the bitter disappointment of japan -- 5/25/16

Today's selection -- from Japan 1941 by Eri Hotta. In 1919, Fumimaro Konoe, future Prime Minister of Japan attended the Paris Peace Conference. Though Woodrow Wilson espoused seemingly high-minded principles such as his notion of national self-determination, the Japanese and other Asians felt a deep sense of exclusion during the conference, especially when a Japanese attempt to include clauses regarding racial equality and religious freedom in the work of the conference was rejected. Afterwards, Konoe denounced the inequity of an Anglo-American dominated world, a sentiment that permeated the Japanese zeitgeist in the two decades leading to World War II:

Prime Minister Konoe with his cabinet ministers, July 1940

"Though not entirely opposed to Woodrow Wilson's idea of establishing an intergovernmental organization, he was deeply suspicious of the moralizing and ambitious claims attached to the League of Nations. He asserted that the new postwar order, as conceived by Britain ad the United States, had nothing to do with the promotion of democracy or peace claimed by those powers. Rather, he saw it as a reflection of the Anglo-American desire to continue exercising economic imperialism to their advantage, enhancing their international standings. That the two aims -- preservation of the status quo and peaceful coexistence -- could be mutually reinforcing certainly would have been a more sophisticated reading.

"Konoe believed that those of his countrymen who favored the liberal internationalist proposal did so simply because they were sentimental and too easily impressed by its flowery language of justice and humanity. He told his Japanese readers to wake up to the hard realities of international inequality and injustice, citing racial prejudice against yellow-skinned people in the United States, Australia, and Canada. He said that those countries

welcome white immigrants but persecute yellow ones, including, of course, us Japanese. This fact is nothing new and remains a persistent source of our anger and frustration. By judging us by the color of our skin, white people prevent us from obtaining employment and renting houses or land. We are sometimes even refused one night's rest in a hotel, unless we have a white guarantor. This is a deplorable problem from a humanitarian point of view.

"Konoe intended this polemical article for domestic readers only, but it reached the outside world. The piece was translated into English and criticized in the Shanghai-based Millard's Review of the Far East, winning Konoe some notoriety as a radical. [His mentor] Saionji, who regarded the article as thoughtless, provocative, undiplomatic, and inappropriate for someone about to attend the Paris Peace Conference with the official delegation, voiced his displeasure. But Sun Yat-sen, the leader of modern Chinese nationalism and a Pan-Asianist, invited Konoe to dine with him in Shang­hai, where they agreed on the importance of Asian nationalism. ...

"In Paris, Konoe witnessed the most significant intergovernmental con­clave ever to take place. From some distance, he observed Clemenceau and Wilson. The range he noted in skin color among the participants astonished him. Because there were only so many official places given to each delegation, which did not include Konoe, he arranged for a journal­ist's pass to listen in on a major session one day. ...

[Konoe's travels abroad] did not alter his fundamental conviction that the post-World War I settlements were a Carthaginian peace, imposed on the vanquished to keep the status quo in place. Even though the Japanese were on the winning side [of World War I], he felt they were losers, too. To him, the Japanese attempt to include racial equality and religious freedom clauses in the League of Nations' covenant failed because of white prejudice.

"Shortly after his return lo Japan, Konoe published a booklet recording his impressions of his Western travels. He pondered how Japan could go about achieving higher international status without having to beg for it. Commenting on the rising anti-Japanese sentiments in the United States due to immigration, Konoe wrote:

That the white people -- and the Anglo-Saxon race in particular­ -- generally abhor colored people is an apparent fact, so blatantly observ­able in the U.S. treatment of its black people. I for one felt a sort of racial oppression more in London than in Paris, and that sense was heightened even further upon my arrival in New York.


Eri Hotta


Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy


Vintage Books a division of Random House


Copyright 2013 by Eri Hotta


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