The 1920s witnessed deterioration of international relations which only intensified during the last decade preceding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Internal political changes that took place in Japan by 1930 undoubtedly played
a significant role in the process. The Immigration Act was interpreted by militant Japanese nationalists as a “proof that concessions to international opinion were senseless since the Western nations were fundamentally opposed to Japan”
(Robinson 46) and they kept attacking the liberal regime. It is also important to pay attention to the ideological change that took place in Japan during the 1930s. A period of blind admiration of the Western nations and imitating them was gradually replaced by the nationalist propaganda heavily reliant on the ideology of State Shinto. Its ideals had a great influence on the way Japanese people perceived their nation and its role in the world. Previously welcome Western influences were denounced as greedy, individualistic, bourgeois, and assertive. Intellectuals thus strove to redefine Japanese identity through contrasting it with the degraded West. “The ideals of the Japanese family-state and self-sacrifice in service of the nation were given a missionary interpretation and were thought by their ultranationalist proponents to be applicable to the modern world” (Dolan and Worden). The idea of a new confident Japanese state eventually resulted in the feeling of superiority over other nations, especially Asian, that were redefined as backwards and destined to be ruled by Japan. Instead of being used as a model to follow, Western ideas were adjusted to the needs of the government and employed in its service when justification of political decisions or public support were sought.
Expansion was one of the objectives that Japan still shared with its former superiors. As nationalists and militarists gained support during the last prewar decade they also began to push for political influence. The period was thus “characterized by the resurgence of right-wing patriotism, the weakening of democratic forces, domestic terrorist violence (including an assassination attempt on the emperor in 1932), and stepped-up military aggression abroad” (Dolan and Worden). When a leading internationalist, Prime Minister Hamaguchi, signed the London Naval Treaty in 1930 and thus facilitated limitations of the navy, he earned great resentment of the right-wing politicians and military. The liberal faction then proved to be rather weak when it failed to control the Kwantung Army, part of the Imperial Japanese Army, a year later in Manchuria:
The major trends of international politics in the 1930s were graphically displayed during the Manchurian crisis of 1931-32, the first step on the road back to war. One and one-half times larger than Texas, strategically located between China, Japan, and Russia, Manchuria had been a focal point of
great-power conflict in Northeast Asia from the start of the century. Underpopulated, fertile in agricultural output, and rich in raw materials and timber, it drew outside powers like a magnet, especially Japan, whose dreams of national glory required external resources. (Herring 486)
The influence which Japan had exerted over part of the Manchurian territory since the famous victory over Russia in 1905 was aggressively extended by means of occupation which stirred emotions not only in China but overseas as well.
The region of Manchuria was regarded as vital for the island nation owing to several reasons. Aside from its function as a supplier of raw materials and farmland that were so rare in Japan, its importance was emphasized by significant investments. When the political situation in China developed into the dramatic stage of civil war, it led to concern about the future of these investments and tied it closer to the Japanese state and its policy.
A great deal of expansionist planning seems to have been done by government organizations which enjoyed corporate existence in Manchuria. The semiofficial South Manchurian Railway Company and the Kwantung Army both tended to develop long-range plans that depended on an aggressive foreign policy for their realization. (Maxon 31)
Expectations of this kind of policy were nothing new in the region and they were not entirely misplaced. Three years prior to the Manchurian crisis itself Premier Tanaka stated at the conference on the Chinese situation that peace and order in Manchuria and Mongolia had “a vital bearing upon Japan's national existence and national defense. The Japanese government therefore felt itself responsible for the maintenance of peace” in these regions (Kawakami). In the following year, he acted on these words when he sent troops to intervene in China. In contrast, Hamaguchi´s cabinet of 1930 was not that prompt to perform similar deeds.
Unfortunately, this moderation did not prevent the infamous Mukden Incident in September 1931. The Kwantung Army of its own accord reacted to a staged attack on the Manchurian Railway by blaming Chinese dissidents and using it as a pretext for invasion. This controversial military action was officially not sanctioned by the Japanese government from the beginning, but it was apparent that the Army was not waiting for their approval. Kwantung was swiftly advancing and the civil government´s role in the whole issue was quickly degraded to “enunciating policy statements which were ignored in the field and ridiculed abroad because of their apparent duplicity” (Maxon 86). In consequence of the crisis, the government resigned in December and was replaced by one that was more favorably disposed toward the military.
The conquest then continued with little opposition (that is from the government) until its climax in 1932 when the puppet state of Manchukuo was established. Aside from these territorial changes in Asia and resignation of the Japanese government, the crisis and ensuing Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) had far-reaching consequences in the field of international relations and sparked suspicion toward the Japanese residing on the West Coast.
The United States entered the last prewar decade with the intention of maintaining peace and avoiding conflict if possible which also meant limited interventions in affairs that did not concern them directly. President Franklin
D. Roosevelt expressed these sentiments in his inaugural address by dedicating the Nation “to the policy of the good neighbor—the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others—the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors.” The idea of aggressive opposition to Japanese activities in East Asia was thus rather unpopular. Roosevelt´s predecessor president Hoover was pressed by the problems caused by the depression and had no intention of fighting Japan over Manchuria (Wilson 24). In 1932, the so-called Stimson Doctrine informed Japan that “US would not recognize territorial changes brought about by force and in violation of the Open Door policy and the Kellog-Briand Pact” (Herring 489). Since Roosevelt believed that the occupation would collapse and Japanese liberal forces would regain power, he embraced the non-recognition policy as well (Robinson 47). The League of Nations was more resolute and demanded that Japan removes its troops from Manchuria, but these appeals were not answered. When the League refused to acknowledge Manchukuo as an independent nation in 1933, Japan reacted by ending its membership.
In the context of these diplomatic strains, Japanese American community was again paid more attention. The president himself felt the need to focus on the immigrants as he grew distrustful of the Japanese in general. His opinions were shaped not only by actions of Japan alone, but also by their resemblance to a plan for gradual expansion through Manchuria and conquest of Asia which had been described to him by Otohiko Matsukata in 1902. “When, in April 1934, Japan announced the Amau doctrine, which claimed East Asia as Japan´s special sphere of influence, and warned the other powers not to interfere in China, Roosevelt´s fears of Japanese imperialism were reinforced” (Robinson 49). Apparently, Japan of the 1930s was a completely different state than the one participating in disarmament efforts of the past and as Roosevelt´s hopes for the failure of Manchurian conquest proved to be false, a warlike atmosphere once again hindered Japan-U.S. relationship. In consequence, Japanese Americans were viewed as potentially threatening by Roosevelt since he believed that in the event of war “the community was a potential source of pro-Japanese fifth columnists” (Robinson 54). His opinion later manifested itself in the fateful order that led to the establishment of internment camps.
Peaceful resolution that would relieve increasing anxiety about Japan and its aims appeared less and less possible. Manchurian crisis gradually escalated into the Second Sino-Japanese War starting in Beijing in 1937. As the fighting spread, reports of merciless slaughter of civilians, looting, and other atrocities reached the United States and caused great public outrage, although not enough to actually provoke any action against Japan. Reasons for this reluctance were diverse:
Many Americans still saw Japan as a bulwark against Soviet Russia and even against Chinese revolutionary nationalism. Some Americans valued
a flourishing trade with Japan. On the other hand, many increasingly took sides. (Herring 511)
The desire to avoid direct conflict was characteristic for the entire decade and since the situation in Europe at this point required more attention, even such incidents as the sinking of U.S. Navy vessel Panay were settled with surprising composure. Although Roosevelt and officials advocated punitive response, “this shockingly brutal and unprovoked attack sparked little of the rage of Maine or Lusitania. Indeed, Americans seemed to go out of their way to keep a war spirit from building” (Herring 512).
However, as the powers of Germany and Italy grew, the United States was forced to consider abandoning these attempts and accept the fact that war may be inevitable. When Japan signed the Tripartite Pact in 1940 and thus joined America´s
de facto enemy, it became possible to link its actions with the warlike behavior of Germany and Italy. In consequence, the calls for economic sanctions against Japan were answered this time and as a result the vital trade with American iron and steel was halted. Thus, tensions between the two nations continued to increase sharply and
anti-Japanese sentiment boosted by the danger of war was on the rise. Japanese Americans were by many seen as adjuncts of Japan and the amount of attempts to systematically monitor their actions increased. Several reports on the “Japanese question” were requested by the officials and although none of them convincingly proved that the immigrants represented a dangerous fifth column, their conclusions were either ignored or tragically misinterpreted (Robinson 66-68).
Japan´s continued conquest of Asia caused even more troubles. In reaction to the Russo-German War, it secured the right to station troops in southern Indochina from France which further provoked the United States. “Aware that a Japanese military presence in southern Indochina directly threatened the Philippines, it beefed up the defense of islands whose independence it had pledged just seven years earlier”
(Herring 534). A new series of sanctions against Japan followed evolving into an embargo on all trade. However, that was no solution to the situation. Instead, it forced Japan to make a choice between concessions or war which was not an easy one as there was not unanimous opinion on whether war and possible gains were worth the risk:
Some leaders recognized that a long war with the United States could be disastrous, and this brought about frantic, if sharply constrained, efforts to reach a modus vivendi. From July until late November, each side issued various proposals that were dutifully discussed with no tangible result. The younger officers now driving Japanese policy were proud, aggressive inheritors of
a samurai spirit that favored death over surrender. The government offered some concessions on Southeast Asia and the Tripartite Pact in return for restoration of U.S. trade, but it refused to withdraw from China. (Herring 534-535)
Although the United States was at the time on the verge of conflict with Germany and had every reason to pursue a peaceful agreement with Japan (even at the expense of China), the discussions produced no breakthrough. Thus the two nations were fixed on
a collision course which escalated into the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.