Japan and World War I

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

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.

The Washington Conference and Japan’s Cooperative Foreign Policy Line

The top issue addressed at the Paris Peace Conference was the postwar settlement with Germany, and the “Versailles system” established under the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the conference referred mainly to the postwar arrangements for Europe. Matters relating to Asia were not a major topic, and the issue of China was excluded from consideration. At the Washington Conference that was convened in November 1921, the agreements signed, in addition to the Five-Power Treaty on naval disarmament, included a Four-Power Treaty (Britain, France, Japan, and the United States) on preserving the status quo regarding interests and armaments in the Pacific and a Nine-Power Treaty on the Open-Door Policy for China and preservation of its territorial integrity. Also, Japan and China concluded a treaty concerning Shandong under which it was agreed that the former German interests on the Shandong Peninsula would be returned to China and that Japan would remove the military forces it had stationed along the Shantung (Shandong) Railway. This new set of arrangements for East Asia came to be called the Washington system. But some observers judge that this consisted merely of agreements among the great powers to preserve the status quo, and that the new East Asian order was built on sacrifices by China.

Shortly before the Washington Conference, Prime Minister Hara was assassinated, and a new cabinet was formed under Takahashi Korekiyo. The policy it adopted vis-à-vis the conference was to accept the Open Door Policy, which was the principle espoused by the United States with respect to China, but to strive to maintain Japan’s existing interests. Regarding disarmament, though there was some opposition from the Imperial Navy, Japan agreed to the limitation of its capital ship tonnage to 60% of the levels set for Britain and the United States, taking into account its own fiscal situation. Meanwhile, in the first article of the Nine-Power Treaty the parties agreed to “respect the sovereignty, the independence, and the territorial and administrative integrity of China”; this amounted to a rejection of the actions Japan had taken during World War I, but the Japanese government accepted it, because it did not negate Japan’s interests in South Manchuria.

To sum up, Japan’s foreign policy after World War I was grounded in international cooperation and followed the pacifist current of the time. The adoption of this line has been attributed to the diplomatic isolation Japan experienced and the failure of the Siberian Intervention. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was not renewed, Tsarist Russia, which had effectively been an ally during the war, collapsed, and differences between Japan and the United States with respect to China intensified. All these developments are seen as having affected Japan’s stance.

Initiatives Aimed at Maintaining Japan’s Influence in China

We should not forget, however, that during this period Japan also continued to pursue active, strategic initiatives as part of its China policy grounded in international cooperation.

At a meeting of the Advisory Council on Foreign Relations on December 8, 1918, participants discussed the approach Japan should take to the upcoming Paris Peace Conference. The argument advanced at this meeting was that, with respect to China, Japan should take the initiative in calling for the end of extraterritorial rights and the removal of foreign military units; it was suggested that this would be to Japan’s advantage in its future China policy, promoting the “opening of new fields and establishment of new footholds.” The idea was that in order for Japan to maintain influence over China, it needed to preemptively implement the China policy espoused by the United States, that is to say, stop interfering in China’s domestic affairs, respect its independence and sovereignty, and await its development. However, these matters were not taken up in the Paris talks.

For Japan at this juncture, securing its influence in Manchuria was the priority. China south of the Great Wall was in the midst of a de facto civil war, and if Japan were to intervene in this conflict, there was a danger that the other powers would follow suit and that China would end up being partitioned among them. In fact there had been moves among the great powers toward placing China under international control, something that Japan was determined to prevent. So it is fair to say that the Japanese government needed to take the lead in moving toward a policy of benevolent observation, trusting in China’s own efforts to recover from its turmoil and achieve unity. 

Japan continued to follow this line after the Washington Conference. At the end of June 1922 it pulled its military forces out of Hankou. In addition, on May 30 the cabinet decided to withdraw the forces that had been stationed in northern China ever since the Boxer Rebellion. Needless to say, this was an expression of the stance of Japan’s Foreign Ministry and its military, which had been shifting toward an approach aimed at seeking to conduct Japan’s China policy advantageously by displaying friendliness and extending benefits; in this way Japan hoped to recover from the damage it had suffered in its international position as a result of its actions during World War I. 

Britain did not approve of the proposed withdrawal of the international garrisons in Beijing, and so Japan did not implement its cabinet decision, fearing to depart from the cooperative line of its foreign policy. But the fact that this decision was adopted disproves the conventional assessment that Japan was forced to accept the “Washington system” because of its weak position. In fact, the Japanese government was trying to find a new path for its China policy by making use of the Washington system.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 11, 2014. Title photo: Scene from the 1919 Paris Peace Conference convened to negotiate a settlement to World War I. Photo by TopFoto/Aflo.)

diplomacy United States China East Asia World War I Paris Peace Conference Washington Conference