Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

This topic has been prompted by comments from knitters on my last dissertation “The Men Who Saved Australia”. I was surprised that it arose in the way it did because the role of the Japanese escort with the first ANZAC fleet was touched on in my series on the first HMAS Sydney and its fight with the Emden.

The history of Japanese and British alliance is a maze that keeps going back at each stanza of the relationship but in the interests of brevity and completeness, I am starting with the Anglo-Japanese treaty of 1902.

In 1902 Britain and Japan signed a mutual defence treaty to thwart the common enemy, Russia. There were disputes over Russian expansion in Far East Asia against China and Korea and Japanese ambitions in these same areas. Further Japanese encouragement of Indian independence was seen by Britain as a threat. This was neutralised by Britain supporting Japanese claims to Korea which it subsequently annexed.

 In 1904 war broke out between Russia and Japan. This resulted in heavy defeats of Russia on land and sea.

 The Japanese Navy sank all but two of the Russian Far Eastern fleet and when the Russian Baltic fleet was sent to relieve it after a journey from the Baltic Sea around the Cape of Good Hope it was also roundly defeated. After a journey of some 25,000 nautical miles the Russian ships were covered with barnacles which badly affected their speed and manoeuvring ability.

Britain and Japan may seem to be strange bedfellows bur practical issues kept them together. Japan was at a stage of becoming a serious industrial power. Britain was the world leader in heavy engineering, ship construction and many other technical developments. Japan was hungry for this knowledge and Britain saw Japan as a potentially large market for her heavy engineering exports.


Although it was the dominant world power, Britain had very little presence in northeast Asia but did have trade interests to protect. Germany had a vast island empire spread across the northern Pacific and maintained a strong naval squadron at Tsingtao where it had secured a long term lease from China. By the development of a strong Japanese navy and the mutual defence pact of the 1902 alliance, Britain was able to cover these weak spots without committing itself to large expenditures.

At the start of WW1 the 1902 treaty had been extended. Japan had territorial expansion ambitions and saw an alliance with a successful Britain as a means of acquiring the German possessions in the north Pacific of the Carolines, Marianas, the Marshall Islands and other Micronesian territory north of the equator as well as German land based colonies in China.

Help us cover our monthly costs

$ 415 $ 500
1 days left,  83% Completed

Japan declared war on Germany on 23rd August, 1914 and immediately attacked and occupied the German territories in East Asia. The Japanese navy asserted itself by occupying the island territories independently of any orders from the Imperial government. The navy remained the dominant influence in Japanese government until it was defeated in 1945. The navy raised its own marine forces which carried out the invasion and occupation of German territory seeing this dominance as a way to secure a greater share of the Imperial budget over the army. The army did not participate in any of these territorial invasions.

In September, 1914, Japan sent its 2nd Class Battlecruiser Ibuki, to assist in the hunt for the German raider Emden in the Indian Ocean. In October she was re-assigned to escort the troop transports from New Zealand to Albany and on 1st November formed part of the escort cover of the first fleet taking the ANZAC contingent to Egypt. It was on this voyage that HMAS Sydney broke away in pursuit of the Emden. Ibuki wanted this task but she was considered too slow notwithstanding that she had heavier armament than Sydney. During the chase for the Emden, Ibuki was the sole protector of the allied fleet. When Sydney returned to station she lead the fastest group of transports to England while Ibuki remained with the lowest ships headed for Egypt.


The wreck of the Emden

At that stage of the war Britain was short of ships and requested the assistance of Ibuki. In August, 1914, Japan had 113 fighting class ships in its fleet. Ibuki was the only Japanese ship that had direct association with the ANZAC contingent or Australia but the Japanese navy had a strong presence with the British navy squadrons in Singapore, Capetown and Malta.


Ibuki, the lead ship in the Ibuki class of armored cruisers of the Imperial Japanese Navy fires her guns, 1909

The treaty with Britain came to a natural conclusion with the outbreak of WW1 and Japan joining with the allies but it was not formally abandoned until 1920. After the war ended Japan became a founding and active member of the League of Nations. It rose to prominence as being one of the world’s major powers. Its relationship with Britain continued to the extent that the British government continued to provide Japan with drawings and specifications of new British warships until things started to sour and in 1933 Japan resigned its membership of the League.

There were several reasons for the deterioration. One was growing antipathy in the international community to Japan’s excursions and invasion of China, Another was a Japanese perception that there was racial discrimination against Japan and that the League was regarded as a European Club. Then there was resentment within Japan to the disarmament provisions of the Treaty of Versailles in 1920 which gave strength to the militarist factions of Japanese society. The climate between Japan and the USA had always been tense and the British government was ever mindful of the risk that Britain may be drawn into a war between Japan and the USA during the currency of the 1902 treaty. Then there was the fight at the League of Nations between Billy Hughes and the rest over a proposal to award Japan the former German colonies in the north of New Guinea and the offshore islands. Hughes won and Australia acquired them.

 In discarding the 1902 treaty in 1920 and Britain openly favouring the views of the United States, Japan was left virtually friendless among the rest of the League of Nations and although it still attempted to be a co-operative non-member after 1933 its position deteriorated because it was unwilling to depart from its ambitions and activities in China until it finally and formally withdrew from the League in 1937. Tensions between Japan and the rest of the world, especially the United States, continued to deteriorate culminating with the raid on Pearl Harbour in 1941.

 Throughout the 1930’s Japan was Australia’s second biggest trading partner. In 1937 tensions were created when Britain asked Australia to impose tariffs on Japanese textile imports because they were hurting British manufacturers. Even as late as 1938 Australia was still trading with Japan but tensions were rising in opposition to its invasion of China and treatment of Chinese civilians. Japanese pearl divers were still being used in northern Australia and there was no formal antipathy between the governments of our two countries until the invasion of Malaya in 1941.

Up until as late as 1939 Australia’s relationship with Japan was dictated by Britain, which in turn, was dictated by its allegiance to support the United States. Australia’s pre-WW2 relationships with Japan could be described as “benign” and little known to the generations of today.

As a kid at school all I can remember about Japan before the war was Japanese pearl divers at Broome and Thursday Island and cheap toys and chinaware. Apart from that, most Australians were oblivious to Japan’s existence until war broke out.

Further reading:






Clear filters