320 Note by Mr S. M. Bruce, High Commissioner in London, of Conversation with Mr M. Shigemitsu, Japanese Ambassador to the United Kingdom

LONDON, 25 February 1941

I had a long talk with the Japanese Ambassador. The Meeting was the result of the attached letter [1] from the Ambassador asking me to lunch with him, to which I had to reply I could not do that, but suggesting I would come and have tea with him.

The Ambassador opened the conversation by speaking at considerable length on the subject of Anglo-Japanese relations. He told me he was most surprised at Eden's attitude at their meeting on February 7th. He said there was no justification for the suggestion that any action hostile to the British Empire had been taken by Japan, and in particular said there was no truth whatever in the suggestion that there had been any Japanese naval concentrations.

He dealt with various other suggestions that had been made of Japanese hostility and stressed very strongly that this atmosphere was due to malicious rumours set about by people who are anxious to poison Anglo-Japanese relations.

He urged at considerable length that it was in the interests of both the United Kingdom and Japan not to fall into this trap, but that we should work together to improve Anglo-Japanese relations.

He stressed the necessity of co-operation in doing so, and said that it could only be achieved gradually but that the objective should be to re-establish the traditional friendship between the United Kingdom and Japan which many people in both countries very genuinely desired. He also stressed the necessity of all Pacific countries, and in particular the United States of America, working together to ensure peace in the Pacific, and suggested a step towards this would be better economic relations and more consideration for Japan's position and a greater preparedness to meet Japan's essential requirements.

He went on to deal with Matsuoka's statements with regard to mediation, and said that they had been completely misunderstood.

He said his statements were due to Matsuoka's intense desire to ensure peace in the Pacific, and that the statements were really only meant to deal with that part of the world, and had not been intended as an offer of mediation by Japan in regard to the European war. He reiterated several times Matsuoka's ardent desire for peace but was not very convincing in his explanation that the statements were only directed towards the situation in the Pacific.

He told me of his conversation with the Prime Minister [2], and said that it had been of quite a satisfactory character. I asked him if he had said to the Prime Minister what he had said to me with regard to Anglo-Japanese friendship and peace in the Pacific, and he said he had.

I asked him what the Prime Minister's reactions had been, and his response implied that the subjects had not been very seriously discussed, the Prime Minister being so preoccupied with the great problems he has to face in fighting the war nearer home. I gathered the impression that no very serious discussion had in fact taken place.

The Ambassador emphasised, however, that the Prime Minister had been very emphatic that he was determined to fight the war to a finish and no question of mediation could be entertained.

I interrupted him at this point to stress that the attitude of the Prime Minister represented the point of view of all British peoples. I told him that, in my opinion, the British peoples were even more resolute than they had been in the last war, and that under no circumstances would they agree to any compromise peace. I also warned him that the Prime Minister's uncompromising attitude was not due to his known relentless determination to pursue the war to a finish, but that the British people would insist on the same attitude under any other leadership.

After this interruption the Ambassador went on with his theme of the necessity of doing something to improve the position.

When the Ambassador had finished, I said that I felt strongly that Anglo-Japanese relations had deteriorated and that, if they went on deteriorating, a very dangerous situation would arise.

I told the Ambassador I entirely agreed with him as to the desirability of the progressive re-establishment of the old Anglo- Japanese friendly relations and of the immediate necessity of a better understanding between the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Japan with regard to the Pacific. It was no use, however, to talk of the desirability of these things and to ignore the hard facts that confront us.

I reminded the Ambassador that in our previous talks I had been extremely frank and I presumed he would desire me to continue that practice. To this he cordially assented. I then outlined the position, as I saw it, at some length along the following lines:-

Japanese actions and words had not been of a character to reassure us- (a) By the September pact with the Axis, Japan had linked herself with Powers with which we were engaged in a life and death struggle, in which we would never let up.

(b) The Japanese Government had made a number of ambiguous and far from reassuring statements with regard to Japan's position in the Far East.

I instanced Matsuoka's statements- Leadership in Eastern Asia; Japan must dominate the Western Pacific; White Races must cede Oceania to the Asiatics.

(c) [Conc]entrations of Japanese troops and Air Force in Indo China-Occupation of Tongking-Presence of Japanese Naval Units off coast of Indo-China and Hainan Island.

(d) The intervention of Japan as mediator in the Thailand Indo- China dispute with the background that the Japanese would demand a price for their mediation.

(e) The Military collaboration that was going on between the German and Japanese military hierarchy.

(f) The unsatisfactory position with regard to German raiders basing themselves on Japanese ports.

(g) The attitude of the Japanese High Command.

(h) The rumours of a Japanese-Soviet Agreement which would free Japanese Forces for adventures elsewhere.

(i) The constant and offensive attacks by the Japanese Press.

(j) Possible visit of Mr. Matsuoka to Moscow and Berlin.

I said that all these things had naturally created grave suspicions in our minds and that we had been forced to take necessary measures against them.

I said I was not in the least overlooking the assurances that Japan had given of her peaceful intentions but I put it to him frankly that if he were in our position and knew of the possibility of the extremists gaining control, would he not have acted exactly as we were acting.

I told him that unless we could be reassured with regard to all these points it was very difficult to see how we could materially improve the present unhappy position. I summed up this part of what I had to say by pointing out to the Ambassador that the basic fact which we could not overlook was that Japan had linked herself in some arrangement, the importance of which I did not want to exaggerate, with the country that at the moment was our deadly enemy.

I then added, before his reply, that I had not overlooked that Japan also might have some suspicions. I said that I recognised those suspicions were not with regard to any armed action that we might contemplate against Japan but that their suspicions were that when we, either alone or in conjunction with America, had won the war, we would drive Japan back economically into the position she felt she was in in 1930 which had led to the Manchukuo adventure and subsequently to the war with China.

On this side of the picture, namely, Japan's suspicions, I told him I believed they were ill-founded. That the world had moved forward a considerable distance since 1930 and that I was quite sure the British Empire and America would be quite prepared to give assurances as to fair and equitable economic treatment to Japan after the war and enter into arrangements to meet Japan's essential economic requirements in the interim. The difficulty, however, did not seem to me to be on that side but it was how could Japan give assurances that would satisfy us and the Americans as to her intentions, whilst she was so closely linked up with our deadly enemy.

The Ambassador in reply said with regard to our suspicions he recognised that from our point of view there were some grounds for them, but repeated that Japan's intentions were entirely peaceful and reiterated the statements that had been made to this effect both by Prince Konoye [3] and Mr. Matsuoka. He also instanced the agreement that they had made with the puppet Government in China, which he did not so describe. He stressed that they had given generous terms, no indemnity, withdrawal of troops etc.

I told him that it would be very difficult to create a favourable public opinion in respect to these arguments, however sound they might be, as inevitably the position would be misrepresented down the lines that even if the terms of the Treaty with the puppet Government were generous that was because it suited Japan to arrive at an arrangement and thus weaken the position of the legitimate Chinese Government.

With regard to Japanese fears as to the position after our victory, he admitted that they existed but suggested that they could be overcome and somewhat ingeniously said it would be difficult for some time to do anything on the economic plane but evidence of our good intentions would be shown if we, and I think he said America, used our good offices to bring about peace with Chiang-Kai-Shek. [4]

In reply to that suggestion I asked the Ambassador to look at the position through our eyes. There were a number of facts with regard to Japanese actions which suggested the possibility that they might, if the opportunity seemed suitable, take armed action to further their interest and control in the Far East.

If they could be freed from their war in China that would release their forces and place them in a better position to pursue any adventure they decided upon.

What assurances could Japan give to remove our apprehensions in this direction? The Ambassador suggested the Japanese Government would give their undertaking on this point.

In reply I again asked him to think of the position from our point of view and drew the picture of what would happen. The position would be that the United Kingdom Government would assist in bringing about peace in the Far East. This would be unimpeachable, provided the peace was a just and equitable one to China which would, of course, be a fundamental. But the Prime Minister here would naturally be asked what guarantees had he that Japan being free from her commitments in China would not take advantage of that fact to our detriment. His only reply would be that he had the undertaking of the Japanese Government.

I said that that might satisfy me because I believed the Japanese were an honourable people who would honour their word once it was given, but I asked the Ambassador how tar, in the present position of the world, that would be a satisfying answer to the British and the American people when Japan was in close association with two Powers who had never honoured any obligation they had entered into.

The Ambassador recognised the force of this point because he asked me what I would suggest. He asked me whether what I was saying meant it would be essential for us [? the Japanese] to liquidate our agreement with the Axis Powers, and went on to add that that would be impossible for Japan who had entered into this agreement and must observe it, but he stressed that the obligations under that Agreement were not very clearly defined and were for Japan to determine.

I said I recognised that it was going a very long way to suggest that the Agreement with the Axis Powers must be liquidated before anything could be done. I said, however, that short of liquidating the Pact the task was to see whether there was no course that would enable a better situation to be built up in the Far East. I stressed to him it was very desirable both from our point of view and Japan's that every effort should be made to find a way to do this.

I said from our point of view it was desirable because the last thing we wanted was to add to the heavy burdens we were now carrying by adding Japan to the ranks of our enemies. It was equally desirous from the Japanese point of view because the last thing Japan wanted to see was a triumphant Germany. I amplified this point by going on to say if Germany were victorious, which to my mind was inconceivable, it would only be over not only a destroyed British Empire, but also a heavily mangled United States of America. I stressed this view by pointing out that the two things with regard to this war I was certain about were that the British Empire would go on fighting whatever happened, and that American opinion had progressively awakened to the fact that America in her own interest could not afford to see the British Empire go down and would have to come into the war with the whole of her strength to prevent this happening.

In this part of our conversation I said to the Ambassador that speaking frankly and with the utmost respect for his Government, in my view the entry of Japan into the arrangement with the Axis Powers last September was a tragic blunder from the Japanese point of view. I reinforced this by stressing the point that a German victory, were it conceivable, would place Japan in an extremely unfortunate position because a German victory would mean so powerful a Germany that Nazi interference and domination would extend to the Far East just as much as it would to the European and American Continents.

I also said that the only reason I could think of which had led Japan to enter into the arrangement was that her Statesmen had visualised a stalemate and a compromise peace, and had felt that under these circumstances they would have established their claims in the Far East. Now that any ideas of a compromise peace had to be discarded and a fight to a finish recognised, it seemed to me Japan's best course was to take extremely good care that she kept out of the war.

I said that I recognised how difficult it was going to be to find the way to establish a more stable position in the Far East which would enable Japan to keep out of the war, but that it seemed to me that was the objective on which all our thought in our mutual interest should be concentrated.

The Ambassador did not dissent from what I was saying and, in fact, early in our conversation he made some disparaging remark about the Agreement with the Axis Powers. While equally he did not assent in words to what I had been saying he reverted to his opening theme of the necessity for a better understanding with the United Kingdom and the United States of America and re- establishment of Anglo-Japanese friendship, and again came back to his basic point that the liquidation of the Sino-Japanese war was the first step.

At this point, the conversation became rather a repetition of what had gone before, but towards the end of it the Ambassador said that surely we did not want to add to our enemies, as a reinforcement of his plea for finding some solution of the position. I said that for my part that was the last thing I wanted to see but that we had to recognise that that view would not be the universal one. There were some people who, I regretted to say, would almost welcome the entry of Japan into the war because they believed that if that were to occur America would immediately come in on our side.

We had also to recognise that the number of the people who thought in this way was greater to-day than it was 12 months ago. Twelve months ago there was a feeling that we were so dependent upon America for munitions and supplies that it would be fatal for America to come into the war, as it would mean the insistence by the American public that American supplies should be retained for her own war effort. In the 12 months that had passed, however, this position had changed. Our supply position had greatly eased and American public opinion had advanced almost miraculously. The result of this is that to-day it would be argued that the entry of America into the war would not interfere with our supply position and would pin America to see the war through with us. This, I stressed, was one of the factors we had to have in our minds when we were trying to find a way of improving the position in the Far East.

It was clear that the Ambassador felt considerable anxiety at the prospect of America coming into the war and I felt it would be a good thing to leave on this note. The only other point I added was to express to the Ambassador my anxieties as to the effect a visit to Moscow and Berlin by Mr. Matsuoka would have upon the possibilities of achieving the better relations about which he had been talking.

I said that the interpretation of any arrangement with Moscow would be that it had been come to for the purposes of freeing Japan from her anxieties with regard to the Soviet.

The Ambassador showed, without saying so in so many words, his complete disbelief in the possibility of any arrangement of a substantial character with the Soviet. As this was apparent I added that it was quite immaterial what the character of the arrangement was, or how little importance the Japanese attached to it, the effect would be the same. If to this was added a visit to Berlin with large numbers of Japanese military advisers in Berlin at the same time, I thought the effect could only be most unfortunate. To this expression of opinion on my part the Ambassador made no reply as we were just getting up to end the conversation.

As I was leaving and when we had finished our conversation, I remarked to him that American public opinion was a strange thing, and illustrated it by the story of my conversation with Sumner Welles, without saying who the person was, with whom I had had the conversation, in Washington in May 1939. [5]

I told him that in the conversation I had expressed my puzzlement at the fact that while the Administration at Washington realised that war either in Europe or in the Far East was of vital concern to the United States of America, American public opinion was so hostile to any action by America in Europe but would be quite acquiescent towards any intervention in the case of trouble in the Pacific. The reply which I received was that the answer to my question with regard to public opinion was that whenever trouble in Europe was visualised, America immediately began to think of a great Expeditionary Force and every mother of an American son became a great Isolationist. In the case of the Pacific, however, an Expeditionary Force was not visualised but only action by the American Fleet and that American Public Opinion was quite prepared to face.

1 Dated 22 February. It enclosed a copy of a note from Yosuke Matsuoka, Japanese Foreign Minister, to Anthony Eden, U.K. Foreign Secretary, deploring the worsening state of Anglo-Japanese relations. Both documents are on file AA:M100, February 1941.

2 Winston S. Churchill.

3 Japanese Prime Minister.

4 Commander-in-Chief of Chinese armed forces and member of Central Executive Committee of the Kuomintang.

5 For Bruce's conversation with the U.S. Under-Secretary of State see Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937-49, vol. II, Document 82, Attachment III.

[AA:M100, FEBRUARY 1941]