The Rise of Japanese-american Conflict During The Interwar Period

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2631 words

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The rise of Japanese-American tension
  3. Conclusion
  4. Bibliography


Japanese-American foreign relations are currently in good standing, with both nations striving economically on a global stage, and being global superpowers. This, however, has not always been the case, particularly in the interwar period between World War I and World War II. Due to a series of agreements, events, and economic sanctions, Japanese-American foreign relations deteriorated drastically, leaving two rising nations as enemies in time of rising global tensions. A Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an American naval base in Hawaii, sparked a war between the two nations in December of 1941. This paper will assess the years that precede the beginning of the Japanese-American conflict in World War II and aim to prove that despite the aggressive tactics used by Japan, the Americans’ unwillingness to compromise provoked the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor.

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The rise of Japanese-American tension

The rise in Japanese-American tensions during the interwar period can be seen to start at the Washington Conference of 1921. This conference was a meeting between the biggest naval powers in the world at the time. This list of nations includes Britain, the United States, and Japan. Since the German loss in World War I, the idea of militarism had grown old, and the strive for democracy emerged as a new goal for the international community. The entire conference was dedicated to global disarmament. During this conference, the Japanese took the world by surprise by not only their presence at the conference, but also their demands. The Japanese ambassador to the United States insisted at this conference that the Japanese were only interested in the protection of Japanese citizens and property, insisting that Japan has no interest in international affairs. Contradicting the ambassador’s words, Japan was very keen on expanding their power in Asia and saw the United States as their main competitor to dominance in Asia, specifically China. The conference ended on the signing of a treaty which shrunk the size of the participating states’ navies, creating a 5:5:3 ratio. This ratio was meant to ensure that for every five ships the United States or Britain has, the Japanese could only have three. Another aspect of the agreement is known as the Nine Power Treaty. The Nine Power Treaty allowed the continuation of the Open Door Policy in China. This was seen as a major win for American diplomacy, as it meant that the United States could continue to assert their economic dominance in China. These two agreements were attacked by Japan as they saw it as a threat to their security. Since Japan is an island nation, they rely heavily on their navy for defence. The signing of this treaty leaves Japan susceptible to an attack from a stronger nation, particularly the United States. The Japanese left this conference angry, but still signed the agreement. Their participation, however, would not happen as they continued to expand their navy.

Almost a decade after the Washington Conference, Japan and the United States participated in the London Naval Conference of 1930. This conference was held because of the lack of disarmament in the international community, despite the multiple attempts to enforce it. In this conference, the Japanese shocked the United States with a demand to have a navy 70% the size of the Americans’ navy. Japan justified this demand by stating it was imperative for their defence against a Pacific invasion. Despite this demand by the Japanese, it was eventually decided that Japan was to have a navy ten times smaller than the American navy. At ten times smaller than the American navy, Japan was still able to defend themselves from an attack but would not be powerful enough to launch their own attack. This is another instance of American dominance over Japan, because not only are they taking away the ability for Japan to expand into Asia (something that the Americans were trying to do economically), but they were also, once again, leaving Japan susceptible to a Pacific invasion. At ten times larger, the American navy would overpower the Japanese navy in an attack. This agreement was also a clear implementation of the Kellogg-Briand Pact on Japan, a treaty that stated that all armament should be for defensive purposes only and the number of arms created must be relative to the amount needed for defence, and not on the United States.

Less than a year after the London Naval Conference, in September 1931, the Japanese Kwantung Army wanted to destroy a section of the South Manchuria Railway in Mukden. The Japanese planned to blame the attack on the Chinese and use it as an excuse to take military action in China. One Japanese Colonel leading the attack stated that he hoped by doing this, it would start a “struggle for supremacy” between America, the “leader of the West”, and Japan, the “master of the East”. Stunned by the actions of the Japanese, American Secretary of State Henry Stimson pled with President Hoover to place economic sanctions on Japan. Hoover refused and instead opted to work with Britain and France to create a neutral zone in a nearby city to Mukden. Stimson, who had no other options, verbally attacked Japan and leaked confidential information from the American ambassador to Japan that the Japanese planned to attack Jinzhou, another city in China. This strategy by Stimson caused a great rift in American-Japanese relations and may have influenced how the Japanese conducted the rest of their foreign policy with the United States during the 1930s.

Looking at Japanese-American trade at this time provides yet another insight into American domination over the Japanese and is the beginning of Japanese dependence on the Americans. During the 1920s, Japan’s biggest export was silk, and America was their biggest buyer. When the economic depression began in late 1929, the importing of silk from Japan drastically fell, hurting the Japanese economy. In a desperate attempt to recover, the Japanese attempted to sell manufactured goods to the United States. By doing so, this angered many American competitors. Japanese manufactured goods also could not thrive in the United States because of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which enforced high tariffs on many imported goods. As a result of this, the Japanese economy struggled in the early 1930s as they were unable to generate enough revenue from their economic ventures in East Asia alone.

After multiple years of relatively quiet Japanese-American relations, 1937 is the beginning of increased tensions between the two nations, and these tensions do not settle until 1945, after Japanese surrender and the end of the War in the Pacific. By 1937, the American government had estimated that Japan would not be able to sustain their expansion into China because of their poor currency. The Japanese yen, the currency used in Japan and all Japanese territories, was not a convertible currency and could not be used to buy products abroad. Japan was entirely dependent on trade, as they lacked essential commodities such as: metals, oil, lumber, and some foods. As a consequence of their poor currency, the Japanese had to keep a reserve of gold and foreign currency in order to trade on the international market. American economic experts had predicted that the Japanese were close to a complete depletion of their gold and foreign currency, and was close to bankruptcy; however, they also cited that it was possible that they held secret caches of foreign currency that was able to sustain them for the foreseeable future.

In mid-1938, the Japanese had continued to expand into Indochina and was growing as a threat to American aspirations in Eastern Asia. As a result, the American government placed their first economic sanction on Japan, this is known as the moral embargo. This embargo was never made a legitimate law, however, the government discouraged warplane manufacturers from exporting their products to Japan. This embargo was officially enacted as a result of the bombing of Chinese civilians by the Japanese, but scholars believe that the Americans only enacted it as a way to save the Open Door Policy in China.

Shortly after the implementation of the first moral embargo, the United States enacted another moral embargo in December of 1939, targeting the exportation of metals to Japan. The United States government asked producers of aluminum, magnesium, and molybdenum to stop exports to Japan. Aluminum is a main material in the creation of warplanes, and since the Americans had already placed a moral embargo on warplane exports to Japan, this proved to be a tough obstacle for the Japanese, as it forced them to use scrap metal from their factories to continue their production of warplanes.

At the same time as the moral embargo on metal, the United States used another strategy to attempt to stop the creation of Japanese warplanes. On December 20, 1939, the American government asked American aviation manufacturers to stop future delivery of plans, plants, manufacturing rights, or technical information for aviation gasoline to Japan. This came as a result of the continued reliance on American knowledge from Japanese petroleum producers who paid for American blueprints and instructions on how to create correct fuel solutions, and even paid for Americans to go to the Japanese plants and teach them how to set up and run the petroleum plants. This attempt, however, was enacted too late by the American government as the Japanese already had the knowledge on how to create fuel, and run their manufacturing plants.

All while implementing unofficial moral embargoes, the thought of an actual embargo on Japan, as well as the freezing of Japanese assets, loomed in the minds of American government officials. Many studies were conducted in the United States of the effectiveness of a potential embargo, and they concluded that an embargo would be detrimental to the Japanese economy. This was based off the fact that the Japanese imported 90% of its petroleum, 88% of its steel, 100% of its metal alloys, 100% of its rubber, and 100% of its cotton from the United States. All of these materials were crucial in the Japanese war in China, and any embargo would surely result in a Japanese loss.

After endless consideration, as well as countless studies done, in July 1941, the Japanese expanded into Southern Indochina, causing the Roosevelt administration to seriously consider placing a complete embargo on the Japanese that would result in the freezing of all Japanese assets. The Roosevelt administration spent July trying to come up with different terms and rules of the embargo, until finally on July 26, the American government placed the full embargo on Japan, sending an official message of dissatisfaction of Japanese expansion in Eastern Asia. After implementing the freeze, Franklin Roosevelt was confident that Japan would not react violently. Japan was immediately affected by the freeze. Within days of the freeze, Japanese insurance companies closed, banks suspended their business, and export businesses closed. Since the freeze created an embargo on all goods, the Japanese were unable to obtain any oil from the United States, causing a major shortage in the Japanese empire within weeks. Japan tried many strategies to overcome the freeze. One attempt was by trying to implement a semi-bartering system with the Untied States. The most common attempt was to trade large quantities of silk for American oil, an attempt that was crushed by the American government. Another attempt to work around the freeze and obtain oil was to trade with other nations, specifically in the Dutch East Indies. However, since the yen was an unconvertible currency, they tried to convert it to yuan, the currency used by the Chiang Kai-shek regime in China, which was a convertible currency and could be used to buy products abroad. This strategy, however, failed.

In a desperate attempt to end the freeze, the Japanese tried to come to an agreement with the Americans during negotiations between Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and Japanese Ambassador Nomura Kichisaburo. Many problems with these negotiations were present, especially because Nomura was a Colonel in the Japanese navy and was untrained as a diplomat. He did not even have enough political influence in Tokyo, nor did he have a full understanding of the complexity of the situation between the Japanese and the Americans. These talks began in April of 1941, a few months before the financial freeze, but the talks escalated after the freeze was implemented. Weeks after the freeze, Nomura and the Japanese sent the Americans a treaty offer which included: suspension of military advancement by both the United States and Japan, cooperation in obtaining oil from the Dutch East Indies, restoration of commercial relations, peace talks between the Japanese and China, and the withdrawal of Japanese troops in Southern Indochina. This proposal by the Japanese shows the dire need for American investment and trade for the economy, as they are willing to end their expansion into China and Indochina in order to resume relations with the United States. A few days after the Japanese sent their offer to the United States, the Japanese received a response known as the “Hull Note” which was the United States’ final offer. The Hull Note was taken as an insult to the Japanese as it called for a total withdrawal of all Japanese troops, air force, and navy from China and Indochina, as well as recognizing the Chiang Kai-shek regime as the only legitimate government in China. Even though this would unfreeze Japanese assets, the Japanese refused to accept unless the Americans agreed to do the same in Latin America. The Americans would decline the counter-proposal offered by the Japanese, and the talks ultimately ended without coming to an agreement. Some scholars believe that there was a major miscommunication between Hull and Nomura, however, many cite the fact that Nomura was an unexperienced diplomat to the reason that an agreement was not reached.

Only a few months after the negotiations between Hull and Nomura ended, in the early morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched an attack on the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, killing over 2,000 Americans. This attack was seen as an act of war by the Americans and on December 8, the Americans declared war on the Japanese Empire. This war lasted until August 1945, when the Japanese surrendered to the Americans after two atomic bombs were dropped on Japanese cities Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

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Thus, when assessing the years that precede the War in the Pacific, despite the aggressive tactics used by the Japanese, the United States’ unwillingness to compromise provoked Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor. It is easy to look at history and think about what could have happened had the Japanese not have attacked Pearl Harbor, or what could have happened if there was an agreement reached during the Hull-Nomura talks. Nonetheless, it is worth asking whether or not the War in the Pacific was an inevitable clash that would have happened as a result of two empires attempting to assert their domination, or if this was an avoidable conflict that could have been peacefully resolved through proper diplomacy.


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  • Minohara, Tosh, trans. The History of US-Japan Relations: From Perry to the Present. Edited by Makoto Iokibe. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
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  • Riggs, Lynne E., and Manabu Takechi, trans. Japan Thrice-Opened: An Analysis of Relations Between Japan and the United States. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1992.
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Cite this Essay

International Relations of Northeast Asia. (2022, December 07). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 27, 2023, from
“International Relations of Northeast Asia.” GradesFixer, 07 Dec. 2022,
International Relations of Northeast Asia. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 Sept. 2023].
International Relations of Northeast Asia [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Dec 07 [cited 2023 Sept 27]. Available from:
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