Among mainstream accounts of World War I, Japan does not typically play a prominent role. Most historical records concentrate on the European theater, where the war started and was the bloodiest, far from Japan. There were no Japanese land battles to equal Verdun, or sea battles to match Jutland. In the grand sweep of the Great War, Japan played only a peripheral role.
Yet from the perspective of Japan itself, the view is quite different. World War I was the country’s first truly global conflict, the first in which it allied with and fought alongside foreign powers. The war had an enormous impact on the country at all levels — political, economic and social. Japanese forces fought and died closer to the Western Front than is commonly realized, hunting submarines and protecting convoys in the Mediterranean Sea.
Japan’s war motives were not entirely pure, for it seized territory that also served to expand the Japanese empire. As useful as the war proved to Japan, it also set the country on the path to being a key participant in World War II. Mistrust of the West, sown at the end of the war, as well as a sense of arrogance and destiny would put Japan on a collision course with the Allies of World War II, and lead to Japan’s ruin.
At the outbreak of World War I, Japan was a rapidly growing country in almost every sense. In 1914, Japan had a population of 52.9 million people, a staggering increase of 25 percent in just 10 years. The forces unleashed by the Meiji Restoration — industrialization, compulsory education, land reform and overseas trade, to name just a few — were quickly creating an economic powerhouse. Japan of 1914 was similar to China in 2014: a poor Asian country achieving rapid economic growth through the melding of domestic manpower and Western industrial methods.
Japan was also building an empire. On the eve of World War I, that empire consisted of Japan, Formosa (Taiwan), the Ryukyus, the southern half of Sakhalin Island, the Kuril Islands, Korea and Port Arthur (Dalian) — and it was considered a political and economic necessity. Japan was — and still is — remarkably bereft of resources, short of everything from arable land to oil, minerals and living space. Only by absorbing territories such as China, Korea and Taiwan could the country be guaranteed the resources it lacked.
Establishing an empire was also important for security reasons. European imperialism, China’s latent power and the Russian Empire all needed to be kept at arm’s length. Japan was also concerned that it could be the subject of a blockade by a foreign power, and a large, powerful empire made such a tactic more difficult to accomplish.
Increasingly infused with a sense of Imperial destiny, it seemed inevitable that Japan — the only Asian country so far that had remained independent and adopted Western methods — should have an empire to rival its Western contemporaries. Its military, which had won two wars in the past 20 years, seemed unstoppable. There was a growing sense that Japan was destined for further greatness simply because it was Japan.
The nation’s participation in World War I was set in motion by the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902. The alliance, aimed against Germany, promised mutual aid if either country was attacked by another power. Japan went to war enthusiastically, officially under the pretext of helping Britain. Britain declared war on Germany on Aug. 4, 1914. Within hours, Japan had offered to declare war on Germany in exchange for German territories in China and the South Pacific. Japan invoked the treaty, even though the treaty did not require a signatory state to go to war to aid the other, only to provide support.
Britain, however, was wary of Japanese help. Japan’s ambitions in Asia were clear, and Britain feared Japanese meddling in its Asian colonial territories, particularly India. While Britain felt secure it would not be double-crossed — rightly, as it turned out — it was concerned about Japanese opportunism.
On Aug. 11, the German-held Jiaozhou-leased territory sent a cable to Berlin that read, “Engagement with Miss Butterfly very probable.” The alert soon proved to be correct, as three days later Japan sent an ultimatum demanding Germany vacate China and the Marshall, Mariana and Caroline islands.
The Japanese Army and Navy both coveted Germany’s holdings in the Asia-Pacific. The army, which had an enduring fascination with China, pushed for the Jiaozhou-leased territory, which included the city of Qingdao. Seized as a spoil of war, it would provide Japan with another military and economic toehold in northern China. The navy, which oriented more toward the Pacific, saw German territories in the South Pacific as providing strategic depth against the United States.
Germany’s presence in Asia was minor, with only 6,000 German troops based in Qingdao and the East Asia Squadron, a weak force of six cruisers. German forces, halfway around the world from home, had virtually no chance of reinforcement.
Japan stood to benefit a great deal from the war. The writing was clearly on the wall even before the war started: Japan could enlarge its empire at very little cost. There was no great downside to Japan aiding Britain.
The ultimatum went unanswered, and Japan declared war on the Aug. 23. By the end of the month, a joint British-Japanese naval task force had blockaded the German colony of Tsingtau in Jiaozhou Bay. Japanese troops landed on the Shantong Peninsula and immediately attacked the 6,000 German troops defending the territory. The German garrison held out for six weeks before surrendering. Japanese losses amounted to 414 killed and 1,441 wounded.
Unbeknownst to the British, securing Jiaozhou was only one of Japan’s goals. A portion of the Japanese landing force marched inland toward the provincial capital of Jinan, violating Chinese neutrality on the flimsy pretense of securing the German-made railroad. A Japanese colony would spring up in Jinan, an outpost for the empire.
Meanwhile, Japan’s First Fleet joined British, French and Australian ships in tracking down the East Asia Squadron, traveling from the Indian Ocean to Hawaii. In October, the German warship Geier took refuge in the neutral U.S. port of Pearl Harbor and two Japanese warships, the battleship Hizen and cruiser Asama, waited outside until the ship and crew were interned.
Later, the First Fleet went on to capture the Marshall, Mariana and Caroline islands. The proximity of these islands to Australia and New Zealand made Japanese occupation unpopular with both countries, so by mutual agreement Japan did not seize any territory below the equator.
In January 1915, Japan presented China with a list of 21 demands — and an ultimatum — that would recognize Japan’s seizure of Jiaozhou, bar China from further territorial concessions to third countries and grant intrusive economic rights. China agreed, reluctantly, to all but the most aggressive demands: Japanese control over Chinese finances and security, and the imposition of Japanese “advisers” on the government.
As hopes for a short war faded, the Allies increasingly relied on Japan to provide military resources. Between 1917 and 1918, Japan and the U.S. secretly agreed that Japanese warships would patrol the waters off the Hawaiian islands in order to free up U.S. Navy ships for the Atlantic. Japan built destroyers for France, merchantmen for Britain, and supplied arms and ammunition to Britain and Russia. British lawmakers, including Winston Churchill, asked for Japanese troops for the Western Front. The Japanese Army drew up plans to send 100,000 to 150,000 troops to the Western Front, but from a supply standpoint such a deployment was unsustainable.
The navy provided escorts for ships carrying Australian, French colonial and New Zealand troops bound for the Western Front. Eventually the war’s demands on the mighty British Royal Navy meant Japan was asked to assume responsibility for patrolling a large portion of the Indian Ocean, going as far as South Africa. Although that meant Japanese forces were operating uncomfortably close to India and Ceylon, the Allies had little option to do otherwise.
From the outset of the war, the Allies had complained about a lack of Japanese military forces in the European theater. That changed in 1917, when Japanese destroyer squadrons began operating in the Mediterranean hunting German and Austro-Hungarian submarines and protecting troop convoys. At peak strength, the Japanese task force in the Mediterranean operated 17 warships, and by the end of the war they had escorted 799 transports carrying 700,000 Allied soldiers. A Japanese destroyer, Sakaki, was torpedoed by an Austro-Hungarian submarine off the island of Crete, with the loss of 67 lives. Japanese naval commanders took their work so seriously that several are reported to have committed suicide after losing ships they were assigned to protect.
A deep-seated racism pervaded amongst the Allies and their treatment of Japan. While much Allied mistrust was well-founded in Japan’s obvious Imperial ambitions, the scope of the country’s ambitions was, to some, more evidence of a “yellow peril” challenging the Western order. Unequal trade conditions between New Zealand and Australia and Japan created friction, while Australia’s “Whites Only” policy rankled. The British Royal Navy’s leadership privately doubted the fighting abilities of the Imperial Japanese Navy even as it relied on the Japanese to assume a greater burden in the Pacific and Indian oceans, as well as in the Mediterranean. None of this went unobserved by the Japanese.
Back in Japan, meanwhile, it was difficult to tell that the nation was involved in a war. World War I was a war of choice for the Japanese government, which sought to minimize its impact on society and the economy. The Japanese public was deliberately kept ill-informed and some, particularly those in rural areas, were completely unaware. Once informed, the average Japanese could not fathom how Japan could be involved in a war mostly fought in Europe by Europeans.
Japan’s economy flourished during the war, as it took up the slack in commercial sectors neglected by European wartime economies. Between 1914 and 1919, industrial production and mining in Japan rose more than 10 percent. Wartime demands on shipping led to Japanese companies filling the gap, pushing Japan up to third in the global shipping trade.
Wartime economic growth eventually led to inflation, and between 1914 and 1919 consumer prices far outstripped average wages. Wages grew only 57 percent but the price of food soared 130 percent. The result was rice riots in Osaka, Kobe and Nagoya by those who resented the uneven rise of the economy and the war’s impact on their livelihoods. Domestic capitalists who grew rich during the war were derisively called narikin, a term borrowed from shogi (Japanese chess) meaning “a pawn becoming a gold general.”
The war ended in 1918, and Japan sought to secure its spoils for the longer term. At Versailles, the Japanese delegation pushed two proposals: the right to keep German territories and equal rights for nonwhite — meaning Japanese — peoples. Having been the victim of unequal treaties with the West since the opening of the country, it demanded the clause as a way to avoid them in the future. The agreement would signal that the other victorious powers had finally admitted Japan to the club of first-rank nations.
Japan secured Jiaozhou and its territorial conquests, but the Western powers denied the equal rights provision. This — as well as wartime treatment of Japan with skepticism, scorn and occasional derision — only confirmed the suspicions of many that Japan, having learned from the West, now had to make its own way.
Japan learned many lessons from its participation in World War I, none of them good. It learned that war created opportunity — war bankrolled the economy and expanded the empire. The war had rewarded Japan’s arrogance and underhandedness handsomely. Japan had won three wars in 25 years, and it was not difficult to imagine divine guidance toward a sublime, Imperial destiny.
Japan also learned that the West was not interested in being friends. Part of that was justified — Japan was clearly interested in expanding its empire. Yet the Americans and Europeans already had empires of their own, and blaming another country for mixing Imperial expansion with the struggle for liberal democracy seems strange at best. Japan’s leadership began to view the Americans, British, Dutch and French — who had colonized most of its neighbors — as potential adversaries. Future expansion of the empire would put Japan in direct conflict with the West.
Almost all of the major powers that survived World War I went on to fight again in World War II. Japan was not the only country to switch sides. The experience of Japan in World War I has been marginalized, which is unfortunate because it is key to understanding the nation’s more prominent role in World War II. The Great War set Japan up for a rendezvous with disaster.
Timeline of conflict
Aug. 4, 1914: Britain declares war on Germany. Japan offers to enter the war if it can take Germany’s Pacific territories.
Aug. 14: Japan issues ultimatum demanding that Germany vacate China and the Marshall, Mariana and Caroline islands.
Aug. 23: Japan declares war on Germany.
Aug. 25: Japan declares war on Austria-Hungary.
October: Japanese Imperial Navy capture the Marshall, Mariana and Caroline islands.
Oct. 31: Japanese troops attack the German colony in Tsingtau.
Nov. 7: German colonial forces in Tsingtau surrender.
January 1915: Japan presents China with a list of 21 demands that would have essentially reduced China to a Japanese protectorate.
March 25: China signs treaty with Japan after Tokyo drops the most controversial group of demands.
July 3, 1916: Japan and Russia sign mutual cooperation treaty.
June 11, 1917: A Japanese destroyer, Sakaki, is torpedoed by an Austro-Hungarian submarine off the island of Crete.
Nov. 2: Japan and the United States sign the Lansing-Ishii Agreement, a diplomatic note that regulated their disputes with regards to China.
August 1918: Rice riots caused by inflation erupt throughout Japan.
Nov. 11: Allied forces sign armistice with Germany.
June 28, 1919: Treaty of Versailles is signed.