EVER since the Manchurian incident, Japanese foreign policy has been reaping the world's condemnation. Unlike an individual, a nation cannot admit itself in error; so Japan's only answer has been to tell herself that her judges are wrong and she is right. To strengthen this contention she has built up the belief that she acts from the purest motives which her fellow nations willfully misunderstand. The more they disapprove, the more adamant grows Japan's conviction that she is right.

This conviction of righteousness, and its corollary, the feeling of being misunderstood, finds daily expression in the speech and press of the country. An example is the following passage from an editorial on the Ethiopian conflict: "There must be some reasons that justify Italy in attempting to solve the Ethiopian situation by force, but Premier Mussolini seems to have been misunderstood by the other Powers. . . . Our country went through bitter experiences as a result of such misunderstanding at the time of the Manchurian Incident. . . . The world attributed that Incident to the Japanese military and denounced it harshly. This was the outcome of lack of correct knowledge about the situation on the part of the other Powers."[i]

Not only are other nations delinquent in understanding. The next most frequent charge made against them by the Japanese is that they fail to show sincerity. An instance is the stand Japan takes concerning her refusal to sign a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union. She justifies her position by carrying the attack into the enemy camp. "The Soviet Union is laboring under a mistaken notion about Japan," says an Army spokesman. "If they really want peace in the Far East they should show us the sincerity of their intentions . . . before seeking to conclude a non-aggression pact with this country."[ii]

Injured innocence is an attitude which Japan frequently assumes in answer to foreign disapproval. Last summer when the League Council adopted a resolution condemning Germany's denunciation of the Versailles Treaty, the Soviet delegate suggested that a similar resolution might be applied to the Far East. A Japanese editorial on the subject stated: "It is clear that the Soviet representative had Japan in mind," and then asked blandly, "Has Japan done anything in contravention of international treaties?"[iii] Needless to note, the editorial made no mention of the Nine-Power Treaty. Again, Japan points with fine indignation at one of her foreign critics who, during the Manchurian Incident "went so far as to charge Japan with occupying Chinese territory?"[iv]

With its implied horror at the accusation of having occupied Chinese territory, as if it were an act of which Japan had never dreamed, a statement like the above seems to foreign readers incredible. In real bewilderment the foreigner asks himself what purpose the Japanese believe could be served by such obvious pretense. The only answer is that to the Japanese it is not a pretense. So completely divorced is the Japanese mental process from the Occidental, so devoid of what Westerners call logic, that the Japanese are able to make statements, knowing they present a false picture yet sincerely believing them. How this is accomplished it is impossible for a foreigner to understand, much less attempt to explain. That appearances mean more than reality to the Japanese mind is the only clue the writer can provide. A fact as such means little to a Japanese; should he be forced to face certain unacceptable facts he will cut them dead, just as we might cut an unwelcome acquaintance on the street.

Responsible for this attitude is the conception of "face." Everyone has heard of the importance of face to the Oriental, but unless one has lived in the Orient one cannot realize just how vital a part it plays; how it enters into every word, thought, and act of existence. The appearance put upon an act, and not the act itself, gives or causes loss of face. To draw an example from ordinary life, a Japanese taxi-driver will never ask the way to an address he does not know, although he knows he is lost and you know he is lost. He prefers to cruise around helplessly for hours, using up gasoline and time at his own expense (for in Japan the fare is a flat rate and not by meter), simply for the sake of preserving the appearance of knowledge, thereby saving his face.

It is the ability to disregard facts without feeling any sense of inconsistency which allows them to make statements like the following, apropos of Japan's imminent departure from the League of Nations: "Japan has been a constant supporter of the League and her membership in it has been a powerful factor in maintaining peace in the Far East and on the Pacific."[v] It is not hypocrisy, certainly not deliberate hypocrisy, which is responsible for so strange a remark, any more than it is hypocrisy that allows a devout religious mind to believe in miracles or a child to believe in fairy tales.

Because their mental processes are not alike, Japan and the West find diplomatic intercourse a difficult matter; and what augments the difficulty is the fact that, from the foreign point of view, the Japanese have no understanding of the word "negotiate." Negotiation between two Western states is the mutual attempt to approach common ground. Its essence is compromise. But the concept of compromise is quite foreign to the Japanese. To them, diplomatic negotiation means the effort of each national representative to put over his own plan intact, the end in view being that one shall win and the others shall lose. The Naval Conference this year has been an illustration of Japan's attitude. Arriving at London with a fixed determination to obtain parity or nothing, the Japanese were not prepared to yield a single ton, regardless of what was proposed. So inflexible were their minds that they finally withdrew, having contributed nothing to the Conference and having gained nothing for themselves. The following passage from a pamphlet issued by the Navy shows how the Japanese miss the purpose of international negotiation. "Victory," it says, "is dependent on relative strength, and there is no better way to assure relative strength than to obtain absolute superiority."[vi] So irrefutable is the statement that it defies comment, but it helps to reveal how little understanding of the principle of compromise there is in the Japanese mind.

More fundamentally troublesome to Japan's foreign relations than the disability or disinclination to use Occidental tactics in the practice of diplomacy, is the combination of an inferiority and a persecution complex which she feels vis-à-vis the West. The original cause lies in the fact that, at the time the white man first set foot in the Orient, he was able to assume and hold a superior attitude; the attitude of teacher to pupil, of governor to subject. Though in Japan this unjustified relationship no longer exists, traces of its influence will not be obliterated for a long time. Sixty years ago the Japanese made up their minds that the only way to end an unequal association would be to adapt to themselves the civilization of the West. They have succeeded, but at the cost of part of their own integrity. For now the Japanese live under a system not their own; it is one which they have copied. They have become imitators, and an imitator can never feel himself the equal of an originator.

Although well concealed behind an aggressive front, the sense of inequality is always present to make Japan suspect a slight or threat in every act of her neighbors. She is, for instance, extremely sensitive to any possible slur on her position as a major power. With that in mind one realizes that her demand for naval parity is due less to strategical reasons than to a desire to have her status as a major power vindicated before the whole world.

Where her sensitivity is even more acute is in the realm of racial prejudice. Apropos of anti-Japanese activities in the United States, a Tokyo newspaper says: "A contributing factor to this agitation is racial. We, who take pride in the fact that we are one of the three greatest nations in the world, and comparable in any way with any foreign country, cannot tolerate the slight put upon us by the Americans".[vii]

Although Japan's racial sensitivity has undoubtedly received provocation from without, especially from the United States, her quickness to see a threat in every act of her fellow nations is born of an inherent feeling of insecurity. This in turn generates a persecution complex which finds expression in Japan's shrill cries of "Danger!" each time one of her neighbors makes a move. For example, American naval maneuvres in the western Pacific last summer were denounced as being actuated by the desire "to dominate over" [viii] Japan, and an announcement of the proposed trans-Pacific air route was described as "exposing to the whole world the United States' aggressive plans against the Far East." [ix] And that perennial irritant, the naval ratio system, calls forth this characteristic comment: "It passes the understanding of the Japanese that the equality proposal, so fair and just, should have failed to find the support of Great Britain and the United States, except on the theory that the Anglo-Saxon races are bent on arresting the advance of the Yamato race." [x]

In these conditions the relations between Japan and the West will continue to present most difficult problems of diplomacy.

[i] From the Jiji, July 10, 1935. (This and subsequent quotations are taken from the Japan Advertiser's daily translations of editorials appearing in the vernacular press. The sources given, however, refer to the Japanese paper in which the particular passage was originally printed.)

[ii] Major-General Itagaki, Assistant Chief-of-Staff of the Kwantung Army, quoted by Rengo News Agency in the Japan Advertiser, April 24, 1935.

[iii]Miyako, April 20, 1935.

[iv]Gaiko Jiho (Revue Diplomatique), August, 1935.

[v]Jiji, January 5, 1935.

[vi] Translation of the pamphlet printed by the Japan Advertiser, May 28th, 1935.

[vii]Miyako, February 19, 1935.

[viii]ibid. May 1, 1935.

[ix]Nichi Nichi, April 26, 1935.

[x]Kokumin Domei, February 13, 1935.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • BARBARA WERTHEIM, on the editorial staff of The Nation; recently research worker in the Tokyo office of the Institute of Pacific Relations
  • More By Barbara Wertheim