Examining Japan's first foray into global warfare

At 11 a.m., Nov. 11, 1918, the guns along the Western Front in France and Belgium fell silent. World War I, known at the time as the “Great War,” was at an end. What began in August 1914 as a conflict among the European powers that was widely predicted to be over by Christmas had exploded into the largest and bloodiest international conflict in history, involving dozens of countries from all corners of the globe. The hostilities involved Japan, which fought on the side of Great Britain, Canada, France, Belgium, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and a handful of other countries against Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Turkey and Bulgaria.

Historians generally agree that somewhere around 9 million military personnel perished in the war and another 22 million were wounded. It’s believed that more than 9 million civilians also died in the conflict. The war profoundly influenced everything that followed it in the 20th century, including World War II and the resulting Cold War.

A century later, Nov. 11 continues to be known as Remembrance Day, or Veterans Day in the United States. Today, as solemn official ceremonies to mark the 100th anniversary take place in many parts of the world, we look back at Japan’s role in the war and how that role shaped the country domestically and on the international stage.

A World War I-era photograph from Malta
A World War I-era photograph from Malta’s National War Museum shows Imperial Japanese Navy officers sitting on a beach on the island in the Mediterranean Sea. | KYODO

Minor casaulties

On Nov. 12, 1918, readers of Japan Times & Mail awoke to news that the war was finally over. “Germany Surrenders,” the banner headline proclaimed in a heavy bold font, with a portion of a telegram from a Hong Kong-based news agency printed on the front page announcing that Germany had accepted peace terms. Other reports were on the last battles of the war, the situation in Germany and rumors of German Kaiser Wilhelm II’s abdication. (The German leader had, in fact, abdicated three days earlier.)

Unlike the millions of Europeans who perished in the trenches, on the high seas or in the skies during the world’s first major aerial combat battles, Japan came out of World War I with total military casualties of about 1,300. Most of these were incurred during a few weeks in late 1914 against German and Austrian forces in the Chinese port city of Tsingtao, which was then a German colony.

Despite occasional pressure from its allies, especially the British, Japan sent no troops to the Western Front, although the Imperial Japanese Navy did assist the British Navy on a number of occasions, most notably in 1917, when a squadron of Japanese ships provided protection against German U-boats for British troopships and shipping in the Mediterranean Sea. In addition, the Japanese Red Cross Society sent Japanese nurses to Britain, Russia and France. These contributions, Japan would later assert during the peace talks at Versailles in 1918 and 1919, meant it deserved a seat at the victor’s table.

Nurses from the Japanese Red Cross Society pose for a photo in Paris in 1915.
Nurses from the Japanese Red Cross Society pose for a photo in Paris in 1915. | AVB-ASB (CAPGM100) / PUBLIC DOMAIN

An alliance and an opportunity

When the war began in August 1914, Japan was in the process of becoming an imperialist nation. Taiwan had been a dependency since Japan defeated China in the First Sino-Chinese War of 1894-95 and Korea had been annexed in 1910. The southern half of Sakhalin had been ceded to Japan in 1905 following the Russo-Japanese War.

In 1902, Japan and Great Britain had signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, in which the British acknowledged Japan’s interests on the Korean Peninsula but did not obligate the British to come to Japan’s assistance if a war with Russia broke out. In turn, Japan was not under any obligation to help Britain defend India, which was then a British colony.

But despite the agreement, there were, within the highest ranks of Japan’s government, pro-British and pro-German factions. The former wanted to immediately join England and France to fight Germany. The latter included senior Imperial Japanese Army officers, trained by the German military in the previous century. Others had strong academic, economic or cultural ties to Germany. This faction believed the Germans could prevail. They faced an Anglophile foreign minister, Takaaki Kato, and his pro-British allies. Kato, recognizing a need to quickly decide where the country stood, announced in early August 1914 that Japan would honor the 1902 agreement and side with the British, French, Russians and Belgians.

Frederick Dickinson, professor of Japanese History at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the leading Western experts on Japan and World War I, says that Japan’s declaration of war at the time was not a foregone conclusion.

“Despite Kato’s strong inclination to challenge Germany, there were plenty among the Japanese leaders concerned about a war against Berlin,” Dickinson says. “Kato orchestrated an ultimatum for two reasons. First, to capitalize on the opportunity to increase Japanese influence in China and, second, as a strong statement of support for the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.”

By the end of August, the Imperial Japanese Navy was beginning a blockade of the German port of Tsingtao and, soon afterward, the Imperial Japanese Army began a siege of the city. The British sent a couple of ships and a small contingent of troops to assist as well. Outnumbered and surrounded, the German and Austrian defenders surrendered on Nov. 7 and Japan took possession of Tsingtao on Nov. 16. Japan’s casualty figures for the siege were around 1,200, including about 270 battlefield deaths. The German and Austrian defenders had 199 killed and 500 wounded.

In addition, there were German colonies in the South Pacific, including the Marshall Islands. Many islands were used as coaling stations for Germany’s East Asia Squadron. As the war began, the squadron raced across the Pacific with the aim of sailing around Cape Horn and heading back to Germany. They were chased by the Imperial Japanese Navy in the autumn of 1914 and escaped, before finally being caught by the British Navy at the Falkland Islands, where the squadron was mostly destroyed.

A lithograph showing Japanese soldiers fighting German troops during the conquest of Tsingtao, China, in 1914.
A lithograph showing Japanese soldiers fighting German troops during the conquest of Tsingtao, China, in 1914. | SHOBIDO

After Tsingtao fell in November 1914, Japan’s role in the fighting part of the World War I was essentially over. Japan believed it had honored the terms of the 1902 alliance by assisting its British allies in Asia. There was little interest in sending troops all the way to France and Belgium. From 1915 onward, Japan’s role in the war would be one of assistance behind the lines for the most part, even as Tokyo plotted to expand Japan’s ambitions in neighboring China.

Twenty-one demands

By early 1915, Europe was bogged down in a war with no end in sight. Along northern France and Belgium, it was now a stalemate, a trench war in which neither side could make a decisive breakout. East Asia was far away and, with Europe distracted by the fighting, Japan used the occasion to present China with a list of 21 demands that would greatly extend its influence there.

Among the demands were that China not lease territory to any foreign power, recognize Japan’s ascendancy over Manchuria and Shandong, and accept so-called advisers from Japan to help the Chinese government meet the demands (subsequently removed at the insistence of the British and the Americans, the latter of which had yet to enter the war).

Facing war with Japan if they did not accept, a weak Chinese government agreed to Japan’s demands in May 1915. Some historians, journalists and politicians both in Japan and abroad have suggested a link between the demands and Japan’s subsequent invasion of Manchuria in 1931, which is seen by many historians as the beginning of Japan’s road to the 1941-45 Pacific War. However, Dickinson places the demands within the context of what happened in East Asia before the war, not afterward.

“The Twenty-one Demands merely mirrored great power practice in China since the First Sino-Japanese War (of 1894-95),” he says. “The Manchuria Incident, by contrast, marked an unprecedented new bid for empire in China.”

While the demands gave Japan wartime control over parts of China, Japan would agree to withdraw its troops from Shandong at the 1921-22 Washington Conference, despite having secured those former German territories in the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the war.

The home front

As Japan stepped up its imperialistic stance toward China, it ramped up its industrial production at home. The fighting was over for Japan in the Far East (though the navy would assist the British Navy in the Mediterranean Sea in 1917 and Japanese Red Cross nurses would be deployed to Great Britain and France). Now, Japanese industry could expand thanks to war purchases by its allies even as popular sentiment sometimes turned against Japan’s ally, Great Britain.

In his 1928 book “Japan Under Taisho Tenno: 1912-1926,” A. Morgan Young, who had been an editor at the Kobe-based Japan Chronicle newspaper, noted that Japan was becoming increasingly irritated with British and French demands to send troops.

Foreign Minister Kato, Young said, had reportedly opposed Japanese troops in Europe by saying that “there was no casus belli between Japan and Germany, the hostilities that had already taken place (in Tsingtao) being those provided for in the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.”

Supporters of Japan’s demands toward China and the opposition by Japan’s allies led to popular outbursts of anger in the Japanese press, where columnists suggested that if the British were blocking Japanese aspirations in China, it was time to end the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.

In addition, there was resentment toward the British over the silk trade, where the British government placed limits on silk imports from Japan, prompting newspaper articles that complained that Japan was being made the victim of a British trade war.

But World War I also arrived at a time when Japan was rapidly industrializing, and when more people were moving to the cities to take advantage of new jobs due to increased wartime production for Japan’s European allies. By 1917, prices for food staples, especially rice, were rising rapidly, creating great hardships. In August 1918, anger over high rice prices exploded, leading to riots, first in Toyama and then in Kyoto, Kobe and Osaka.

“Troops were hurried into Kobe from Himeji, the nearest garrison town except Osaka, where they were needed for keeping order in their own city,” Young wrote. “The mob smashed all the windows in the principal shopping street, smashed a motorcar or two, and generally expended its energies in minor mischief, but came into extensive collisions with the troops. In four or five days, the disturbances were suppressed, but the soldiers had to be called out in 20 places and demonstrators who were killed … numbered something over 100.”

The German and Austro-Hungarian prisoner-of-war camp in Bando, Tokushima Prefecture.
The German and Austro-Hungarian prisoner-of-war camp in Bando, Tokushima Prefecture. | COURTESY OF THE GERMAN INSTITUTE FOR JAPANESE STUDIES

POW camps

War prosperity (and war profiteering) by industry continued amid food riots and industrial strikes (398 strikes involving 57,000 workers in 1917, according to Young) meant turbulent times for many Japanese. For the German and Austrian prisoners of war, though, life was, given the circumstances, fairly sedate and comfortable.

“The number of German prisoners was comparatively small, less than 5,000, when one thinks of the overall 8.5 million men taken during the war in total,” says Mahon Murphy, a scholar at Kyoto University who specializes in the study of POWs during World War I. “In the context of the time, however, their treatment by Japan was very good.”

POWs had self-contained lives in the camps, and were allowed to grow their own food and bake their own bread. One POW captured in Tsingtao, Karl Juchheim, a confectioner by trade, would return to Japan after the war to open a shop that sold baumkuchen, the ring-shaped rolled layer cakes that are still very popular in Japan today.

Prisoners were also allowed out of the camp on supervised visits to local towns and villages, where they sometimes presented lectures to interested local townspeople and scholars on science, engineering or medicine, or gave book and poetry readings.

Prisoners perform in an orchestra at the German and Austro-Hungarian camp in Bando, Tokushima Prefecture.
Prisoners perform in an orchestra at the German and Austro-Hungarian camp in Bando, Tokushima Prefecture. | COURTESY OF THE GERMAN INSTITUTE FOR JAPANESE STUDIES

They also played music. It was the POW orchestra at the German and Austro-Hungarian camp in Bando, Tokushima Prefecture, where the first ever performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Japan is believed to have been performed on June 1, 1918. Today, “Dai-ku,” as it’s known in Japanese, is a staple of year-end concerts nationwide.

Aftermath

When the armistice went into effect on Nov. 11, 1918, there was concern among industrial titans and aristocratic politicians about what would happen to the economy, and to the masses of workers in heavy industries, many of whom were now organizing into militant unions and supporting communism. Japan’s leaders also feared the rise of democratic sentiment. Prime Minister Masatake Terauchi, who was also an army general, warned in 1917 that the democratic movement sweeping away the old order in Europe could damage Japan’s national essence.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had kept the United States out of the war until 1917, but a wary Japan increasingly saw America as its main rival for hegemony in Asia now, just as the U.S. distrusted Japan over its China policy. Retired Lt. Gen. Kojiro Sato’s 1921 book “If Japan and America Fight” called for strengthening Japan’s defenses against a possible U.S. attack. On the other side, British author Hector Bywater’s 1925 novel “The Great Pacific War,” which predicted a Japanese surprise attack on U.S. naval forces in the Pacific, helped fan distrust in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s.

At Versailles in 1918 and 1919, the Japanese maintained they had fulfilled their duties under the Anglo-Japan Alliance and deserved some of the spoils of war. They would press for and get recognition as having Germany’s former colonies in the Pacific as being in their sphere of influence, as well as recognition for their interests in China (later given up, as previously noted, at the Washington Conference).

The German and Austro-Hungarian prisoner-of-war camp in Bando, Tokushima Prefecture.
The German and Austro-Hungarian prisoner-of-war camp in Bando, Tokushima Prefecture. | COURTESY OF THE GERMAN INSTITUTE FOR JAPANESE STUDIES

While Japan Times & Mail, in the same Nov. 12 issue announcing Germany’s surrender, also editorialized against calls to go easy on Germany, the general mood, according to A. Morgan Young in 1928, was that the war was over and it was time to move on, even as Japan’s leaders, concerned about maintaining growth and political order in a growing nation scarce in natural resources, would remain committed to colonial expansion, putting it at further odds with its World War I allies.

On Aug. 8, 1914, as the war began and hopes for a quick victory were strong, Haruki Shimazaki, the author and essayist better known by his pen name Toson Shimazaki, was in Paris. Writing for the Asahi Shimbun in an essay published a month later, Shimazaki predicted that, far from being another relatively small war like those of the previous century, it would be a war that would change the maps of Europe and alter the history of the 20th century. It did, in ways that, 100 years later, continue to shape how we in the 21st century view and approach current geopolitical problems.