After President Obama’s recent visit to Hiroshima, my heart was warmed to see how much Japan and America’s relationship has grown from bitter enemies to great friends. While there are, of course, hard-liners in both countries that try to continue fanning the flames of hatred, much of the wounds inflicted by histories greatest and most terrible war have, for the most part, healed considerably.
There is much better understanding. Many Americans understand why Japan felt it had to go to war with America. But one thing is still difficult to square, why would Japan join forces with Hitler, one of the most brutal dictators in history? It is especially confusing since Japan had helped to fight against Germany in World War I. This is going to take some explaining!
To understand the 1940 Tripartite Act which created the Axis powers, one has to go deeper into Japanese-German relations. First, I think it is important to note that modern Japan and Germany are fairly similar.
Germany only became a country in 1871. Before that, it was a multitude of countries and city-states. After defeating France in the Franco-Prussian war, Prussia united all the areas to make the Empire of Germany. A formerly weaker power now strutted upon the world stage as a real game changer in Europe.
Japan had a very similar rise. When Japan was forced out of isolation in 1854, it began a period of rapid westernization. And we have already chronicled the coming-out party that was the Russo-Japanese war. So, we have two formerly weak and isolated powers that now have come into their own and have shown the world that they are a force to be reckoned with.
After ending isolation, Japan had a very friendly relationship with Prussia (which would later come to be Germany), and Prussia was modernizing with typical German efficiency and speed. Japan saw their progress and decided to bring direct influence from them to hopefully modernize in a similar way.
So, Japan hired many Prussians and later Germans to come to Japan as advisors to aid them in modernizing. These would be known as the “oyatioi gaikokujin”. Think of Tom Cruise’s role in The Last Samurai, and you’re on the right track.
If you go to a school in Japan today, it is still based on the old Prussian system. Look at the school uniforms. For the most part, there are military dress uniforms for boys and sailor uniforms for girls. Everything in Prussian society was about creating Europe’s greatest fighting force, which it did in spades.
This militaristic approach helped streamline everything to aid in faster modernization. These German advisors helped form Japan’s constitution and military. It’s almost like Japan was Germany’s little brother. But the relationship would sour.
There is an easy way to understand Japan and Germany’s relationship up to this point. Let’s compare their situation to the friendship of Michael Jackson and The Beatles founder Paul McCartney. They were very different musicians, but two of the greatest of all time. They were different races but realized that they had a lot to learn from each other. The two really inspired each other, but their relationship fell apart because of business.
When The Beatles songs’ rights were up for grabs, Paul McCartney was scrambling for cash so he could own the rights to his own life’s work, and right as he was going to get them they were snatched up by none other than his great friend Michael Jackson. When Paul McCartney confronted his friend about this backstabbing, Michael Jackson merely shrugged and said, “That’s business.”
That’s how it was for Germany and Japan as well. As a new imperial nation, Germany knew it had to do what all the other cool kids were doing – it had to establish foreign colonies. Germany is in a very delicate position in Europe. It is surrounded by other powerful neighbors and has few natural resources. So, having colonies abroad would help to stabilize things at home.
Germany arrived at the tail end of the Age of Exploration. All of the good spots had been taken. One of the only areas of the world that wasn’t entirely owned by other European powers was Asia. So Germany started to acquire different spots in Asia.
Imperial Japan thought in very much the same terms of the European powers and also wanted colonies. They saw their natural zone of influence in much of East Asia. So when Germany came trouncing in and claiming stuff, for the Japanese it was like some guy bursting into your backyard and saying parts of it were his.
So, Japan started making friends with Great Britain, and the blossoming German partnership largely cooled. Finally, after the outbreak of World War One, Japan allied with Britain and the Allies and quickly took over those German Asian holdings, “That’s [Imperial] business.”
After World War One, Germany was in a really bad place. It was forced by the allies and the newly formed League of Nations to sign a terribly harsh treaty, which crashed the German government and economy, and this would ultimately be the cause for the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.
Japan was not a big fan of this League of Nations. To be completely honest, the league was quite unfair with Japan. They punished Japan for doing to its neighbors what the leaders of the League of Nations, Britain and France, consistently did with their colonies. Slaughter thousands of native tribesman in Africa? Perfectly okay if Britons did it in Africa, but Japan take over and create the state of Manchukuo (Manchuria)? Completely unacceptable! Japan could not deal with the League’s apparently rank hypocrisy and quickly withdrew from the League.
Hitler’s Germany originally had strong ties with the Chinese government, but Hitler quickly saw that Japan was going to be the most strategic partner in Asia. Many people think of Hitler like a Bond villain in that he wanted to take over the entire world. That is not exactly true. Hitler’s view was that the world should be controlled by the ‘Great Powers’. America would control the Americas, Great Britain would have her colonies in the Middle East and Africa, Germany would have its thousand-year Reich in central and Eastern Europe, and finally, Asia would be controlled by Japan.
Japan, for her part, did want to continue to expand. It created the “Greater East-Asian Prosperity” sphere. But both Japan and Germany shared a common enemy in their ambitions for expansion; the Soviet Union. With common goals and a common adversary, and a long history of friendship and co-operation between the two powers, an alliance between the two seemed like common sense. Many Japanese leaders also felt that an alliance with Germany would isolate the aggression from America, although it would actually turn out to be quite the opposite.
When war broke out between Germany and the allied forces of Europe in 1939, a short war was expected by both sides. Before 1941, the United States was technically neutral and Japan was not involved in the war in a military way, despite being strongly aligned with Germany.
At this time the relationship between Germany and Japan was mutually beneficial, but not heavily intertwined. Indeed, Japan was more concerned with exerting its influence in East Asia and not further west than that.
However, Japan made a sudden entrance into the conflict when it attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941, bringing both itself and the United States into the war. It is said that Hitler was particularly happy about this, feeling that Japan was a very strong and capable ally.
From this point, Japan along with Germany, Italy, and smaller states, came together as more of one force. When Germany declared war on the United States as a response to them declaring war with Japan, this further strengthened the relationship.
As the war went on and Germany and Japan began losing their strongholds across the world, trade and communication between the two countries deepened, with both countries becoming dependent on each other for valuable resources.
When Germany surrendered to the Allied Forces in May 1945, Japan chose to see this surrender as an act of treason and made moves to distance themselves from Germany and its leaders. Japan soon had to also surrender when it was clear the Allies would be victorious.
Since the war, relations have once again blossomed, focusing mainly on economic and business negotiations and trading relations. Nowadays, the two countries are friends and have very closely aligned ideas about the directions of their countries. Both seen as pioneers of technological advancements and high-quality electronics and industry standards, hopefully, they will continue to prosper.
Japan’s joining of the Tripartite Act was probably one of the greatest mistakes ever made by both Germany and Japan in their histories. For Japan, it led to greater enmity between itself and America which would lead to Pearl Harbor.
Because the treaty stipulated that they had to show solidarity with each other, Germany was also forced to declare war on America, which almost certainly resulted in the destruction of the Thousand Year Reich and Japan’s Empire.