prejudice -- 3/13/15

Today's selection -- from Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix. In the early twentieth century, America was a decidedly prejudiced place -- it had rejected Japan's request in 1919 for a racial equality clause in the Covenant of the League of Nations, and passed a blatantly racist Immigration Act in 1924 (According to the U.S. Department of State's Office of the Historian the purpose of the act was "to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity"). But Japan was prejudiced too; elites such as the young Japanese Emperor Hirohito had been taught from an early age that there would be an inevitable struggle between the yellow and white races for domination. The scene was set for an epic clash -- and even though Japan cooperated with the American-led "Washington conference" for peace after World War I, it did so because it allowed Japan to keep territory it had acquired throughout Asia through militaristic colonial expansion.

"During the 1920s young Hirohito, his entourage, and the Shidehara faction in the Foreign Ministry supported this American-led reorientation in international relations, with its emphasis on cooperation with the West in China, arms reduction, and the abrogation of Japan's previous military alliance with Britain. To be sure, they knew the postwar world order was far from just. The Great Powers had rejected Japan's modest request for a racial equality clause in the Covenant of the League; the United States had designed the Washington treaties to restrain Japan in China and roll back the advances it had made there during World War I. Still they supported the new order, just as they supported the League, in the hope they might thus be able to lessen the excessive arms spending that was driving the government to the verge of bankruptcy. In addition, although the United States had changed the rules of the game, organizations like the League of Nations and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) embodied the principle of the equality of nations which Japan itself had espoused in Paris in 1919. The new order did indeed recognize Japan as a great power (even though it did not recognize the principle of racial equality). This was reason enough for Hirohito and Makino to support the Washington Conference.

Imperial Japan in 1942, showing the progressive territorial expansions from 1870.

"In addition the new international order appeared to build on, but not change, the special international status of China under the 'unequal treaty' system. It allowed for the possibility of China developing into an independent nationalist state, but ensured the hegemony of the 'treaty' powers in Asia. For Japan, therefore, cooperation in this new Anglo-American order, however unjust and inequitable, at least promised stability, and was less a matter of siding with democracy than opposing the disorder associated with antimonarchist Russian Communism, and its spread in China.

"Nevertheless, the schema of the white and yellow races locked in conflict and competition, which Hirohito had learned in middle school, had stayed with him. It was an intensely held belief that had also served as the premise of Japanese strategic thinking and war aims during World War I. The passage by the U.S. Congress of the blatantly racist Immigration Act of 1924 reinforced his awareness of racial conflict. Similarly Hirohito retained the knowledge he had received during the early 1920s from civilian court lecturers such as Shimizu T?ru, who rejected any urgent need for arms reduction. To counter the antimilitary mood arising from the Washington Conference, Shimizu had emphasized to Hirohito that 'In a situation like the present, where the nations of the world vie with one another, every country must possess armaments to defend from danger.' This was the view of the entire entourage; it was Hirohito's view as well.

"[Hirohito's] support of the Washington treaty system ... rested on unstated assumptions regarding internationalism, and the economic advantages to be gained from diplomatic cooperation with Britain and the United States. ... Essentially the [Japanese] assumed that a cooperative, peaceful foreign policy would be compatible with defense of Japan's colonial interests, especially in Manchuria."


Herbert P. Bix


Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan


Harper Perennial


Copyright 2000 by Herbert P. Bix


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