of special fishing rights and its southern half (land which Japan had occupied following the battle of Tsushima). Title to all Russian property and interests within these territories passed to Japan, but the Japanese were unable to extract a separate indemnity to offset their war expenditure. Japan was in no position to demand to annex Manchuria, though it might seem to have gained the right to do so. The two sides agreed to restore Manchuria to Chinese sovereignty and administration. But Japan was given the right to safeguard the South Manchurian Railway zone with Japanese troops. This was fateful. From this military base, the power of Japan was to spread over to the mainland and came to menace all China. As a first step, taken in December 1905, Japan and China concluded a separate Treaty of Peking by which the Empire of China reluctantly consented to the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth and at the same time agreed to permit Japan to extend the railway network eastwards to Korea.

The Japanese public, however, long remained unaware of how near Japan had come to exhaustion and ultimate collapse during the war against Russia: that is not the sort of information any nation reveals at such times. Accordingly, the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth fell far short of what the nation had expected. The political parties in the Imperial Diet reacted with bitterness and consternation. Riots broke out on the streets of Tokyo, suppressed by armed troops at the cost of a thousand casualties. Martial law had to be declared, there was a general curtailment of such tender liberties as the Japanese public had come to enjoy, and the Government finally had to resign.


The second Anglo-Japanese Alliance, concluded secretly in London a month before the restoration of peace with Russia, was in some sense a compensation for the disappointments clearly pending for Japan at Portsmouth. The new Alliance was not announced until after the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed in September 1905. One obvious departure from the terms of the 1902 Treaty was the new Agreement’s recognition of Japan’s paramount position and right of control over Korea (with the rather cynical proviso ‘always that such measures are not contrary to the principle of equal opportunities for the commerce and industry of all nations’). The new Alliance also differed from the old in placing the protection of India on an equal footing to the defence of the special interests of the respective powers in ‘the Extreme East’. It was a potent warning against any Russian threat to the British Raj in India. The most critical difference of all was that the two parties now determined that an ‘unprovoked attack or aggressive action, wherever arising’ from even a single enemy state upon either of the two signatories would bring the other signatory into the conflict. Another indication of the trust which both sides reposed in their relationship was that they doubled its term to ten years (or longer, should neither side give notice of its abrogation).

The British public received word of the new Anglo-Japanese Alliance with delight. The Government and Opposition parties alike committed themselves to dependence upon three cardinal principles which would henceforth underpin the defence of the British Empire: establishment of a close harmony with the United States, improvement of relations with France, and a confident trust in the extended Alliance with Japan. These were popular policies.

Within Japan, however, the mood was different. The spectre of the Triple Alliance had risen from the past: news of the extended Alliance could not wash away a sense of grievance and shame. Once again the nation seemed to have been deprived of the fruits of Japan’s military and naval exploits through a combination of the ineptitude of her civilian bureaucrats and a conspiracy of the foreign Powers. The truth, however, was that the execrated bureaucrats had done all that was humanly possible – and that the goodwill of the Americans and the British saved Japan from far greater humiliations and the spectre of a war of attrition that Japan could never win.


Meanwhile, at the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, Japanese troops had moved rapidly to occupy Seoul and spread across Korea. Afterwards, Korean independence was all but erased, and the concessions which the Tsar’s agents so audaciously had secured were cancelled at a stroke by the Korean Government to appease the Japanese. Over the next three years, the Japanese occupation authorities tightened their stranglehold upon the country as the Japanese made effective use of that freedom of action which they had secured in their treaties with Great Britain, Russia and China. Finally, during July 1907, Japan decreed the disbandment of the Korean Army. In violent revolt, the Koreans rose up in the name of their lost autonomy, if not for their independence. The Korean régime had been arbitrary, tyrannical and corrupt, but this was a rising against a totally alien foe, a national rather than a factional cause. Yet it was a hopeless struggle. Well-seasoned Japanese troops fought back with ferocity and after a vicious struggle emerged victorious. A purposeful, forcible attempt to assimilate the country began, lasting until 1945. In August 1910 Korea was annexed to the Japanese Empire, which suffered only occasional pangs of indigestion afterwards.

The arrogance and roughness of the Japanese occupying authorities multiplied the pre-existing fear and hatred which the Chinese, Taiwanese, Manchurian, Korean and Sakhalinese indigenous populations already felt towards their new masters. As Japanese immigrants arrived to assume the functions of bureaucrats, managers, entrepreneurs and colonists, Japanese control, relentless and thorough, was exerted throughout their new domains. There was little if any hope that the Japanese would be content with a temporary occupation of alien soil: they dreamt of eternity and called it ‘cooperation’. It left a legacy still palpable today.

The demands of life within the modern world were vastly greater than this formerly self-sufficient island race appeared able to sustain without exploiting the resources of its newly acquired imperial outposts on the Asiatic mainland and on islands beyond the horizon. Security and hubris required vastly increased military expenditure. Foreign markets were beginning to close to Japanese manufactured goods, but the Japanese people were developing an appetite for overseas trade and western consumer products.

The extent of this economic, colonial and military transformation was beyond the expectation of the British statesmen and officials who had negotiated the terms of the first or even second Anglo-Japanese Alliance. By 1911 Russia had restored good relations with both Japan and the British Empire. In a sense, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance coupled with the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War had forced the Tsar to abandon any dreams of establishing his hegemony over East Asia. At the same time, trouble was brewing just beyond his European borders. There were war scares and unrest in the Balkans and in North Africa. Anglo-German naval rivalry had reached such a pitch that it seemed most unlikely that either of those two Powers could afford the expense of a protracted stalemate. The temper of public opinion, the inability of nations to increase their expenditure on armaments indefinitely, and the rigidity imposed upon mobilization plans circumscribed by the manpower, munitions, provisions and railways that now were regarded as essential in modern warfare all contributed to a chilling certainty that a general European War of some dimension was bound to occur sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, considered from the point of view of naval relations between the Great Powers, it had become a basic principle of naval strategy that a ‘fleet in being’ seeking command of the sea should be concentrated against its principal enemy rather than allow itself to be divided (a lesson taught by the popular American naval theorist Alfred T. Mahan and reinforced by the recent Russo-Japanese War). Conditions in Europe required the British fleet to concentrate in Home Waters during peace as well as in war. Protection of British imperial interests in East Asia now appeared to depend upon support from Japan.

At the same time, American concern was hardening into opposition as Japan endeavoured to squeeze the Western Powers out of all of Japan’s recent territorial acquisitions in the process of assimilating colonial domains encompassing some ·3 million square kilometres (an area more than three quarters the size of Japan Proper). Under the terms of the second Anglo-Japanese Treaty, Japan was entitled to expect backing from the British Empire if any serious conflict with the United States should develop (as might happen, for instance, if the United States Fleet ever backed up American diplomatic protests by staging a naval demonstration in the Western Pacific). Moreover, at this moment British and American negotiators were seeking to formulate an Anglo-United States Treaty of General Arbitration. There seemed very real justification for hope that far from aggravating relations between Japan and the United States, a new Anglo-Japanese Alliance would help to prevent serious trouble from arising between them.

Thus the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was revised in 1911 and effectively became redirected to meet the threat of war against Germany and its allies while underscoring the happier relations which both signatories now enjoyed with Russia and their desire for harmony with the United States. It was not a charter for aggression.

Despite the unpleasant side of Japan’s increasing strength, the Alliance served Britain in the same way that it served Japan. In effect, it provided that the British interest in East Asia would be protected in case Britain became involved in war in Europe. If that happened, Britain would rely on Japan to keep the British Empire and its interests intact in the Pacific. And so it happened when Britain had to fight the first European War. The Treaty was not quite perfectly observed, at least in spirit. Some Japanese, influential ones, could not help speculating on what Japan might do if Britain should lose the war, a possibility which they did not seem to see with regret; and the positive aid Japan gave was less than might have been expected of an honourable ally had Britain, in fact, not asked her to do less still. But concerning the effect of the Treaty as a whole, Britain was content: in the years ahead, British admirals, treasury officers and cabinet ministers often lamented its demise.


When the European Powers initiated the Great War, Japan declared war on Germany. Its action in doing so was prompted by loyalty to its ally but also by an expectation that the War would offer opportunities to strengthen Japan’s position in East Asia and to avenge losses imposed upon Japan at the time of the Triple Intervention. Although the Chinese had declared their neutrality at the outbreak of the War, the Japanese launched a land offensive across Shantung Province and, with British naval support, laid siege to the German port of Tsingtao, which finally capitulated in early November. The Japanese forces then established control over the remainder of Germany’s Shantung Leased Territory. In doing so, they seized the railway zones that traversed the Province from Tsingtao to Tsinan, the Chinese provincial capital, and gained Japan the distinction of employing military aircraft for the first time in the history of warfare. After the campaign ended, Japanese security forces were left to police the railway zones. Peking sought the return of these railways to Chinese administration and, when its efforts failed, unilaterally announced the abolition of the Shantung war zone and requested the withdrawal of all foreign troops from China.

The balance of forces in the East was disturbed by the Western Powers being engaged in war in Europe – which for the western countries was a kind of civil war. The eastern countries made their calculations accordingly. China’s audacity would have seemed unthinkable in previous years, and in the short term it misfired badly. Japan, in turn, seized its opportunity and secretly presented China with virtually an ultimatum, the notorious Twenty-One Demands, a document prepared in advance by the Japanese Foreign Minister in consultation with junior officials and sanctioned by other Cabinet Ministers for use on the first such occasion that might present itself.

Acceptance of the Twenty-One Demands would have ended even the circumscribed independence of North China: it would have transformed it into a Japanese protectorate. The pattern of probable events had been made clear in Korea. China was saved when both the scheme and the methods adopted by the Japanese Government came under sustained attack from all sides but especially from three distinct directions: a diplomatic intervention by the United States; apprehension expressed in Japanese military circles (particularly when it was proposed to dispatch further military forces to China in order to secure Peking’s compliance), and condemnation by three of the Genrō, the last surviving oligarchs of the Meiji Era, who emerged from the shadows to curb what they regarded as a gross abuse of power and trust by the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister. It is not likely that any one of these sources of pressure was strong enough on its own to force the Japanese Government to water down the Twenty-One Demands. As matters stood, however, the Japanese Government was compelled to drop its most objectionable terms, which would have granted Tokyo an exclusive right to select military, economic and political advisers to ‘assist’ the fledgling Chinese Republic; obliged China to purchase more than half of her munitions from Japan; established Japanese control over Chinese arsenals; authorized Japan to build more railways on Chinese soil, and even provided for the creation of a joint police command within areas designated by Japan. There were other demands which the Japanese Government was unwilling to abandon.

Helpless still, China was forced to acquiesce in four other sets of ’Demands’, which conferred upon Japan control of the extra-territorial rights in Shantung formerly extorted by Germany; extended Japan’s leaseholds in Manchuria from twenty-five years to a period of ninety-nine years and guaranteed Japanese subjects the right to own land; gave Japan a foothold in Inner Mongolia; forced China to concede Japan control over the exploitation of iron and coal resources in Central China, and barred China from ever again ceding any island, harbour or bay along her coast to any Third Power.

At a stroke, these concessions endowed Japan with rights and interests in China which were in no way inferior to those acquired piecemeal by all of the other foreign Powers who had enforced their claims there during the past three quarters of a century. The Japanese Government felt, indeed, that the Twenty-One Demands would open a new era of ‘cooperation’ with China that ultimately would free both of them from interference by the Western Powers: Japan was giving China the ‘freedom to say yes’ in what promised to be a unique scheme for the future interdependence and mutual advancement of the two countries. Seen from the Chinese side, of course, the Twenty-One Demands excited the just wrath of every Chinese, who already regarded Japan as their most loathsome foreign enemy. Efforts were made by later Japanese Governments to appease China by extending huge loans and bribes to the Chinese authorities, and these had some effect. But Japan’s inept mishandling of the Twenty-One Demands thoroughly discredited her in the eyes of the world. Above all, it strengthened American opposition to Japan, attracted great sympathy for China (which had been noticeably rare in previous decades), and was one instrumental factor in Britain’s subsequent decision to abandon the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.

Meanwhile, Japanese naval forces had moved swiftly at the outbreak of the First World War and established their control over the German island territories in the Pacific Ocean, including the Marshalls, the Marianas, Palau and the Carolines. Japanese naval escorts protected ships carrying troops and supplies bound for the European War and the Japanese main fleet acted as a deterrent that shielded Australia and New Zealand from enemy attack. As the War developed, Japanese cruisers and destroyers were sent into the Mediterranean and were assigned to the exceptionally arduous and dangerous escort and patrol duties necessary to combat the menace of German submarines there.

Japan more than met its obligations to its ally during the First World War. Strictly speaking, Japan had no duty to take part in the War. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1911 specifically applied only to ‘the consolidation and maintenance of the general peace in the regions of Eastern Asia and of India’, not to what might have been limited to a European War. No precise military obligations had been spelt out in the Anglo-Japanese Alliance anyway, but it had never been anticipated that Japanese forces would serve in any European theatre of operations.

The Japanese felt, indeed, that they did everything which could be asked of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, given the constraints placed upon them. Throughout the two decades which it lasted, that Alliance stood as the cornerstone of Japanese policy. Upon that rock, Japan safely took the first steps to the establishment of its Empire. The irony was that the extension of this Empire was to lead Japan into the most disastrous war of the 1940s, and war with its former ally. It pressed ahead with imperial enterprises when jangled events had deprived Japan of the British alliance and had transformed Britain into an enemy, or a wished-for victim. It is no wonder that the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was, by old-fashioned and conservative Japanese, looked back upon with melancholy regret. It represented the time of safety. It was an instrument which had brought Japan respect, growing power and few doubts or perplexities. It was a tower of strength to Japan psychologically. It had been the dependable way, felt the solider elements in Japanese society, amid other kalaeido-scopic attractions, and Japan had been wise not to forsake it.


The issues in East Asia grew more complex and divided. One of the most serious problems to arise was the Siberian Intervention, which grew out of the chaos of the Russian Revolution of 1917. For a time it appeared that the Revolution might spill over into Manchuria and Korea. At an Allied conference meeting in December 1917, General Foch pressed for an invasion of Siberia. The idea met with a cool response from Britain and the United States. The Japanese, however, began to study the respective advantages and disadvantages of intervening on their own. In the following month, the British came round to the French idea and suggested the possibility of seizing Vladivostok in order to safeguard the huge Allied war supplies – some 600,000 tons – that lay stockpiled there. Within a fortnight, two Japanese cruisers and a British cruiser reached Vladivostok harbour and dropped anchor to await developments.

The British asked the United States to reconsider the French proposal and suggested Japanese occupation of the Trans-Siberian Railway. President Wilson flatly rejected the idea. Even ruling circles in Japan, however, were divided on how far they should venture in attempting to halt the advance of bolshevism: it was arguable that direct intervention might prolong the war or lead to an Anglo-Russian reconciliation and possibly provoke further trouble after the eventual restoration of peace. On the other hand, Japanese occupation of Eastern Siberia and the Maritime Provinces was an attractive notion in its own right.

Eventually the arguments in favour of military intervention became irresistible after the Czech Legion, striving to escape from Russia in a mass exodus via the Trans-Siberian Railway, was caught up in a hopeless tangle of international (dis)agreements, orders and counter-orders. The trains were stopped: time passed, and the 70,000 Czechs gradually lost patience, strung out in troop trains over a distance of 6,000 miles of track from beyond the Volga to Vladivostok. Trotsky ordered his Red Army to disarm the Czechs and utilize them as conscript labour battalions. The Czechs intercepted his messages and fought their way out, capturing the great port of Vladivostok and holding the eastern sections of the Trans-Siberian Railway. As fighting continued, the Czechs moved back into the interior and allied themselves with the White Russian and Cossack armies operating right across Siberia to the Urals. It was their military effectiveness more than their predicament which persuaded the Western Powers and Japan to act in ‘support’ of the Czechs.

In July 1918 British, Chinese, Czech, French, Japanese and United States representatives at Vladivostok declared that the Allied Powers would henceforth assume responsibility for the safety of the area. British troops began coming ashore on 3 August, followed a week later by the Japanese. An American division arrived and so did smaller French and Canadian contingents. Although the British troops soon made their way as far westwards as Irkutsk, the other Western forces scarcely made their presence felt. The Japanese, however, dispatched some 70,000 troops, a force vastly greater in number than the other Powers had sent: it was more than a little reminiscent of the Boxer Rebellion except that on this occasion the barbaric behaviour of the Japanese troops is said to have been indistinguishable at times from that of their adversary. After extraordinary adventures, the Czechs finally extricated themselves from Russia in good order and in April 1920 embarked on their evacuation ships at Vladivostok. All of the national contingents of the Allied Expeditionary Force then withdrew except for the Japanese, who stayed.

The Japanese Government endeavoured to recall its troops from Russia but the Japanese Army refused to concede. The Japanese Cabinet found itself unable to prevent the Army from extending its military operations into northern Sakhalin. Eventually, however, the Japanese contingent bowed to the inevitable and returned home in October 1922. Nothing could turn the episode into a triumph. On the contrary, the disobedience of the Army set an evil precedent. The Japanese public, far from rejoicing in the achievements of its forces, distanced itself from the Siberian campaign. Militarism, until the outbreak of the Manchurian Incident a decade later, had become thoroughly unpopular in Japan for the first time in the nation’s modern history.

Meanwhile, at the Paris Peace Conference which had opened in January 1919, Japan’s standing as a Great Power was confirmed when it took part as one of the ‘Big Five’ nations who arrogated to themselves the overall design of the post-war settlement. In the main, the Japanese delegation emerged from the Peace Conference having achieved most of its demands, including succession to the rights formerly held by Germany in Shantung and a South Seas Mandate to administer the islands north of the Equator which Japan had seized from Germany during the war. All of these gains were achieved in the teeth of efforts to prevent them. Japan also won one of the coveted permanent seats on the Council of the League of Nations. However, Japan signally failed in its attempt to persuade the Powers to add a clause to the League of Nations Charter establishing the principle of racial equality in the affairs of member states. The proposal attracted the support of China, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, Italy and Poland but was defeated after it was strongly attacked by Australia and the United States (in the end, Britain, too, sided with the antipodean representatives notwithstanding its affectionate regard for the Anglo-Japanese Alliance). Voices in Japan had prophesied that rivalry between the ‘white’ and ‘coloured’ races of the world would escalate into a struggle for world domination following the Great War. The portentousness of Japan’s failure to gain acceptance of the racial equality clause was not lost upon the Japanese. Nevertheless, it has to be said that the matter was considered a relatively minor and mischievous distraction by the four other Great Powers, who no doubt were prompted by domestic racial prejudice but also had regard for the discrimination and prejudice to which the Koreans, Taiwanese and Manchurians were subjected under Japanese rule.

The Treaty of Versailles did not silence those who opposed Japan’s continental ambitions. Japan had taken the precaution of securing an agreement with Russia in July 1916 sanctioning Russian domination of Outer Mongolia in exchange for formal Russian recognition of Japanese influence in China, but that achievement was nullified by the Russian Revolution. Similarly, Japan had signed the Ishii-Lansing Agreement of November 1917 which seemed to give recognition to Japan’s claims on mainland China, though in vague form. However, the Chinese kept the Shantung issue alive, steadfastly refusing to sign the Treaty of Versailles on the grounds that China had conceded to Japan’s wartime demands only under duress. This line of reasoning had little to commend itself to foreign governments. It is difficult to think of more than half a dozen territorial disputes or border adjustments resolved by any means other than ‘unequal’ treaty or conquest to the disadvantage of one side or another: these are practices in which all states have engaged, and, as the reader will agree, there were abundant local precedents for Japan’s extra-territorial demands upon China. Yet in this instance the Chinese complaint enjoyed a sympathetic reception in countries such as the United States, where popular sentiment was already aroused against Japan’s aggressive behaviour.

The mood of the American public was growing increasingly hostile towards Japan and antagonistic towards the European Powers, too. The first phase of American antagonism towards Japan had coincided with the racial tensions which erupted in California at the turn of the century and from thence spread to every state westwards of the Rocky Mountains by the time of the First World War: it is impossible to exaggerate the out-rageousness and popularity of the xenophobia and race hatred so manifest on the Pacific slopes during that period. The second phase took account of Japanese subjugation of Korea, Taiwan and ‘Karafuto’ (Southern Sakhalin) but mainly developed out of the earlier phase and in response to the Twenty-One Demands. When the Koreans rose again in revolt during 1919 and the Japanese acted promptly in restoring order, the violent measures adopted by the Japanese Army to suppress the rebellion further weakened Japan’s position abroad.

However, an entirely new phase of bitterness and rivalry had already become apparent during the first European War. The United States Navy had felt its own strength, and with this development America became less inclined than formerly to share the seas with other Powers. The United States Government declared its policy to build the most powerful fleet afloat, and the United States Navy Department unveiled a programme capable of achieving that objective by construction of a navy both numerically and qualitatively superior to any of its rivals. The British Admiralty showed its determination to keep ahead of the Americans (or at least its resolve not to be left behind). This state of affairs posed a more pressing threat to Japanese independence and development than anything which had occurred since the Meiji Restoration. Japan turned its hand to the construction of warships which arguably were the most sophisticated designs in the world. Complex naval arms rivalries between many of the Powers were threatening to run out of control, but nowhere was this more likely to give rise to another world war than in the Pacific. The costs of naval rearmament on this scale were astronomical: each of the Powers began to reflect that it might be cheaper to reach a naval accord with its chief rivals than to risk financial ruin.

Great changes were coming over the whole world. The instincts of imperialism had begun to subside in all the countries involved, Japan excepted; the climate of opinion was changing, and there was a reconsideration in many countries of their long-term objectives. In all lands, the doubts of the liberal intelligentsia were undermining the former certainties. It was even asked whether it was certain that imperialism in certain countries really paid; whether the profit from the economic rampage over China was equal to the costs and dangers of keeping China down. There was an unfamiliar readiness to receive politely the advances of Chinese nationalism. Above all, the instinctive resort to force showed signs of waning; there was more readiness to treat China as other countries were treated.


In these new circumstances the British decided to terminate their Japanese Alliance; and thereby struck a heavy blow at Japan’s sentiment and security. On balance Britain considered that the Treaty had come to have disadvantages which outweighed its attractions. The immediate motive for not renewing it was pressure from the Canadian Government, which in turn reflected opinion in the United States. The chief reason for Britain’s acquiescence to American pressure to break the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was the belief that, if Britain was faced with a choice between American goodwill and that of Japan, the decision must go in favour of Anglo-Saxon solidarity. Every aspect of the issue was meticulously analysed in Whitehall and in consultation between the Prime Ministers of the British Dominions. Far more careful consideration of what was involved took place behind closed doors in London than anywhere else in the world: that was an inevitable result of the unequalled governmental efficiency of Great Britain. Yet perhaps few such fateful decisions have been made with so little national debate, and with such small public realization of what had been done, and what it meant for the future.

The ending of the Treaty confirmed that the world was to divide upon racial lines. By rebuffing Japan, this event compelled Japan to recognize itself as being on the Asian side. It confirmed the tendency of Japanese and westerners to see the tensions of this part of the world as consisting in the polar opposition of the white and the yellow races. Japan, cast out again from the inner ring of Powers which had the last word in world affairs, would in the end seek to overthrow this same inner ring. It would do so in the name of the equality of races. In its manoeuvres it could no longer be assured of the neutralization of most of the Western Powers; and undoubtedly it would make a commotion in seeking to forward its interest in a world grown more hostile to it.

As a compensation for the old Anglo-Japanese Alliance, Japan had to content itself with an agreement for limitation of naval power, in which Japan’s status as one of the greatest naval powers in the world was recognized. The Japanese Government, weakest of the three, appreciated that Japan had little option but to do everything possible to restore a semblance of international goodwill. Thus Japan suffered the mortifying experience of coming to the Washington Conference, convened by President Harding a few months after his inauguration, and of being obliged to sign a series of interlocking agreements that gave away a good deal of what the Japanese people believed they had earned during the recent Great War.

In a Four Power Treaty with Britain and the United States (joined by France at the last minute after pressure by the American Secretary of State), Japan was compelled to give up the protection of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in favour of what amounted to a quadruple non-aggression pact respecting one another’s ‘rights in relation to their insular possessions and insular dominions in the region of the Pacific Ocean’. This Treaty also vaguely provided for mutual consultation – but not arbitration – in the event of any of the signatories finding themselves in a dispute that seemed insoluble by normal bilateral diplomacy.

In a separate Washington Five Power Treaty with Great Britain, the United States, France and Italy, Japan undertook to abandon its own naval expansion programme and to accept an inferiority of six tenths of the tonnage permitted to the British or Americans in capital ship and aircraft-carrier displacement. At the same time delegates also established limitations on the size and armament of capital ships and aircraft-carriers and agreed to observe a ten-year ‘building holiday’ during which no new capital ships would be laid down. In naval arithmetic, that left the Japanese Navy no margin of superiority against either of its two foremost potential enemies in its own home waters.

The one major concession which the Japanese delegation wrung from the other representatives was a promise to maintain the present balance of power by refraining from the construction of new naval bases and fortifications in the Western Pacific and by renouncing the right to increase their existing naval repair and maintenance facilities in the region. The United States only accepted this proposal on the understanding that it did not extend to Hawaii and islands contiguous to the Western Hemisphere, but Guam, Midway, Western Samoa, the Philippines and the Aleutians were effectively condemned to helplessness and lost much of their potential value as staging areas or main fleet bases. Britain excluded the Canadian offshore islands, Australia and its dependencies, New Zealand, and above all Singapore. Hong Kong, however, was left unprotected. The British also agreed to surrender their leasehold on the Shantung port of Wei-hai-wei to China as an inducement to the Japanese to do likewise with Japan’s special interests elsewhere in that Province. Japan promised to demilitarize the Kurile Islands, ‘Karafuto’, Formosa, the Pescadores and the Japanese Mandated Islands. The whole of French Indo-China was excluded from the Treaty (not that France ever seriously contemplated its defence). These voluntary undertakings were intended to reduce the risk of conflict in the Pacific. If it ever became necessary for Japan to defend herself against an attack by either one of the Anglo-Saxon naval powers, any fleet hostile to Japan would have to leave secure fleet repair and revictualling facilities thousands of miles behind. This arrangement compensated the Japanese to a considerable degree for the inferiority which she had to accept in relation to the size of her fleet compared to that of the United States or Great Britain.

The Japanese Navy had hoped to establish its right to indisputable mastery of the Western Pacific and so free Japan to reconstruct East Asia with little regard for either British or American sensitivities. The Japanese delegation at Washington had the wisdom to leave such schoolboy dreams behind, but the Naval Treaty did force the Japanese Navy to revise its strategic thinking and fatally compromised the design of its heavy warships: emphasis was placed upon their speed and armament with little attention to cruising range and crew accommodation. The same defects also became evident in some other classes of ships as well. This in time – as we shall see – was to lead to their comparatively early exhaustion and inefficiency when deployed in the punishingly long and far-flung naval campaigns of the Pacific War.

The Washington Conference contemplated a period in which Treaty Ports and extra-territoriality in China would be no more. The Powers professed to be willing that China should eventually be admitted to the comity of states as an equal, and welcomed the signs of modernization. The instrument embodying these agreements, called the Nine Power Treaty, was for twenty years a memorial of the limitations put upon Japan from having a free hand to decide the shape of the Far East. Japan joined with all of the remaining Powers interested in the Pacific (apart from Russia who bitterly objected to being excluded) in pledging itself to respect China’s integrity and independence. The principle of the Open Door, which the Americans regarded as holy writ and others privately regarded as sanctimonious nonsense, was endorsed by China for the first time and publicly reaffirmed by all of the other Powers, who also denied that any of them would henceforth seek special rights, privileges, monopolies or preferences in China ‘which would abridge the rights of subjects or citizens of friendly states’ there. Although there were provisions for mutual consultation in the event of breaches of these undertakings, the Nine Power Treaty had no specific provision for ‘collective security’ or for mutual guarantees. In Japan the change of mood in the Powers who were party to the Treaty was received with consternation, which would have been greater if most Japanese had not regarded it as hypocrisy. Nevertheless, Japan did agree to withdraw its garrison from Hankow and, in a separate Sino-Japanese Treaty, restored Shantung to China (while retaining a short-term interest in the Shantung railway zone which would ensure that Japan did not suffer any financial losses from the reversion). Sino-American efforts to restore China’s position in Manchuria were blocked by Britain and Japan, but the Powers agreed to terminate the Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War. There were many other achievements during the Washington Conference: we need not consider them in detail.

All in all, there was a remarkable blend of realpolitik, self-sacrifice and compromise at the Washington Conference. It produced nine treaties and twelve international resolutions. The nations represented there seemed determined to avoid a repetition of the events which had culminated in the calamity of the Great War: they gave expression to a common desire to mark the end of an epoch and the beginning of a better, more peaceful world. For a time it appeared that the ‘Washington Treaty System’ would operate in the way its authors had hoped. The Washington Conference itself had a profound moral influence everywhere, established a precedent in successful arms control negotiations, curbed Great Power rivalries in East Asia and resolved a number of troublesome issues. Nevertheless, it dissatisfied the naval advisers of each of the Governments concerned and effectively concentrated those Governments’ attentions upon their unremitting conflicts over other matters affecting peace and stability in East Asia.

Within the admiralties, treasuries, foreign ministries and cabinets of nations, the processes of administration continued much as before. The Washington System fell far short of satisfying those unreconstructed ultra-nationalists of every hue and country whose exaggerated visions of manifest destiny always seem to be intertwined with paranoiac apprehension. It is this which finally led to the downfall of the Washington System.

Scarcely before delegates returning from the Washington Conference had unpacked their bags and souvenirs, the United States Supreme Court pandered to public prejudice and shamelessly ruled in November 1922 that Japanese were ineligible for United States citizenship through naturalization. One year later, the Court also ruled that the States of California and Washington were entitled under the Federal Constitution to deny Japanese the rights to own or lease land. A further step embittering relations took place in 1924 when the United States Congress smashed the ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ that had underpinned Japanese-American relations since 1907, and passed an Exclusion Act which barred Asiatics, including Japanese, from any hope of being accepted as immigrants. About the same time Australia became notorious for a White Australia Policy. Canadian hostility against Japanese immigration was no less vocal. These developments, more than any others, convinced the Japanese that, whether they wished it or not, the great world of contemporary history insisted that they were to be Asian; Japan would take them at their word and would seize the Asian leadership.


Japan, having been disowned by its partner among the Great Powers, was thereafter condemned to a restless search for an ally which would offer her the same security as Britain had done. Although Japan persisted in efforts to revive Anglo-Saxon goodwill towards Japan, it was an exercise in futility. Many Japanese continued to believe that cooperation with China was not only possible but offered East Asia’s ancient civilizations their only hope for survival against the onslaught of western wealth and technology. Japanese efforts to supervise the recovery of China had been thwarted by China’s unwillingness to cooperate and by the intervention of other Powers. Japan was induced to retreat. It was still lacking in self-confidence. It had not yet developed the willingness to outrage the rest of the world. But the stage was being set for the more determined confrontation from which Japan would not back down so easily. The Chinese would be goaded into stubborn effort to defend their revolution and the recovery of their vital power. Japan would be lured by the attractions of a dangerous new ally in the West which some factions would calculate would give Japan the security which its Government and people had sought. Others imagined that an alliance with Russia offered Japan better protection than no alliance at all. Japanese decision-makers indeed responded to this impulse, overcame their animosity towards the Soviet Union sufficiently to recognize the régime in 1925, and sought to explore opportunities for closer economic relations. But communist agitation within Japan, Korea, Manchuria and China made the Japanese shy away from more intimate political connections with Russia. As Japan cast around during the first decade after the Great War, its neuroses of alarm and resentment deepened and became always more dangerous. Far more was at stake than a struggle for the mastery of China, but nevertheless in a sense it was true that all the Powers concerned would drift in the end into a war that came from the complications arising out of this fatal competition.

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