Magazine article World Affairs

Japan and the League of Nations: An Asian Power Encounters the "European Club."(Wilson and the League of Nations, Part 2)

Magazine article World Affairs

Japan and the League of Nations: An Asian Power Encounters the "European Club."(Wilson and the League of Nations, Part 2)

Article excerpt

For the years between the world wars, the term "internationalist" can be applied to those in Japan who were convinced that Japan's interests could best be secured if the nation expanded its diplomatic and commercial role beyond the confines of the East Asian subsystem and played an active part in global affairs. As determinants of policy, Japan should balance regional concerns with worldwide trends, and national self-interest with the collective interests of humanity. In short, internationalists promoted a consciousness of "Japan in the world" - a phrase used repeatedly by the remaining Meiji-era genro [senior statesman], Prince Saionji Kinmochi.

The circumstances of World War I gave momentum to an internationalist movement. The state of diplomatic isolation brought on by the Twenty-one Demands, the Siberian Intervention, and the Shandong issue at the Paris Peace Conference made the repair of Japan's image abroad a matter of utmost concern to all thoughtful Japanese. At the same time, there was a fleeting fascination with Wilsonian internationalism among proponents of the "Taisho democracy" school, who reasoned that Japanese affirmative participation in global affairs would facilitate the enactment of such internal reforms as universal male suffrage, recognition of labor unions, and reduction of arms expenditures. In the immediate post-World War I months, the debate on internationalism centered - as it did in the United States - on the question of whether it was in the nation's interest to join the League of Nations.

After much soul-searching and haggling, a national consensus affirmed international accommodationism. The business community saw political cooperation with the powers as a requisite for expanding trade. Politicians of the dominant Seiyukai Party needed an excuse to reduce the military budget in the face of postwar recession. Diplomats wanted to allay the suspicions of the powers toward Japan. Liberal journalists and intellectuals desired the democratizing influence of interaction with Western countries and affirmed the ideal of collective security. Thus, Japan swallowed its misgivings and joined the European victors of the war in charter membership in the League of Nations. In doing so, it opted to enter a multilateral, world-scale system of international order. When peace treaty ratifications were exchanged at Versailles in the first month of the new decade, Prime Minister Hara Takashi admonished his people about the new international order:

The condition of the world no longer allows independent action for any country in international affairs, and it will be necessary for all countries to maintain harmony and cooperation with each other. It is desirable that the Japanese should pay due attention to this phase of the new order of things.(1)

The historical picture of Japan's association with the League of Nations is commonly colored in negative terms. Japanese behavior when the League was founded at the Paris Peace Conference contributes to this image. There, Japanese envoys were ill prepared on the League question and displayed no enthusiasm for the scheme while the weighty issues of racial equality and the retention of Shandong and the Pacific islands were unresolved. Japan's plenipotentiaries earned the title of "silent partners of the peace," a phrase not intended as a compliment. Thirteen years later, Japan's relation to the League again caught historical attention, this time when Japan walked out of the League Assembly in reaction to condemnation of its actions in Manchuria. This event in 1933 marks for many observers the beginning of the League's demise. It would be easy to conclude on the basis of these two prominent episodes that Japan's commitment to League principles was less than sincere and that the League served no important functions in Japan's foreign affairs.

In the interest of a balanced interpretation of Japan's interwar history, this article focuses on the positive features of Japan's League experience. …

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