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Foreign Office Files for Japan, 1919-1952

Japan: A Historical Overview 1919-1952

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My name is Rustin Gates, I'm Associate Professor of History at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, the United States. I teach on Asia, China, and Japan and I have upper-level courses on aspects of Japanese history. My research involves the diplomatic relations of Japan in the twentieth century, both the pre-war period and the post-war period. 

Why study Anglo-Japanese diplomatic relations?

The history of Anglo-Japanese diplomatic relations, I feel, represents a sort of global history of the last 200 years. The Japanese and the British have had relations since the 19th century. As we all know, the Americans opened Japan, but really, they retreated soon after and the British came in and played a very strong role when the Japanese were modernising their country, and developed this relationship that the Americans and really no other country ever had. And so they have a deep relationship with the Japanese and this continues into the twentieth century and is perhaps most manifest in the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902.

So we have very close relations. And as we move into the period covered in this resource in the 1919 period after World War I, in the 1920s, in the 1930s, the British, unlike the Americans, have a different relationship with the Japanese, where they're quite sympathetic to the Japanese. Both are island empires and so they have interests throughout the globe and because of this, have relations that span not just between themselves but to other regions of the world, including, most especially, China.

And as we all know, as we get towards World War II, the Americans have a very antagonistic relationship with the Japanese. But the British have, again, a sympathetic one that the Japanese come to rely on. And thus, their relations are in many ways equally as important as the Americans or any other country that Japan has relations within the modern period.

How would you use these files in your research?

I would use all of these files in my research. These files cover Anglo-Japanese relations from 1919 until the post-war period, the occupation period, and so my research covers that entire span, so all of these are relevant. In particular, I'm most looking forward to looking at the files on Manchuria, which is an area of Northeastern China- referred to as Manchuria back in the time period. And the British have extensive reporting and interests in Manchuria, as do the Japanese. And so this was a key region for both countries, especially the Japanese and it was a very active region for the Japanese as well, as they expanded. And so the British documents would give me lots of new information that I'm eager to get a hold of.

The other particular documents that I would use come in the occupation period – the American occupation of Japan that focused on Japanese rearmament. I have the documents from Japan. I have the documents from the United States. But these will allow me to sort of triangulate the policies that the Americans imposed on the Japanese to rearm, beginning in the 1950s. And so these documents, in many ways, are my research and I can't wait to look at them.

What key themes are covered in Foreign Office Files for Japan 1919-1952? 

Japanese Imperialism

These files have a wealth of information on Japanese imperialism. Especially because these files cover the period after World War I and into the '30s. And this is a very fascinating and interesting time with regard to imperialism in general, but Japanese in particular. After World War I, imperialism falls out of favour. It can't be a national goal. And thus, the world dynamic changes.

Well, Japan as a late imperialist power doesn't fully buy into this new world order and wants to pursue its empire. But at the same time, it has to be a good international citizen. And so it has to balance this empire building with being this good international citizen and it's a challenging time for the Japanese.

The British– this is why these files are so interesting– are also an empire, as we know, and they too are doing this balancing act. But they aren't quite as vehement in protecting their empire as the Japanese. So the Japanese often use the British as a sounding board, as sort of a kindred spirit when they're developing international policy, imperial policy.

And so we get this fascinating look at the development of Japanese Imperial policy during the 1920s and as we move into the 1930s That is very different from, say, Japan's relations with other countries. The British documents offer this nice window almost into the true soul of Japanese imperialism that they sort of show to the British but they hide from other countries.

This resource provides a very nice context for the development of Japanese imperialism, but also for the development of Japanese foreign policy in contrast to other nations, especially the United States.

Japanese Expansion, 1930-1940

These files tell us a lot about Japanese expansion. And indeed, they chronicle Japanese expansion throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s because the British are very astute observers of this. Not only because they're interested in what Japan is doing but because they have their own interests in the region in which Japan is expanding. And so they're observing, but they're also calculating, they're also determining what threat the Japanese pose to their own holdings.

And so the reports are very detailed here. And they begin with the region of Manchuria in Northeastern China when Japan takes over in 1931 and '32. So we have very detailed and copious reports on that issue. (See FO 262/1774, FO 262/1799, FO 262/1977, FO 262/1802, FO 262/1818, FO 262/1782)

Then the Japanese move into China in the late 1930s and the British have extensive interests in the Yangtze valley. And so we there too, get numerous reports. Lots of information coming out of the British embassy and other consulates around Asia. (See FO 262/1808-FO 262/1810, FO 262/2013-FO 262/2019, FO 262/1899)

Then as we move through the late 1930s into the early '40s, when Japan begins to look southward, becomes, even more, sort of manic, where the British have colonies in this region of course in Singapore and Malaya and Burma. And so now the Japanese are a potential threat-- a direct threat-- to British colonies. And so we began to see reports in the resource that have meetings with, say, the Netherlands East Indies officials. And they can compare notes about how to potentially defend against a Japanese incursion, Japanese aggression. (See FO 371/22174, FO 371/24716, FO 371/22166, FO 371/24709, FO 371/24710, FO 371/27677)

And we also see the Japanese, when they occupy French Indochina, which is now Vietnam of course, in 1940-41, the British, as neighbouring or very close to in Malaya and Singapore, began to become acutely aware of the Japanese on their doorstep. And so we get even more documents coming out about that. And great observations– political observations, military observations, economic as well– about Japanese expansion all the way up to Pearl Harbour. (See FO 371/24721, FO 371/27766)

Soviet-Japanese Relations

These files tell us basically the history of Soviet-Japanese relations from the beginning of the Soviet state through the occupation period into the Cold War. As such, it is a great resource for scholars, for students. Many scholars and students don't have Russian background, Russian language background, or Japanese language background, which makes approaching this topic a challenge.

By using these British documents, which are obviously in English, we can get at this topic through, admittedly, a third point of view, but still get very good detail. And so this topic really opens up, I think, by having this resource available.

And so what this topic involves– the Soviet Union is created in the Russian Revolution of 1917. From the very beginning, the Japanese are caught up in the question of whether or not to recognise the new Soviets. They are very anti-communist, and so there is a diplomatic issue from day one, effectively.

Another big issue that comes up after World War I is the Siberian intervention where the Japanese, along with other allies, including the British, send troops to far eastern Russia- the Maritime provinces- to do a variety of things. One is rescuing a Czechoslovak legion that is stranded in Siberia. Where the British send over about 1,500 troops, the Japanese send over 10,000 and it's commonly regarded by everyone– the British, the Americans, and the Russians, certainly– as a sort of a power grab by the Japanese. And so these documents give us some insight into that as well.

As we move into the 1920s, relations between Japan and the Soviet Union are calmer. But then in the '30s, when Japan invades Manchuria which borders the Soviet Union, the Russians begin to pay a little bit closer attention, there is some tension there. There are skirmishes along the border to the point where in 1939, in a battle called Nomonhan– the Japanese called it that– the Russians completely rout a Japanese army, which these documents provide some light on. But what's also interesting is here with the route of the Japanese army, they then decide to turn south towards Southeast Asia rather than go north against the Soviet Union. The rout was so significant that two years later the Japanese signed a neutrality agreement with the Soviet Union, so we get a look into that process as well within the documents. (See FO 371/23559, FO 371/23562)

As we move into World War II, the Soviet Union doesn't declare war until 1945, very late, and so they come very much at the end of the war. But they're involved in the occupation as an allied power. But to the Soviets' chagrin, the Americans very quickly exclude them and push them to the side. (See FO 371/46462)

So, in the documents for the occupation period, we have a lot of reports on Russian obstinacy, Russian anger, Soviets calling out the Americans and saying they're not involved and things like this. And so in the context of Soviet-Japanese relations, we begin to see this growing antagonism that will eventually lead to the Cold War.

Trade and the Economy

These files give us a whole wealth of information on Japanese trade and the economy. The British are astute observers of Japanese trade and economy because as we know, both are island empires. But they're island economic empires, and in many ways, they're competing against each other, especially in East Asia. And so this was a point of emphasis for the British embassy in Tokyo.

So the result of this is the British embassy reproduces annual reports, economic indices, economic graphs, and other statistical information produced by Japanese government agencies themselves on a year by year basis. So we get first-hand documents from the Japanese transmitted through the British embassy. (See FO 371/22182, FO 371/22184, FO 371/22181, FO 371/22183, FO 371/23558)

In addition, the British embassy makes their own reports on whatever is particularly interesting to them or particularly a threat, economically. And so we get reports on things like the Japanese textile industry, which competes with the textile industry in Britain or the industry in India. We get reports on Japanese steelmaking, which is also a competitive product. Even things like whaling there are reports on.

And so we get these reports on different parts of the Japanese economy, different industries, and if we broaden it out even further, the British expand their look by looking at Japanese trade relations with other countries in the region, as they affect the British trade relations as well. Also, we have reports on China and Chinese trade with the Japanese. Or even southeast Asian economies like that Netherlands East Indies and things along those sorts. So we had a very expansive picture of Japanese trade and economy with these resources. (See FO 371/27897, FO 371/24733, FO 371/24731, FO 371/27899, FO 262/1847, FO 371/27915, FO 371/27942)

War in the Pacific

These files, I think, represent an underutilised research source for understanding the Pacific war. Most researchers, most students approach the Pacific war looking at the United States and Japan and rightfully so, given Pearl Harbour and the way the war was later conducted. But the British, as we know, were right there too and were very involved and they provide a nice counterpoint or a different viewpoint than the American and the Japanese files.

And so I think this resource is a fantastic way for students and scholars to get at sort of a new angle on the Pacific War. And things they would be looking at for example would be like the Tripartite Pact. So in the lead up to the Pacific War, we have the Tripartite Pact, where Japan joins its fascist counterparts, Germany and Italy, in an alliance- the so-called Axis Alliance. The British have extensive documentation on this in these files. (See FO 371/24737, FO 371/24711, FO 371/24718)

And then as we move closer to war, the Japanese expand south and begin menacing the colonies in Southeast Asia. We have documents where the British and the Netherlands East Indies are trying to coordinate a possible defence against the Japanese. And so then there's real movement and a sense of urgency there that, as we know, was too little too late. But the British are very much involved in this, and we learn about Japanese troop movements and other things like this. (See FO 371/24716, FO 371/24718, FO 371/24742)

In addition, as we get right up to Pearl Harbour, usually, the focus is solely on the Americans and the Japanese and their negotiations. And again, that's understandable. But here, we get another look at those negotiations from the British side. And the British are very important and they're speaking with the Americans quite extensively and to the Japanese a little bit. And so we have another way to look at these negotiations that eventually lead to Pearl Harbour that I think have been underutilised. (See FO 371/23551, FO 371/35957, FO 371/24728, FO 371/23568, FO 371/23569)

As we get into the war, from these documents, we learn things about Japanese troop movements and Japanese battle plans. Some plans for British defence and contingencies and things like that. And then one of the most interesting files in here are documents on Japanese treatment of allied prisoners of war, which, of course, include British subjects and war crimes and things like that. (See FO 371/41789, FO 371/41791, FO 371/41788, FO 371/41835, FO 371/35940, FO 371/46437, FO 371/35941, FO 371/35938, FO 371/28062, FO 371/41790, FO 371/41787)

So we really get from these documents a whole picture of the Pacific War from the beginning with the Allied negotiations with Japan through the war right up until the end.

American Occupation of Japan

Here too, the files on the American occupation of Japan offer a new vantage point to study this topic. Usually, this topic is approached through the American files, as the occupation was largely an American endeavour. But the British, as an Allied power and very closely connected to the Americans were a part of this process, both sitting on policy councils in Washington and in Tokyo. And indeed, they had several experts and officials involved in the occupation.

And so there they are right there with the Americans. And as a trusted ally, the Americans often use the British sounding board. They go back and forth about different policies, different topics. And so the files included in this resource are quite extensive and cover the entire occupation. And so here too, we get a way to view the occupation from a third source that will help contextualise it.

And so events that are covered in here that I think are perhaps the most important events in the occupation are things like the new Japanese constitution, the opening of the new Japanese diet or parliament.

The demilitarisation of Japan early on in the occupation. Also, the terrible lack of food in the early years where thousands were starving. And as we move farther into the occupation, we get great documents on the peace treaty that Japan signs with the Allied powers in addition to things like the trade an economy that is slowly coming back and impacting both America and Western Europe.

And so here again, we have this great resource that I think is just waiting to be utilised to provide even greater understanding and context to our studies on the occupation.

The Beginning of the Cold War in Asia

These files give us a firsthand look at the burgeoning antagonism between the United States and the Soviet Union, especially here, the occupation of Japan, which is really one of the crucibles of the Cold War– the early crucibles of the Cold War. Where we have the occupation is mostly an American endeavour, but as an Allied country, the Soviet Union has a seat at the table. They are just very quickly pushed to the side by the Americans.

And so the documents we have here in the file show this relationship developing. We see Russian anger, disappointment. Antagonism towards the United States. They oppose many American policies because they're being pushed aside and because they think they're taking Japan in a direction that they don't approve, of course.

So we get to see this very low stakes, to some extent– bullets aren't flying but the words are. And it's quite fascinating. Then as we move on into the occupation to 1950, the People's Republic of China, the communist China, is established in 1949. And this impacts the Soviet Union's relations with the Americans in the occupation. They begin suggesting that China shouldn't be represented by the nationalists, for example, that communists should be taken into account.

And there is a bit of a renewed energy with the Soviets, feeling quite strong and proud that China, which is a neighbour of Japan, has recently become communist. We get into the Korean War. And so we begin having documents in the resource that talked about Soviet troop movements, Soviet Air Force movements in China, on the border of Korea.

And so we get a sense that the Chinese communists and the Soviets working together have become a real threat to Japan most specifically, but also to the west, to the American and British interests. And we get this in the document.

The last thing we get is a look at the Japanese communists in Japan, there's great attention. This is a very energetic time for Japanese communists during the occupation and so we have many reports about their activities, what they want, what they're doing, are they a threat. We see the process by which Japan in the early part of the occupation is supposed to be chastised and punished by being demilitarised. Then as we move towards the end of the period, and we get into the Korean War and the later occupation, that is thrown out the window and Japan is being sort of groomed as an ally to the west with a re-armed country, with a strong industry that will always remain in the American and Western European orbit.