From heroes to zero, with fateful strings attached

In World War I, which ended 90 years ago on Nov. 11, Japan fought on the winning side. But in its victory there were the seeds of defeat


Nov. 11 marks the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I. Sparked by the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, and due to a complex series of interlocking treaties between the Great Powers, this isolated event sparked a war that all involved thought would be over by Christmas.

Four and a half years later, 9 million people were dead, slaughtered in the trenches of northern France and Belgium, on the shores of Gallipoli, or drowned in the North Sea and the Mediterranean. By the time of the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed, Russia had overthrown centuries of Czarist rule with the Bolshevik revolution, a bitter Germany lay in defeat, and the United States — a latecomer to the conflict, in 1917 — was on the rise as a global power, as was Japan.

Yet while solemn ceremonies take place, especially in Europe, on Armistice Day, as Nov. 11 is known, Japan’s role in the so-called Great War has been all but forgotten. As history recorded, though, the seeds for another conflict two decades later were sown at that time not only in Europe but also in the Pacific theater.

Aug. 15 is a momentous day in Japan’s 20th-century history. It marks not only the end of World War II but the beginning of its involvement in World War I. On Aug. 15, 1914, exactly 31 years before their capitulation in World War II, the Japanese sent an ultimatum to Imperial Germany ordering German warships in Japanese and Chinese waters to withdraw and disarm, and the German-leased territory of Tsingtao in China to be turned over to Japan.

The ultimatum came after the British asked Japan to assist it against Germany under the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The alliance did not commit Japan to send troops to Europe, where the German army was then pouring into Belgium and marching toward Paris. But it did oblige Japan to go after German ships in Asian waters.

The decision to honor the alliance would go down in history as what could have been one of Japan’s smartest, or luckiest, foreign-policy decisions ever. But it was not without controversy.

The British request was made on Aug. 8, a week after war broke out in Europe. Foreign Minister Takaaki Kato was an unabashed Anglophile and a supporter of the alliance. But much informal power then lay in the hands of Japan’s elder statesmen, known as the genro. These included former prime ministers and a few surviving members of the 1868 Meiji Restoration that had restored the Emperor to being head of state. Many were loyal to Germany, upon which the army and Japan’s local governments had been modeled. These men saw imperialist Great Britain and the United States as the true enemies, and were inclined to have Japan enter the war on the side of the Kaiser Wilhelm II or stay neutral.

Moving quickly, Kato called a Cabinet meeting at 10 p.m. on Aug. 8, just hours after the British request for assistance. By 2 a.m., and without consulting the genro, Japan had agreed to enter the war on the side of Great Britain. In briefings afterward with the shocked genro, Kato further irritated them by passing around English-language cables between Tokyo and London that had not been translated into Japanese.

Japan gave Germany one week to respond, but knew the ultimatum would be rejected. At noon on Aug. 23, 1914, after receiving no reply, war was declared and the army and navy prepared to wrest Tsingtao from the Germans.

In a front-page story that day, The Japan Times & Mail (a forerunner of The Japan Times) quoted Saburo Shimada, a lawmaker from Yokohama, as saying that while “the Japanese government decided that as long as Tsingtao was in the hands of the Germans, it would be impossible to guarantee peace,” there was “no reason” why Japan should keep it.

“Japan’s policy is to prevent any stir-up in China,” Shimada was quoted as saying.

In fact, what the pro-British foreign minister and the pro-German genro shared was a belief that Japan had a mission in China. In “War and National Reinvention: Japan in the Great War, 1914-1919,” historian Frederick Dickinson notes that “the consolidation and expansion of Japanese interests in China had, of course, constituted the original object of Japan’s entrance in the Great War.”

In early September, nearly 23,000 Japanese troops and 1,500 British soldiers landed to the north of Tsingtao, on the Shandung Penninsula. They faced about 5,500 German and Austro-Hungarian defenders. At the same time, part of the Japanese navy was hunting for the German East Asiatic Squadron, most of which had slipped out of Tsingtao harbor and was making a run back to Germany through the South Pacific via Cape Horn. The Germans escaped from the Japanese, but later ran into the British navy off the Falkland Islands, where they were decimated.

In China, the Japanese army advanced toward Tsingtao while the navy blockaded the harbor. Despite the Kaiser’s declaration that it would be more of a shame to surrender Tsingtao to the Japanese than to surrender Berlin to the Russians, it was clear the German colony, cut-off from the outside world by the advancing Japanese army and naval blockade, would fall.

On Nov. 7, after a weeklong bombardment and a final assault by Japanese infantry, Captain-Governor Alfred Meyer-Waldeck, the German commander, surrendered to Lt. Gen. Mitsuomi Kamio, commander of the Japanese forces. Jefferson Jones, an American with the Japanese army when Tsingtao fell, described to readers of an English newspaper what he saw.

“Along the casemate walls of the forts still lay the German and Japanese soldiers who had been killed in the final assault, while the concrete forts themselves were just a mass of shale and twisted steel rods where dynamite or falling shells had done their work.”

Jones also commended the Japanese for their behavior .

“The courtesy of the Japanese, for which the Orient is already famous, received an excellent demonstration in the surrender of Tsingtao. All German officers, including Governor-General Meyer-Waldeck, were allowed to go about Tsingtao at their freedom after the surrender,” Jones wrote.

Indeed, though the Germans and Austro-Hungarians of Tsingtao were now prisoners of war, throughout the Japanese army there remained a high regard for Germany and a determination to show the West that Japan was civilized.

Meanwhile on the Western Front, the horrors of trench warfare had destroyed 19th-century ideas of chivalry. The famous 1914 Christmas truce, during which both sides briefly climbed out of their trenches, sang Christmas carols, traded presents, and even played soccer together was one of the very last manifestations in Europe of such thinking.

In Japan, however, some notion of chivalry remained, especially in the treatment of prisoners. Many of those captured at Tsingtao ended up at the Bando prison camp in Tokushima Prefecture. There, they had their own bar, bakery, kitchen — and even their own newspaper. They were allowed outside the camp on excursions and gave lectures on science, art and music to local townspeople. And as every Japanese classical music fan knows, the Bando prisoners performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the first time ever in Japan.

The navy, although it failed to find the German East Asiatic Squadron, captured with little effort German possessions in the Marshall Islands, the Marianas, the Carolines and the Palau island groups. World War I effectively ended for the army with Tsingtao’s fall, but the navy’s war continued. At the request of the British, Japanese vessels patrolled the coasts of South Africa and Mexico, searching for German ships. Also, in February 1916, Japanese marines were called out to help quell a mutiny by Indian troops in Singapore.

But it was their navy’s presence in the Mediterranean Sea that established Japan as an international maritime power. Initially, Japan sent a cruiser and eight destroyers to Malta. This would later rise to about 17 ships in total. The Japanese protected shipping convoys and transported British troops from Egypt to France as part of the huge 1918 offensive on the Western Front. In May 1917, one ship, the Matsu, saved more than 3,000 crew members of the transport ship Transylvania after it was torpedoed off the French coast.

However, if the August 1914 decision to enter the war on the side of the Triple Entente (France, Russia and Great Britain) had been fortunate for Japan (because it chose the winning side), gratitude from its allies for such assistance was tempered by controversy over Tokyo’s decision to issue a list of demands to China that would have ceded much of China’s sovereignty to Japan. These so-called Twenty-One Demands, issued in January 1915, proved to be a diplomatic blunder that would create lingering postwar tensions between Japan and the rest of the world.

In the demands, Japan called on China to acknowledge Japan’s capture of Tsingtao and the Shandong Province, to turn over the South Manchuria Railway Zone territory for 99 years, to grant Japan exclusive rights to a mining complex needed for Japan’s fast-growing industries, to not give any more Chinese coastline or islands to any foreign power except Japan, and to hire Japanese advisers for the Chinese government and police.

The Twenty-One Demands were greeted with international condemnation. China initially rejected them. The United States, worried about access to Chinese markets, strongly objected, and Japan’s ally Great Britain was angry at Japan’s attempt to establish China as a protectorate.

In the face of such protests, Japan withdrew the final demand that Japanese advisers be posted in China. The revised demands were sent to China in late April 1915, with an ultimatum saying Japan would “take steps the Imperial Government may deem necessary” if no satisfactory reply was received. Chinese leader Yuan Shikai, realizing China was too weak to fight alone, that Great Britain could not come to China’s aid because of the Anglo-Japan Alliance, and that the neutral U.S. was not going to do anything other than protest, agreed to the revised demands and signed them in May 1915.

When the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, Japan had suffered only about 2,000 casualties. Even as the guns in Europe fell silent, though, the Japanese army, at the request of the U.S., was participating in an expedition to Siberia to help White Russian forces combat the Bolsheviks. Japan sent nearly 12,000 troops as part of an international coalition that would ultimately fail, as the White Army was defeated after a long civil war and Japan withdrew the last of its troops 1922.

Meanwhile, the U.S. convened the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22 with those nations except Soviet Russia that had interests in East Asia. The primary purpose of the Americans was to put a check on Japanese naval ambitions, especially in the Pacific islands they took from Germany in World War I. Three major treaties came out of the conference, including one that put an end to building new battleship fleets.

In addition, Japan agreed to withdraw its troops from Tsingtao and restore sovereignty to China. Japan was allowed to keep Germany’s former colonial possessions in the Pacific, but that created tensions between the two major remaining Western powers also vying for influence in the region, Great Britain and the U.S. The Anglo-Japan Alliance was terminated by Britain in 1923.

By then, though, Japan was already irked. That was because its proposal during the 1919 Versailles peace talks that followed World War I for a racial-equality clause to be inserted into the preamble of the new League of Nations to give it legal and moral parity with its Western wartime allies had been rejected.

The idea was opposed by the British Empire and the U.S. out of fears such a clause would undermine their colonies in Asia. However, historians have argued that, rather than true racial equality, what the Japanese were really also seeking was the right not to be discriminated against in their own colonial efforts in Asia.

Before too long, in part fueled by such frustrations, Japan would go its own way — with disastrous results.

In August 1914, a Paris-based Japanese writer, Toson Shimazaki, had written, “Not only will (the war) transform the map of Europe and the destiny of nations, it will decisively alter the 20th-century stage.”

The changes Shimazaki foreshadowed turned out to be bitter, not only for the defeated nations but also for his own country, nominally one of the winners. For as in Europe, there were no real victors, and as history would show, World War I — called at the time, “the war to end wars” — had only served as a tragic prologue to another and even more awful world war.