Memorandum by the Secretary of State of a Conference With the Japanese Ambassador on Special Mission (Ishii), September 6, 19171

The Special Ambassador and I conferred this afternoon for an hour and a half at the Department.

During the first part of the conference the subject discussed was to what extent Japan had rendered aid in the war, and how it might cooperate more fully with the Allies and this country.

I told him that I considered the great problem was transportation, and that it seemed to me Japan might be able to do more than she had done in this matter.

He replied that Japan was doing a good deal to aid and that they had chartered several hundred tons of shipping to the Allies which was being used in the Mediterranean trade.

He then spoke of the fact that we had embargoed iron and steel and that it was causing not only dissatisfaction but much distress in Japan on account of its absolute need in the shipyards of that country, which have been greatly increased in capacity.

I explained to him that this Embargo had been made necessary by the fact that steel was being used largely in the manufacture of munitions and in the increased output of shipping in this country; that of course we had to look out first for our own interests in that particular; that again transportation entered into the problem in that we had to depend upon scrap-steel on the Pacific coast for our shipyards there or else bring it from the east, which was very difficult as our rolling stock was short. I went on to say that possibly some arrangement could be made for the release of a certain amount of steel to Japan, provided Japan would transfer to us some of the ships already constructed, as it was a matter of immediate importance to us to obtain shipping, and it was a matter of immediate importance to Japan to obtain material. I said that while I could not speak with accuracy about these matters I believed that we might be able to supply steel to build vessels which would have a combined greater tonnage than the vessels they would transfer to us.

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The Ambassador said he was not sure whether this could be arranged, but he thought it was very well worthy of consideration and that we could take it up more in detail later.

It was very evident that the industrial situation in Japan was chiefly in his mind and I thought the suggestion such as I made appealed to him.

We further discussed the possibility of utilizing Japan’s tonnage for the transportation to Russia of railroad material and munitions.

The Ambassador said he felt that this could very well be done and his Government would be glad to aid in the matter. At the same time he said it was a more or less technical matter and he could only speak as an amateur.

I told him I was in very much the same situation and that of course our conversation was entirely informal and tentative.

I asked the Ambassador whether he desired to discuss other questions than those immediately pertaining to the war, because if he so desired I was willing to do so—but I thought the supreme object of both Governments at the present moment should be the winning of the war and an understanding as to how we could cooperate to that end.

He said that in view of the fact that he had come here and been so handsomely received by the American people he thought it would be unfortunate not to consider some of the other questions as we had to look forward to a time when the war would be over. He said in the first place he ought to inform me that when he returned to Japan from France, where he was Ambassador in 1915, he stopped in London and saw Sir Edward Grey. Japan at that time had taken Kaio Chau and the German Islands in the South Pacific. He said he told Sir Edward Grey it was the intention of his Government to return Kaio Chau to China, but that no Government in Japan could stand if they did not retain some of the South Sea Islands as “souvenirs” of the war; that it had been a sacrifice for his Government to enter the war, which they were not compelled to do under their treaty of alliance—that is according to the letter of the treaty—but he thought they were according to the spirit. He then went on to say that Sir Edward Grey had practically consented in the readjustment of territory after the war; that the German Islands north of the equator should be retained by Japan, while those south of the equator should go to Great Britain.

I replied that I was glad to know this and appreciated his frankness in telling me, but that I could make no comment on such an agreement at the present time.

I asked him what further questions he wished to discuss and he said to me: “Have you anything to propose in regard to China?”

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I replied that I had and while I realized that he would want to consider my proposition before making a reply I would like to present it. I said the proposition was this:

That the co-belligerents against Germany should, jointly or simultaneously, re-declare the “Open Door” policy in a statement which would have a very beneficial effect upon China and I believed upon the world at large, as it was in accord with the principles of commerce to which we all agreed.

The Ambassador seemed a little taken aback by this suggestion and said that of course he should like to consider it and that he appreciated the arguments in its favor although he said he did not know as it was absolutely necessary in view of the fact that Japan had always lived up to the principle.

I replied that Japan had always lived up to any declaration which she had made; that the good faith of Japan could not be questioned; and that upon that this Government always relied and felt no anxiety once the Japanese Government had passed its word.

The Ambassador replied that he felt that Japan had a special interest on account of its position in regard to China, and while its desire was to have China open and free to all countries he felt there might be criticism if there was a bare declaration of the “Open Door” policy without some mention of Japan’s special interest.

I replied to him that we recognized the fact that Japan, from her geographical position, had a peculiar interest in China but that to make a declaration to that effect seemed to me needless as it was the result of natural causes and not political; that any such declaration might be interpreted as a peculiar political interest and I was very doubtful whether it would be wise to include it in a reaffirmation of the “Open Door” policy.

The Ambassador said that his Government was of course in favor of the “Open Door” policy; that they would maintain it as they had in the past, but he was not willing yet to say whether he thought it would be a real advantage to reaffirm it.

I said that the “Open Door” policy was peculiarly advantageous to Japan; that if we should return to spheres of influence in which the various powers had a paramount interest in certain sections of China the advantage which Japan had in geographical position would be destroyed; that Japan, with the industrial advantage which she had by reason of cheap and efficient labor and the short distance which she had to carry her goods to the Chinese markets, benefited more than any other of the countries by the “Open Door” policy; that so far as this country was concerned it might be considered advisable to reestablish spheres of influence, but that it was entirely contrary to our policy and principle and we were most anxious [Page 435] to preserve the doctrine in dealing with China. I said I hoped he would give the matter very careful consideration and would be prepared to discuss it further at our next conference, which is to take place on Monday, September 10th.

During the course of the early part of the conversation the Ambassador said that through various channels the German Government had three times sought to persuade Japan to withdraw from the Allies and to remain neutral, but that in every case his Government had firmly rejected the suggestion.

I said to him that I could imagine their seeking some such step as they had planned to attempt it through Mexico as was indicated in the Zimmermann note.2 I further said to him that it was a matter of no concern to this Government, in view of the fact that Japan’s loyalty to an ally, and her reputation for good faith was too well established to be even suspected.

  1. For correspondence previously printed concerning the mission of Viscount Ishii, see Foreign Relations, 1917, pp. 258 ff.
  2. Foreign Relations, 1917, supp. 1, p. 158.