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.