In-depth Japan and World War I
Japan’s Post–World War I Foreign Policy: The Quest for a Cooperative Approach

Sakurai Ryōju [Profile]

[2014.08.20] Read in: 日本語 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL |

In the wake of World War I, Japan shifted its foreign policy stance, particularly with regard to China, turning away from imperialism and seeking to act in concert with the other great powers. Historian Sakurai Ryōju explains the events and thinking behind this shift.

From the end of World War I in 1918 through the 1920s, Japan shifted from its earlier imperialistic foreign policy line to an approach based on efforts at international cooperation and restraint from intervention in China’s domestic affairs. Some view this shift as having been forced on Tokyo by circumstances unfavorable to its ambitions, but in this article I will explain how it represented an attempt by the Japanese government to pursue a new sort of foreign policy.

World War I Leads to a More Activist Japanese Policy Toward China

World War I, which broke out just a hundred years ago, had a major impact on Japan’s external policies, particularly with respect to East Asia. The fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 had left China in turmoil, and Japan had responded by seeking to step up and diversify its involvement in that country’s affairs (see “The Xinhai Revolution and Japan-China Relations”). But it was hard for it to gain the upper hand in the face of the fierce rivalry among the great powers pursuing their respective interests. Japan found that its only option was to seek a gradual increase in its influence on the Chinese mainland while acting in concert with Britain and Russia.

When World War I started in August 1914, however, the European powers became preoccupied with the conflict among themselves, and the situation in East Asia changed. Japan entered the war on the side of the Allied Powers in keeping with its alliance with Britain, but the only military task at hand was to evict the Germans from their stronghold in Qingdao on the Shandong Peninsula in China. The hostilities there ended in just two months with the Germans’ surrender.

Early in 1915, the Japanese government headed by Prime Minister Ōkuma Shigenobu presented the Republic of China (under General Yuan Shikai) with what came to be called the “Twenty-One Demands,” consisting of five groups: Group 1 concerned the disposal by Japan of German interests on the Shandong Peninsula; group 2, the extension of Japan’s lease on the Liaodong Peninsula and management control over the South Manchuria Railway, which were due to expire in a few years; group 3, the transfer of Hanyeping, China’s biggest steelmaker, to joint ownership; and group 4, a ban on further coastal or island concessions by China to other powers. The demands concluded with the “hopes” of group 5, including calls for China to hire Japanese political, financial, and military advisors, to put its police under joint Chinese-Japanese administration, to use the same weaponry as Japan, to grant Japan the right to build a railway connecting Wuchang with the Jiujiang-Nanchang line, and to consult with Japan before accepting foreign capital for railways, mines, and port facilities in Fujian Province.

Of these demands, group 1 related to the German surrender, while groups 2 and 3 were matters already under negotiation. But the demands in group 5, which called for a great increase in Japanese influence and threatened the interests of other powers, were ones that Japan could not have made under the conditions that had prevailed before the start of the war. Partly because of opposition from Britain and the United States, Japan subsequently rescinded group 5, but it presented an ultimatum forcing China to accept the rest of the demands.

So the outbreak of World War I led to the adoption by Japan of an independent and more activist approach toward China. The activist China policy of the government under Ōkuma Shigenobu was carried on by the cabinet of his successor, Terauchi Masatake (1916–18), but the latter adopted a less heavy-handed approach, seeking to win over the Chinese government of Duan Qirui and increase Japan’s influence in China through a series of loans (the Nishihara Loans). Terauchi’s government also focused on China’s potential as a supplier of natural resources, hoping to establish closer economic ties between the two countries. While the war raged in Europe, Japan thus had a free hand to pursue policies of its own making toward China.

A “Silent Partner” in Paris

World War I ended with the armistice of November 11, 1918. About 40 days before that, Hara Takashi succeeded Terauchi as prime minister. The first task of the Hara administration was to respond to changes in the international situation. The cabinet decided to halt the loans to China, and on October 29 it adopted a policy of nonintervention in Chinese affairs. The timing of the change of prime ministers was coincidental, but in retrospect it seems to have anticipated the great transformation of the global scene. The end of the war in Europe meant that Japan was no longer able to take a free hand in dealing with China without considering the wishes of the other powers. 

The Paris Peace Conference opened in January 1919. The principal parties were the five major Allied Powers: the United States, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, but Japan’s presence was not great. Since the Japanese plenipotentiary hardly ever spoke up, he earned the sobriquet of “silent partner.” His silence was in line with the Japanese government’s policy of not taking an active part in the negotiations except with respect to matters relating directly to Japan (specifically, title to Germany’s interests in Shandong and islands in the Pacific and the adoption of a racial equality proposal). This was a policy based on Hara’s political judgment that Japan should respond after carefully gauging global trends, taking a cooperative approach to international affairs. 

US President Woodrow Wilson was the leading figure at the conference. In the Fourteen Points he had set forth in January 1918, Wilson rejected the imperial diplomacy of the past and espoused a pacifist approach to international policy, advocating moral diplomacy grounded in justice and humanity. In addition to matters relating to the postwar settlement in Europe, Wilson proposed an end to secret agreements between nations, freedom of the seas, disarmament, matters relating to colonial issues and national self-determination, and the establishment of an association of nations grounded in the ideal of international democracy. These proposals were greatly watered down during the course of negotiations in Paris, but the ideals that Wilson set forth had an impact on Japan’s foreign policy. In his 1919 work Bunmei kaizō no dōtokuteki hōmen (Moral Aspects of the Remodeling of Civilization), the prominent political scientist Ukita Kazutami argued that it would be impossible to achieve world peace under the sort of nationalistic thinking that had prevailed up to then, with people considering their own country sacred and disregarding other countries, and that Japan must follow the global trend and adopt the perspective of a member of a global organization.

The Japanese government, based on its practical judgment, participated in the conference with the idea that it would be satisfied just to protect its own minimum interests. Having managed to achieve that, it adopted a policy of striving to cooperate with Britain and the United States, focusing in particular on the latter, which had emerged as the world’s new leader. This cooperative stance served as the basic tone of Japan’s foreign policy through the 1920s.

Other articles in this report
  • The Rise and Fall of Taishō Democracy: Party Politics in Early-Twentieth-Century JapanBefore descending into the authoritarianism of the World War II era, Japan made considerable progress in implementing a democratic system of government. This flowering of liberalism, known as “Taishō Democracy” for its rough correspondence with the reign of Emperor Taishō, though weakened and ultimately destroyed by assassinations and coup attempts, helped lay the foundations for full democracy after 1945.
  • A Forgotten Tale of World War I: Life for German POWs in Japanese CampsAt the outset of World War I Japan waged a short, successful campaign against German forces in China, taking thousands of prisoners of war, who went on to spend more than five years in camps in Japan. Documents and photos from the period reveal the surprisingly livable conditions of these World War I camps.
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Professor at Reitaku University. Born in Chiba Prefecture in 1957. Graduated from Sophia University in 1981, where he majored in history. Completed his doctoral studies in history at Sophia University in 1988 and received his PhD. Author of Shingai kakumei to Nihon seiji no hendō (The Xinhai Revolution and Japanese Political Shifts),Teito Tōkyō no kindai seijishi (The Political History of Modern Tokyo, the Capital of the Japanese Empire), and other works.

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