In the midst of debates about whether the Self-Defense Forces should be dispatched to the far corners of the globe to assist a military alliance partner, an obscure episode involving the Imperial Japanese Navy a century ago in the Mediterranean Sea offers key lessons for today’s politicians, bureaucrats and military leaders.

In August 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, Japan, deciding to honor the terms of its 1902 alliance with Great Britain, declared war on Germany despite deep misgivings among many in the government and army, who felt Germany would prevail. The war in Europe quickly became a stalemate along the Western Front, with both sides dug into trenches, unable to achieve a decisive victory.

By spring 1917, in a war that European politicians originally thought would be over by Christmas 1914, millions had died and there was no end in sight. In Japan, however, what was then called the “Great War” barely registered with the public. Japan had captured the German colony of Tsingtao, in China, in autumn 1914 and had chased the German East Asiatic Squadron out of the Pacific Ocean. The Imperial Japanese Navy had patrolled the South China Sea and had gone as far as the Indian Ocean, but there were no more major battles.

Japan had not sent troops to the Western Front and had not yet sent the navy as far as Europe. That, however, changed in April 1917. After Great Britain requested more assistance, Japan decided to initially send eight (and eventually 14) destroyers and a flagship cruiser to assist British ships in the Mediterranean Sea.

This task force, named the Second Special Squadron, was based at Malta. Its main mission was to escort British ships traveling between Marseille, France, and Malta; Taranto, Italy, and Malta; and Alexandria, Egypt, and Malta to protect them from German submarines. U-boats had inflicted heavy losses since the war began and had declared unrestricted warfare in February 1917 (a decision that would help end the neutrality of the United States, which officially declared war against Germany that April). Britain’s Royal Navy was operating in the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, and its resources were stretched thin.

“Initial requests by Great Britain for naval cooperation were often declined,” says Garren Mulloy, a British associate professor at Daito Bunka University and an expert on the history of the Self-Defense Forces. “Requests to coordinate activities with Royal Navy squadrons in the Pacific and South Atlantic appeared to be high risk ventures for the Japanese, and detached from Japanese interests. The eventual 1917 deployment of destroyers was a display of solidarity, and also a concession to constant appeals from the Royal Navy, which was being worn down in escort vessels by the resumed unrestricted U-boat campaign in the North Atlantic.”

The Second Squadron was officially independent but received its duty orders from the British commander at Malta. By the war’s end in November 1918, it had been dispatched on 348 escort missions, escorting 788 Allied warships and transport ships and about 750,000 personnel around the Mediterranean.

During that time the squadron engaged in 34 combat operations and a rescue mission. In his 2015 paper for the National Institute of Defense Studies, Tomoyuki Ishizu notes several episodes. One was when a German U-boat sank the transport ship Transylvania in May 1917. Two Japanese destroyers helped rescue the majority of the 3,300 personnel on board, a feat of bravery that ended with 27 Japanese officers and sailors receiving awards from King George V.

Then there was the sinking of the Japanese destroyer Sakaki by an Austrian U-boat in June 1917 off Crete. A total of 59 were killed, including Cmdr. Taichi Uehara, the ship’s captain. The ship would be salvaged and repaired.

“With these Japanese activities in the Mediterranean, Adm. G.C. Dickens, commander in chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet reported back to the Admiralty that ‘whereas Italians are inefficient, French are unreliable, Greeks are out of the calculation, and Americans are too far away, the Japanese are excellent, but small in number,’ ” Ishizu writes.

The contribution in the Mediterranean a century ago is all but forgotten in Japan. But in Malta, there is a memorial at the Commonwealth War Graves to 78 Japanese sailors who perished, including those from the Sakaki. The site still draws some Japanese visitors, especially people with SDF connections.

The dispatch itself was a minor footnote in the tragedy of World War I. But historians and military experts say that today’s leaders in Japan looking at an expanded role overseas for the SDF can learn much from it.

“The Japanese were highly efficient. But the primary role of destroyers had long been seen as offensive and defensive against large enemy vessels and torpedo boats. Little thought had been given to countering submarines, and the Imperial Japanese Navy made little effort to learn from the bitter British experience in the Mediterranean against U-boat attacks. The navy eventually took on board some Royal Navy anti-submarine warfare practices locally, but these were never absorbed into the Japanese naval doctrine, with tragic results in the Pacific War,” Mulloy says.

From a political point of view, he adds, the lesson is do not give the appearance of not wanting to take part in a military operation and then concede the point after much arm-twisting and delay.

Ishizu also notes that the lessons learned by the navy in the Mediterranean a century ago, especially submarine and anti-submarine warfare, were neither properly learned nor implemented as policy by the navy as a whole.

“Hence, the Second World War in the Pacific,” he writes.

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.