The mood was tense in Geneva on the morning of Feb. 24, 1933. That day, Yosuke Matsuoka, who led the Japanese delegation, was scheduled to address the 44 member states of the League of Nations. He faced a difficult task: defend his country’s aggressive takeover of Manchuria in 1931. Matsuoka knew there was little sympathy for Japan’s position among his audience. Still, he sounded a composed if defiant note. Halfway through his remarks though, he lost his cool and, unable to contain himself, blurted out: “Manchuria belongs to us by right. Read your history!”

Prelude to Pearl Harbor: Ideology and Culture in US-Japan Relations, 1919-1941, by John Gripentrog
284 pages

It was pure bombast. It was also to no avail. Soon after he returned to his seat, the delegates voted overwhelmingly to censure Japan and called upon Tokyo to withdraw its forces from Manchuria. In a stunning move, Matsuoka then announced that his country was leaving the League of Nations. As he walked out, he left no doubt about Japan’s intentions: we are “not coming back.”
This was a turning point. As John Gripentrog explains in “Prelude to Pearl Harbor,” a cogent and timely study of how the United States and Japan came to blows in the Pacific, Tokyo’s decision to walk away from the League of Nations was a serious setback for global governance. It was also a stark rejection of the cooperative spirit that, to a large extent, had animated diplomacy in the previous decade.

Tasked with defending Japan's takeover of Manchuria, Yosuke Matsuoka lost his cool and blurted out: 'Manchuria belongs to us by right. Read your history!' | PUBLIC DOMAIN
Tasked with defending Japan’s takeover of Manchuria, Yosuke Matsuoka lost his cool and blurted out: ‘Manchuria belongs to us by right. Read your history!’ | PUBLIC DOMAIN

The 1920s had been a period of hope. The horrors of the First World War were still vivid in everyone’s memory and there was broad recognition that a new way of conducting state-to-state relations was needed, one which, this time, would be based on clear rules and “orderly processes.” This approach, which emphasized free trade and freedom of the seas, transparency, disarmament and self-determination, came to be known as “liberal internationalism.” The League of Nations, which Japan helped establish in 1920, was to be the cornerstone of that novel edifice.

Although the United States failed to join the League, it worked closely with Japan to promote this new international order. At the Washington Conference of 1921-22, both nations, along with the United Kingdom, France and Italy, negotiated an ambitious arms-control treaty that imposed hard limits on the number of warships each navy could build. Of great interest to the government in Peking (now Beijing), the Nine-Power Treaty, which was finalized during the same conference, committed its signatories to “respect the sovereignty, the independence, and the territorial and administrative integrity of China.” Most idealistic of all, Washington and Tokyo joined 13 other governments in 1928 to sign the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which renounced war as a means to settle international disputes. Throughout that decade, Gripentrog writes, Japan’s cooperative diplomacy “was remarkable for its consistency.”

But there was one big problem: None of these agreements had any credible enforcement mechanisms. Instead, they largely relied on the power of “world opinion.” From today’s perspective, this sounds incredibly naive, but at the time, Gripentrog maintains, it was widely believed that “aggressors could not long function in an interdependent world in which they were ostracized.” Alas, Japan’s invasion of Manchuria — and the world’s lackluster response — showed the feebleness of this approach.

By the early 1930s, Japan was looking at the world with different eyes. Many had grown cynical of liberal internationalism, which they dismissed as a clever ploy by America and the West to rob Japan of its rightful status as a world power. There was also a growing sense among the public of their country’s own exceptionalism, particularly of its “special rights, special interests and special responsibilities” in Asia. The invasion of Manchuria, which was highly popular with the Japanese public, played directly to these emotions.

An ideological gap had opened up. From the perspective of Japanese policymakers, the challenge was that so few in the West, particularly in America, truly understood conditions in Asia and Japan’s vital interests therein — Matsuoka himself had said as much on three occasions during his fateful speech in Geneva. To address this issue, Tokyo concocted an ambitious program of cultural diplomacy to sway public opinion. Goodwill ambassadors were dispatched, arts exhibitions sent on tours, and a glossy English magazine, Nippon, was launched. Even the Tokyo Giants, a baseball team, was packed off to America where it played 104 exhibition games over four months in 1935.

Not all of this was innocuous. There were all-expenses-paid junkets — the better to bamboozle U.S. opinion-makers — and quiet payments to unregistered agents, too. In general, however, most of Japan’s public diplomacy aroused sympathy and positive media coverage. And yet, Gripentrog emphasizes, its impact was severely dulled by all-too-frequent news of the Imperial Japanese Army’s brutal behavior in China.

As the decade wore on, trust evaporated. Opinions on both sides hardened. Whenever Washington or allied governments accused Tokyo of breaking past commitments, under the Nine-Power Treaty for instance, the Imperial Japanese government had a ready-made explanation that “circumstances have changed,” or that it had been “forced to act” but still had exercised “utmost patience and restraint,” even when faced with the “increasingly arrogant and insulting attitude” of others. Could the rest of the world not see that its intentions were benign and merely aimed at promoting “the peace of the world”? China, America, the League of Nations and many others disagreed. So has history.

Martin Laflamme is a Canadian foreign service officer. The views expressed in this article are his own.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.