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Hindered Chrysanthemum


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Repost article submission by member @kriegerfaust

Hindered Chrysanthemum

by Alex Luz-Olson (Nov. 23, 2020)


IJN Battleship Nagato

Every ship in the Imperial Japanese Navy was adorned on the prow with the Imperial crest, a chrysanthemum flower. The petals are uniform and symmetric, emanating from the center like the rays of the sun just like their naval ensign.

The Imperial Japanese Navy’s failure during World War II was indirectly caused by indiscreet Western racism throughout the 1920s and 30s, fueled by Western desires to maintain the current world order at the expense of the Japanese’ ambitions.

This disadvantage was established through naval treaties limiting the five major powers after World War I. During World War I Japan was a member of the Allies, alongside the United States, Britain and France. After the war, the Japanese sought a racial equality clause to be included at the Treaty of Versailles.[1] They were denied by England seeking to “protect a white Australia.” This was the first of many setbacks for Japanese desires in the coming decades before World War II.

In 1922, the Allies of World War I met to discuss limiting the expansive naval policies of each nation, preventing a continued arms race and staving off yet another war. This negotiation ended in the Washington Naval Treaty and limited Japan’s imperial ambitions to merely sixty percent of the naval tonnage allowed to the United States or Britain. While the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) met the treaty regulations handily, both the United States and Britain exceeded their limits. The tonnage difference was explained away by both the United States and Britain requiring naval presence in multiple oceans, while Japan only operated in the Pacific. Another viewpoint could see this as a deliberate attempt to maintain Western superiority in the Pacific, supported by the argument that the United States and Britain were already breaking the terms of the agreement before it was signed. If the West was willing to limit the East strictly, but hypocritically ignore its own faults, how could the negotiations have been fair?

Another treaty was signed in 1930, this time in London. This time, further limits were put into place, and no changes were made to the original tonnage ratios. This left the Japanese again at sixty percent total size, and only fifty percent size for cruisers, medium-size warships. This impacted the IJN more severely than the other two nations, who relied on cruisers for a core component of their overall naval strategy. Cruisers allowed the IJN flexibility and firepower, their high speed allowing them to dictate surface engagements while their firepower was impressive. Again Japan as the only Eastern nation was given very little in the way of consolation from this treaty, and they would end up abandoning it in the run-up to World War II.

A consideration for Western thinking was the political instability of Japan. Between the two naval treaties there were multiple political assassinations, the Kanto Earthquake, and the Great Depression, which resulted in significant political turnover throughout the 1920s and 30s. Regardless of their pendulum-like leadership, the country was unified and strong. Behind the figurehead of the Emperor, the Japanese faced little social upheaval; their political strife was mostly relegated to rogue military elements and the political elite.

Japan occupied Manchuria in 1932, and was criticized by the League of Nations about their intentions. The Japanese protested, but ultimately left the League which could do little but annoy them. When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1936, and faced much less political backlash, the Japanese protested quietly from Tokyo about the hypocrisy of the West. Japanese citizens denounced the invasion, citing the racist tendencies of European subjugation.[2]

Japan was not any better herself at race relations. Japan formed the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere as a counter to Western racism.[3] This was merely a front for putting Japanese into positions of authority throughout Asia, at the expense of other races in their territories. In hindsight, racism to counter racism failed, but the establishment of the policy is still a scar on Japan’s internal decision-making.

Immediately after the first naval treaty was signed, Japanese military personnel questioned their reliance on the West, and suggested that they seek means of self-sufficiency.[4] This was a sentiment shared by the United States, for different reasons. Prior to World War II, it was concluded as “strategically unacceptable” for Japan to reduce its dependency on the United States.[5] The United States viewed southward Japanese expansion as a direct threat, and were willing to economically sanction the Japanese to extreme levels in order to preserve the world order, and Western superiority.

[1] Augusto Espiritu, “Inter-Imperial Relations, the Pacific, and Asian American History,” Pacific Historical Review 83, no. 2 (2014): 238–54, https://doi.org/10.1525/phr.2014.83.2.238.

[2] Reto Hofmann, “Imperial Links: The Italian-Ethiopian War and Japanese New Order Thinking, 1935–6,” Journal of Contemporary History 50, no. 2 (2015): 215–33.

[3] Espiritu, “Inter-Imperial Relations,” 238–254.

[4] Ian Nish, “The Uncertainties of Isolation: Japan between the Wars,” (London: University of London Press), 1993, 251–267.

[5] Jeffrey Record, “Japanese Aggression and U.S. Policy Responses, 1937–41,” Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2009, 12–24.

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