In the First World War, Japan joined the Allied powers, but played only a minor role in fighting German colonial forces in East Asia. At the following Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Japan's proposal of amending a "racial equality clause" to the covenant of the League of Nations was rejected by the United States, Britain and Australia. Arrogance and racial discrimination towards the Japanese had plagued Japanese-Western relations since the forced opening of the country in the 1800s, and were again a major factor for the deterioration of relations in the decades preceeding World War 2. In 1924, for example, the US Congress passed the Exclusion Act that prohibited further immigration from Japan.Japan guide com
A series of coercive acts, insults, and provocations by Western imperialist countries from the 1850s to the 1930s caused great anger to fester among the Japanese people. Japan's signing of unequal treaties with America, France, Holland, and Russia in 1858 placed restrictions on Japan's national sovereignty, such as extraterritoriality, which meant that foreigners in Japan had immunity from the jurisdiction of the Japanese legal system. The 1921-22 Washington Conference naval treaties forced on Japan an unfavorable battleship ratio of 5:5:3 for the US, Britain, and Japan respectively, and the Western powers at the London Naval Conference of 1930 coerced Japan to accept the same ratio for its heavy cruisers.
Strong racial prejudice by Westerners toward Japanese, in addition to Chinese and other Asians, led to several severely insulting incidents for the Japanese people. In 1919 at the Paris Peace Conference, Western countries rejected the simple Japanese request to have a racial equality clause included in the League of Nations Covenant. In 1905, California passed anti-Japanese legislation. In the following year, the school board in San Francisco ordered Japanese and other Asian children to attend segregated schools. In 1924, America passed the Japanese Exclusion Act to shut off Japanese immigration into the US. This series of international affronts to Japanese pride and status provided fuel to the militaristic and imperialist sentiments of Japanese government leaders and ultranationalists.Japan's March Toward Militarism Bill Gordon March 2000
But that is not the whole story.
League of Nations and Racial Equality
An interesting chapter in the book “Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World” is related to Japan. Japan was on the Allied side in World War I, though it hadn’t done much fighting. The Japanese had three goals for the Paris Peace Conference after the war:
to get a clause on racial equality written into the covenant of the League of Nations, to control the north Pacific islands (the Marshalls, the Marianas and the Carolines), and to keep the German concessions in Shantung, China.(emphasis mine)
In the end, they got 2 out of their 3 aims. It says something about the major powers of the time that they didn’t get the most legitimate of their goals.
The racial equality clause was born out of the discrimination and humiliation that the Japanese faced in the West. When the Japanese made their intentions known about introducing this clause, the most vehement opposition came form Australia, which was part of the British empire delegation. Here is the British Foregin Secretary Lord Balfour about the clause:
The notion that all men were created equal was an interesting one, he found, but he did not believe it. You could scarcely say that a man in Central Africa was equal to a European.
The Japanese delegation in the Commission on the League of Nations introduced the clause as an amendment to the “religious liberty” clause. Their original version read:
The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord, as soon as possible, to all alien nationals of States members of the League equal and just treatment in every respect, making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality.
This went nowhere in the Commission. However, the Japanese pressed on.
It was an issue that was very popular in Japan and very unpopular in some other places, for example, the western states of the US. Also, President Wilson wasn’t exactly an enlightened person when it came to race. An example of US conduct is that African American troops were put under French command for the Great War.
The greatest opposition, however, was from Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes who was mortified about the future of “White Australia” if the clause was accepted. He refused all compromise attempts by the US delegate Edward House. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, William Massey, agreed with Hughes. After British efforts to reach a compromise, Hughes put a condition that he might accept the racial equality clause if it had a proviso exempting national immigration policies. The Japanese balked at that.
Finally, the Japanese delegation introduced a watered-down version which simply asked for “the principle of equality of nations and just treatment of their nationals.”
Delegates from Greece, Italy, China, France and Czechoslovakia spoke in favor of the Japanese amendment to the League Covenent. The British delegation opposed it. US President Woodrow Wilson was worried that the League of Nations Covenent might not get the support of US senators from the western states if it included the racial equality provision. (Remember that the western states had put in a lot of restrictions on Japanese immigrants at the time.) He asked the Japanese to withdraw their amendment, but the Japanese insisted on a vote.
What do you think happened next? Well, the majority of the delegates voted for the Japanese amendment. But Wilson announced that the amendment could not carry because there were strong objections to it.
See also Analyzing Japanese Imperialism NHK
The 1919 Paris Peace Conference And The Racial Equality Clause
On the April 11, in a meeting chaired by Woodrow Wilson, the Japanese delegation forced a vote. Seventeen of the eleven nations voted in favour of the racial equality provision. However, the vote was declared lost because it was not unanimous. Hughes had won. He returned to Australia triumphant.
"The White Australia is yours. You may do with it what you please, but at any rate, the soldiers have achieved the victory and my colleagues and I have brought that great principle back to you from the conference, as safe as it was on the day when it was first adopted."Immigration And Nation Building - Places
While he did prevent the adoption of a racial equality clause for the League of Nations by requiring that all nations agree on the issue (a simple majority was needed for the rest of the covenant), he did this at the request of the Australian prime minister Billy Hughes and it was Australia that blocked its adoption (by refusing to agree to it). See: The White Australia PolicyLies My Teacher Told Me
African American Views of the Japanese