A century ago today, the BEF fought what British commentators like to call the Battle of Mons. A minor action, much commemorated in these parts, Mons has plenty to tell historians about British Army tactics and expertise at the start of the War, but that’s no real excuse for ignoring an altogether more momentous event that took place on the same day, when the island empire of Japan declared war on Germany.
The very idea that Japan took part in the First World War, let alone against Germany, may seem a little weird to the modern mind weaned on Second World War premises, but in 1914 it came as no surprise to those with an eye on international relations. Japan was on the way up, and was being extremely aggressive about it.
From a European perspective, Japan came into the War looking like a modern, industrial nation governed by mediaeval warlords. Its current head of state, Emperor Yoshihoto, ruled through appointed dignitaries over a system that practiced complete religious tolerance, forbade any political activity by women and had no truck with democratic representation. Yoshihoto, father of the rather better known Hirohito, had come to the throne with a change of dynasty in 1912, and by that time his empire had spent decades in the throes of a lightning transformation from agricultural backwater to regional superpower.
The 45-year reign of Yoshihoto’s predecessor, Emperor Meiji ‘The Great’, had seen rapid industrial growth, population growth, urbanisation and trade expansion, so that Japan was far and away the most developed economy in the Far East by 1914. Its armaments industry was particularly advanced, to the extent that it had no need for military imports and was developing one of the world’s most powerful navies, and this reflected the key and consistent element driving Japanese foreign policy before, during and after the First World War – expansion into the mainland empires of China and Russia.
The policy had been coming along nicely. War with China in the 1890s had left Japan in control of Korea, Taiwan, some of Chinese Manchuria and a selection of Pacific islands. A successful war against Russia in 1904–05, crowned by a crushing naval victory that sent shockwaves around the old world, had put an end to St. Petersburg’s hopes of expanding into the Pacific Rim. In between, in 1902, Japanese diplomacy had achieved an equally earthshaking coup by concluding a full alliance with the British Empire, the first time that aloof and immense world power had deigned to deal on equal terms with a non-white nation.
As its population passed fifty million, Japan was surging towards a perceived destiny on a wave of national confidence and – from the Emperor down to the swollen ranks of the labouring classes – with an almost religious faith in its military prowess and leadership. This was well known to the rest of the world. Though Japan wasn’t yet a global economic or military power, it was seen as a potentially dangerous rival for Pacific trade by business interests in the US, and was treated with nervous caution by European empires with Far Eastern interests.
Caution had been the basic motive behind Britain’s decision to make an ally of Japan. Given that the British had plenty of empire to defend in the Pacific and plenty of better things for the Royal Navy to do, while Japan won enormous international prestige and increased freedom to menace non-British interests, the bargain worked well for both sides. The alliance was still useful to Britain once war broke out in Europe, providing valuable guarantees of quiet in the Pacific, but that was nothing compared to the lottery win it became for Japan.
Declaration of war on Germany, as required by the terms of the alliance, suited Japanese territorial ambitions. Orders were issued ten days before the declaration for the conquest of German-held territories in the Pacific and on the Chinese mainland, which were completed by early November. After that, Japan spent the War filling the voids left by preoccupied European powers, building profitable new trade links with Australia, India and the United States while securing its hold over regional conquests. It did contribute a squadron of destroyers to allied operations in the Mediterranean, but with hindsight they are reckoned to have learned a lot more than they lost and can be seen as a metaphor for the entire Japanese war effort.
It’s not always easy to see beyond the historical monolith of the Second World War and appreciate its close, direct links to the First. The way Japan exploited the First World War and the sweeping changes war brought to Pacific pecking orders, to learn military lessons and establish the foundations of its greater empire is a case in point. The tragedy of Japanese over-ambition in the 1930s and 1940s couldn’t have happened without the First World War – and not a lot of people know that.