Japanese Relations with Africa before WWII

Japanese interest in Africa is often depicted as a relatively new development, a result of the dramatic expansion of Japan’s trade with every corner of the world over the past few decades. In fact, Africa’s share of Japanese exports reached its peak of more than 17 percent during the late colonial era, while its share today [c. 1992] has dropped to less than 2 percent. The growth of Japanese influence in Africa over the last decade has clearly taken place in spite of a relative decline in Japan’s economic interest in the continent….

Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War … resulted in its acquisition of the colony of Taiwan and greater influence in Korea. As a new imperial power, Japan looked to European colonialism in Africa for both administrative ideas and ideological justification for its rule. Books about British colonial administration and British imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes were translated and read by Japanese colonial administrators, businessmen in China, and the general public. Interest in Rhodes peaked following the Boer War at the turn of the century, but even as late as the 1920s a number of prominent Japanese businessmen in China fancied themselves as Rhodes-like characters, struggling to expand Japanese influence in China as Rhodes had expanded British influence in southern Africa.

The Boer War also helped to bring Japan and Britain into alliance. While European newspapers grew increasingly hostile to Britain, Japanese newspapers displayed a strong bias in favor of the British throughout the war. The war highlighted Britain’s need to end its “splendid isolation,” and immediately after the end of the war Britain concluded an alliance with Japan in 1902. Japanese leaders who favored the conclusion of this alliance argued that the prospect of increased Japanese trade with Britain’s colonies around the world was an important consideration.

Japan’s emerging textile industry had already begun to import cotton from Egypt before the turn of the century and, until the outbreak of World War I, Japan’s balance of trade with Africa was very unfavorable, in large part because of Japan’s growing demand for cotton. This balance of trade shifted dramatically in Japan’s favor during the war, as the supply of European goods to African markets was temporarily interrupted. For the first time, Africa became an important market for Japanese exports….

The Japanese had developed particularly close political and economic ties with Ethiopia, however, and were reluctant to see their influence diminished in this nominally independent African state. Japanese superpatriots reacted with anger to Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia in the mid-1930s and called for Japanese intervention on the side of Ethiopia. Instead, however, the Japanese government came to an accommodation with Italy, by which Italy recognized Japan’s position in Manchuria in exchange for Japan’s recognition of Italy’s position in Ethiopia. This helped to pave the way for the conclusion of Japan’s alliance with Italy prior to the outbreak of World War II, during which Japan’s trade with Africa was temporarily interrupted.

SOURCE: “Japan and Africa: An Historical Overview,” Swords and Ploughshares [Bulletin of the Arms Control, Disarmament & International Security (ACDIS) Program of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign], Summer, 1993.

For more on Japan’s post-WWII relations with Africa, including South Africa, read: Richard Bradshaw, “Review of Jun Morikawa, Japan and Africa: Big Business and Diplomacy,” H-Africa, H-Net Reviews, August, 1997. URL: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=2716877366765

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