Uneasy Partnership:
The Anglo-Japanese Alliance

By James Stear
August 2017

The roots of the Anglo-Japanese alliance dated back to the end of the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895, when France, Germany and Russia has stepped in after the Japanese victory, and prevented Japan from obtaining as part of her spoils the Liaotung Peninsula (which Russia took control of, much to the dismay of the Japanese). Britain was concerned about the increasingly bellicose nature of Germany close to home, while both powers had fears of Russian expansion in the Far East.

Over the next few years, politicians and private citizens on both sides explored the boundaries of what might be a suitable understanding. Formal negotiations did not start until the summer of 1901, and after several exchanges, the final formal agreement was signed by both parties on 30 January 1902. It was a simple treaty, with six short articles, the key two being (1) Japan recognized Britain had interests in China, while Britain recognized Japan had interests in both China and Korea, and (2) promises of support if one signatory became involved in a war with two other powers. The agreement had very different implications to several parties. To the British, it was a caution to the Russians not to push aggressively in the Far East, given British support for Japan. To the Japanese, it was a guarantee that Britain would keep Russia’s Entente partner France off their back in the event of a dust-up over Korea and other territories with Imperial Russia (and this entered into French thinking, as well). And to those in the United States and Canada, it might well prove to be the trigger that would drag the British Empire into another war with America.

The alliance was not invoked until August 1914, when Britain finally requested assistance from Japan under its terms, once the leading powers of Europe had slipped into the flames of war. By that time, the alliance had switched in terms of British value from being one to containment of Russia, to one of containment of Germany, in conjunction with not only the Japanese in the Far East but also their new Entente Cordial partner France in the Mediterranean.

Nevertheless, during the summer of 1914 the British government was quite split on whether and how to invite the Japanese into the conflict, should there be one. Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey was quite opposed to Japanese involvement in any war with Germany, advising his counterpart Kato Takaaki in Tokyo that their assistance would only be required if Germany attacked Allied ships or colonies in the Far East. Grey feared that if invited to the party, Japan would subsume German colonies in China and the Pacific, press for further demands in China once Europe was engaged far away, and most importantly, that the dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, together with that powerhouse, the United States, would hold England responsible for furthering Japanese influence and holdings through the region.

In contrast, the First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Winston Churchill wanted the Japanese in, and the sooner the better. Following a review of Grey’s correspondence with the Japanese, he sent the Foreign Secretary a cool personal note on 11 August:

“I think you are chilling indeed to these people. I can't see any halfway house between having them in and keeping them out. If they are to come in, they may as well be welcomed as comrades. This last telegram [to Japan] is almost hostile.”

Four days later, the government of Ōkuma Shigenobu issued the famous ultimatum essentially demanding that Germany clear out of the Pacific, which naturally went unanswered by the All Highest, beyond telling the garrison at Tsingtao to get ready for hostile visitors. On August 23rd, Imperial Japan declared war on Imperial Germany, and began to move against German possessions in the Pacific.

The Japanese proceeded to launch a major operation against the German enclave at Tsingtao, but also put many of their ships at the service of the Royal Navy, for the purpose of hunting down German vessels in the Pacific. The Japanese gradually eliminated the German island empire north of the equator, and major Japanese warships like the early battle cruiser Ibuki took part in providing escort for major Allied convoys like the transportation of Australian troops to Africa and beyond. Japanese cruisers Chikuma and Yahagi took part in the hunt for the Emden in the Indian Ocean, and other warships pursued the remainder of Graf von Spee’s Asiatic Squadron in the Pacific.

But after the elimination of the immediate regional Pacific threats, Japanese assistance to Britain and the Allies paused. No troops were sent to the Western Front, and none of the fine Japanese major warships found themselves attached to the Grand Fleet in the North Sea. Two British requests in late 1914 for the deployment of Japanese forces to the Mediterranean and Baltic were met with polite but firm rejections by the ministers of the Taishō emperor.

The source of this rift, to a large degree, was the schism in the Japanese government between the army and navy factions, which spilled over into the civilian structure of early parliamentary democracy in Japan. The army traced its roots back to organization under Prussian assistance, and several of its prominent leaders had been trained by the Germans or spent time there. Many army leaders had ultimate faith in an eventual Central Powers triumph over the Entente. In contrast, the IJN was modeled on the Royal Navy, and had various supporters therein.

In the years prior to the war, various Japanese figures had vocally advocated abandoning the Anglo-Japanese agreement and developing stronger ties with Imperial Germany, despite Kaiser Wilhelm’s blustering about the gelbe Gefahr. Prominent among them were former Imperial Army general-turned-politician (and three-time Prime Minister) Katsura Tarō, his political ally Gotō Shinpei, who would later serve as Home Minster 1916-1918 in the pro-expansionist Terauchi government, and General Tanaka Giichi who would later become Prime Minister and continue aggressive intervention in China in the 1920’s (albeit under the idea of “regional cooperation”). Gotō suggested a German-Japanese alliance after the Chinese Revolution of 1911-1912, as it presented a “golden opportunity” to shift from British “decrepitude” to the fastest-rising power in Europe; Tanaka proposed a Russian-containing German alliance on the eve of the Great War.

Genrō (elder statesman) Yamagata Aritomo, also a former general and prime minister known for developing the Imperial Army on the Prussian model and serving as mentor to many of the army expansionists, initially advocated the alliance with Britain, but became skeptical as to its value with the start of the war, stating in early 1916 that Japan perhaps had more to learn from Germany than Britain in the coming years. These sentiments were further expressed by Terauchi Masatake, yet another general-turned-politician who would become prime minister in 1916, who advanced the idea of balancing the European powers against one another, so Japan could eventually become enforcer of an “Asian Monroe Doctrine” and eventually lead to a state of “Asia for the Asians” (albeit under Japanese leadership). Even Katō Takaaki, the former ambassador to Great Britain who helped negotiate the original agreement and now Foreign Minister at the outbreak of the war, advocated Japan’s intervention on the side of Britain - not because of the agreement commitment, but rather due to what participation would allow Japan to accomplish in China and the Pacific while Europe struggled afar.

Grey’s fears over Japanese opportunism began to be proved valid in early 1915. On 18 January of that year the Japanese government presented to the nominal President of the Republic of China, Yuan Shikai, a secret list of 21 demands, which effectively would have established a Japanese protectorate over all of the Dragon Throne. Over the next four months, Japanese and Chinese politicians struggled over the document, and with eventual publication followed by a final Japanese ultimatum, the Yuan regime agreed to watered-down terms. The United States, still neutral at the time, expressed dismay over Japan’s apparent renunciation of the Open Door policy for China, while the British Foreign Office was extremely disappointed with what it readily declared opportunistic Japanese moves.

To make matters worse, German Admiral Paul von Hintze, the German Minister to Beijing, began to openly woo the Japanese with promises of aggrandizement in Asia, if they would switch sides in the current European war. While the Japanese government of Ōkuma did not overtly act on the German offers, they dutifully passed word of them on to their Entente partners, which did little to reduce tensions in the alliance. Instead, it fanned the fears of those in the British government that the Japanese were playing both sides, which to some extent, Tokyo was.

This state of affairs was mollified somewhat on 19 October 1915, when the Japanese announced their commitment to the September 1915 declaration of Great Britain, France and Russia, that all nations would commit to not seeking a separate peace during the war. However the price of Japan’s concurrence was an agreement that Tokyo would not be required to send troops to Europe. Japan’s assistance through the rest of 1915 and on into 1916 was quite limited; towards the end of that year Admiral John Jellicoe noted in passing to his subordinate Sir David Beatty that Japanese conduct in the war to date was not “entirely satisfactory,” and mused that their Far East allies were harboring the idea of creating a "greater Japan which will probably comprise parts of China and the Gateway to the East, the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, and the Malay States." He further stated that, "apart from the selling of guns and ammunition to the Russians and ourselves, Japan is not taking a full share of the war," which accurately depicted the growing resentment in Great Britain of Japan's unwillingness to join operations in the European theater.

Jellicoe's desire: The Japanese battle cruiser Kongo.

In early 1917, the British once again pressed the Japanese for assistance, in this case, more escorts and patrols for the Indian Ocean (several German raiders were known to be out), and destroyers for ASW patrol in the Mediterranean. The requested ships were eventually supplied, and performed outstanding service. However, the price of this assistance had been secret Allied assurances that Japanese claims to her war spoils taken from German across the Pacific and in China would be supported. Later in the year, Tokyo firmly rejected the sale or loan of two or more of their modern Kongo-class battle cruisers, equivalent to the British Tiger, for service in the North Sea. Lord Curzon caustically observed in October 1917 during a meeting of the War Cabinet that “Japan had far from pulled her fair weight in the war,” and any aid provided was “qualified at each stage by a most scrupulous regard for her own interests,” sentiments that were by no means unique within the circles of the British government and military.

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