Learning From History: America and Japan, Part I
The 20th century began with the world converting to oil as its primary energy source for industrial and military purposes. In an atmosphere of specific shifts in foreign policy to accommodate this transformation, the realpolitik policies enacted by the United States forced the Japanese Empire to disengage politically with Allied powers, leaving them disenfranchised in global politics and on an inevitable path to military conflict with America. Moreover, constrictions on trade and access to necessary natural resources enacted by America exacerbated Japan’s relationship with the U.S., leading them to the rational conclusion that a military showdown in the Pacific, in the form of a pre-emptive strike, was a necessary action for them to sustain their growing economic needs and maintain their expectation that they would succeed in their goal to become a world power.
Nearing the turn of the century, Japan was a nation about which Americans had an uneasy curiosity. This exotic, far-off land inspired two opposing images amongst the U.S. general public: a romanticized vision of parochial communities with idyllic gardens and Samurai warriors and a divergent image of a hostile, aggressive nation with limitless ambition and technical prowess intent on challenging Western hegemony. The first incident that reflected this atmosphere of paranoia and distrust and an act that intensified relations between America and Japan occurred in the Republic of Hawaii in the spring of 1897. At that time, there was a fear that Japan would attempt a takeover of the Republic using enemy combatants disguised as labourers. This fear culminated with the refusal by the Hawaiian government to allow 1,119 Japanese immigrants to land on the islands, an act that became known as the Shinshu Incident. Japan reacted to this humiliating experience by dispatching the Naniwa, a protected cruiser of the Japanese Imperial Navy, “to observe Hawaiian-American relations.” The Japanese Foreign Minister, Okuma Shigenobu, expected this move would expedite a diplomatic solution to the problem. Japan did not want to allow the Hawaiian Republic the ability to prevaricate the issue with the expectation that Hawaii’s eventual annexation by the United States would bring to an end Japanese ambitions for the islands. Ironically, this move had the opposite effect intended. The Japanese reaction inspired pro-annexation newspapers in America to phrase the issue as Japanese intention to exert influence over the islands, swaying American public opinion to the idea that the annexation of Hawaii was a necessary step to protecting U.S. interests in the Pacific region. This incident also reinforced the notion that Japan was a military force with imperialist intentions that would eventually conflict with American ideas of necessary Pacific influence, as later noted by Alfred T. Mahan, a United States Navy flag officer, geo-strategist, and historian who had just begun writing his famous work, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783.
Mahan embodied the American characteristic of interpreting Japanese culture from the standpoint that a duality of character existed in Japan –one being benevolent, parochial and charming; the other being malevolent, sinister and imperialistic. Early in his career, Mahan had travelled to Japan in 1867 on board the steamship USS Iroquois, where he stayed for more than a year protecting American interests in the region. During his time in the newly opened treaty ports of Japan, Mahan came to conclude that modernization was the enemy of Japanese culture and Japan’s imperialist intentions were fuelling the drive to modernize the country and its economy. Mahan preferred to see the country he had come to love remain unsophisticated and peacefully idyllic; he certainly didn’t want it to become America’s competitor for Pacific hegemony, an opposition he claimed would inevitably come from somewhere, as he noted in his book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783, that he would eventually publish in 1890.
Mahan’s gospel of sea power would bring lessons that would not go unheeded by Japanese Naval commanders. As a matter of fact, they would take Mahan’s propositions and make them the official policy of the Japanese Imperial Navy. Without going into a long description of Mahan’s work, it is important to summarize key points of Mahan’s doctrine that would cause dramatic transformations in the naval policies of Japan, Britain and the United States. Mahan’s thoughts were centered on two general topics: simple naval strategies and “a theory of commercial expansion backed by sea power.” On the topic of naval strategies, Mahan advocated a massive, aggressive attack once war had been declared; using a large battle ship navy, with the purpose of obliterating the enemy’s fleet as quickly and completely as possible. His theory for commercial expansion advocated the need to secure overseas markets and colonies that could feed the domestic economy enough to finance a massive military budget to build the Navy required to secure these markets and colonies. The Japanese Imperial Navy took Mahan’s advice very seriously and began to implement policy that adhered exactly to the Mahan Doctrine. The Naval historian, Ronald H. Spector has written, “The Japanese navy was a faithful mirror image of its American opponent in strategy. Japanese naval officers, too, had inhaled deeply the heady, if somewhat musty, fumes of Mahan’s classic brew of imperialism and salt water.” The naval strategist, George W. Baer, went as far as to remark, “Japan’s naval strategy was more Mahanian than America’s.” The successes of this policy beget a growing apprehension of where this policy was going.
Nowhere was this culture of fear and suspicion of Japan more apparent than it was in the U.S. Navy. Beginning in 1906, command of the U.S. Navy had begun formulating a plan of attack on the Japanese, based on the assumption that it would be a bilateral war. This contingency operation was known as War Plan Orange and it was designed with the assumption that the Japanese were the most likely enemy in any global, naval confrontation. At this same time, Lord Selborne, the First Lord of the Admiralty, was making statements like, “The substitution of oil for coal is impossible because oil does not exist in this world in sufficient quantities. It must be reckoned only as a most valuable adjunct." By 1912, Winston Churchill made the decision to convert the British Navy from coal to oil, making oil the object of attention for, not just the British Navy, but any Navy in the world who wished to compete with the British. Without a doubt, after Churchill’s decision, contingency plans involving naval battles between Japan and America were predicated on the belief that a best-case scenario involved a Japanese Navy without access to high-quality oil, leaving them at a technical disadvantage.
On the evening of February 8th, 1904, Japan initiated an attack from Mahan’s playbook that became a prototype for future Japanese naval war strategy, including the attack on Pearl Harbour in December of 1941. On this night, the Japanese Imperial Navy executed a massive, surprise attack on the Russian fleet stationed in the harbour of Port Arthur. America’s reaction to this surprising naval achievement was twofold; the New York Times, St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the Cleveland Plain Dealer all praised Japan’s success in its war against Russia; however, following the peace conference at Portsmouth where the true nature of Japanese ambitions was exposed, cynicism grew, giving America the impression that something needed to be done to keep Japan in check. The Root-Takahira Agreement that was signed on November 30th, 1908 was meant to do exactly that. Fearing Japanese ambitions would eventually extend to the Philippines, while acknowledging the fact that Japan would not be willing to give up Manchuria, the latter ambition was accepted in exchange for a resolution to drop the former. While this agreement did settle any questions about Hawaii and secure the Philippines under America’s sphere of influence, it gave the Japanese the go-ahead to do what they wanted in Manchuria and Korea, leaving them in a much stronger and more emboldened position in international relations than ever before. Mahan’s policy for naval strategy had paid off and this would not be forgotten.
Japan’s success in the Russo-Japanese war and the entitlements given by the Root-Takahira Agreement motivated Japanese intellectuals to glorify Japanese accomplishments in the media and advocate a renewed impetus for expansion. A myriad of Japanese writers proliferated ideas in Japanese journals of creating a “great cosmopolitan people” that would go out and secure sources of natural resources and cement economic relationships that would benefit Japan. The general trend in this writing was to espouse the notion that this need not be done through military force; it simply required the world to accept the Japanese people through immigration and negotiation that would result in harmonious economic associations. Manchuria, Korea, China, South America and the Dutch East Indies were commonly hailed as targets for this initial phase of expansionist policy. With a substantial war debt left from the struggle with Russia, the idea of economic expansion and actively seeking new sources of economic growth went over well with government officials and the Japanese public.
By 1911, it had become apparent that American territorial expansion efforts were emerging simultaneously with Japanese efforts in the Pacific; however, both of these nations were attempting to negotiate that expansion in a peaceful manner. The introduction of war into the international paradigm brought an atmosphere conducive for further Japanese advancement into Southeast Asia. Japan took advantage of the conflagration in Europe and the disorder in China to extend its empire when the opportunities arose. Woodrow Wilson’s formula for liberal expansion were acknowledged after the war to be an acceptable methodology for countries to follow and the Japanese took full command of this policy, increasing trade and economic involvement to secure resources to empower their domestic economy. The Washington Conference of 1921-1922 that promoted non-aggressive expansion and reduced armaments was the height of this pacifist ideology. When world economies began to collapse in 1929, and internationalism began to give way to regionalism, nationalism and isolationism, peaceful expansionism began to lose its appeal in the Japanese discourse.
Despite assurances by Japanese diplomats in 1931 that an occupation of Manchuria was not necessary in a climate of peaceful economic penetration, Japan had long felt that Manchuria was as essential to Japanese interests as Latin America was to American interests. By 1931, Japan felt “pushed to the wall” by Chinese Nationalists in Mukden and Nanking and they were well aware that any peaceful attempts to secure these regions for economic exploitation would be met with violent confrontation. The hostile atmosphere that had been building between these opposing groups resonated in both Chinese and Japanese military culture and this mutual resentment surfaced on the night of June 27th, 1931. Captain Nakamura, three interpreters and some assistants had been sent by the Japanese military command into Manchuria, where they were stopped by Chinese authorities in Harbin. After presenting their passports, they were detained by the Chinese authorities and later shot, their bodies cremated to hide the evidence. This act further exacerbated the growing hostility for the Chinese within the Japanese military. There had been many such occasions of unjustified provocation by the Chinese during and after the Chinese Nationalist Revolution of 1925-1926 and while each of these incidents in isolation were not a justifiable pretext to war, they began to have a serious effect on the Japanese military that was made to endure them. While all of the provocations were not one-sided, until September, 1931, most of these irritants had come from the Chinese.
At 10:00 P.M., on September 18th, 1931, a squad of Japanese railway guards reported hearing an explosion that would echo around the world. Three miles south of Mukden, a section of railway had been damaged in what was announced by the Japanese to be a Chinese terrorist attack. The Japanese reaction to this apparent act of war was immediate: within three hours Mukden, Changchun, Antung and Koupangtzu were under Japanese control and within three days Japanese troops occupied Kirin and the civil administrations in Southern Manchuria. With the build-up of tensions at a breaking point, the impetus for an aggressive military takeover of Manchuria was unstoppable. This momentum had not come from the Japanese government in Tokyo; it was borne of the resentment brewing amongst Japanese military commanders on the ground in Manchuria. For several years prior to 1931, many Japanese officers had become disenfranchised with official Japanese policy towards the Chinese and, after a decade of provocations, had conspired to create an incident that would justify the annexation of Manchuria. This event was a faked terrorist attack on the railway at Mukden on September 18th. The officers cited the Chinese boycott of Japanese goods, anti-Japanese rhetoric being taught in their schools, infringements on the rights of Koreans in Manchuria, the building of a parallel railway in Southern Manchuria and assaults against Japanese soldiers as evidence that a peaceful resolution to the Manchurian problem was not working and never would. They felt the integrity of Japan had been compromised in the interest of appeasing capitalist, industrialist policies that would only weaken Japan in the long run and the annexation of Manchuria was a necessary step to reconcile this problem and establish Japan as a serious world power. These arguments led to the justification required to fake an event that would validate a rapid military response.
The importance for Japan being able to maintain Manchuria as a source for resources cannot be underestimated during this period of their history. Without the resources available in Manchuria, Japan’s industrialized, domestic industry would have ceased to exist. By 1931, Japan had invested more than 1 200 000 000 yen in the territory. They operated 690 miles of railways, leased 1400 sq. miles of territory, had over one thousand active Japanese companies operating from Manchuria and had over 200 000 nationals living in the area. Moreover, they extracted lumber, coal (7 000 000 tons a year), steel, grain, soybean and many more resources that sustained the populace and economy back home. As the global economic depression began to take hold, Japan had no choice but to secure these resources to ensure their sustainability as a nation. Japan was a rising power in global politics and pride and self-preservation would come to govern their foreign policy because it had to. The only other option was the disintegration of Japan’s economy and a collapse of its social infrastructure. Establishing a secure connection to Manchuria’s resources was paramount for Japan to continue its path to becoming a world power.
Following the incident at Mukden and Japan’s aggressive military reaction, China appealed to the League of Nations to achieve compensation for the confrontation and the Lytton Commission was delegated the responsibility of investigating the situation. The commission was comprised of five men from five nations –France, Germany, Italy, Great Britain and America. After a six week, fact-finding mission in Manchuria in the spring of 1932, the commission worked to complete what it felt was an unbiased report of the situation, complete with recommendations to resolve the issues at hand. The ten-chapter report gave a historical context to the Mukden Incident, propositions for a settlement between China and Japan and it gave recommendations to the League as to how to react to the altercation. It recognized Chinese provocations in the matter, but refused to recognize Japanese reaction to the Mukden Incident as an act of self defence, although the immediate reaction of Japanese soldiers on the ground during the incident were taken as justified. The League of Nations reaction to the report filed by the commission was an overwhelming condemnation of Japan’s aggressive tactics in Manchuria in a vote that left Japan the sole dissenting voice. On March 27th, 1933, Japan made the decision to extricate itself from the League, “as a result of the conflict of views between Japan and the League of Nations concerning fundamental principles for establishment of peace in the Far East, rendering it no longer possible to co-operate with the League.” Japan espoused a desire to remain in communication and cooperation with western countries, but felt this would be impossible within the structure the League provided. Yōsuke Matsuoka, the Japanese diplomat who had represented Japan during the League’s examination of the Lytton Report, left the assembly the day after the vote condemning Japan’s actions and headed to Italy to discuss the situation with Mussolini, a man he admired greatly. Matsuoka had found no empathy for Japan from British or American media, but found a special relationship developing with the fascist dictator, a man no stranger to the need for overseas expansion. Matsuoka finally returned home to a hero’s welcome on April 29, 1933, the official birthday of the Showa Emperor.
In the fall of 1933, it had become clear to the Japanese Imperial Navy that the ‘unequal’ treaties established prior to the Mukden Incident were outdated and a new agenda must be forthcoming. This new agenda was aggressively advocated by Commander Ishikawa Shingo, the principle officer in charge of armaments in the Naval General Staff, and the over-riding principle in the agenda was to be a protection of Japan’s interests in Southeast Asia. This meant the unrestricted growth of the Japanese Imperial Navy and Japanese choice in which naval vessels would be built, based on the particular needs of the nation. This political conviction led to Japan withdrawing from the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty and, eventually, to their withdrawal from the London Naval Conference in 1936. Instead, the Japanese Imperial Navy established its own Committee to Study Southern Policy in July, 1935. The result from that Committee was a policy that advocated a defence of the north and “an advance to the south.” Japanese Naval command felt that Japan must be prepared to face the U.S., Britain and possibly the Netherlands to secure the necessary resources for economic stability at home and abroad.
The United States’ policy towards Japan during the interwar period and during WWII would be formulated by Franklin D. Roosevelt following his election as the 32nd President of the United States in 1933. Roosevelt adopted the Stimson-Hoover Doctrine from the previous administration that refused to acknowledge Japan’s territorial gains in Manchuria based on the premise that those gains were made in direct contradiction to the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and the Nine-Power Treaty of 1922. Henry Stimson, in the position of Secretary of State during the Hoover administration, had strongly advised pressuring Japan to give up its territorial ambitions in Southeast Asia and he suggested America use all “means short of actual use of armed force.” While Hoover rejected this strong a position, arguing it would lead to war, he took Stimson’s recommendations seriously, as did Roosevelt in the succeeding administration. Roosevelt, upon gaining the Presidency, promised Stimson he would continue his policy of non-recognition of Japan’s conquest of Manchuria, ensuring a continued animosity between America and the indignant Japanese.