Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact

This Article

THE ROAD TO THE GREATER EAST ASIAN WAR NAKAMURA AKIRA PART 17: CHAPTER 5 : Japan and world war i : 1 A re-examination of the Twenty-One Demands

By Nakamura Akira,

chapter 5: Japan and world war i
A re-examination of the Twenty-One Demands
Japan finally enters the war
On June 28, 1914, during a visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife were assassinated by a Serbian youth. That incident caused the already tense situation in the Balkan peninsula to worsen, and on July 28 Austria declared war on Serbia. On August 1 Germany declared war on Russia. France and Britain soon declared war on Germany. Europe was now enveloped in the dark clouds of conflict: World War I had broken out.

On August 4 Britain declared war on Germany. On the same day William Conyngham Greene, British ambassador to Japan, called on Foreign Minister Katō Takaaki, to explain how Britain would handle the European war in the context of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, adding that “if the fighting should extend to the Far East, and an assault on Hong Kong and Weihaiwei were to occur, His Majesty’s government would rely on the support of the Imperial government.” Also on August 4, the Japanese government announced that it would observe strict neutrality, but if the object of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance should become endangered, Japan would take the necessary measures to fulfill its obligations thereto, at the same time expressing the fervent hope that Japanese participation would not be necessary.

Still on the same day, in Britain, Foreign Secretary Edward Grey summoned Japanese Ambassador Inoue Katsunosuke, and told him that His Majesty’s government “was deeply grateful to the Japanese Government for their generous offer of assistance.” Grey added that since France had aided the Russian fleet during the Russo-Japanese War, Japan was entitled to ask the UK for assistance, given the terms of the alliance, but Japan did not do so. This was indeed a “generous attitude” that demonstrated sincerity and self-restraint, and it encouraged the UK to avoid causing trouble for Japan. However, in the event that Japan’s aid became necessary, “His Majesty’s Government would gladly avail themselves of Japanese assistance.”

Subsequently a formal request emanated from the UK, asking the Japanese government “to employ some of their warships in hunting out and destroying German armed merchantmen in China” to protect British commercial vessels. There were minor inconsistencies in the British and Japanese perceptions of exactly what Japan’s sphere of action would be, but on August 15, Japan sent an ultimatum of the following nature to Germany:

Withdraw German men-of-war and armed vessels of all kinds immediately from the Japanese and Chinese waters, and disarm at once those which cannot be so withdrawn.
On a date not later than September 15th, 1914, deliver the entire leased territory of Kiao-chou [Jiaozhou] to the Imperial Japanese Authorities, without condition of compensation, with a view to eventual restoration of same to China.

Japan had no desire to become involved in the war. However, on August 23, when one week had passed (an unprecedently generous deadline for a reply to an ultimatum) and no reply had been forthcoming, Japan declared war on Germany.

Japanese troops wasted no time launching an offensive on Qingdao, and by early November had taken possession of all railways in Shandong province: Jiaozhou Bay, Qingdao, and Jiaoji (Jiaozhou to Jinan). Meanwhile, in mid-October, the Japanese Navy seized German possessions north of the equator in the Pacific Ocean.
Japan refuses to send troops to Europe
Beginning in the autumn of 1914, after Japan joined the war against Germany, requests emanating from Britain, France, and Russia for the deployment of Japanese troops to Europe were received. Japan turned down these requests. When a second request emanated from Britain, Foreign Minister Katō sent a resolute refusal, stating that the Imperial army’s “sole object is national defence. The dispatch of the Imperial army far away from home for purpose other than those partaking of the nature of national defence is therefore incompatible with the fundamental principle of its system….”

Additionally, Japan received appeals from Belgium, France, and Serbia to send army units to Europe, but rejected each and every one of them.

When the aforementioned requests were made, Britain came forth with an offer to assist with the cost of dispatching troops, and with the opinion that by dispatching those troops Japan should certainly have an important, active role in postwar Allied conferences. Nevertheless, Japan responded in the negative.

Within the same time frame, on September 2, Britain asked Japan to dispatch a fleet to the Mediterranean Sea, but the Japanese government replied that the Navy’s purpose was to defend Japan from foreign invaders, and that Japan did not have the reserves for an overseas campaign. On November 15 Britain asked Japan, once again, to send a fleet to the Dardanelles to join with the British fleet in blockading the German and Turkish fleets. On that occasion Britain offered to assist with repairs necessitated by damage to Japanese ships, and to furnish fuel and munitions at no cost to Japan. But the Japanese, citing the same reasons as before, said no, explaining that dispatching a Japanese fleet to Europe would weaken Japan’s defenses, and that the presence of the main fleet in Japanese waters was indispensable to keeping the peace in the Far East. However, the activity of German warships intensified, and in January 1917 Britain again requested the deployment of Japanese warships to the Mediterranean Sea. After lengthy negotiations, Japan acquiesced, and dispatched a torpedo squadron comprising a cruiser and eight destroyers in early February.

Incidentally, in February 1917, Germany announced that it would engage in unrestricted submarine warfare, and true to its word, did exactly that, causing severe damage to Allied vessels. Many Japanese passenger ships sailing to and from Europe were attacked and sunk in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Although the Japanese had refused to dispatch a fleet to the Mediterranean, they were forced to change their stance when confronted with that situation. However, the Ōkuma Cabinet (1914-16) had already refused to dispatch a fleet. For the Terauchi Cabinet (1916-18) to overturn that decision, it needed assurance of British support for Japanese claims on Shandong and German possessions north of the equator in the Pacific. When the Japanese government queried Britain, it received a reply, on February 16, stating that His Majesty’s government would willingly support those claims.

I hope that my brief description of the reasons behind Japan’s entrance into the First World War will help readers understand that Japanese participation in that conflict was not motivated by malicious or self-serving intentions, as the following account in a Japanese high school textbook would have us believe:

The [Japanese government] declared war against Germany, believing that an ideal opportunity had arrived that would permit Japan to expand its influence in Asia, on the strength of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.

The truth is that our government opted to enter the war only after carefully considering multiple factors: appeals from the Allies, friendship and treaties with other nations, the underlying principles of Japan’s armed forces, the unfolding of the war situation, and national interests. There was certainly no unscrupulous underlying motive.
The Twenty-One Demands in context
During World War I, Sino-Japanese relations were complicated by what are referred to as the Twenty-One Demands, which are considered by some to be a synonym for aggression against China. An account in the aforementioned textbook describes them as follows:

In 1915 Japan forced the Twenty-One Demands on the Yuan Shikai government. These constituted a significant infringement of Chinese sovereignty and were greeted by vehement opposition from China. The US attempted to rein Japan in, but Japan removed only a portion of the demands, issued an ultimatum, and forced the Chinese to accept them.

Accounts on this topic in other Japanese history textbooks, without exception, are similar in content and message. But is it really possible to condemn Japan because of the Twenty-One Demands? The aforementioned American historian Griswold offers his opinion on this matter, which thoroughly explains Japan’s reasons for presenting the Twenty-One Demands and their historical background.

Japan had been making great strides toward wealth and power since her war with Russia. But she had by no means reached the objectives the attainment of which she believed her geographical situation made imperative. The position in Korea, southern Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia that she had wrested from Russia and fortified with the sundry political instruments already discussed had enhanced her sense of security, yet left it far from complete. Russia herself, though bound to Japan by various treaties, was still a menace to the north. England and the United States caused her further uneasiness. The Knox neutralization scheme and the Chinchow [Jinzhou]-Aigun project had threatened the foundations of her special position north of the Great Wall. South of it, in China proper, she had experienced the same difficulty in forcing her way into the thicket of Europeans rights and privileges as had the United States.


In China proper lay the raw materials and natural resources which, for Europe, were profitable speculations, but for Japan were the lifeblood of existence … [Japan] had not attained her goal; she was fearful of losing what she had, and this because of the competitive imperialism of Western nations, thousands of miles away, to which China was of infinitely less political and economic significance than to Japan. Now that these Western nations were preoccupied with the war, Japan would adjust the situation. Since 1895, when France, Russia and Germany had forced her to return the Liaotung [Liaodong] Peninsula to China, Western interventionists had repeatedly thwarted Japan in her pursuit of what, to her, was not only a just but vitally essential policy. This time she would profit by experience. She would strengthen her foothold in Manchuria and Mongolia, and make that in Shantung [Shandong] secure enough to withstand another Triple Intervention. She would establish access to China’s raw materials, to the financial, industrial and commercial privileges which she considered indispensable to her existence as a modern industrialized state, and for which she had been too poor, financially, to compete with Europe. Because she had not been able to accomplish these ends by economic means, she would do so by political. Finally, she would make the contract so binding that it could not be broken on European council tables once the war freed Europe’s attention. Such, briefly, was the origin of the Twenty-One Demands.
Were the Twenty-One Demands unreasonable?
In January 1915 Hioki Eki, Japanese ambassador to the nascent Republic of China, under orders from Foreign Minister Katō, presented the Twenty-One Demands to President Yuan Shikai. A summary follows.

Group I: Four articles whereby the Japanese government demands that the Chinese government agree in advance to Japan’s disposition of former German interests in Shandong province.

Group II: Seven articles demanding: a 99-year extension of the leases on Port Arthur and Dalian, as well as on the South Manchurian and Anfeng (Andong-Mukden) railways; permission for Japanese nationals to reside, travel, and conduct business in South Manchuria and Eastern Inner Mongolia; the consent of the Japanese government when a railway is to be built or the Chinese government employs advisers, to be obtained in advance.

Group III: Two articles demanding that the Hanyeping Co. be made a joint Japanese-Chinese concern when the opportune moment arrives.

Group IV: One article demanding that the Chinese government neither cede nor lease any harbor, bay, or island along the coast of China to a third power.

Group V: Seven articles (these were desiderata, not demands) that were alleged to infringe upon Chinese sovereignty: (Article 1) a request that the Chinese government employ Japanese political and military advisers; (Article 2) a request that Japanese hospitals, temples, and schools be given the right to own land; (Article 3) a request that joint Japanese-Chinese police forces be established in certain areas, if necessary; (Article 4) a request that China purchase a fixed amount of weapons from Japan or establish a Japanese-Chinese jointly operated arsenal; (Article 5) a request that railway construction rights in South China be granted to Japan; (Article 6) a request that priority be given to Japan concerning the construction or working of railways, mines, and harbors in Fujian province; (Article 7) a request that Japanese subjects be granted the right to do missionary work in China.

Thus, there were 14 demands; again, the five articles in Group V were desiderata. The term “Twenty-One Demands” itself was a Chinese construction — an exaggeration designed, for propaganda purposes, to have a negative effect — and it certainly was misinterpreted.

Were the so-called Twenty-One Demands in fact unreasonable? I will now investigate two or three of them in depth.

For instance, let us have a look at Group II, which concerns Manchuria and Mongolia. There is nothing remarkable about extending the term of lease for concessions in Port Arthur and Dalian, or for the South Manchuria Railway, for 99 years. Remember that when Britain leased Hong Kong from China, the term was 99 years. The Chinese objected to allowing Japanese citizens to reside, engage in business, and own land in Manchuria and Mongolia, saying that as long as Japanese nations enjoyed extraterritoriality there, they may as well have colonized those areas. Perhaps the Chinese had a point there, but China had already granted special rights of the same sort in Outer Mongolia to Russia, so this argument was hardly persuasive.

An examination of Group III, which relates to the Hanyeping Ironworks, tells us that this was not a new demand. It was based on a longstanding relationship between the ironworks and Japan. Zhang Zhidong, the Viceroy of Huguang, established the enterprise in Hanyang in 1892. It had started out with iron mines in Daye, and then the ironworks was established. Later, entrepreneur and politician Sheng Xuanhuai took over the business. In 1896, the year after the 1st Sino-Japanese War ended, he combined three entities: the Hanyang Arsenal, the Daye iron mines, and the Pingxiang colliery to form Hanyeping Ironworks. Also in 1896, the Yahata Steel Works was founded in Japan. Because iron ore is scarce in Japan, the Japanese signed a contract with Hanyeping in 1899 for the importation of iron ore to Japan and the export of the same amount of coal to China. Since Germany plotted to obstruct Japanese interests after the Boxer Rebellion, Japan lent ¥3 million to Hanyeping in 1904, and with the Daye Iron Mine as collateral, extracted a promise not to sell that collateral to any other nation for a period of 60 years. This arrangement permitted Japan to fulfill the huge demand for iron ore during the Russo-Japanese War. When the 1911 (Xinhai) Revolution broke out, revolutionary forces attempted to confiscate Hanyeping. Sheng Xuanhuai attempted to avoid confiscation by paying CN¥ 2 million, asking Japan for help in raising the money. Japan agreed, provided that Hanyeping be made a joint Sino-Japanese venture. A provisional merger contract was drawn up. The relationship between Japan and Hanyeping was strengthened, but China was leaning toward nationalizing the firm. Hanyeping, which was of life-and-death importance to Japan, was now in a precarious position. This situation prompted the submission of Group II, whose articles were not at all sudden new demands.
Group V desiderata did not infringe upon Chinese sovereignty
There was considerable background behind and reasons for the desiderata in Group V, for which Japan was accused of infringing upon Chinese sovereignty. For instance, the reference to Fukien [Fujian] in Article 6 is related to the demand concerning harbors, bays, and islands along the coast of China in Group IV.

The historical background: In 1898, when the Western powers divided up China, Japan and China signed a diplomatic note stating that China would not cede Fujian province to any other nation. However, in December 1900 the US was contemplating establishing a concession at Sansha Bay, located on the coast of that province. Japan objected, stating that such an enterprise would violate an agreement concluded between Japan and China, and also conflict with the objective of maintaining territorial integrity in China, which the US had advocated. Moreover, this would be an attempt to violate Chinese sovereignty coming in the face of American arguments against doing exactly that. Consequently, the US abandoned that scheme.

However, according to political scientist Takagi Yasaka, that incident was recorded in 1915, but accounts pertaining to it were not published until 1924., Therefore, in 1915, when the Twenty-One Demands were the target of international scrutiny, the world knew nothing of the Sansha Bay concession scheme. Japanese aspirations in and requests pertaining to Fujian province were condemned unilaterally because the world was totally ignorant of the historical background. This is one example that demonstrates that the criticism of the Twenty-One Demands was unfair.

Another example: in mid-March 1915 during negotiations pertaining to the Twenty-One Demands, Sun Yat-Sen, one of the leaders of the Chinese revolution, sent a note to Koike Chōzō, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Political Affairs Bureau. In it Sun proposed a Japan-China covenant that would include the following terms: (1) to facilitate joint Japan-China operations, Chinese weapons would be manufactured to match the gauge of Japanese weapons, (2) when the Chinese military or government planned to employ foreigners, Japanese would be given priority, and (3) Japan would be consulted in advance when foreign capital was needed or a merger was planned for mines, railways, or coastal routes. Surprisingly, Sun’s alliance proposal was almost identical to portions of the Twenty-One Demands (Group II, Group III, and Articles 4, 5, and 6 of Group V), in connection with which Japan was criticized for infringing upon Chinese sovereignty. Sun Yat-sen’s proposal demonstrates that his aspirations were almost exactly the same as Japan’s demands and desiderata. The fact that the Twenty-One Demands, despite the amount of censure they received from China and elsewhere, actually matched Chinese preferences renders meaningless the vast majority of disparagement Japan was subjected to for presenting the Twenty-One Demands.
Asahi Shinbun: “Chinese locutions are offensive”
Negotiations between Japan and China over the Twenty-One Demands persisted for four months; the long, drawn-out process included 25 meetings, if one counts only official sessions. During that time Japan acceded to Chinese wishes, withdrawing some of the demands. Revision after revision was made, but still no agreement could be reached. Ultimately Group V was deleted with the proviso that negotiations concerning it would be held at a later date. The matter was settled by incorporating the remaining 16 articles into an ultimatum that China was pressed to accept. The fact that an ultimatum was issued gives the impression that force was involved, but today we are certain beyond a reasonable doubt that Yuan Shikai himself asked that it be issued.

Furthermore, I should mention that another factor instrumental in the ultimatum’s issuance was uncompromisingly inflexible public opinion, and here journalists must accept some responsibility. Newspaper editorials came out with language like “Give them a deadline!” and “China is to blame!” (Tokyo Asahi Shinbun, 01 May and 04 May), “An ultimatum is inevitable!” (Tokyo Nichinichi Shinbun, 04 May), “An ultimatum must be the next step” (Jiji Shinpō, 05 May). The 05 May edition of the Tokyo Asahi Shinbun went as far to censure China, calling the language in the Chinese government’s final reply “exceedingly offensive,” and said that the “Empire’s demands must be met, representing as they do, a grand 100-year plan for East Asia.” Even progressive politician Yoshino Sakuzō concluded that “at this point we have no choice but to issue an ultimatum.” We must be mindful that these opinions were the predominating ones at that time.
How the Twenty-One Demands were distorted
China formally accepted the ultimatum issued by Japan, and the negotiations came to an end. A treaty between Japan and China including 16 articles came into being and was signed and sealed on May 25, 1915 (the Sino-Japanese Treaty of 1915). I would now like to address a few of the repercussions engendered by that treaty.

On May 11, US Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan sent a notification to both Japan and China; it read, in part, as follows:

[T]he Government of the United States has the honor to notify the Imperial Japanese Government that it cannot recognize any agreement or undertaking which has been entered into or which may be entered into between the Governments of Japan and China, impairing … the political or territorial integrity of the Republic of China, or the international policy relative to China commonly known as the open door policy.

This was the harbinger of US Far Eastern policy informed by the open door policy, which later achieved fame as the “nonrecognition policy.” Bryan’s nonrecognition reflex was eventually embraced by Secretary of State Henry Stimson, in his nonrecognition of the Manchurian Incident, when it became even more widely known. Later, during negotiations between Japan and the US, after the 2nd Sino-Japanese War began, it morphed into Secretary Cordell Hull’s rigid “respect for principles,” which severely harmed Japan-US relations and ultimately provoked war between Japan and the US. From this standpoint it is safe to conclude that Bryan’s announced nonrecognition of the Twenty-One Demands was a crucial step in the process leading to the Greater East Asian War.

Now I would like to point out how China’s extremely exaggerated, distorted version of the Twenty-One Demands, publicized at home and abroad, created needless misunderstanding. Chinese repudiation of the Twenty-One Demands subsequently became the main theme of the anti-Japanese movement. The most influential organization in that movement was the All-Hubei Society for Commercial and Diplomatic Affairs.

A pamphlet issued by that organization, claiming to be an explanation of the Twenty-One Demands, made the following claims about them.

China shall cede police and administrative authority in South Manchuria to Japan.
All instructors of Chinese army and navy personnel shall be Japanese.
The Japanese language shall be taught in all Chinese schools.
In the event of insurrections in China, China shall ask Japan for military support, and Japan shall maintain public order in China.
China shall cede all oil interests.
Japanese nationals shall have the right to engage in business anywhere in China.

All of the above were fictitious “demands” that had no connection to the actual Twenty-One Demands. Publicizing these fabrications further aggravated the problem.

The situation grew even worse when Paul Reinsch, US ambassador to China, became involved. Reinsch was known for wearing two hats: pro-Chinese and anti-Japanese, he was both an official representative of the US Department of State and an unofficial advisor to the Chinese government. Historian Charles Tansill had the following to say about Reinsch:

In connection with [the Twenty-One Demands] the American Minister at Peking, Paul Reinsch, sent to the Department of State a series of dispatches so critical in tone that they helped to create in American minds a fixation of Japanese wickedness that made eventual war a probability. This probability was increased when Secretary Bryan (May 11, 1915) sent to Tokyo a nonrecognition note that was later exhumed from the old files of State Department correspondence by Secretary Stimson and fashioned into a hand grenade that shattered all hope of peaceful relations between Japan and the United States.
Eventual fate of the Twenty-One Demands
With the conclusion of the 1915 treaty, the matter of the Twenty-One Demands was considered settled. But what was the eventual fate of the individual demands? The Chinese claimed that the treaty was forced upon them, and that they were not exercising free will when they signed it. They insisted that it be declared null and void. They deliberately failed to adhere to its terms, and in 1923 the Chinese National Assembly passed a resolution abrogating the treaty.

If it were possible to abrogate a treaty on the grounds that it was signed under some pressure, most of the world’s treaties would immediately be revoked. For instance, the Treaty of Peking signed after the 1st Sino-Japanese War was, in fact, a consequence of the Triple Intervention. Suppose the Japanese had espoused the same logic employed by the Chinese. They could have insisted that the Treaty of Peking was forced upon them, declared it null and void, and claimed the right to take permanent possession of the Liaodong peninsula. Then there would have been absolutely no need to extend the leases in Southern Manchuria and Eastern Inner Mongolia (Group II of the Twenty-One Demands). But would the Chinese consent to such a position? Furthermore, the Germans could have made the same claim about the Treaty of Versailles. As could the Japanese with respect to the Potsdam Declaration, which followed the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. In the first place, China’s logic was patently self-serving. In the second place, the Japanese were not guilty of suppressing Chinese free will. Remember that the treaty the Chinese found so objectionable was the product of a full four months of diplomatic negotiations.

What is surprising is that soon after the conclusion of the Sino-Japanese Treaty, in June of 1915, China issued a decree ordering the punishment of traitors. According to the draconian decree, the definition of a traitor was anyone who leased land to a Japanese; traitors were to be summarily executed, without the benefit of a trial. Of course, the intent here was to prevent Japanese from acquiring land. At about the same time, the Chinese secretly distributed a handbook to civil servants in South Manchuria, instructing them to obstruct land lease transactions that involved Japanese. Therefore, land leases in South Manchuria that should have been finalized the moment the treaty was signed, now disappeared into thin air. That a government could use a decree issued at the very moment an international treaty had been concluded to obstruct its implementation was an act of betrayal without precedent anywhere in the world. As a result, China infringed on every right the Japanese had acquired through the treaty in South Manchuria and East Inner Mongolia. This action strained and exponentially worsened the relationship between Japan and China in Manchuria, and became one of the primary causes of the Manchurian Incident.

As I stated earlier, in the end only 16 of the 21 demands were presented to China. These were incorporated into the June 1915 treaty, but at the Washington Naval Conference in 1922 Japan returned Shandong province to China, and retracted its preferential rights pertaining to railways in Manchuria and Mongolia, and the hiring of advisors. Every single one of the desiderata in Group V, which had been tabled for future discussion, was withdrawn. Consequently, in 1922, when the Washington Conference ended, most of the original demands had lapsed, and only 10, which had survived in the treaty, remained. Even they came to naught, caught in the maelstrom of China’s vicious anti-Japanese campaign.