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

[LONDON], 12 March 1941

As a result of the Japanese Ambassador telephoning to me last Friday asking when our next tea party was to take place, he came to my flat at 5.0 p.m. yesterday afternoon when we had a further long conversation.

The Ambassador opened by expressing his appreciation of the Prime Minister's speech at the Foreign Press Luncheon [1], and told me that it had been very well received in Japan. He went on to state that in his view the speech would be helpful in achieving the objective which he had indicated that he was aiming at when we last met, namely, an improvement in the Empire's relations with Japan and a calming of the unfortunate atmosphere which had recently been created.

I told him that I was glad to hear his view of the speech and of the reception it had received in Japan because he had probably seen from the Press that it had been the subject of some criticism in Australia.

I told him that that criticism had arisen from a misunderstanding which had been cleared up now, and it was realised that the speech in no way conflicted with the recent statement by the Advisory War Council [2] but in fact confirmed that pronouncement. It had added the statesmanlike view that the difficult situation existing in the Pacific must not be regarded as making war with Japan inevitable, but that our two nations should face up to the existing difficulties and deal with them in an atmosphere of reality.

I told the Ambassador I was in entire accord with the views expressed by the Prime Minister but that there was one reality that it seemed to me we had certainly got to face because I felt it had in it grave possibilities of creating a situation which would render extremely difficult the realisation of the desire I knew he had so much at heart of promoting a better understanding between the British and Japanese peoples and ensuring that no untoward event would occur in the Pacific.

I said that reality was the visit of Mr. Matsuoka [3] to Berlin and Rome, as well as, I understood, to Moscow. I reiterated to him what I had said in our previous interview namely that it seemed to me difficult to expect any other result than the visit to Moscow being regarded as an effort to arrive at an understanding with the Soviet that would remove from Japan any apprehension of a menace in that direction, and the visit to the Axis capitals as a step towards closer and more definite collaboration by Japan with our enemies against whom we were carrying on a desperate struggle.

The Ambassador suggested that there was no justification for any such view. He again indicated his conviction that no satisfactory arrangement could be arrived at with the Soviet, implied that there were many questions with regard to which the interests of the Soviet and Japan were irreconcilable; referred to the fact that many of these questions had been outstanding since the days when he personally, as Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, was closely associated with relations with Russia, and made quite clear his feelings of contempt for and distrust of the Russians.

With regard to the visit to Berlin, he suggested that this was only a somewhat belated carrying out of an implied undertaking given at the time when the Axis agreement was signed, and expressed his confidence that Mr. Matsuoka would not, during his visit, commit Japan to any definite action in support of the Axis Powers.

He again repeated what he has said to me so often that Japan was the judge of her own actions under the Axis agreement, that it in no way obligated Japan to enter the war on the Axis side, and that it was Japan's firm intention not to do so unless she was forced into such a position.

I told the Ambassador that I appreciated all that he had said with regard to Mr. Matsuoka's visit but I still adhered to the view I had expressed that it would greatly increase the difficulties of the position and that for my part I sincerely regretted that it had been undertaken.

The Ambassador said that he quite recognised that the view I had indicated would be taken by some people, and added that some people even believed that there were secret provisions to the arrangement with the Axis, under which Japan was to come into the war on the Axis side at a selected moment. Such a suggestion he said was entirely without foundation.

I then put it to the Ambassador that Japan's arrangement with the Axis appeared to me to be far from an advantageous one to Japan and I asked him flatly what were the reasons that had led Japan to enter into it. Rather to my surprise the Ambassador launched upon a long and detailed reply. The substance of which was as follows.- The Manchukuo adventure was started by Extremists and irresponsible elements in the Army, but was, when successful, endorsed by the whole Japanese nation because it was felt that if Japan was to protect herself against the menace of the Soviet it was necessary to obtain a foothold upon the mainland. The Soviet, however, was equally determined that Japan should not obtain such a foothold. As soon as Japan had established herself in Manchukuo the Soviet commenced to stir up feeling in China against her by propaganda and communist infiltration. The Soviet progressively created a situation which economically it was impossible for Japan to tolerate and which was making Japan's position even in Manchukuo extremely dangerous.

The Ambassador suggested that it was the Soviet's machinations which forced upon Japan the China adventure, but stressed that that adventure was only undertaken in order to protect Japan's vital interests and economic position. Notwithstanding this being the position Japan, both in regard to the Manchukuo incident and the China adventure, was denounced by the United Kingdom and the United States of America as an aggressor. Press campaigns in both countries were launched against her and unceasing attacks were made upon her at the League of Nations. In contrast to the hostility shown towards Japan by the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the League of Nations, sympathy and understanding had been shown towards her by the Axis Powers. He instanced as an example the attitude of Italy at the Brussels Conference.

These things had caused grave resentment in Japan but the Ambassador suggested that notwithstanding this the Japanese, under great provocation, had been extremely patient. Since the outbreak of war stringent action had been taken to prevent any supplies from, or via Japan, reaching the enemy we were fighting, and yet at the same time we, and the United States of America, were supplying every form of assistance which we were able to render to the enemy against whom Japan was fighting.

All these factors rendered the task of holding the Japanese extremists in check extremely difficult and this became almost impossible when France collapsed.

The Ambassador referred to the fact that after that collapse the general impression was that Great Britain would be defeated in the course of two or three months and even the American Press was saying so openly. This, the Ambassador said, without giving the reason why, rendered the position even more difficult. He said that notwithstanding all these things the Japanese were loath to enter into any close relations with the Axis Powers and suggested that two if not three Governments in Japan had fallen in their attempts to resist the pressure to do so. The pressure, however, in the end became too strong and last September the Japanese Government had entered into the arrangement with the Axis Powers.

He stressed that it was not intended that that arrangement should lead to Japan becoming involved in the war. He, however, did not make clear what it was, in fact, intended to do. He finished by emphasising that Japan regards this war as a European war and that her whole desire is to keep out of it.

The above is a very abbreviated summary of the exposition lasting quite half an hour which the Ambassador gave me of the causes which had led Japan to enter into the Axis arrangement but contains the important points he made.

When the Ambassador had finished I told him I had been most interested in the very full information he had given me as to the Japanese point of view and that I was most anxious to be certain I had understood what he had told me. I would therefore attempt to summarise it and would ask him if I had got any of it wrong to correct me.

I then summarised what he had said as follows.- That Japan had regarded Manchukuo as vital to Japanese security- they had therefore felt compelled to take action with regard to Manchukuo, but had contemplated following that up by attempting to arrive at an understanding with China which would have led to Sino-Japanese cooperation economically and otherwise. That the achievement of this understanding had been defeated by Soviet propaganda, intrigues and communist infiltration into China; that to protect Japanese vital interests against Soviet action and to safeguard her economic position, Japan had started her Chinese adventure. That deep feelings of resentment had been caused in Japan by the attitude of the British Empire and the United States of America, and the actions of the League of Nations. That these feelings had been deepened by the help afforded by the United Kingdom and the United States of America to China and that this latter had been intensified by the fact that Japan desired to liquidate the Chinese adventure but saw no hope of doing so by any co-operation from the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

That some hopes of doing so were entertained by Japan as a result of action by Germany-that these hopes, the Ambassador admitted, had been illusory as Germany had not the expected power in this direction-that the situation had become even more difficult politically in Japan with the collapse of France and the freely expressed anticipations that the British Empire would rapidly share France's fate. That a combination of all these circumstances had led to Japan entering into an arrangement with the Axis Powers.

The Ambassador indicated his agreement with the summary I had given him of what he had said to me.

I then said to him that I quite understood what had led to Japan linking up with the Axis and that it seemed to me there were four directions from which the pressure had come. I said those four were.- (a) The resentment engendered by all the happenings since 1931 which he had recited to me.

(b) The conviction that it was hopeless to expect any help in the liquidation of the Chinese adventure or any adequate recognition by the British Empire and the United States of America of Japan's economic requirements and need of a market for her growing industrial production.

(c) The feeling that the British Empire was going to be beaten in the war and that Japan would be well advised to link up with those who would be responsible for the creation of the new order in the world.

(d) The conviction in certain Japanese minds that neither the British Empire could beat Germany, or Germany could beat the British Empire, with the result that the war would end in a stalemate and that under these circumstances Japan would be well advised to grab what she could while the going was good in the hope that the great Western Powers would be too exhausted when the struggle finally terminated to take any steps to oust Japan from what she had seized.

I said that the last of these motives was perhaps not as respectable as it might be, but that happily our conversations were so frank that I could mention it. In any event whether it was respectable or not we both knew human nature well enough to appreciate that it would be a point of view that would influence some.

The developments in the position, however, now showed that this argument was not a sound one, as the war inevitably was going to be fought to a finish. This point I had talked to him about when we had last met, stressing that the British Empire would never give in and America would be forced to come into the war if it looked as though the British Empire might go down.

At this point the Ambassador rather surprised me by interrupting to say that he quite recognised that, and adding that even if the British Isles, contrary to expectations were overwhelmed, the Dominions would fight on in conjunction with America.

His saying this somewhat startled me, and it certainly encourages the hope that some of the very frank statements I have made to the Ambassador have sunk in.

After this interruption I followed up the argument I was developing by saying that I wanted to put to the Ambassador the position as I imagined I would see it if I were a Japanese and recognised the fact that no compromise settlement was possible but that the war was going to be fought to a finish.

I suggested to him that in doing so I would have the background that in the past I had shown some appreciation of the Japanese point of view and some understanding of, and sympathy with, the Japanese attitude as to the frustration they felt they had been subjected to in safeguarding their vital interests both as to their security and economic and industrial requirements.

I then put it to him that my first thought as a Japanese would be to consider what policy would best serve my country- (a) during the continuance of the war and (b) after the war was over.

With regard to (a) I would feel the thing I desired to achieve would be to keep my country out of becoming involved in the struggle unless I could see some great advantage flowing to it from joining in.

I would also have in mind the desirability of liquidating the Chinese war and ensuring my country the necessary supplies to keep her economic life going.

I would feel that an increasingly close co-operation with the Axis Powers would eventually land me in the war on their side. Even if it did not take me quite as far as that I would feel that it would mean an increasing measure of help to China by the British Empire and the United States of America, and an increasing exercise of economic pressure by these Powers against my country. When I looked forward and visualised the effect of that increasing help to China and increasing economic pressure I would feel considerable anxiety and would at the same time recognise that my Axis friends would be in no position to help me in respect of either of these matters.

On the other hand I would feel that if I took a restrained attitude towards the Axis and worked for a better understanding with the British Empire and the United States of America it might be possible to improve my position both with regard to China and economically.

With regard to (b)-post war period-I said I would feel I had to face the alternatives of a British Empire victory, or a German victory.

In the event of the former I should have some anxieties as to whether the British Empire and the United States of America would show a greater understanding of my vital interests and requirements than they had in the past.

I would, however, have some hopes that they would and would be encouraged in this hope by the many signs there are of a growing appreciation of the necessity of a new order after the war which will afford increased opportunities both to Nations and individuals.

I would also weigh up the assurances that Hitler would be prepared to give, such as recognition of Japan's leadership in the Far East and full economic opportunities.

After weighing up these assurances I would cast them aside as worthless knowing, apart from Hitler's past record of repudiated undertakings, that if Germany were triumphant she would be so powerful that she could force her will upon the whole world and would impose her Nazi domination as ruthlessly and as effectively in the Far East as she would impose it upon Europe.

Weighing the whole position up I would come to the conclusion that my wiser course was to trust the British Empire and the United States of America to show more vision and understanding after the war than they had in the past, and to give my country a fair deal.

I would be reinforced as to the wisdom of this view when I remembered that if the Allies won and my country had thrown in its lot with the Axis, public resentment in the Allied countries would overrule wiser statesmanship and this hostile feeling would result in a settlement disadvantageous to the interests of my country.

On the other hand I would be certain that with Germany triumphant, Hitler would show no gratitude to Japan, even if she had contributed materially towards his winning the war, but would impose his will ruthlessly upon her.

I said, after weighing all these considerations up my considered judgment would be that Japan's best course would be to trust the Allies and keep out of the war.

I added that I felt an even better course would be to trust the Allies and come in on their side, but that, for the moment, was perhaps going too far, although the situation might develop to the point where that became a practical possibility.

I said that if Japan definitely decided upon a policy such as I had indicated, I was quite sure that the British Empire and America would be prepared to talk frankly with her during the war and give assurances as to their attitude after the war.

I told the Ambassador that the more I thought of the Far Eastern situation the more I felt that however right from Japan's point of view the arrangement with the Axis last September might have been, it had now become, owing to the certainty of the war being a fight to a finish, with America a participant if necessary, an unfortunate commitment. For that reason I reiterated my deep regrets at Mr. Matsuoka's forthcoming visit to the Soviet and Germany.

The Ambassador took this somewhat unconventional outburst of mine quite calmly and in reply to the point I had been working up to, namely, Matsuoka's visit to Berlin, reiterated that I was attaching too much importance to it and its effect. He insisted that the visit was partly courtesy and partly to let Mr. Matsuoka obtain his own first hand impressions of the position in Europe.

We then went on to discuss what practical steps could be taken to ease the situation. The Ambassador made it clear that in his view the greatest necessity was to bring about here a better understanding of Japan's position and thus create a better atmosphere for handling the difficulties which exist and will arise in the future.

When discussing this point I discovered that the Ambassador had been in close touch with George Lloyd [4] before he died and is, I think at the moment, in contact with Hankey. [5] This I will check up. He also clearly thinks something can be done with the Dominions and at this stage I left no doubts in his mind that we are absolutely at one with the United Kingdom and the appointment of Latham [6] in no way indicated our taking a diverging line, but was to ensure the closest possible co-operation between the United Kingdom and Australia on all Far Eastern questions.

Towards the end of our conversation, I got the impression the Ambassador was working up to suggesting his seeing the Prime Minister. [7] As I saw some embarrassments in this I rode him off and he did not do so. Whether it was only my impression or he actually had it in mind I am not sure.

As usual we parted most amicably and with the idea that we should have another 'tea party'. [8]

1 See Document 334.

2 See Document 289.

3 Japanese Foreign Minister.

4 U.K. Colonial Secretary and Leader of the House of Lords until his death on 4 February.

5 U.K. Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

6 Minister to Japan.

7 R. G. Menzies.

8 A note by Bruce on the original indicates that he showed this record of conversation to Menzies on 15 March. Bruce also sent a summary of the conversation to R. G. Casey, Minister to the United States, and to Latham on 17 March. See cablegram 18 (8 to Tokyo) on file AA:M100, March 1941.

[AA:M100, MARCH 1941]