On the surface, the course and outcome of Nazi Germany’s relations with Japan seem straightforward. Having become Germany’s first partner in the newly devised Anti-Comintern Pact in November 1936 Japan eventually progressed to the position of ‘East Asian extension’ of the German-Italian Axis; from there it finally evolved into Germany’s major military ally in the global war. In practice, however, the military partnership with Japan—the term in any case being a rather questionable description of the relationship—was reached by a very winding road.
In December 1941 Hitler (and Mussolini) declared war on the United States only days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of the Japanese-US conflict. To explain this fundamental decision, Hitler’s conspicuous commitment to Germany’s military alliance with Japan must be highlighted. In the 1920s and during the first years of his regime, Hitler’s future, total and highly significant commitment to Japan could not have been anticipated to such a degree. Initially, Japan occupied only a marginal role in Hitler’s ponderings about Germany’s potential future allies. Although, in his ‘ranking’ of nations, Hitler appeared to have viewed Japan positively, the country certainly did not constitute an ‘Asian Italy’, let alone an ‘Asian Britain’.
Whenever Hitler considered Japan in the 1920s, and indeed thereafter, he displayed his usual extremely superficial knowledge of non-European countries. This is evident from the few comments that he made about the country. What mainly stands out from these observations is Hitler’s perpetual obsession with race. In the case of Japan he was seemingly pulled into two opposing directions, a conflict that continued to occupy him to the end. On the one hand, he was convinced that the Japanese were racially inferior to or, at least, racially different from the ‘Aryan’ race. This ‘racial assessment’ was expressed in an interview Hitler gave to an American reporter in September 1923. As so often in his reflections about race, Hitler turned to his favourite theme, the threat posed by the