The U.S. and Japan - A love-hate relationship since 1852

Though there had been a number of U.S. contacts with the island nation of Japan by American ships prior to 1852, the Japanese traded exclusively with the Dutch and had no desire to have commercial or any other kind of relations with the rest of the world including the United States.

Perry makes Contact and Produces first U.S.-Japan Treaty 1854

In 1852, American Commodore Matthew Perry left U.S. waters determined to negotiate a Japanese trade treaty.  Arriving in Japan the first communications between Perry and the Japanese Tokugawa shogonate roughly translated as "You are free to go now."  Perry refused to leave, and he demanded permission to present a letter from U.S. President Millard Fillmore, threatening force if he was denied.

Perry's initial attempt to establish a treaty between the two countries was not successful.  He returned again in March 1854 with more ships and entered into negotiations which resulted in the first formal relations between the two countries known as the Convention of Kanagawa which Perry signed in March of 1854, and departed.

In the decade that followed the U.S. and Japan established their first formal diplomatic relations.

1898 to WWI -- Allies and gestures of friendship

In the late 19th century the opening of sugar plantations in the Kingdom of Hawaii led to the immigration of large numbers of Japanese. Hawaii became a U.S. possession in 1898, and the Japanese were the largest element of the population then, and have been the largest element ever since.

In 1900 the U.S. and Japan  cooperated with the European powers in suppressing the Boxer Rebellion in China. However, America had deep reservations about Japan's refusal to go along with the "Open Door Policy" that would allow all nations to do business with China. President Theodore Roosevelt played a major role in negotiating an end to the war between Russia and Japan in 1905-6.

During the Roosevelt presidency it was felt that strong U.S.-Japan ties were essential to preserving U.S. interests in the Pacific.  As a gesture of friendship the Japanese sent the U.S. more than 3,000 blossoming cherry trees which were planted in Washington, DC in 1912.

During World War I both the U.S. and Japan fought on the Allied side. By October 1914 the Japanese navy seized the German possessions in the Marianas, Carolines, Marshall Islands and Palau groups.

Post-WWI - Japan gets German possessions in China and Pacific & U.S. Bans Japanese Immigration

At the conclusion of WWI Japan's military took control of German bases in China and the Pacific, and in 1919 with U.S. approval was given a League of Nations mandate over the German islands north of the equator, with Australia getting the rest.

The populations of these islands were too small to provide a sustainable economic base for the Japanese, their major significance was their strategic location, dominating sea lanes across the Pacific Ocean. They would later play an important role in Japanese visions of a Pacific empire and were key to their WWII strategy.

In the U.S. strong anti-Japanese sentiment (especially on the West Coast) was a source of constant friction between the two countries and in 1924 resulted in laws which barred all Japanese immigration to the U.S.

The years after WWI saw the rise of Pan-Asian sentiments, best described as "Asia for the Asians" and an increasing emphasis of a beefed-up military - especially the Japanese navy.

Military Expansion

After the end of the First World War, many navies—including those of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Imperial Japan—continued and expanded construction programs that had begun during the conflict. The enormous costs associated with these programs pressured their government leaders to begin a disarmament conference.

In 1921, the United States invited delegations from the other major maritime powers—France, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom—to come to Washington, D.C. and discuss a possible end to the naval arms race. The subsequent "Washington Naval Conference" resulted in the "Washington Naval Treaty" which among other provisions limited the size and weaponry of all future battleships.  It also agreed that the five countries would not construct more capital ships for ten years and would not replace any ship that survived the treaty until it was at least twenty years old.

Despite these attempts at disarmament by the 1930s, the Japanese government began a shift towards ultra-nationalist militancy.  This movement called for the expansion of the Japanese Empire to include much of the Pacific Ocean and Southeast Asia. The maintenance of such an empire—spanning 3,000 miles from China to Midway Island—required a sizable fleet capable of sustained control of territory.

Although all of Japan's battleships built prior to the Yamato class had been completed before 1921—as the "Washington Treaty" had prevented any more from being completed—all had been either reconstructed or significantly modernized, or both, in the 1930s. This modernization included, among other things, additional speed and firepower, which the Japanese intended to use to conquer and defend their aspired-to empire.

During the 1930s the Japanese Navy began construction of airfields, fortifications, ports, and other military projects in the islands controlled under the mandate, viewing the Pacific islands under their control as "unsinkable aircraft carriers" with a critical role to play in the defense of the Japanese home islands against potential American invasion.

In 1931 Japan's Kwantung Army invaded Manchuria (Northeast China) following the Mukden Incident. A few years later in 1934 when Japan withdrew from the League of Nations over the Mukden Incident, the country also renounced all treaty obligations. Japan would no longer design battleships within the treaty limitations and was free to build warships larger than those of the other major maritime powers.  By 1937, Japan had annexed territory north of Beijing and following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, a full-scale invasion of China began.


Japan sees the U.S. as the enemy- Joins the Axis Powers

Japan's intention to acquire resource-producing colonies in the Pacific and Southeast Asia would likely lead to confrontation with the United States, thus the U.S. became Japan's primary potential enemy.

In September 1940, Germany, Italy, and Japan became allies under the Tripartite Pact. Germany, which had previously trained and supplied the Chinese army, halted all Chinese-German cooperation, and recalled its military advisor. In July 1940, the U.S. banned the shipment of aviation gasoline to Japan, while the Imperial Japanese Army invaded French Indochina and occupied its naval and air bases in September 1940.

Blueprints for an Empire

Roughly concurrent with this alliance were two efforts to assert Japanese expansionist ambitions in the Pacific and Asia. The first was called "New Order in East Asia" (東亜新秩序 Tōa Shin Chitsujo), which was announced in December of 1938 and was limited to Northeast Asia only.

The second and even more ambitious  "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" (大東亞共榮圏 Dai-tō-a Kyōeiken) was a propaganda campaign directed to occupied Asian populations by the Japanese government and military. It included more territory than "New Order in East Asia" and promoted the cultural and economic unity of Northeast Asians, Southeast Asians, and Oceanians. It also declared the intention to create a self-sufficient "bloc of Asian nations led by the Japanese and free of Western powers". It was announced in a radio address entitled "The International Situation and Japan's Position" in June of 1940.

The original concept was an idealistic wish to "free" Asia from colonial powers, but soon, nationalists saw it as a way to gain resources to keep Japan a modern power, and militarists saw the same resources as raw materials for war. Many Japanese nationalists were drawn to it as an ideal. Many of them remained convinced, throughout the war, that the "Sphere" was idealistic, offering slogans in a newspaper competition, praising the sphere for constructive efforts and peace.

Japan Eyes China

From the Japanese point of view, one common principal reason stood behind both forming the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and initiating war with the Allies: Chinese markets.

Japan wanted their "paramount relations" in regard to Chinese markets acknowledged by the U.S. government. The U.S., recognizing the abundance of potential wealth in these markets, refused to let the Japanese have an advantage in selling to China. In an attempt to give Japan a formal advantage over the Chinese markets, the Japanese Imperial regime first invaded China and later launched the "Co-Prosperity Sphere."

In April 1941, the Empire of Japan and the Soviet Union signed a neutrality pact and Japan increased pressure on the Vichy French and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia to cooperate in economic matters. Following Japan's refusal to withdraw from China and Indochina, the United States imposed on July 22, 1941, an embargo on aviation fuel while shipments of scrap metal, steel and other materials had virtually ceased. Meanwhile, American economic support to China began to increase.

1941 Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and other parts of the Pacific

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and against several other countries on December 7, 1941, the United States, United Kingdom and the other Allies declared war; the Second Sino-Japanese War became part of the global conflict of World War II.

Japanese forces initially experienced great success against Allied forces in the Pacific and South East Asia, capturing Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines and many Pacific Islands. They also made major offensives in Burma and air and naval attacks against Australia.

The Allies turned the tide of war at sea in mid-1942, at the Battle of Midway. Japanese land forces continued to advance in the New Guinea and Solomon Islands campaigns but suffered significant defeats and/or were forced to retreat at the battles of Milne Bay, the Kokoda Track and Guadalcanal.

The Burma campaign turned as the Japanese forces suffered catastrophic losses at Imphal and Kohima, leading to the greatest defeat in Japanese history up to that point.


Japan's islands in the Pacific become important in the war

The islands in the Pacific that Japan acquired at the end of WWI later became important staging grounds for Japanese air and naval offensives in the Pacific during WWII.

  • Kwajalein was a major base supporting the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Wake Island
  • Palau supported the Battle of the Philippines
  • Saipan supported the Battle of Guam
  • Truk became the base for amphibious landings on Tarawa and Makin in the Gilberts, as well as Rabaul, in the Australian mandate Territory of New Guinea
  • Majuro was used in air strikes against Howland Island
  • Jaluit Atoll was the base from which the Japanese Navy seized Nauru and Ocean Island

In addition to the naval importance of the islands of the Pacific, the Japanese Army utilized the islands to support air and land detachments.

Domination of Asia the Goal

An Investigation of Global Policy with the Yamato Race as Nucleus—a secret document completed in 1943 for high-ranking government use—laid out the superior position of Japan in the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. It stated that the subordination of other nations was part of explicit policy and was not forced by the war.  It asserted the superiority of  the Japanese over other Asian races and provides evidence that the "Sphere" was intended for domination of the Asian continent. From 1943 onwards, hard-fought campaigns at the battles of Buna-Gona, the Tarawa, Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and others resulted in horrific casualties, mostly on the Japanese side and produced further Japanese retreats. Over the course of the war, Japan displayed many significant advances in military technology, strategy, and tactics. Among them were the Yamato-class battleship, the Sensuikan Toku submarine bomber carriers, the Mitsubishi Zero fighters, and Kamikaze bombers.                                                                                                                

1945 U.S. drops A-Bombs Hiroshima & Nagasaki-Japanese Surrender

On August 6 and August 9, 1945, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. An estimated 150,000-246,000 civilians and military personnel died as a direct result of these two bombings, during which the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan.

Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945 and a formal "Instrument of Surrender" was signed on September 2, 1945, on the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The surrender was accepted by General Douglas MacArthur as Supreme Allied Commander, with representatives of each Allied nation, and a Japanese delegation led by Mamoru Shigemitsu. A separate surrender ceremony between Japan and China was held in Nanking on September 9, 1945.

Post-WWII Years

The League of Nations mandate was formally revoked by the United Nations in July 1947, and the United States was made responsible for administration of the islands under the terms of a United Nations trusteeship agreement which established the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.

MacArthur established bases in Japan to oversee the postwar development of the country. This period in Japanese history is known as the "Occupation." U.S. President Harry Truman officially proclaimed an end of hostilities on December 31, 1946.

How the U.S. and Japan interpret their common history

In the decades following WWII the U.S. continued to view Japan as an adversary and portray a negative stereotype of the country, its leaders, its military and its citizens. But as the decades passed, this animosity softened and the two nations found themselves increasingly on the same side in the face of threats posed by Russia and China.

Japan itself avoided self-critical appraisals of circumstances that had led to their defeat in the war. A series of Japanese history textbook controversies ensued, provoked by what international observers felt was the Japanese government's attempts to whitewash the actions of Japan during World War II. Critics claim that the government textbook authorization system has been used to reject textbooks that depict Imperial Japan in a negative light. This includes a case in the 1960s where a description of the Nanking Massacre and other war crimes committed by the Japanese military before and during World War II was rejected by the Ministry of Education. The author sued the Ministry, finally winning the case decades later.

Recent controversy focuses on the approval of a history textbook published by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, which placed emphasis on the achievements of pre–World War II Imperial Japan, as well as a reference to the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere with fewer critical comments compared to the other Japanese history textbooks.

Reflecting Japanese tendency towards self-favoring historical revisionism, historian Stephen E. Ambrose noted that "The Japanese presentation of the war to its children runs something like this: 'One day, for no reason we ever understood, the Americans started dropping atomic bombs on us.