In its early years, the Japanese Foreign Ministry [Gaimusho] occupied a premiere position among Japan’s new government institutions, in part because it was the chief agency responsible for the relations with the West that were so central to both the domestic and foreign goals of the Meiji state. The institution and its mainstream bureaucrats came to be Western-oriented, founding the tradition of orthodox Kasumigaseki [‘Foggy Gate’] diplomacy, which called for Japan’s cooperation with the leading Western powers: the United States and Great Britain. This foreign policy tradition remained closely identified with the Foreign Ministry both domestically and internationally, even when Axis-oriented diplomats dominated the ministry during Japan’s official defiance of Anglo-American cooperation from 1931 to the end of the Pacific War. Japanese leaders imbued with a belief in an Anglo-American-centered world order reemerged during the Pacific War first to prepare for and then to lead Japan in the new American-centered cooperation that would be the framework of the postwar period. Many postwar leaders were former Foreign Ministry officials.
Such continuity in Japanese worldviews has led Akira Iriye to conclude that the war and Japan’s period of defiance against the “existing order” were aberrations. The spirit of Anglo-American cooperation was thus the stable element that brought about the peaceful postwar order and Japan’s compliance within the framework of the Japanese-American security system. Although this view is valuable for an understanding of the evolution of Japan’s postwar stability, it gives little indication of the reasons for the instability of prewar Japanese institutions, international alliances, and even the career patterns of the Anglo-American-oriented bureaucrats and statesmen.
As an institution, the early Gaimusho [‘Foreign Ministry’], with its view toward the West, was slow to focus on the importance of China policy and China expertise. This is not to say that within its ranks China specialists did not develop but that their advice and concerns had only indirect influence on senior bureaucrats, who were more concerned with Japan’s friendly relations with the West. China service diplomats were also posted primarily to consular roles in China, where their perceptions of international relations were profoundly shaped by the international communities they administered and their close appreciation of the changing Chinese political scene.
As time went by, yet another divergent opinion group opposing enthusiastic pro-Western policy began to coalesce. At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, their early views and leadership surfaced and worked to create a new internal division, the Board of Information, that loosely addressed group members’ nationalistic views on foreign policy during the otherwise liberal 1920s. In the 1930s, this opinion group emerged fully formed as the group of Gaimusho reform bureaucrats who were quick to attack their pro-Anglo-American seniors, particularly for their weakness (not just “softness,” but lack of expertise) in China affairs. Thus, the opposition to Anglo-American-oriented or Kasumigaseki diplomacy, if not mainstream until after 1930, nevertheless had a long history and a serious level of support before then.
The fate of China service diplomats over the course of the struggles between these two groups revealed the complexity of prewar politics and diplomacy…. For example, both groups worked hard to bring about tariff reforms for China in the mid-1920s, and both were inclined to early Japanese recognition of the new Nationalist regime under Jiang Jieshi [= Chiang Kai-shek]. However, during the Manchurian Incident, China specialists in the field … were keenly disappointed in the lack of strong opposition in their Tokyo superiors … to the army’s takeover.
Seen from their eyes, Kasumigaseki diplomacy failed on two counts. First, it failed to recognize the crucial importance of China’s sovereignty to maintaining the status quo and Japan’s position in the framework of world affairs. Second, it failed to take a stand against the new institutional adjustments in Japanese administration in China, which set the pace and tone for the continuing process of dismantling Gaimusho jurisdiction in China altogether. Kasumigaseki diplomacy preferred to ignore the contradictions inherent in the Japanese takeover of Manchuria, as did the Western Great Powers when they failed to take significant actions. For the Gaimusho, however, the consequences in terms of national prestige and real jurisdictional powers were far more immediate than for the Great Powers.
In the 1930s, the reform bureaucrats, in seeking to “renovate” their ministry and effect more positive policy in the non-Western world, bestowed more recognition and rank on China service diplomats. In particular, men with long experience in China came to lead the ministry’s Bureau of Asiatic Affairs, which played a crucial role in day-to-day decision-making during periods of conflict in China. Particularly in the Gaimusho, Anglo-American-oriented leaders were deprived of power and influence, if not office, during the 1930s. Resistance to Japanese expansionism came, not from them, but from China service men. Kasumigaseki diplomats could do little else but watch and tacitly support the efforts of China diplomats … who fought to prevent further military action in China and further erosion of Gaimusho authority there. Their efforts failed; both war with China and the replacement of Gaimusho jurisdiction with that of new agencies continued throughout the height of the Pacific War.
This loss of control did not happen overnight. It began with challenges to Gaimusho authority following the Russo-Japanese War, continued throughout the 1910s, and was renewed with great force in the 1930s. The loss by Kasumigaseki diplomats of their roles in decisions about the administration of China affairs stemmed in part from their own lack of concentration on or attention to this significant sphere of their institution’s activities. Mid-ranking bureaucrats, such as the China service men, were vocal in their criticisms during such impasses as the Manchurian Incident and the aftermath of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, but their superiors were not quick to take heed.
The prewar period, then, witnessed a complex shifting of dominance among different policy advocates and among different institutions and branches of government. The Gaimusho’s rise and fall may be compared, for example, to the fluctuating power of the military forces or the rise and fall of party politics. As is often suggested, closer examination of interministry rivalry and shifting power balances across the individual bureaucracies might also reveal much more about the processes and the generally unstable patterns of the Japanese government. To label the 1930s and the war as “aberrant” ignores the systemic instability that seems to have plagued Japan from late Meiji times until the postwar period. The Anglo-American-oriented tradition in diplomacy was only one critical force among many influencing the processes of politics and foreign affairs in the prewar period.
Anglo-American-oriented bureaucrats and statesmen did return to prominence to mastermind Japan’s new cooperation in an American postwar order. Men such as postwar Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru did rely on the prewar Kasumigaseki tradition to bolster their pro-Anglo-American credentials and consolidate power in a time of American intervention in Japanese leadership processes. But circumstances had changed again, much to their advantage and not for indigenous reasons. Yoshida as postwar prime minister did exhibit some institutional loyalties to the Gaimusho. As Chalmers Johnson has described, Yoshida firmly opposed expansion of the power of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry over that of the Foreign Ministry, which still nominally controlled trade. His losing battle to maintain normal diplomatic relations with China in the face of American opposition must have been rooted, in part, in his 1920s experience as a China consul and in his belief, not directly derived from Kasumigaseki diplomacy, in the importance of the Sino-Japanese relationship.
Other orthodox Anglo-American-oriented diplomats who emerged in the postwar period as leaders included … Shigemitsu Mamoru. Shigemitsu, in a curious twist of fate, first received a sentence of seven years’ imprisonment as a Class A defendant in the Tokyo war crimes tribunal, only to be released early in 1950 to enter a life of politics, culminating in his return to the foreign ministership in the Hatoyama cabinets. Aside from Kasumigaseki credentials, these men all had their history of high rank and powerful connections to parlay into new prominence.
China service diplomats had neither of these qualifications. Their record of China service had never given them high position and connections, and during the 1931-1945 period they had remained active Foreign Ministry officials. Many, in fact, had served out the war in Asian posts and were liable to suspicion for their participation in Japanese wartime administrations…. China service men, however, played significant roles as witnesses in the Tokyo war crimes tribunal and helped fashion the prosecution’s interpretation that the Japanese military had primary responsibility for Japan’s expansionist policies…. They had, after all, been eyewitnesses to the abuses of the army in the field in China during the time of the Manchurian Incident and later. Their experiences reconstructing events at the war crimes trial may have motivated some … to immediately write memoirs reflecting this experience. Others … either recorded their experiences prior to the end of the war or later based them in good part on prewar and wartime diaries. In any event, a great many of them wrote to clarify the historical record about Japan’s actions in China, and these memoirs have proved invaluable as sources over the years. Aside from writing, however, China service diplomats seem to have ended their lives quietly in private, not public, capacities.
Finally, the Gaimusho never recovered its pre-1930 status among Japanese governmental agencies. Long after the war, of course, as a former aggressor, Japan had only a limited capacity to play a part in international affairs, and the Gaimusho had rather few posts abroad to fill. When Japan’s international relations opened up again, many of its international agencies and delegations were also economic in nature, promoting the well-known Japanese approach of “economic diplomacy” and giving authority to the more economic ministries. The truth, however, is that diplomatic bureaucracies worldwide have declined in proportion to the speed and ease of modern communications and travel. Today, summit meetings and hotline telephone communications put heads of government in constant touch. Consulates everywhere today are staffed by members of widely varying ministries from home who have their own direct links to host and home country.
The China consuls served in positions defined by a unique, unstable, and temporary system of prewar unequal treaties. Their ministry never quite took stock of the implications of the privileges of this office, nor did it fully recognize the invaluable experience of these diplomats. On both counts, the Japanese Foreign Ministry failed to respond, or when it did, response was too slow and too late. As other agencies of the Japanese government usurped the consular role in China, they also radically altered the nature of the treaty port consul to fit the coming time of war.