File No. 893.00/2639
Chargé Wheeler to the Secretary of State
Tokyo, June 14, 1917.
Sir: Yesterday I had the honor to telegraph you that the newspapers had been cautioned against further adverse comment on the American note handed to China June 5. I am of the belief that no further agitation will be permitted. It seems likely that the Japanese [Page 69] reply to our proposal for an identic representation will be the final closure of the matter, and there is reason to feel confident that this reply will make no demand for an admission of Japan’s special and paramount position with respect to China. The episode, however, indicates Japan’s increasing sensitiveness as regards that country and the stage of development to which her theory of paramount interests has attained.
The belief that the activities of the Legation at Peking; were being exerted against Japanese interests and influence in China has been growing here during the past three years. The first open expression which came to my notice was in the autumn of 1914 in connection with the allegation, printed in Tokyo, that Chinese officials were invoking American influence for the restoration of Kiau-chau, when a Tokyo newspaper made reference to the “deliberate ill-will” of the American colony in Peking and the “anti-Japanese propaganda of a certain Embassy Secretary.” This distrust of our friendliness at Peking, then sufficiently vague, has since kept pace with Japan’s growing nervousness where China is concerned. Since the question arose of the latter’s entrance into the World War, the suspicion of American political activity in Peking has arisen, bolstered from time to time by indiscreet interviews given by American travelers and by a series of articles written by American journalists. The most noticeable example of the latter, perhaps, is one by Mr. Samuel Blythe published in The Saturday Evening Post, which has recently been copied here and has received very wide notice. I am informed that a Japanese translation of this article was prepared in the Foreign Office and that it has attracted the particular attention, among others, of the Premier.
To understand the present high degree of sensitiveness here, it must be remembered that the position of the Government in the past few months has been by no means an easy one. Since the formulation in November last of the Terauchi policy of conciliation toward China, there have been signs that certain elements of his own party are not wholly in sympathy with the Premier’s programme and these have lent encouragement to the anti-Government forces which have seized upon every phase of the situation in Peking to condemn the Ministry. Moreover, the revolt of the northern provinces in China has been watched with mingled feelings in Tokyo, the strong military party here favoring the strengthening of the Tuchuns, and the business element of Japan, which stands for peace and strong relationship, fearful of conditions that might arise should the rebellious leaders gain the upper hand. The Foreign Office, meanwhile, has held, under increasing pressure, to its policy of ostensible non-interference. In this programme it could be sure of its ground, however, only so long as Japan’s position in China (as she conceives this to be) was not seemingly jeopardized. And there is no doubt that the Foreign Office has begun to regard the American activity in Peking which popular Japanese opinion finds objectionable, as a menace to that position.
Conditions were thus favorable for the outburst reported in my telegram of June 1, 11 p.m., which made use of the vicious rumor that the American Minister in Peking had furnished the President with a large sum of money either to strengthen the opposition to the Premier or as consolation for his retirement. The fact that so many Tokyo newspapers gave currency to this story in identical telegrams from Peking makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that this campaign [Page 70] had been determined upon and that the retirement of Tuan merely furnished the pretext for its inauguration.
The attitude of the Political Bureau of the Foreign Office, which apparently did its utmost to inspire general belief in the story, was most regrettable. Both Mr. Obata, the Chief of the Bureau, and Marquis Komura, Chief of the First Section, from evidence which could not be doubted, used the incident to foster in the minds of local newspapermen suspicion both of American motive and action. As soon as it appeared that this was going on, I took up the matter informally with Mr. Shidehara, Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, who assured me that the telegraphed allegation was not credited by his Government and promised that he would investigate the situation in the Political Bureau. On receipt of the Department’s telegram of June 5, 4 p.m., and in order to carry out its instruction, I again called upon him, when he told me that inquiry had been made and that he thought there would be no reason for further complaint of that nature. I may say, parenthetically, that both Mr. Obata and Marquis Komura are young men, who have not before this time shown anti-American leanings. The former, however, has spent ten years in China and is associated with the more radical and intolerant group in the Government which favor a strong policy in Chinese affairs.
Meanwhile I had received (June 6) the Department’s instruction of June 4, 3 p.m., and had handed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs the proposal for an identic representation to China. On receiving it Viscount Motono read the text carefully and stated that the matter would receive careful study and that an answer would be returned as soon as possible.
Two days later the Tokyo papers announced the transmission to the Chinese Government by the American Minister at Peking, of a note in similar terms, and on the same day Mr. Shidehara expressed to me his surprise that this, if the report was true, had been done before the Japanese answer had been made to our proposal. He said that he had received a report of the note by cable from the Consul General at Shanghai; he doubted, however, that such action had really been taken and was inclined to think the note had not left Mr. Reinsch’s hands, but that its contents had leaked. I pointed out the use of the word “identic”, but he replied that such action lost force unless it were a joint one. I could readily see that he would regard the situation as one in which Japan was asked to follow the lead of the United States in an action for which the latter stood to receive all the credit from China. I am disposed to think that the irritation in the Foreign Office caused by the representation (which the published telegrams from Peking in the next two days made clear had been made) sprang mainly from this idea, rather than from the opinion that such an action, individually made, in itself constituted an interference in China’s internal policies which could not be tolerated by Japan. The Department’s telegram of June 8, 10 p.m., which I received on the evening of the 10th and conveyed to him next morning, did not, apparently, remove this irritation.
The situation was aggravated at this juncture by the publication in the Asahi of the false text of the note to China, which it was stated had been given out at Washington on the 8th. I at once saw Mr. Shidehara and said that, in view of the harm that might result from any wide currency of such a story, however inherently incredible, [Page 71] I hoped if the real text was in the hands of his Department, the facts might, so far as possible, be made known. He replied, however, that he was not in possession of the text and seemed inclined to think that what the Asahi correspondent in New York had telegraphed might have been—if not the note itself—based upon a statement given out with it by the Department. He said, however, that decision would not be made by the Cabinet on our proposal until the full text had been received by the Foreign Office so that no prejudiced action could be possible.
The Asahi’s story aroused wide comment, particularly as the standing of the paper is high and its circulation large. Other newspapers, however, did not give the report credence, though joining in the chorus of unfriendly criticism. The unanimity of this criticism, in its various phases, taken in connection with confidential information which has been given me as to the discussion of the matter in the Cabinet, has led me to believe that it had at one time been practically decided to make use of the incident in an attempt to force the United States into line in an assurance of some nature which would virtually admit Japan’s special and paramount position in China and that this plan was reluctantly abandoned in view of the opposition of Viscount Motono and of the present grave issues of the war.
On the 12th Mr. Shidehara told me that from that time on I would see, he believed, a continually bettering situation, and it was interesting to note that the editorial comment of that evening showed a distinct improvement. On the evening of the 13th I received the Department’s telegram of June 12, 6 p.m., authorizing a complete denial of the Asahi’s report. I at once communicated its content to Mr. Shidehara (as I had arranged with him to do) and an official denial was issued by the Foreign Office, which appears in all papers today.
I have [etc.]