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From the World War I Centennial News Podcast

Dr. Frederick Dickinson on Japan in the Great War

CN PodcastLogo Final gray lowerOn the World War I Centennial News Podcast, we're taking a look back at some of our favorite segments from 2018. In Episode 84, which aired on August 10th, Professor of Japanese History at the University of Pennsylvania and noted Japan expert Dr. Frederick Dickinson joined the show to elucidate Japan's important but oft-neglected role in the war. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity:


Theo Mayer: August 10th, Episode #84, Japan in World War I, with Dr. Fredrick Dickinson. Now those who've never been exposed to what happened in the far east during World War I are often surprised by the fact that Japan declared war almost as soon as hostilities broke out in 1914, years before America entered the fray, and many of those same people are also surprised to learn that Japan fought on the side of the Allies. And, those who know just a little about Japan in World War I, tend to hold some preconceptions about Japan, and Japan in World War I, including the accepted Western concept that Japan was an isolated nation, and stalked away from the Versailles Treaty, having been seriously insulted by the non-acceptance of their proposal for racial equality for the League Of Nations. Now, I'm one of those people, so it was really great to have some of my ideas realigned by our next guest, Dr. Frederick Dickinson, Professor of Japanese History at the University of Pennsylvania, Co-Director of the Lauder Institute of Management and International Studies, and the Deputy Director for the Penn Forum on Japan. Dr. Dickinson didn't just study Japan, he was born in Tokyo, and raised in Kanazawa and Kyoto. He's written a series of books including War and National Reinvention: Japan and the Great War, 1914-1919. Dr. Dickinson, thank you for joining us.

Dr. Dickinson: Sure, thanks Theo, thanks for having me. Delighted to talk about Japan, delighted to have an audience for Japan.

Theo Mayer: Okay, let's start with the isolation issue.DickinsonDr. Frederick Dickinson

Dr. Dickinson: I would say number one, that Japan was never isolated, but we have this impression because Japan was very adept at essentially controlling its own foreign policy up through the Early Modern Period. Had a little bit of issue in the mid-19th Century obviously, when Commodore Perry came along, and it turned out that the Americans were going to sort of decide the terms of trade and negotiation, but the Japanese are first defeating the Chinese in war in 1895. They're also a very important part of the international coalition to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in China, in 1900. In the late 19th Century, it's the Age of Empire, so there are a few things you have to do in order to be taken seriously on the international stage. You have to create a modern state, and you have to create a modern empire. In order to do both of those things, you have to create a modern navy and a modern army. Essentially, Japan is doing that. The Japanese, already by 1885 are looking to Korea as the principle target of their potential empire building enterprise, and that very much begins with the Sino-Japanese War, and just continues. So, Japan is very much on the radar screen, and this is the main reason for the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902. The British recognize, number one, that Russia is a problem, and they recognize number two, that the Japanese are the ones to help deal with the Russians.

Theo Mayer: World War I breaks out, and within months Japan invades the Tsingtao region of China, presumably because it was held by Germans at the time. Is that true?

Dr. Dickinson: Definitely, but even more important than the within months idea, is that the Japanese are declaring war on Germany, August 23rd of 1914. This is quite remarkable. I mean obviously it's after the British, after the French, but it's before the Americans, it's before the Italians, it's the Ottoman Empire gets involved in this war. They're very much out there, at the beginning of the war. And, yes, you have to ask yourself, well what's going on? Essentially, it's the Anglo-Japanese alliance, and in particular it has to do with the one man who was basically in charge, in August of 1914, and he was the one who made almost single-handedly the decision to go to war against Germany. That was Katō Takaaki. He was the Foreign Minister at the time.

Theo Mayer: So what role did Japan play during the War?

Dr. Dickinson: Well, it's an interesting question and important one, and one that you would probably be surprised to learn, but I would say to put in a nutshell, the Japanese belligerence against the Central Powers was a deciding factor in the victory of the Allied Powers. The Germans essentially are knocked out of the war in Asia by November of 1914. And, I would simply say that had the Japanese decided instead of declaring war on Germany, to declare war on Britain and its Allies, we would be living in a very, different world right now, and that was not necessarily out of the realm of possibility.

Theo Mayer: It's a fascinating role. They also played a fairly large part in keeping the U-boat threat down in the Mediterranean.

Dr. Dickinson: Exactly, so all kinds of supporting roles that the Japanese are playing throughout the War, in fact.

Theo Mayer: So now the War wraps up, and Japan is at the table at Versailles. How'd that go, and what role did classic American racism play in the outcome?

Dr. Dickinson: We usually simply hear the issue of the racial non-discrimination clause that the Japanese put up, for inclusion in the Covenant of the League of Nations, but you have to remember that was a very minor issue for the Japanese. They essentially got everything they wanted except that clause, and then some. And, what they actually wanted was confirmation of their newfound power in China, number one, and they also got confirmation of their newfound empire. That is, they're given German Micronesia as League of Nations mandate territories, to essentially develop as part of their sort of informal empire, after 1919. So those are the two things that the Japanese were really interested in, and they got them without a problem. Plus, they got recognition of being a world power. They were one of the five victor powers that were present at the table to discuss not simply issues in Asia, but to discuss issues of world peace. Japanese navy mediterraneanJapanese Navy officers stationed in the Mediterranean. While often ignored in the historical assessment of the war, Japan fought Germany on behalf of the Allies in both the Pacific and the Mediterranean. 

Theo Mayer: Okay, so moving forward again, Japan was allied with the Anglo-Franco Alliance during World War I. What happened between World War I and World War II, that caused Japan to align themselves against the Allies 25 years later?

Dr. Dickinson: The changes from the Manchurian Incident onward. The Manchurian Incident in September of 1931. After becoming a pivotal player at the Paris Peace Conference, a pivotal player at the Washington Conference, at the Geneva Conference, and Naval Arms Reductions at the London Conference in 1930, a very important signatory to the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. After that, clearly something different is going on. Essentially, I would say it's a problem of domestic politics in Japan. Political parties are sort of a new phenomenon in Japan until the First World War, essentially. The oligarchs had been in charge, the bureaucratic decision makers had been in charge, so the 1920s is a new era of political party management, and there are some within Japan that do not benefit politically by this arrangement, and they try as hard as they can throughout the 1920s to put Japan on a different path. They finally find a solution, a formula, and that is just to start shooting at home and abroad. So these folks are doing that in early 1930s, and this obviously ultimately changes Japan's trajectory, puts it on a path toward alliance with Germany and Italy, rather than with Britain and the United States.

Theo Mayer: Dr. Dickinson, thank you so much for providing our listeners with this great overview of a story that many people I've spoken with are actually surprised at, and really a story that's pretty much untold. Thank you for coming in.

Dr. Dickinson: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Theo.

Theo Mayer: Dr. Frederick Dickinson is Professor of Japanese History at the University of Pennsylvania.


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