Matsuoka diplomacy is ultimately nothing but schemes
As it was Yosuke Matsuoka who took the leading role in Japan’s diplomacy in the Tripartite Alliance, it is important to examine his actions carefully. After a showy performance as a chief delegate when Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933, he became the president of the Japanese-owned South Manchurian Railway in 1935. Matsuoka came under intense pressure from Fumimaro Konoe to take the post of foreign minister in Konoe’s second Cabinet inaugurated on July 22, 1940.
Koichi Kido was one of many who were close to Konoe who opposed Matsuoka’s appointment, and the Emperor repeatedly pressed Konoe to reconsider.” Konoe is said to have insisted on appointing Matsuoka because Konoe’s “vision on an international order” presented in his own essay titled “Rejecting Anglo-American Centered Quest of Peace” had points in common with Matsuoka’s diplomatic policies and way of thinking.
On July 19, immediately after he received an Imperial mandate to form a new cabinet, Konoe invited Hideki Tojo and Zengo Yoshida, who were to be appointed as War Minister and Navy Minister, respectively, to his private residence Tekigaiso where they agreed that they would reinforce the Axis of Japan, Germany and Italy.
During a press conference on August 1, Matsuoka said he would “aim at establishing the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere,” while making clear the sphere included French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies. On the same day, he made a tentative overture to German Ambassador to Japan Eugen Ott on reinforcing cooperative ties between Japan and Germany.
What was going through Matsuoka’s mind at this time? Matsuoka’s plan was not only to “counter U.S. pressure in East Asia” with the Tripartite Pact but also “for Japan and Germany to mutually approve the construction of a new order” in the East and the West. In order to realize this idea, it was necessary to win the approval of the Soviet Union which threatened regional security. Matsuoka thought Germany could act as a go-between in this effort. It was in this direction that Matsuoka took his diplomacy.
According to Matsuoka’s secretary Toshikazu Kase, Matsuoka told him confidently that “There is no other way but to make a breakthrough in the current phase of the Tripartite Alliance. But the ultimate aim is to coordinate Japan-U.S. relations. See how it turns out.” To Yoshie Saito, a Foreign Ministry adviser and close aide, Matsuoka said, “The true partner [for Japan] for the moment is not Germany but the Soviet Union. To shake hands with Germany is only the means for Japan to shake hands with the Soviet Union...If we could win Germany and the Soviet Union to our side, there is no way for either the United States or Britain to think of starting a war with Japan.”
Matsuoka tried to reach a breakthrough in Japan-U.S. relations by realizing a four-nation entente of Japan, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union squaring off against Britain and the United States, thus pursuing a balance of power approach. For Matsuoka, the Tripartite Alliance was a means to bring about a reconciliation with the United States.
Matsuoka hastened the negotiations over the conclusion of the alliance. On September 27, 1940, he had Japan conclude the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. Under the treaty, the three countries approved the notion of Japan assuming a leading role in the construction of a new order in Greater East Asia, the same role as that of Italy and Germany in Europe. In addition, the treaty stipulated mutual assistance among the three when any of the three countries was attacked. In effect, it was a military alliance opposed to the United States.
How did the Navy respond? At a meeting of top officers of the Navy, on the eve of the conclusion of the treaty, Navy Minister Koshiro Oikawa approved it on the grounds that “we cannot assume responsibility for a breakdown of the Cabinet” while Prince Fushimi, as Chief of the Naval General Staff, said “As things stand now, there is no other choice.” Thus the Navy no longer opposed the conclusion of the treaty.
When Prime Minister Konoe visited the Imperial Palace, Emperor Showa expressed his worry about the future of the nation by saying, “[Our nation] could be placed under a serious predicament and darkness. Are you prepared for that?” When President of the Privy Council Yoshimichi Hara expressed his concerns at a September 19 meeting attended by the Emperor as to how the United States would respond, Matsuoka, while strongly rebuffing such concerns, said, “There is a 50-50 chance—the United States will either harden its stance, thus making the situation worse, or it will undertake a level-headed self-examination.”
Matsuoka’s diplomacy was built on such dangerous gambles. As had been anticipated, on September 26 the United States announced a trade embargo on Japan’s massive purchases of scrap iron necessary for the production of arms. The realization of Matsuoka’s plan now became all the more dependent on the outcome of coordination of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.
In spring 1941, Matsuoka set out on a trip to Europe. After stopping in Moscow, he met with Hitler in Berlin and with Mussolini in Rome. Matsuoka sensed that war between Germany and the Soviet Union was imminent, yet he made another visit to Moscow and concluded the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact with Stalin on April 13. On June 22, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, thus dashing hopes of cooperation among Japan, Germany and the Soviet Union, which was a precondition for Matsuoka’s plan. Matsuoka’s scheme had collapsed.
With this development, the basis of the conflict between Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union on the one hand, and Japan, Germany and Italy on the other was established. In the end, the neutrality pact marked a “great success for the Soviet Union, with its grand strategy of having Japan fight against the United States and Britain, in the context of the ever-tougher situation in its bilateral relations with Germany.”
Matsuoka became increasingly involved with the bilateral negotiations between Japan and the United States in the following months and with the arguments over Japan’s “southward and northward advances.”