The Ambassador in Japan (Grew) to the Secretary of State

No. 1087

Sir: With reference to the naval conversations now being held at London, I have the honor to report that as time wears on and the deadlock which has been reached there shows no sign of being broken down, public opinion in this country is rapidly hardening into a superficially calm but tenacious determination to stand its ground before the world and to achieve its paramount object, whatever the cost may be. That object is to free Japan from the position of naval inferiority to which she has bound herself by treaty. She is becoming more and more determined that the world shall accept her thesis of the right to equality in armament. National honor and prestige are at stake and it is increasingly apparent that these factors outweigh all other considerations. The prospect of a race in naval armaments, of increased political isolation, the dangers which would follow upon the abolition of the Pacific non-fortification clauses, budgetary considerations, all are counted in the cost but apparently fail to influence her. In analyzing this national state of mind it is well to recall that Japan has suffered partial isolation and has borne the brunt of adverse public opinion throughout the world since the Manchurian venture in 1931,53 and especially since her notice last year54 of intention to withdraw from the League of Nations. Doubtless at that time she suffered some apprehension as to the possible results of her actions but today, having taken the plunge, she has learned that the consequences were not so great as she had feared. In fact she has come to feel a certain contempt for world public opinion and is now becoming more and more convinced that her future success lies along the path of unilateral action. Comparison of the state of mind existing here at present with that which existed in Germany in 1914 is trite but nevertheless striking.

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Of interest in connection with the foregoing observations will be found the interpellations and replies which took place, according to Press reports, during a meeting day before yesterday between members of the Cabinet and the Privy Council to consider the Government’s proposal to abrogate the Washington Treaty. Members of the Privy Council asked whether, as a result of abrogation, Japan’s international position would not become more isolated and with serious consequences? The Cabinet members replied: “Internationally Japan’s position will be more isolated than at present but no anxiety should be entertained on that account. At the time Japan decided to withdraw from the League of Nations a section of our public feared that Japan would suffer an economic blockade; but no such thing has happened. The same will be true of abrogation of the Washington Pact …”55 In reply to a question as to whether a naval construction race would not follow abrogation the Cabinet replied: “A naval construction race will start more or less but we are confident that we need not be afraid of it. In the intervening two years after abrogation we shall build within the expenditures allowed on the basis of the treaty stipulations and thereafter build those categories of vessels most suited to our requirements …55 No anxiety need be entertained by Japan in other respects either, for instance, in matters pertaining to shipbuilding efficiency or increasing naval personnel …55 Japan has no intention of inviting a building race but if such a race should start we need not be afraid for the foregoing reasons. And at the same time we are confident that we need not entertain undue anxiety about financial needs.” With regard to the abolition of the Pacific non-fortification clauses, the Cabinet replied that the Government was fully prepared to cope with such a case.

Public opinion remained unruffled also by the negative responses with which were met the Government’s overtures to France and Italy to join with Japan in denouncing the 1922 Treaty*, and the final steps are now being taken for submission of the Government’s measure for abrogation to the plenary session of the Privy Council to be held on December 19. At present it is being predicted that formal notice will be cabled to Ambassador Saito for transmission to the American Government on the following day.

Japan is not, however, so completely indifferent to world public opinion that she is not seeking to throw the blame elsewhere for the breakdown in the preliminary conversations which seems likely to occur, The statement made by Mr. Norman Davis in London on [Page 410] December 6, last,56 evoked widespread interest in the Japanese press and was the signal for much comment along such lines.

The point in Mr. Davis’s statement that “the fundamental issue is whether the system of equilibrium worked out at Washington (in 1922) is to be continued or upset” received the most attention in editorial comment here and the substance of the replies is a general admission that while the issue is correctly stated it is precisely the one upon which Japan and the United States differ completely. The Japanese deny that the system of equilibrium which was acceptable in 1922 is acceptable today. They maintain that it has outgrown its usefulness because of changes in the international situation as well as in the technique of naval construction and that it was in anticipation of this very fact that the abrogation clause was included in the treaty itself. The Asahi of December 9 expresses surprise that there is a body of opinion in the United States which holds that Japan, because of its determination to terminate the treaty, is bent on disturbing the peace. “There must be no doubt,” continues the paper, “that Japan intends to supplant the Washington Treaty with a new agreement on a more reasonable basis. In this connection there is nothing to be afraid of in a non-treaty situation. Whether there are treaties or not does not matter. The important thing is that any treaty be equitable and satisfactory to all the parties thereto. Inequitable treaties, no matter how plentiful, would not help the cause of peace.”

The Osaka Asahi of December 11 sees no hope of reaching an agreement because Mr. Davis’ principles “are absolutely alien to Japan’s fundamental naval disarmament policy.” The argument is developed by stating that American trade and naval policies are inseparable; that the United States is the greatest commercial nation in the world and that to reduce its naval strength to the level of Japan would bring about a reduction in its commercial and economic interests. “But”, says the Asahi, “Japan does not link its navy with commerce. What it wants is to have sufficient naval strength to guarantee peace in the Far East. This is what we mean when we say we want security. We believe that to attain this the 5–5–3 ratio must be abandoned.”

And, finally, the Nichi-Nichi of December 9 remarks that as long as the United States maintains its present stand there will be a fundamental difference of opinions between Japan and America. “If the London talks are halted, however, there is no reason to saddle Japan with the responsibility. Mr. Davis would like to throw the blame on this country, but he cannot do so with justification.”

From a careful review of what has occurred up to the present in connection with the preliminary steps taken in the direction of the Disarmament Conference of 1935 it is difficult to escape the conclusion [Page 411] that the only result has been increased friction, irritation, mutual distrust and suspicion and that far from clearing the atmosphere the London conversations have only served to obscure the future. There have been indications that the desirability of postponement of the 1935 Conference has been discussed. The dangers with which such conference may be fraught cannot be overlooked in view of the highly charged atmosphere of international relations due to other causes, such as the Saar Plebiscite, the expiration of the punitive clauses of the Treaty of Versailles,57 and the local European political issues. It seems improbable, however, that these considerations would have much influence on Japanese action.

Respectfully yours,

Joseph C. Grew
  1. See Foreign Relations, 1931, vol. iii, pp. 1 ff.
  2. Dated March 27, 1933; for text, see League of Nations, Official Journal, May 1933, p. 657.
  3. Omission indicated in original despatch.
  4. Omission indicated in original despatch.
  5. Omission indicated in original despatch.
  6. Embassy’s telegrams Nos. 267 and 269, of December 3, 1 p.m. and December 5, noon. [Footnote in the original.]
  7. Embassy’s telegram No. 263, November 29, 2 p.m. [Footnote in the original; telegram not printed.]
  8. For text, see Foreign Relations, Japan, 1931–1941, vol. i, p. 269.
  9. Treaties, Conventions, etc., 1910–1923, vol. iii, p. 3329.