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020 Kato Takaaki and a quick restoration of the peace

Kato Takaaki

Kato Takaaki

Japan strengthens its grip on China

It is Sunday 8 November 1914. It is the 20th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The British set up Room 40, a special branch for the deciphering of German codes.

SMS Emden goes down off the Cocos Islands and another German cruiser, Königsberg, is trapped in the East African Rufiji delta.

The Germans bomb Ypres after a failed attempt to force a breakthrough.

Austrian troops start a new invasion of Serbia.

General Christiaan de Wet and his Boer rebels flee in South Africa.

In a glowing speech Prime Minister H.H.Asquith announces that the British sword will not be put away until Belgium has recovered, France is safe, the position of the smaller nations is secured and the military dominance of Prussia is ended.

The Ottoman sultan Mehmet V calls on all Muslims to start a jihad, a holy war.

The Germans launch an offensive along the river Vistula with Warsaw and Lodz as destinations.

Field Marshal Frederick Roberts, former commander-in-chief of the British forces, dies 82 years old while encouraging the troops in France.

And the Japanese expand their power base in China after the conquest of the German colony of Qingdao, a masterplan of minister Kato Takaaki.

In its most banal form war is a cost-benefit analysis. Any student of the First World War will get the impression that the cost is weighed a bit lightly, certainly as far as human life is concerned, whereas the benefits are most disappointing, especially in the long run.

One country, however, settled 14-18 most efficiently: Japan. The politician who particularly managed to give his country a boost with minimal effort and loss, was called Kato Takaaki. Bearing the Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz in mind, war was only a continuation of politics to a man like Takaaki.

The official number of Japanese soldiers killed in action is 415 at the end of the war, though there are estimates of about two thousand. The Japanese list of the dead of the First World War is in no comparison to the losses of their allies. It is in no comparison either to the number of two million Japanese soldiers to be killed in the Second World War. Civilian casualties were unknown to Japan between 1914 and 1918.

Kato Takaaki was Foreign Secretary in Prime Minister Okuma Shigenobu’s government. Shigenobu had been taught by a Dutch missionary. This Guido Verbeek had familiarised Shigenobu not only with the English language and the New Testament but also with the western ideas about a constitutional form of government.

Around the turn of the century Japan was in a straddle between tradition and modernity. Until 1853 only the Dutch had been allowed to make exceptions to the policy of closed doors. But the days of sakoku were gone. Japan had begun to develop into a modern capitalist nation at a great pace, although tradition appeared to be persistent. When in 1912 the last Meiji emperor died, a hero from the Russo-Japanese war committed harakiri. This general’s wife also cut her throat. A wave of emotion and enthusiasm washed over the country, meaning feudal Japan had far from disappeared behind the horizon.

In the beginning of 1914 the rising sun had collided with hard cash. The German firm of Siemens appeared to have paid bribes to the navy command. The people were furious and the fall of the government was inevitable. This Siemens scandal cleared the way for Kato Takaaki, who was taken with Anglo-Saxon thinking. The Sunday’s child had also been ambassador in London, after he had succeeded in marrying the eldest daughter of the founder of Mitsubishi. His tight relationship with this powerful company would later be held against him as a politician.

It was Takaaki’s objective to have cabinet and parliament dictate foreign policy. The power had to be taken away from the small elite of older people, the so-called genrō, for whom the friendship with England had had its day. To the traditional camp Germany seemed to be much more interesting as a sparring partner. Many officers had followed a Prussian training.

The good relationship with Great Britain already dated from long before the war. The Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902 had mainly been aimed at keeping Russia in check. Three years later Japan felt compelled to settle that in a war with the empire of the tsar. Japan had won that battle with surprising ease.

After the victory against Russia, Japan managed to seize power over Manchuria in northeast China, just as it had extended its tentacles to Korea. But in 1911 the tide in China turned against Nippon. The anti-Japanese general Yuan Shikai had succeeded in overthrowing the Manchuria dynasty. So it was about time for Japan to play a new trick in China.

Likewise the British were worried about the urge for expansion of friendly Japan, but it was mainly the Americans who watched Japan suspiciously. It especially concerned China, whose door America wanted to keep open for free trade, whereas Japan rather saw China as its vast back garden. Many Japanese politician foresaw in the long run a decisive clash of the yellow and the white race. Pearl Harbour was to be the opening scene of this in 1941.

To the Anglophile Takaaki the British model implied imperialism. The war which set Europe on fire in 1914 offered him a chance in a million to start really working on this. Soon after the war had started Japan was requested by England to eliminate Maximilian von Spee’s German navy. Von Spee’s cruisers formed a threat to the allied merchant vessels and troopships. Japan had an imposing navy, the Kongo being their flagship.

Takaaki was there like a flash to declare war on Germany after an ultimatum. ‘Although I regret that Japan is forced to take up arms against Germany’, he declared, ‘I am pleased that the army and navy of our illustrious sovereign will show the same loyalty and courage with which they distinguished themselves in the past, so that all may be blessed by a quick restoration of the peace.’

Fine words, but meanwhile Takaaki went further than the British had in mind. Japan did not restrict itself to hunting Von Spee, but also had their eyes set on a series of German islands in the Pacific Ocean. The Mariana Islands, the Marshall Islands and Caroline Island came under the flag of Japan without much of a fight.


The Japanese forces had to make more efforts for the German colony of Qingdao on the Chinese peninsula of Shandong. In 1898 the Germans had managed to get a 99-year lease from the Chinese. As the German empire was quite young, it had been late in speeding up its colonial ambitions. Initially Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chanchellor,  wanted to know nothing about it. But at the end of the nineteenth century Germany claimed its place in the sun. Qingdao was the German springboard to Asia.

Von Spee’s navy had already left its home base Qingdao before the outbreak of the war, but one garrison had stayed behind. It managed to hold its position against Japan’s superior strength for two months. General Kamio Mitsuomi went about it cautiously. He hatched an amphibian plan: an attack from the sea and across the land. In order to make the attack across the land work, he had to violate China’s neutrality. This was fine to the British, who added two battalions to the Japanese army of 60,000 men.

The Germans capitulated on 7 November. A day later an officer who had served in Qingdao stuck up for himself in a German newspaper: ‘We, here at home, will never cease to repeat to our children not to forget 7 November, not to forget to pay back  those yellow Asians, who have learned so much from us, for the huge injustice they have done to us. Even though they have been provoked as mercenaries by those narrow-minded English.’

With a new foot in the Chinese door, Kato Takaaki can put up a good show at home in Japan, even though the genrō keep on sulking. Takaaki manages to pull the initiative of diplomacy towards himself and catches oligarchy in his constitutional net. He can be held accountable for quite a confrontation with the pro-German Field Marshal Yamagata Aritomo.

In January 1915 Japan lays down a list of 21 demands in Beijing. Taken together they mean a considerable tightening of Japan’s grip on China. The European powers have had to remove their hands from the vast country. Eventually the Chinese will agree with 13 of the 21 demands. The indignation about this among the Chinese people is big, but Japan will also lose the sympathy of the United States. On 13 March 1915 the American State Secretary William Jennings Bryan presents a twenty-page memorandum to the Japanese ambassador in Washington. The warning to Japan is to refrain from ‘political, military and economic dominance over China’.


It is generally expected that the war in Europe will be over before Christmas. To a large extent this appears to be true for Japan in the Far East. The allied forces will begin to insist on sending Japanese troops to the European battlefields, but Tokyo will keep its distance as much as possible. Japanese ships leave for the Mediterranean to keep the dangerous U-boats under control, but that’s about it.

Japan’s economy is growing fast during the war, mainly thanks to orders placed by the allies and to the loss of a competitive merchant navy. Export to Great Britain and the United States doubles, but to China the Japanese export is four times as much and to Russia even six times. Yet inflation emerges at the end of the war resulting in rice revolts and the fall of the government.

The Russian October revolution also plays tricks on Japan. The Soviets refuse to pay off debts of the tsar. Participation of the Americans in the First World War is not cheered in Tokyo either. A more active role of the neighbour on the other side of the ocean is seen by Tokyo as a threat of Japanese interests. In September 1914 a general like Tanaka Giichi was still daydreaming of taking on the United States.

Whatever the case may be, in 1918 Japan is going to share in the flush of victory of the allies. In 1925, preferring diplomacy to aggression, Takaaki, who is now Prime Minister, makes a treaty with the Soviet Union. He also prepares general conscription and extends universal suffrage to men over 25 years of age. He dies in 1926 in office as a result of pneumonia at the age of 66.

Extreme militarism and nationalism are going to prevail, a development which Kato Takaaki could not stop in time. In his autobiography the Japanese statesman Yukio Ozaki, ‘Father of the Japanese Constitution’, blames this failure on all the favourable winds Takaaki had experienced in his life. ‘He allowed himself to think that he was a great man and could not imagine a side of life unknown to him.’

What happened to Qingdao? Well, it remained in Japanese hands until 1922. The Germans have never returned,  but the brewery they started there in 1903 has grown into the biggest of China.

Next week: Oskar Potiorek

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)






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