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Australian history

The path to war: Australia, Britain and Japan

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Did action and inaction by Britain and Australia lead the Japanese to become the mortal enemies of the British Empire within just a few decades, asks Brad Webb.

FROM THE second half of the nineteenth century to well into the twentieth, Australia’s perception of its Asian neighbours changed very little. Despite a growing dependence on trade with Asia and the economic benefits it brought, Australia maintained a deep seated conviction that one day it would be swamped with millions of Asians. Australians viewed the world, and in particular its near neighbours, through British eyes. With a strong desire to maintain its Anglo-Saxon heritage, and to ensure fine British tradition and culture remained dominant, the newly Federated nation of Australia passed laws severely restricting Asian immigration. Over the following sixty odd years these laws became known as the White Australia Policy.

Wartime propoganda poster


Australia has constantly struggled with its desire to maintain a racially pure country, whilst attempting to expand the opportunities of its exports into markets not directly associated with the British Empire. One of these markets was Japan. Japanese expansion into China in 1894 through the Sino Japanese War brought it to the attention of the major empires of the world. As the twentieth century dawned, Japan emerged as a power in world politics, particularly after its defeat of the Russian Pacific navy and army during a significant conflict in 1904-05. In 1902, Britain recognised this new “western” power situated in Asia by signing a Anglo-Japanese Military Alliance.

Many Australian viewed the Anglo-Japanese treaty with distrust. They regarded the Japanese as long-term enemies, even though Australian and Japanese soldiers fought on the same side during the Chinese Boxer Rebellion. Australia feared it could be easily overrun by the “armed hordes of Japan”. Australia did, however, officially welcome the re-signing of the Treaty in 1905, and again in 1911, as it kept the Japanese on the side of the Empire. Japan was eager for the world to see their country as modern and civilised, quite apart from what the Japanese regarded as the barbarian tribes of China. Japan resented Australia’s anti-Asian policies and complained to Britain about its discriminatory practices. Britain responded by classifying Japan as “Honourary Whites” as an acknowledgment of the Japanese westernisation of their civilisation.

As the White Australia Policy was taking effect, Japanese culture was slowly developing from within. Australian households began to display decorations and furniture of Japanese origin. Even in the works of famous Australian artists such as Tom Roberts, Japanese homeware can be seen. And despite Australia’s whites only policy, Japanese merchants were granted work visas, albeit limited in their duration. Japan also had a strong trade house presence in the major cities as well as being the main player in the Pearl Shell industry in the northern waters of Australia.

During the First World War, Britain used Japan to secure German Pacific outposts north of the equator, freeing up the Royal Navy for more important engagements in European waters. When Australian troop ships carrying soldiers to Gallipoli departed, they were accompanied by Japanese warships. Japan also deployed it’s navy to patrol Australian waters as a protective measure against the German fleet. Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, did not like this arrangement. He felt that if the war went bad for the Empire Japan might change sides. Great Britain played on his fears of invasion by convincing him that the only way to avert any disaster was to increase Australian enlistment. The war was going poorly for Britain, using up more men than it was recruiting. It needed more soldiers to turn into canon fodder and Australia was in its sights.

Hughes went home to campaign for conscription. Even though one in two Australian men of eligible age had enlisted he wanted more. The opposition had a different view of the Japanese threat. They felt an invasion possible but campaigned against conscription on the grounds that Australia needed men at the home front to defend the nation. The conscription referendum failed, twice, and luckily for Australia it’s Japanese fears during the Great War were unfounded.

The Australian delegates to Versailles (Billy Hughes seated front and centre)


During the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Billy Hughes strongly campaigned against a Japanese motion to include anti-racial discrimination in the Charter of the League of Nations. Japan was dumbfounded by Hughes' outbursts. One Japanese delegate referred to Hughes as a “peasant, ignorant and backward with no real concept of the world”. Japans hopes of being seen as an equal to the Europeans failed as Hughes won over the Empire delegates. Only one year later Britain and Japan failed to renew the Anglo-Japanese Treaty.

With the failed Anglo Japanese Treaty a reality, commercial competition between the British Empire and Japan began to emerge. Although Australia was keen to trade with Britain it also looked to Japan to expand its export markets. Over the following years Australian exports to Japan increased tenfold. Japan may not have liked Australia’s Asian policies, but it needed its raw materials to build the nation. While Australia maintained its strong anti-Asian stance it still continued to supply Japan with a multitude of raw materials including wool, which, by the early 1930’s went to clothe a Japanese army marching through Manchuria and northern China.

Even though Australia had misgivings about this arrangement, they realised that while Japan was engaged elsewhere, Australia would no longer be the centre of attention for any future Japanese expansion plans. As Australian wool fuelled the growing Japanese textile industry, it’s economic position during the Great Depression would have been far worse without this Japanese trade. By the mid 1930’s, the British textile industry was lobbying Australian importers to turn their back on Japanese products and buy from them instead. The British reasoned that Japan had to buy its wool from Australia, but Australia did not have to buy from Japan. And so to appease the textile manufacturers of Manchester, Australia slapped restrictions on Japanese imports in 1936. In doing so the Australian Government attempted to play off Japanese imports with British exports, but the gamble failed.

By the late 1930’s, the Japanese economy which had geared itself on a war footing was wary of relying on Australian raw materials for its industries. As Nazi Germany made approaches of an alliance towards Japan, Australia attempted to appease the Japanese, hoping to resume some semblance of trade. Even as Attorney General Menzies belatedly overruled a wharfie’s ban on a shipment of scrap iron to Japan, the Japanese had finally turned their back on the British Empire. When in 1941 Australia passed the trading with the enemy act, all commerce with Japan was outlawed. Menzies, now Australia’s war time Prime Minister announced: “Where Britain stands, there stands the people of the entire British world”. With no goodwill remaining between Australia and Japan, the Japanese bombing of Darwin in 1942 finally confirmed the great Australian nightmare.

When Australia sent forth its Minister for External Affairs in 1934 on a goodwill mission to Japan and the surrounding Asian countries, we saw Minister Latham’s goodbye speech. Japanese delegates were present at the conference and appeared to heartily endorse this tour. That nothing came of this visit, largely through British pressure on the Australian Government, may have added to the Japanese frustration of being checked at each attempt of opening up trade.

There is the possibility that action and inaction by Britain and Australia led the Japanese away from being allies to becoming mortal enemies of the British Empire within just a few decades. Had Australia been willing to open its doors both economically and socially, perhaps the Japanese turn around could have been avoided. With the apparent loss of face Japan felt by the Versailles racial discrimination refusal and the constant rejection of being treated as an equal on the world stage, the seeds of discontent were sown quite early in the relationship.

One of the problems faced by Australia and Japan was in maintaining trade agreements. Australia showed a reluctance, borne mainly out of suspicion of Japanese motives to fully embrace a trade policy that could have benefited the country greatly. Australia was torn between loyalty to Britain and its own desire to become a player on the world markets. Historic film depicted Japanese industries dependent on raw materials supplied by Australia to produce its vast quantities of merchandise. However, with a multitude of tariffs and restrictions set up by Britain, it became a tug of war for Australia to decide where its true interests lay.

The argument that Japan was eager to expand its markets and increase its imports was reflected in its eagerness to send trade delegations and naval visits to Australia. Perhaps if the Australian population took more notice of the Japanese willingness to co-operate, the friendship might have been maintained. Then again, Japan did leave its plans for Empire expansion a little too late. By the 1930s, colonial takeovers – which the British excelled in during the eighteen century  – were not only out dated but potentially destructive.

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