The Problem of Japan–A Japanese View Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Even though Japan fought on the side of the United States and the Allies in World War I, Western nations had been wary of the growth of Japanese power since the end of the nineteenth century. Between 1894 and 1910, Japan defeated both China and Russia in military conflicts and annexed the Korean peninsula. US leaders knew that Japan contained few natural resources and would likely look to expand its borders. In addition, during the 1920s, there was a powerful peace and disarmament movement in the United States that sought to avoid American involvement in another global conflict. However, when US secretary of state Charles Evans Hughes announced an international conference to address both the size of national navies and outside involvement in China and the Pacific region, the Japanese nationalist writer Kiyoshi Kawakami voiced his hesitations and concerns regarding the potential agreements that might result. His letter revealed the potent Western racism against the Japanese and other Asian peoples as well as Japan’s own justifications for its later actions during the 1930s and 1940s.

Summary Overview

Even though Japan fought on the side of the United States and the Allies in World War I, Western nations had been wary of the growth of Japanese power since the end of the nineteenth century. Between 1894 and 1910, Japan defeated both China and Russia in military conflicts and annexed the Korean peninsula. US leaders knew that Japan contained few natural resources and would likely look to expand its borders. In addition, during the 1920s, there was a powerful peace and disarmament movement in the United States that sought to avoid American involvement in another global conflict. However, when US secretary of state Charles Evans Hughes announced an international conference to address both the size of national navies and outside involvement in China and the Pacific region, the Japanese nationalist writer Kiyoshi Kawakami voiced his hesitations and concerns regarding the potential agreements that might result. His letter revealed the potent Western racism against the Japanese and other Asian peoples as well as Japan’s own justifications for its later actions during the 1930s and 1940s.

Defining Moment

While the growth of Japanese power had been worrisome to Western nations with interests and possessions in Asia ever since Japan’s military victories over China in 1894–95 and Russia in 1904–5, two key events coincided in 1921 to help produce the Washington, DC, conference on naval disarmament that set the tone for international agreements during the interwar years. First, in July 1921, Congress, backed by a high level of public support, passed the Borah Resolution, which was sponsored by Senator William Borah. The resolution called for Japan, the United States, and Britain to cut the size of their naval fleets in half. Secretary of State Hughes then announced a conference to consider such actions, and the British readily agreed because of the second event: renegotiation of the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance was due to expire, and the two nations would have to either renew it or suffer strained relations. Though the primary provision of the alliance stipulated that either country would protect the other’s interest in Korea and China, the British wanted to end the pact because it also required one nation to provide military assistance to the other should the first nation fight two or more other countries. British officials could accurately perceive the growth of American power in the Pacific and did not want to face a choice between, on one hand, honoring a treaty with Japan and potentially risking a war with the United States and, on the other, simply abrogating a treaty it had signed in good faith with another sovereign nation, especially one that was strong enough to threaten British holdings in Asia. Therefore, Britain had strong incentives to attend the conference. While Japan was caught by surprise, evidenced by Kawakami’s tone of insulted incredulity, it agreed to attend, realizing that its moves into Korea and parts of Manchuria, as well as its seizure of German-held Shandong Province in China during World War I, had caused Western leaders consternation.

Author Biography

Kiyoshi Karl Kawakami was a nationalist Japanese writer who, between the 1910s and the 1930s, produced around a dozen books on Japan’s place in the world. He often wrote about Japanese tensions with the United States, China, and European powers. Born in 1875, he grew up in a time when Japan was rapidly becoming an industrial power and had already solved the internal tensions and warfare that had marked the final years of the Tokugawa shogunate before its collapse in 1867 and the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868. Thus, Kawakami witnessed the military victories over China and Russia and the annexation of Korea and was a strong supporter of Japanese expansion. He lived long enough, until 1949, to see Japan’s strength and expansion collapse during World War II.

Document Analysis

Kawakami begins his letter by noting, relatively accurately, that the British and Western concern over the actions of Japan and its growing power are “naught but an aspect of the broad and fundamental question of the inequitable distribution of the world’s land and natural resources.” By doing this, and by giving extensive numbers in the subsequent paragraphs on the amount of the earth’s surface and population controlled by European powers, Kawakami attempts to invoke the sympathy and support of other Asian peoples. Essentially, he says that Japan’s fight for freedom of action and equality on the international stage is important for all of Asia. The Japanese would make similar arguments during World War II that all nonwhite Asians should join together to fight the white Americans and Europeans; Japanese treatment of other ethnic groups during the war, particularly the Chinese, quickly undermined such rhetoric. Nevertheless, Kawakami still accurately notes that European empires were at their height of power in Asia in the early 1920s and that hundreds of millions of people did not control their own national destinies.

A further problem for Japan, Kawakami notes, is that the nation itself had much less arable land than its European and American competitors and virtually none of the natural resources needed by a modern industrial nation. Therefore, for Japan to be equal to Western nations, Kawakami’s argues, it has a right to move into other areas that had those resources. He claims that other nations already did such things, noting “if you watch the chessboard of European and American diplomacy, you cannot fail to see how each nation is trying to outwit the other in gaining control of oil resources in different parts of the world.” According to Kawakami, Japan just wants to be treated as an equal on the world stage and to likewise go after oil and other natural resources. Kawakami goes so far as to say that equal competition in this vein would be acceptable if Western nations allowed “the principle of unhindered immigration and of unrestricted enterprise” in their empires and territories. While Kawakami essentially argues for the extension of Japanese control over non-Japanese areas and populations, he still makes valid points about Western racism that prevented the movement of peoples and often prohibited nonwhite people from owning much in the places that they could enter. In a 1907–8 “Gentleman’s Agreement,” Japan had agreed to limit immigration to the United States and President Theodore Roosevelt convinced San Francisco to drop its plan to segregate Asian students, but the Japanese already in the United States faced discrimination on the West Coast. In 1917, the United States further restricted immigration from Asia, although that legislation did not apply to Japan because of the earlier agreement. Then, with the Immigration Act of 1924, the United States banned entirely any further immigration from Asia.

Kawakami’s proposed solutions in the final paragraph include either the lifting of these restrictions against Asian immigration and competition in Western-held areas or the “more equitable distribution of territory.” He notes that such international equality for Japan may sound strange to Western ears and challenge their conceptions of international affairs, but, he says, the path of such an idea reflected those of “trade unionism and woman [sic] suffrage,” major social realities by the 1920s. His final plea comes with a warning, however, when he notes that Japan’s claims to international equality needed to be “seriously considered… by practical men of affairs in all parts of the world” or a Darwinian struggle of nations would result. Thus, the West needs to treat Japan well at the Washington, DC, conference or conflict would likely follow.

Essential Themes

After months of meetings, several major agreements were hashed out in Washington. The Four-Power Treaty enshrined the status quo in the Pacific by protecting existing holdings and requiring nations to enter discussions if violence erupted. Similarly, the Nine-Power Treaty essentially did the same for the areas of China that outside nations possessed. The Five-Power Treaty was perhaps the most far-reaching, requiring the United States, Great Britain, and Japan to stop building, or disable, dozens of major armed vessels. These agreements showcased the real strength both of the peace and disarmament movement in the United States and of the war-weariness of European nations. In addition, the fact that the United States led this disarmament charge, first through the Borah Resolution and then through Hughes’s efforts at the international level, indicated that the Republican years of the 1920s constituted an era of international engagement by the United States, not one of isolationism. While firm commitments and enforcement mechanisms were often lacking in the agreements into which the United States entered during this period, the country was attempting to lead the world toward a less dangerous and less violent future, at least from the vantage point of the early 1920s.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Dickinson, Frederick R. World War I and the Triumph of a New Japan, 1919–1930. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. Digital file. Studies in the Social and Cultural Hist. of Mod. Warfare Ser.
  • Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
  • McLaren, Walter Wallace. Political History of Japan during the Meiji Era. London: Routledge, 2013. Digital file.
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