100 years on: Japan’s fateful ‘surprise’


A hundred years ago this week, a small group of Japanese and British officials gathered at the Foreign Office in London, made a few speeches, signed some documents, drank Champagne and then dispersed into the cold and foggy streets of the capital of an empire “on which the sun never set.”

Although the signing of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (Nichiei Domei) on Jan. 30, 1902, was a low-key affair, it was to prove a turning point in the history of both countries. For Japan it marked the country’s acceptance into that most exclusive of clubs, the Great Powers. For Britain it marked the end of its 19th-century foreign policy of “splendid isolation,” under which it had refused to form military alliances with other countries, trusting instead in the invincibility of the Royal Navy.

To many people at the time, it seemed strange that the mightiest power in the world had allied itself with a country that had only recently emerged from feudalism. However, both Britain and Japan had one great interest in common: fear of Russia.

Both countries’ preoccupation with Russia sprang from the 19th-century squabble among the European powers, and later Japan, over the decaying corpse of imperial China. The assault on China’s sovereignty was begun by the British in the 1840s when, to protect the lucrative opium trade they controlled, they went to war with China to force its government to continue importing the drug which was devastating its population and economy.

Britain’s victories in these Opium Wars not only ensured that its drug trade continued to flourish, but also gained the country control over Hong Kong. Pretty soon, other powers were seizing parts of China.

Meanwhile, Japan’s wish to control Korea precipitated the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. Despite a succession of victories, however, Japan was forced to abandon its dream of a “Manchurian Empire” by the so-called tripartite intervention of Russia, France and Germany. Smarting from this perceived humiliation and conscious of Russia’s growing influence in northeast China, some Japanese leaders concluded that war with Russia was both inevitable and desirable.

Although the Japanese military believed they could beat Russia in a one-on-one fight, they knew they couldn’t if Russia was joined by other European countries. Japan needed an ally of its own, and would find one in Britain.

In 1900, Britain was increasingly earning the contempt of the world for its gold-grabbing war with Dutch settlers (Boers) in South Africa, in which 50,000 black Africans and 28,000 Boer women and children died in the insanitary conditions of what the British called “concentration camps.”

This international enmity, the growing navies of France and Germany, and Russia’s increasing influence in Asia, made the British realize they needed to forge an alliance to secure their worldwide empire.

Choosing partners

In choosing a partner, however, Britain’s options were limited; France, Russia and Germany were rivals, and could easily become enemies; the United States was still a sleeping giant. The only power strategically and militarily placed to help Britain, and with whom its interests did not clash, was Japan.

It was fortunate for Britain that just as it was thinking of revolutionizing its foreign policy, Tadasu Hayashi (1850-1913) arrived in London to head the Japanese Legation. Hayashi had been sent there as a teenager by the shogunate to study Western ways, and had become a great anglophile. After an eventful career (which included some years in prison in Japan for taking part in a rebellion by Tokugawa loyalists) he arrived in London in February 1900 determined to push for a military alliance between his country and Britain.

This was the age of secret diplomacy, so very few people were aware of the Anglo-Japanese negotiations which began in August 1901. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Landsdowne, headed the British team, with only the lukewarm support of the Cabinet. The government in Tokyo was also divided about the wisdom of an alliance, with many ministers not relishing the idea of Japanese soldiers dying in the Himalayas to defend British India from the Russians. However, Prime Minister Taro Katsura and Foreign Minister Jutaro Komura were both enthusiastic, and gave Hayashi carte blanche in the negotiations.

The treaty that was drawn up was quite short, and stated as its main aim “a desire to maintain the status quo and general peace in the Extreme East.” Both countries recognized each other’s “special interests” in China, and promised to come to each other’s aid if either were attacked by more than one power. Britain also recognized that Japan had interests “in a peculiar degree in the Empire of Corea,” a very diplomatic term for Japan’s policy of gradually turning Korea into a colony. The treaty was to run for five years and to apply only to the Far East.

Although the Times of London was nervous at this “departure from the policy of isolation that England has so long pursued,” the Japanese press was enthusiastic, with The Japan Times writing of “unmixed satisfaction at this complete and most pleasant surprise.”

Worsening relations

The treaty brought the desired benefits to both countries: Britain redeployed many warships from the Far East to European waters, and Japan conducted its worsening relations with Russia secure in the knowledge that no other power was likely to assist Russia if it meant war with Britain.

When hostilities finally broke out with Russia in February 1904, over spheres of interest in China and Korea, sure enough no other countries became involved. Japan’s destruction of the Russian Baltic Fleet in the Tsushima Strait in 1905, and its defeat of the Russian armies in Manchuria, ensured it not only of victory over Russia, but also of recognition as a first-class military power.

The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was twice renewed prematurely, in 1905 and 1911. The 1905 version was extended to include the defense of the Indian Ocean, and stipulated it was to run for 10 years. However, by 1911, realizing that its future lay in close cooperation with the United States, Britain specifically excluded itself from aiding Japan if it became involved in a war with America.

Japan was not obliged to help Britain when it went to war with Germany in August 1914, and at first declared neutrality. However, voices in the Japanese government and military quickly realized that the war afforded a great opportunity for the country to increase its power and prestige. Japan’s attacks on German colonies in the Shandong Province of China and the Mariana and Marshall islands in the Pacific were the Allies’ first victories in the Great War. Subsequently, under the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty in 1919, Japan retained control over most of these gains.

But by the time the alliance came up for renewal again in 1921, the whole world had changed: Russia and Germany were no longer a threat to anyone; Britain and France were the closest of friends; and the U.S. was beginning to view Japan as its greatest rival in China and the Pacific.

The Japanese government of the day was eager to continue the alliance, as was the British prime minister, Lloyd George. However, under pressure from the U.S. and Britain’s Dominions, especially Canada, the British decided to let the treaty lapse. The Japanese felt bitterly disappointed.

Had the treaty been renewed in 1921, would the subsequent history of East Asia have been completely different? Would Japan have been deflected from the path it was to take in the 1930s? Would Pearl Harbor today just be a name conjuring up images of a holiday paradise?