An Island, Alone in the Sea

27 July 2018

Empire and Globalism | History | Politics

The expansionist route that Japan pursued during the 1930s has historically been linked with domestic issues during this decade. However, ahead of the upcoming publication of Foreign Office Files for Japan 1919-1930, I found myself uncovering documents telling a different tale and presenting reasons, during the ‘20s, as to why Japan chose this route.

Japan had fought alongside the Allies during the First World War, aiding the British in Malta and capturing Tsingtao from the Germans. After the war Japan was inducted as a member of the League of Nations and held a place at the Paris Peace Conference that would lead to the Treaty of Versailles.

At the conference, the first signs of Japan’s isolation from the Allies began. Japan proposed that a racial equality clause be included in the treaty; such a clause was not intended to promote universal equality, but instead to ensure that Japan be recognised as an equal by the Western powers. 

Japan appeared justified in requesting the clause; after all this once isolated nation had swiftly risen on the global stage. Following this, the Meiji Restoration further shaped Japan into a dominant power which proved victorious in both the First Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese War. 

 

"Hughes Discusses Racial Amendment". Crown Copyright documents © are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 
"The policy is an indispensable one". Crown Copyright documents © are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The proposed clause was not to be. While the clause received a majority vote, it was overturned by chairman Woodrow Wilson after Australia strongly opposed it, claiming it would undermine their ‘White Australia Policy’, a policy described by the Australian Premier in an interview with a newspaper, as an ‘indispensable one’. Further frustration would follow when Japan was denied those Pacific territories they had annexed for the Allied cause.

Considering these factors, Japan’s advocacy for the Asian Co Prosperity Sphere during the 1940s becomes clearer; they had been rejected as equals by nations once considered allies. Japan’s expansion was further curtailed by the Washington Conference; where their navy was limited more than any Western powers. The Japanese, as seen in an issue of the Japan Advertiser, argued that ‘the ratio of 10-6’ on capital ships, ‘is unfair’ and ‘destructive of peace’. Japan needed raw materials but instead of being aided by the West, they were isolated, and to some degree directed down the path they chose during the 1930s and 1940s.

 

"What is the Justice of America". Crown Copyright documents © are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 
"The ratio 10-6 is unfair". Crown Copyright documents © are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The Foreign Office files contain numerous documents and contemporary newspaper reports, representing Western and Eastern views, on this delicate and complex period of Japanese history; one that would see Japan step upon the path it did during the next two decades.

Foreign Office Files for Japan 1931-1945 and 1946-1952 are now available and Foreign Office Files Japan 1919-1930 is due for publication in early 2019. Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to find out more.

About the Author

Ben Jeffery

Ben Jeffery

Since joining Adam Matthew in January 2018, I have worked on exciting projects such as World’s Fairs and The First World War. I have a Masters in Ancient and Classical History from Reading University. My interests include 4th century BC Greek and Macedonian military history and late medieval central Eurasian nomadic cultures.

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