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

No. 3879

Sir: In a series of telegrams, the last of which is my 215, May 5, 6 p.m., I have endeavored to furnish the Department currently with information indicating the trend of authoritative Japanese thought with regard to the negotiations which are in progress between Japan and Germany and Italy with regard to a new arrangement by treaty which would afford a further manifestation of the special relations which exist among those three countries. I had the honor to present in my despatch no. 3709, February 27, 1939, a discussion of the general principles by which Japan has been guided in its relations with the countries of Europe. I referred to the liquidation of the involvements of Japan in the affairs of Europe which arose out of her participation in the various treaties of peace that concluded the Great War, and I raised the question whether she would again assume commitments even more hazardous than those of which she has just divested herself.

[Page 29]

We now know as a definite fact that the advantages of Japan’s associating herself with Germany and Italy in a treaty of alliance have been explored; we know, further, that there have been conversations between the Japanese and German Governments with regard to some new treaty—not necessarily a military alliance; but whether a military alliance has been the subject of formal discussions is a question which need not detain us. The Minister for Foreign Affairs said to me that there had been no “negotiations” or even “preliminary conversations”, but that there has been a conveyance of views back and forth is implicit in the ironic observation which Mr. Arita made to me that it is he and not Mr. Shiratori, the Japanese Ambassador at Rome, or General Oshima, the Japanese Ambassador at Berlin,—both ardent advocates of the tripartite alliance idea—who is responsible for the conduct of Japan’s foreign relations. I do not attach much importance to the question whether or not formal negotiations between the governments concerned have taken place. The fact which is impressive is that there are at work in this country powerful and sinister influences supporting the machinations of Mr. Shiratori and General Oshima; and if these influences should prevail, the fact that Germany could not see its way clear to accepting the Japanese proposal of an alliance against Soviet Russia should not delay the conclusion of a treaty to the entire liking of Germany and Italy. Fortunately, the indications at this moment of writing are that these influences are not in the ascendancy.

I propose in the present review of events bearing on the question of Japan’s relations with Germany and Italy, to begin with the reference to this question by the Prime Minister in his conference with press correspondents on March 29. There is no official version of his statement, but the tenor of his remarks was that the national spirit of Japan is not reconcilable with either democracy or fascism, that Japan intends to refrain from joining either the democratic bloc or the fascist bloc, but hopes to cooperate with both in the interests of peace. The majority of my colleagues regarded this statement with only passing interest; but when it is realized that there are, as I shall hereafter relate, elements favoring the alliance with sufficient influence to threaten the security of the present Cabinet, the apparently commonplace statement of Baron Hiranuma’s assumes important proportions.

The next landmark is the situation developing out of the German erasure of the Czecho-Slovakian state, the Japanese reaction to which was discussed in my 138, March 21, 5 p.m. Reference was made in that telegram to the feeling which at one time prevailed here that a war in Europe would work to Japan’s advantage, as it would give Japan a free hand in China: to the succeeding phases of doubt and [Page 30]then of alarm over the probable repercussions in the Pacific of a war in Europe; and finally to the relief with which the report was received that Great Britain had invited the Soviet Union to join in a common defense against German aggression. The greatest confidence was expressed that Poland would not enter any system of collective security against Germany of which the Soviet Union was a member, and there was undisguised satisfaction over the refusal of Poland to align herself with Russia. It was thought that the immediate danger of a war in Europe had been tided over and that the situation there would revert to a chronic condition of alarms and excursions, which would nicely fit the Japanese book. The turn which events subsequently took, however, was unexpected, and, while the importance of the Anglo-Polish pact of mutual assistance31 is discounted to some extent, the Anglo-Soviet conversations with regard to a separate arrangement for mutual assistance brought realization of a possible danger to Japan closer to home than a system of collective security against Germany. Press despatches from Europe disclosed that the Soviet Government had proposed that the arrangement presented by the British Government, which would become operative only in the event of aggression by Germany, be enlarged to include provision against Japanese aggression. My British colleague assured the Japanese Government that the Soviet proposal is not acceptable to his Government, but I am informed by Japanese sources that, in the Japanese view, the absence of any explicit undertaking on the part of Great Britain to guarantee Soviet frontiers in the Far East would not remove concern lest the close association deriving from the two European Powers’ arrangement, if established, against Germany bring about a concerting of actions and policies for the protection of common interests in the Far East.

I do not pretend to know at what point renewed consideration began to be given by the Japanese Government to the “strengthening of the Anti-Comintern Pact”. As a piece of speculation I would put it somewhere toward the end of March, when there began a series of conferences of the “inner cabinet” of five ministers, which has not entirely ceased, and much visiting back and forth of important personages. I began at that time to say to certain Japanese who were well disposed and who also had personal or other associations with those who were actually in process of deciding Japanese policy, that it would be well for Japan to ponder the risks to her relations with the United States if she were to enter into a general alliance with Germany and Italy. I referred to the swing in American thought away from [Page 31]isolationism and to the opinion being expressed with increasing frequency by Americans prominent in various walks of life that, if a general war were to occur in Europe, it would be only a question of time before the United States became involved. I pointed out that, with the entry of the United States into the hostilities on the side of Great Britain and France, it would be futile to expect that the relations of peace between the United States and Japan could be maintained if Japan were aligned with Germany and Italy. I reduced the question to its simplest elements and did not attempt to elaborate. Within a few days I had gratifying responses to the effect that I had cause no longer for concern lest Japan form an alliance with Germany and Italy. The most authoritative response came unsolicited from the Minister of the Navy.

On April 18 Admiral Yonai was host at a dinner for the officers of the U. S. S. Astoria, which I and several members of my staff also attended. During the dinner he said to the Counselor of the Embassy, who sat next to Admiral Yonai, that he had a communication to make to me but that, as his knowledge of English was limited, he would make it to Mr. Dooman32 in Japanese and would ask the latter to repeat it to me in English. The following is the substance of Admiral Yonai’s reference to Japanese attitude toward the situation in Europe:

He understood that the American Ambassador was greatly concerned lest Japan become involved in the crisis in Europe. A decision had just been taken by the Cabinet which removed cause for any such concern: “Japanese policy has been decided”. There is an element which advocates the setting up of fascism in Japan, but that element has been suppressed. The center of Japanese thought is the Emperor, and it is inconceivable that there could be established in Japan any form of government, whether democratic or authoritarian, which would prejudice the position of the Emperor. Japan, therefore, could not join either the democratic or the fascist bloc, but it would cooperate with both.

When Admiral Yonai’s statement was repeated to me, I expressed to him my gratification over his disclosure to me of the trend of official Japanese thought. Admiral Yonai smiled broadly and remarked that he had been “very busy” over this question and was glad that it had been decided. This episode gave me great satisfaction for two reasons: the indication of policy coming from the Minister of the Navy, one of the two most influential members of the Cabinet (the other being, of course, the Minister of War), was of the most authoritative character, and I had evidence that my contacts had access to the few people who really count today in this country.

As reported in my 215, May 5, 6 p.m., it appears likely that, subsequently to the decision which was taken by the Cabinet as reported to [Page 32]me by Admiral Yonai, renewed pressure by Germany and Italy was brought to bear on Japan, including, according to information coming to the French Ambassador, a threat to denounce the Anti-Comintern Pact unless a commitment, given without authority from his Government by the Japanese Ambassador at Berlin, to enter into an alliance were implemented. There was also renewed pressure on the Government from ultra-nationalistic elements who, while advocating a return to an absolute monarchical government tribal in its primitiveness, find congenial German and Italian policies. Most observers now believe that there has evolved out of the constant series of cabinet conferences a decision which, although containing elements of a definitive character, is sufficiently elastic to permit Japan to trim its sails to any wind which may hereafter prevail—that it is in essence a compromise.

Having weighed such evidence as is available, I lean strongly to the belief that Japan has refused to enter into an alliance with Germany and Italy. Quite apart from what is told us by Admiral Yonai and other Japanese, there is the report arriving today from Milan that the Foreign Ministers of Germany and Italy have agreed to proceed to the conclusion of an alliance. This report, following so closely on the calls of the German and Italian Ambassadors in Tokyo on the Japanese Foreign Minister on May 4, raises the thought that, had the communication made by Mr. Arita to General Ott and Mr. Auriti been responsive to the proposal for an alliance, the logical time and occasion for announcing the adherence of Japan to the alliance would have been yesterday at Milan. The Japanese Government cannot afford, however, to leave the matter with a negative reply. Not alone is there to be considered the advantages which Japan derives from the turmoil which Germany and Italy maintain in Europe, but the disappointment of chauvinistic elements at home over Japan’s failure to place both feet firmly in the fascist camp will have to be alleviated. I am, therefore, prepared to place credit in reports that an agreement is being considered, or has even been formulated, “to strengthen the Anti-Comintern Pact.” Japan’s position, as we see it, is to avoid the making of commitments which would automatically place her on the side of Germany and Italy by there arising a situation (in Europe) beyond her power to prevent or control; and, in order to avoid alienating her friends, to give new expression to the special relations which in fact exist between Japan and Germany and Italy. It will be Japan’s plan, as we see it, to keep open a way into either camp and to watch developments—especially the progress of British efforts to bring the Soviet Union into the anti-aggression front.

Respectfully yours,

Joseph C. Grew
  1. See British Cmd. 6106, Misc. No. 9 (1939), pp. 36–37; Prime Minister Chamberlain on March 31 made a statement in the House of Commons, and an Anglo-Polish communiqué was issued April 6.
  2. Eugene H. Dooman, Counselor of Embassy.