Why Did the Japanese & Germans Form an Alliance in WWII?

L:Japanese ambassador Kintomo Mushakoji and foreign minister of Nazi Germany Joachim von Ribbentrop sign the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936.R: Matsuoka with Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel (centre) and ambassador Heinrich Georg Stahmer (right) at a reception in the Japanese embassy in Berlin on 29 March 1941 Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B01910 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Alliances during a war can change the outcome, but the alliance between Japan and Germany is one that baffles many people. Most people can understand why Japan went to war with America, but why did the Imperial nation join forces with Nazi Germany? To understand the Tripartite Pact which created the Axis Powers, a look further back in history is needed.

Both Germany and Imperial Japan arrived on the international stage in the mid-1800s. Japan was forced out of isolation and started rapid westernization in 1854. Germany had been a number of city-states before Prussia won the Franco-Prussian war and united all of them in 1871.

Before Germany became a country of its own, Prussia and a newly open Japan had a very friendly relationship. Prussia had been going through a modernization effort with the speed and efficiency that the Germans are known for. This led Japan to view them as a good role model, as Japan wanted to modernize in a similarly effective manner.

A Japanese lithograph depicting Japan’s troops attacking the German colony of Tsingtao in 1914

To this end, Japan hired many Prussian and German advisors to help them with modernization. These advisors brought the militaristic approach to modernization which worked in Prussia, and later Germany, to Japan.

However, this cozy relationship ended when both nations decided to follow the other major powers and look for colonies.

Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold contributed greatly to Europe’s perception of it.

The problem that Germany faced with its colonization efforts was the fact that the Age of Exploration was coming to an end.

The other major powers of the time had been colonizing the world for years, so all the areas Germany would have considered first were already colonized. This led Germany to turn east and start colonizing different areas of Asia.

As German ambassador in Tokyo from 1920 to 1928, Wilhelm Solf initiated the re-establishment of good German–Japanese relations. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R73059 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

At the same time, Japan was also looking for colonies and saw their best options in East Asia. This was the same area the Germans were operating in and led to a cooling of the relationship between these nations.

Japan also started to become friendly with Great Britain at this time, which would affect the relationship between Japan and Germany during World War I.

Anglo-Japanese Alliance, 30 January 1902. Diplomatic Record Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Japan). Photo by World Imaging CC BY-SA 3.0

When WWI broke out in 1914, Japan allied with Britain. After the Allies won the war, Japan was quick to take over the former German colonies in Asia.

While this would normally sour relationships between countries, Japan and Germany’s friendship would reignite in the post-WWI world.

Rear Admiral Jisaku Uozumi signs the surrender of Penang aboard the battleship HMS Nelson on 2 September 1945. He fainted shortly afterwards and was rushed to hospital. Note the Distinguished Service Cross ribbon on Uozumi’s uniform, which he had earned from the British during the alliance

After the war, Germany was not in a good place and was forced to sign an incredibly harsh treaty by the Allied Powers. This led to the crash of the government and economy as well as the rise of the Nazi Party.

In addition, the newly formed League of Nations was unpopular in Germany, and Japan was not a fan of it either.

The official opening of the League of Nations, 15 November 1920

The League of Nations was not very fair to Japan. Japan would often be punished by the league for its actions against its neighbors.

This sowed the seeds of discontent because the leaders of the League, France and Great Britain, often conducted the same actions against their own colonies. This hypocrisy would lead to Japan withdrawing from the League of Nations.

“Good friends in three countries”: Japanese propaganda poster from 1938 promoting the cooperation between Japan, Germany and Italy

As the Nazi Party gained power, Hitler created strong ties with China. However, he changed course and started to view Japan as a more strategic partner in Asia.

For its part, Japan wanted to continue expanding, and saw rebuilding its relationship with Germany as beneficial to this goal.

Japanese foreign minister Yōsuke Matsuoka visits Adolf Hitler in Berlin in late March 1941.

The renewed relationship between Japan and Germany was still fragile when WWII broke out. In the early stages of the war, Japan was strongly allied with Germany, but not involved militarily in the war.

Their relationship was one of mutual benefit rather than a complete alliance, since Japan was more focused on exerting its influence in East Asia.

Adolf Hitler declares war on the United States on 11 December 1941 in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0703-507 / unbekannt / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The true alliance of Japan and Germany would only come about when Japan entered the war. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and other American bases, it led to America declaring war on the Imperial nation.

In response, Germany declared war on America, and thus further strengthened their relationship with Japan. The Tripartite Pact created the Axis Powers, allying Germany, Japan, Italy and a number of smaller countries.

The I-8 arriving in Brest, France, in 1943, on a “Yanagi” mission to exchange material and personnel with Nazi Germany

Read another story from us: How Japanese Messages Told the Allies Hitlers Plans

The alliance between Japan and Germany during WWII may seem strange and an odd pairing which did not yield much in terms of results.

However, this alliance can be traced back to the forming of Germany and the end of isolation of Japan. While the alliance did not yield the results wanted during the war, it did bring other benefits to both countries.

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