If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Japan in World War I

Sal describes Japan's role in World War I as an ally of Britain that seized German possessions in the Pacific and China, and participated in the first naval-based aerial assault. He also discusses Japan's failed attempt to include a racial equality clause in the League of Nations charter, and how Japan later became a major aggressor in World War II. He contrasts Japan's demand for equality with its own subjugation of other Asians. Created by Sal Khan.

Want to join the conversation?

  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user N Peterson
    Why was Japan on the side of the Allies in WWI, but not WWII?
    (73 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • hopper cool style avatar for user SZJia2010
      Japan had a big population in a few islands and also Japan relied on imports for things. To solve this they set out on a conquest for land to settle on and to have resources in the country of course they had to do this by force since it is not likely that other countries would just give land.
      (5 votes)
  • ohnoes default style avatar for user leotrikim
    Wasn't Japan able to use some of the land that was seceded from Germany In World War 1 to stage attacks against the Allies in World War 2?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf red style avatar for user Sviatoslav Yurash
      That is quite correct.
      Major Japanese naval and military bases were built on South Pacific Mandate (Former German Pacific colonies). They were used in most of the major battles on the Pacific front of WWII including attack on Pearl Harbor, Battles of Wake Island, etc.
      As for the Tsingtao, Japan returned it to to China in 1922 but subsequently re occupied it during most of the second Sino-Japanese war (Chinese Front of the WWII) .
      (7 votes)
  • old spice man green style avatar for user 19kellso
    What is Britain's "Splendid Isolation"?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Daenerys
      Splendid Isolation was the foreign policy pursued by Britain during the late 19th century, under the Conservative premierships of Benjamin Disraeli and The Marquess of Salisbury. The term was actually coined by a Canadian M.P. to praise Britain's lack of involvement in European affairs. There is much debate between historians over whether this policy was intentional or whether Britain simply became a victim of its surroundings.

      As descriptive of British foreign policy, the phrase was most famously used by Viscount George Goschen, First Lord of the Admiralty, during a speech at Lewes, England, on February 26, 1896, when he said: "We have stood here alone in what is called isolation -- our splendid isolation, as one of our colonial friends was good enough to call it." The phrase had appeared in a headline in The Times a few weeks earlier, on January 22, 1896, paraphrasing a comment by Canadian Finance Minister George Eulas Foster (1847-1931) to the Parliament of Canada on January 16, 1896: "In these somewhat troublesome days when the great Mother Empire stands splendidly isolated in Europe..."

      The ultimate origin of the phrase is suggested in Robert M. Hamilton's Canadian Quotations and Phrases: Literary and Historical (Hull, Que.: McClelland and Stewart, 1952), which places the Foster quotation beneath the following passage from the Introduction to Robert Cooney's Compendious History of New Brunswick, published in 1832: "Never did the 'Empress Island' appear so magnificently grand, -- she stood by herself, and there was a peculiar splendour in the loneliness of her glory." Foster began his career as an educator in New Brunswick,[1] where he would certainly have had access to Cooney's history. Thus, the elements of, and the sentiments underlying, the phrase appear to have originated in colonial New Brunswick during the reign of William IV, approximately 64 years before it became known as a catch-phrase for British foreign policy.
      (6 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user SingerSD
    Which Pacific islands did Japan seize from Germany?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • male robot donald style avatar for user J. Paterson
    Sal talks about the League of Nations did it have anything to do with the U.N?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Christian Laube
      The United Nations were established as a kind of succesor to the League of Nations after this organization had clearly failed to prevent World War II. but the idea behind both organizations was more or less the same to try to solve political problems between countries diplomatically rather than through war.
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Wei Keat Tan
    "We are not too proud to fight but we are too proud to accept a place of admitted inferiority in dealing with one or more of the associated nations. We want nothing but simple justice." - can I know who says this? And when he/she said it?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user abida1
    How did Japanese possession of some German territories improve Japan's economy?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • spunky sam green style avatar for user History Helper
      Japanese takeover of the German Pacific colonies was for military rather economical reasons. Japan during is imperial period expanded their influence in the Pacific by setting military bases on Pacific islands, exerting their control over the ocean through chains of military presence. But northern Papua New Guinea had mineral deposits such as gold, copper, and nickel.
      (4 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Smaranika Jana
    How did the Japanese become so powerfull in WW2 from little in WW1.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Massive changes were unleashed in Japan by the Meiji restoration - a period of radical modernisation - in 1868, and out of these emerged the desire for wealth, power and prestige as a way of redressing the imposition of unequal treaties that had been placed upon Japan by western powers in the past.

      Victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5 also gave Japan its first real foothold on the Asian continent, forcing China to recognise Korean 'independence' and cede Taiwan (Formosa) and the Liaotung peninsula.

      The Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the war, allowed Japan to dominate Korea ...

      However, France, Germany and Russia, in the 'triple intervention', protested that Japanese occupation of Liaotung would pose a constant threat to China, and they forced a deeply humiliated Japan to abandon the peninsula.

      Another effect of the war was to expose China's soft underbelly to the world, prompting the United States to formulate the Open Door Policy in 1899 in an attempt to prevent anti-competitive policies in China. But this didn't prevent the region from remaining one of fierce rivalries, with the US, Russia and Japan all involved, leading Japan to conclude an alliance with Britain in 1902 to counter Russian predominance in the region.

      Three years later Japan's victory in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War amazed the western world, and encouraged some Asian nationalists (those not directly threatened by Japanese expansion) to regard Japan as the region's natural leader. The Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the war, allowed Japan to dominate Korea and secure a new sphere of influence in south Manchuria. Maintaining and strengthening this position became a fundamental national commitment.

      The threat of still further Japanese expansion into China brought Japan into conflict with the US Open Door Policy but the so-called 'blood-debt' of the costly Russo-Japanese war made it difficult even for moderates in Japan to contemplate a return to the pre-war position, despite the pressure to do so from America.
      (5 votes)
  • aqualine seed style avatar for user Kabir
    what caused the japanese to side with the axis powers in WW 2?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • old spice man green style avatar for user kaveen
    why did Japan bomb pearl harbor during WWII. weren't they allies
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • mr pants teal style avatar for user SamZappiter1092
      The Japanese, who were looking for a quick victory over the americans began thinking about a deliberate strike to take the U.S navy. Plans for this attack actually appeared before the 40s: Japanese pilots began constructing plans and the scenario that Japan might go to war with the U.S was a game that the Japanese admirals all played( strategies and simulations on the possible event.) HOwever it was actually Admiral Yamamoto who really started molding and forming the idea that Pearl Harbor could be a valid target. BUt before one looks at all the facts, one must judge what he or she woud've done. Japan in the 30s was suffering with a lack of raw materials. Japan was also struggling to keep up with all the western nations. the only choices would've been to attack Pearl harbor or to continue to suffer from a lack of raw materials. in that case attacking Pearl Harbor might have made sense. Pearl harbor is also( i think) unfairly compared to the Atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When the IJN air force attacked Pearl harbor they didn't attack and kill a lot of innocent civilians like the atom bomb. in that way they cannot be compared in terms of the scale of the weapons used and how many people died.
      (6 votes)

Video transcript

Japan was not a major actor in World War I, but it did play a role. Right as war broke out in August of 1914, the Japanese were interested in taking control of German possessions. And they were already allies with the British, so they communicated with the British, and they came to an agreement that if Japan were to attack German possessions in the Pacific and in China, then Japan could take control of them. And so Japan proceeded to do this. In particular, it took a siege of Tsingtao, which we already talked about, was a German possession. These are Japanese boats landing there, Japanese troops. And this was actually of technological significance. It was the first time that you had a naval-based aerial assault. This wasn't really using what we would consider aircraft carriers, although they did carry the aircraft. But they would place them into the water, and then the aircraft would take off from the water as they tried to take the town of Tsingtao, which they were eventually able to do by the end of 1914. On top of that, they were able to take control of many of Germany's other possessions in the Pacific, specifically the Pacific Islands. And on top of that, Japan did send some aspects, or some parts of its navy, to help protect Allied fleets as far away as the Mediterranean. So Japan did play a role here. The other interesting historical note, because of Japan's involvement in World War I, is what came out of the negotiations. First of all, by being involved, it kind of put Japan at the seat of major powers. And as we'll see, in World War II, Japan ends up being one of the major players in World War II, and it's essentially going on the other side by that point. But because of its help of the Allies, Japan does have a seat at the table at the Paris Peace Conference. And as they are negotiating the Treaty of Versailles and coming up with the League of Nations, Japan is eager to kind of have an equal footing with all of the other European powers. And so it attempts to place this in the charter for the League of Nations. "The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord as soon as possible to all alien nationals of states, members of the League, equal and just treatment in every respect"-- let me underline that-- "equal and just treatment in every respect, making no distinction either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality." Essentially the Japanese were saying, hey, look, you Europeans, you guys have to view us and-- based on the way this is phrased-- other people as equals. Just to get a sense of what the world was like then, this was not passed. Even though the League of Nations was the product of these very idealistic thoughts by Woodrow Wilson, it did not get passed. Obviously the British, they had subjugated many people in their empires. Woodrow Wilson was afraid that if this were to be included in the League of Nations, it would have trouble passing-- getting ratified in the segregated South. We now know later that the League of Nations wasn't ratified anyway. And so this essentially does not happen. And even the Japanese themselves, they were eager for equality for themselves. But as we'll see as we enter into World War II, they themselves had a sense of racial superiority and they subjugated many of the other people in Asia, especially the Chinese and the Koreans. This is an interesting quote from the Chinese delegation. "We are not too proud to fight but we are too proud to accept a place of admitted inferiority in dealing with one or more of the associated nations. We want nothing but simple justice." So it tells you how different the world was. This is not even 100 years ago. And the real relevance of World War I for Japan was it elevated it to becoming one of the powers of the world.