500. A15A 5/549

The Chargé in Japan (Neville) to the Secretary of State

No. 1539

Sir: I have the honor to observe that with Japan’s acceptance on October 29 of the British Government’s invitation to participate in the formal naval disarmament conference required by the Treaties, and which is to be held on December 2, next, the attitude of the Japanese Government is one of quiet assurance and satisfaction that everything possible has been done to protect Japan’s interests in the field of naval affairs. The Government can point to a course of action since the question became active in June, 1934, of consistency and of singleness of purpose surely impressive enough to satisfy the most ardent chauvinist in the navy. When Japan was first approached on the question of her naval policy she established the principle that the basis of all future discussion and the prime requisite for any agreement with the Powers was to be the abolition of the ratio principle and the establishment of a common upper limit of global tonnage; and now, on the eve of the Conference, and after some eighteen months of discussion during which British efforts were directed toward finding some formula for effecting a compromise between the fundamentally [Page 280]divergent views held by the three major powers, the situation remains unchanged so far as Japanese policy is concerned.

In reviewing the most recent events leading up to the final acceptance by Japan of the invitation to participate in the Conference next month it is interesting to observe the recurring differences which cropped out between the views of the Navy Ministry and those of the Foreign Office, differences which, it will be recalled, occurred last year in the question of when Japan should give notice of abrogation of the Washington Treaty.19 Once more, while it was more a question of differences of method rather than of objective, it seems clear that the influence of Mr. Hirota was successful in restraining the more unyielding attitude apparently adopted by the naval authorities regarding the question of participation in the Conference. While it has been felt that Japan would participate, and in fact was anxious to have the Conference held in accordance with the terms of the Treaties, there remained the question of the terms upon which she would consent to negotiate.

On September 26, last, when Great Britain first approached the Japanese Government inquiring as to its willingness to participate, it was reported that the Government’s attitude at that time was to the effect that “Japan sees no value in a conference not committed beforehand to negotiations of a naval limitation agreement based upon proposals offered by the Japanese delegates at the preliminary conversations of last year. The British plan for unilateral declaration of building plans up to 1942 is not acceptable to the Japanese Government. No other formula has been devised to solve the conflict between Japan’s desire for a common upper limit and the United States’ desire for the virtual retention of the existing ratios”. The British note was believed to have represented Great Britain’s last attempt to induce the Japanese Government to alter its stand prior to the issuance of the invitations and to have included a proposal that Japan withdraw from her position that the Powers concerned accept her demand for a common upper limit as a prerequisite to Japan’s participation in the Conference. The attitude outlined above undoubtedly represented the attitude of the naval authorities and at the time there were hints in the press that the Foreign Office did not entirely share the views of the Navy Department.

On October 10 the Navy Department was reported in the press as stating categorically that “the Ministry must insist upon a previous understanding to abolish the ratio system and to substitute the common upper limit principle” before accepting an invitation to participate in the Conference. However, a few days after this the Foreign Office spokesman stated that while the Japanese Government continued to insist upon the “realization of the proposal broached at the preliminary conversations at London last year” nevertheless the Government was [Page 281]prepared to participate in a formal naval conference “if it is understood that it reserves the right to insist upon the proposals mentioned above. It is prepared to participate because the Conference is called for by the Treaties”. It is at this point that what foreign observers have described a “shift of emphasis” first became apparent. That is to say that the hope might be entertained that Japan would accept an invitation to participate without insisting upon previous acceptance of certain conditions laid down by her. This was borne out in the reported reply sent on October 16 when the Japanese Government indicated that “Japan is ready to respond to a proposal for the convocation of a formal naval parley in the belief that Japan’s equitable claim regarding the naval question will be fully understood and recognized by the Powers during the course of negotiations”. This is obviously the formula devised by the Foreign Office authorities to effect a compromise with the Navy Department.

Prior to the official announcement from London that formal invitations for the Conference to be held on December 2 were issued, the Japanese press carried practically no editorial comment on naval affairs. But with the acceptance by Japan on October 29 of this formal invitation the press has indicated its approval of the Government’s action although it is unanimous in doubting that any concrete results will be obtained. It seems to be generally agreed that Japan’s point of view is about as equally irreconcilable with that of Great Britain as with that of the United States; there is, however, an occasional note of pique directed at the United States for insisting upon the maintenance of the ratio system and a slightly greater understanding of the needs of Great Britain for a larger navy.

While it would be as unwise as it is impossible to predict Japan’s course of action at the forthcoming Conference, the Embassy is satisfied that there will be no appreciable alteration of her present stand and that no substantial concessions will be made in an effort either to reach a new agreement or to avoid the entrance upon a non-treaty status at the expiration of the Treaties at the end of 1936.

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Respectfully yours,

Edwin L. Neville
  1. See pp. 249 ff.