Japan Renounces Disarmament Treaties

The renunciation of the Washington and London naval treaties was a significant step in Japan’s move toward militarism in the early 1930’s.

Summary of Event

On December 29, 1934, the Japanese government formally renounced the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. This action, which occurred after the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and the international reaction condemning it, was a further step along the road to Japan’s participation in World War II. [kw]Japan Renounces Disarmament Treaties (Dec. 29, 1934)
[kw]Disarmament Treaties, Japan Renounces (Dec. 29, 1934)
[kw]Treaties, Japan Renounces Disarmament (Dec. 29, 1934)
Washington Naval Treaty (1922)
Five-Power Treaty (1922)[Five Power Treaty]
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prewar period
[g]East Asia;Dec. 29, 1934: Japan Renounces Disarmament Treaties[08780]
[g]Japan;Dec. 29, 1934: Japan Renounces Disarmament Treaties[08780]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 29, 1934: Japan Renounces Disarmament Treaties[08780]
Shidehara Kijūrō
Katō Tomosaburō
Katō Hiroharu
Hirota Kōki
Ōsumi Mineo
Okada Keisuke
Hamaguchi Osachi

The Washington Naval Treaty had been an attempt to deal with the growing tensions between Japan and the Western powers—especially the United States and Great Britain—in the years following World War I. Although Japan had fought on the winning side in the war and was a participant in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference that concluded it, Japan disagreed with the Western powers on several key issues. Most notable among these was Japan’s territorial claim resulting from the war and its plans for naval expansion in the Pacific. In response to these matters, an international conference was held in Washington from November of 1921 to February of 1922. Washington Disarmament Conference Three treaties with major implications for Japan’s future resulted from this conference. The first, the Four-Power Treaty Four-Power Treaty (1921)[Four Power Treaty] (involving the United States, Great Britain, France and Japan) committed the participants to maintenance of the status quo in the Pacific. The second treaty, the Nine-Power Treaty Nine-Power Treaty (1922)[Nine Power Treaty] (including these same four countries and Belgium, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, and China) affirmed China’s territorial integrity and created an open-door policy for foreign trade and investment there. The third treaty, the Washington Treaty, dealt with placing limits on naval expansion. It was also known as the Five-Power Treaty and was signed by the United States, Great Britain, France, Japan, and Italy.

In particular, the negotiation of the naval treaty caused a considerable amount of controversy. The process focused on the establishment of ratios for the relative size of each country’s navy: The United States and Great Britain favored a ratio of 10:10:6 for the number of battleships held by their countries and by Japan, but the Japanese representatives were divided on this question. Navy minister Admiral Katō Tomosaburō and ambassador to the United States Shidehara Kijūrō indicated willingness to accept the formula if compromises could be reached on other issues, whereas senior naval adviser Rear Admiral Katō Hiroharu supported a ratio of 10:10:7. In the end, Katō Tomosaburō and Shidehara prevailed, and the 10:10:6 ratio was accepted. Attempts to expand the treaty to include smaller ships failed, and the treaty, with only the larger ships included, was signed on February 6, 1922. Formal ratification by the Japanese assembly occurred on August 5. Although in the 1930’s, Japanese militarists viewed the treaty as a sign of weakness, the Washington treaty came to stand as one of the key events of what is often called “Shidehara diplomacy,” named for the aforementioned Japanese diplomat whose efforts to maintain positive relations with the West dominated Japanese foreign policy during this period.

After the three 1922 treaties were signed, future meetings to update and possibly expand the agreements were scheduled for Geneva in 1927 and London in 1930. At the Geneva meeting, Japanese negotiators again put forward the 10:10:7 ratio, this time in connection with the discussion of limitations on smaller naval vessels. When negotiations on this issue failed, the matter was held over until the London meeting. When that latter meeting convened, on January 21, 1930, the lines between Japan and the two Western powers seemed more firmly drawn. After considerable discussion, an agreement was reached on April 22 that partially met the Japanese demands, although the 10:10:6 formula remained in place for ships of the larger cruiser class. Although it was formally ratified in the Japanese diet on October 2, the agreement was met with an outpouring of dissent. Key government and military officials resigned, including Admiral Katō Hiroharu, who had become chief of the navy general staff. Furthermore, the treaty was almost certainly a factor that led to the assassination attempt on Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi in November. (Hamaguchi died from injuries related to the attempt in April of 1931.)

In the years that followed, Japan slipped under the control of the militarists, and relationships with the Western powers became increasingly tense. In September of 1931, the Japanese military—acting totally outside of the control of the civil government in Tokyo—moved to occupy Manchuria. In response to this action, the U.S. government formally proclaimed the Stimson Doctrine Stimson Doctrine (named for U.S. secretary of state Henry L. Stimson), which refused to recognize Japan’s right to its newly gained territory, in January of 1931. In May of 1932, right-wing extremists staged an armed rebellion in an attempt to overthrow the civil government. The rebellion was successfully put down, but the military’s power grew as a result.

The following year, in February of 1933, Japan officially withdrew from the League of Nations in response to the release of the League’s Lytton Commission report, Lytton Commission which condemned Japanese aggression in Manchuria and refused to recognize its newly established puppet state of Manchukuo. As a result of these events, strong sentiments were taking shape within Japan to formally renounce the Washington and London treaties and move toward full parity in naval power with the United States and Great Britain.

The movement to end the naval treaties reached a crescendo in July of 1934, when the naval minister, Admiral Ōsumi Mineo, threatened to resign from the government of Prime Minister Okada Keisuke if the treaties were not formally ended. A number of efforts were made to moderate the crisis. The Japanese foreign minister, Hirota Kōki, set forth a plan to move toward parity with the United States and Britain in stages. By September, however, efforts to gain United States and British support for this plan had failed. Following a period of further debate, the Okada government formally renounced the treaties on December 29.


In the aftermath of these events, one more effort was made to settle the differences. A meeting of representatives from Japan, Britain, the United States, France, and Italy took place in London in 1935. When the Japanese again argued for full parity with the United States and Britain, the proposal was again rejected by the Western powers, and the Japanese left the conference. From that point, events continued their downward spiral to the eventual onset of the war in the Pacific.

The Japanese renunciation of the 1922 Washington and London naval treaties was as a significant event in Japan’s movement toward militarism, both at home and abroad. It demonstrated both the military’s growing power of over Japan’s civil governments as well the rejection of the pattern of Shidehara diplomacy and international cooperation that had characterized Japanese foreign policy during the previous decade. These trends would lead the nation into World War II. Washington Naval Treaty (1922)
Five-Power Treaty (1922)[Five Power Treaty]
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prewar period

Further Reading

  • Barnhart, Michael A. Japan and the World Since 1868. London: Edward Arnold, 1995. Offers a brief overview of the topic viewed within the larger context of Japan’s foreign policy since the Meiji Restoration.
  • Dingman, Roger. Power in the Pacific: The Origins of Naval Arms Limitation, 1914-1922. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. In-depth background on the Washington conference.
  • LaFeber, Walter. The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations Throughout History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. Contains background on the Washington and London conferences viewed from the perspective of U.S.-Japanese relations.
  • Morley, James William, ed. Japan’s Foreign Policy, 1868-1941. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974. Contains a broad overview of the Washington treaty system as well as individual essays on Japan’s long-term relations with Britain (by Ian Nish) and on the United States (by Akira Iriye).
  • Nish, Ian. Japanese Foreign Policy, 1869-1942. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977. Provides a broad view of the topic with particular emphasis on the personalities and policies of the various Japanese foreign ministers involved.
  • O’Connor, Raymond G. Perilous Equilibrium: The United States and the London Conference of 1930. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1962. In-depth background on the first London conference.
  • Pelz, Stephen E. Race to Pearl Harbor: The Failure of the Second London Naval Conference and the Onset of World War II. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. Offers a good overview of the topic and on the events leading from it to the beginning of World War II.

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