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Relations between the United States and Japan worsened during the early years of World War I. regarded itself as a Pacific power, having acquired territory there in the years following the Spanish-American War. Japanese actions in the area were regarded as heavy-handed and threatening to American interests, particularly the following:
- Shortly after the outbreak of war, Japan had seized German holdings on the Shantung Peninsula in China.
- In early 1915, Japan issued Twenty-One Demands that imposed heavy burdens on China and posed a threat to the continuance of the Open Door Policy; Wilson's secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, sharply protested this Japanese action.
- In 1915, Japan concluded a secret treaty with the British that established a plan for dividing German holdings in the Pacific between the two powers.
Not surprisingly, the Japanese viewed matters differently. They felt that the Far East was their sphere of influence and resented the American presence in the Philippines and elsewhere in the Pacific. They also were sensitive to the blatant racial discrimination their citizens were exposed to in the United States; a particularly painful incident had occurred in California earlier in Wilson's presidency.In September 1917, Viscount Kikujiro Ishii was sent to Washington to engage Secretary of State Robert Lansing in talks to improve relations. The ensuing agreement provided the following:
- The United States recognized that Japan had "special interests" in China. Unfortunately, when the Lansing-Ishii Agreement was translated into Chinese, the word special became paramount, which caused future confusion and disagreement.
- Japan stated its "respect" for the Open Door Policy and Chinese territorial integrity.
This ambiguous understanding brought much criticism to Lansing, perhaps unfairly so. He regarded the agreement as the first step in an on-going process and anticipated that more meaningful terms would be negotiated in the future. He also was facing the sobering reality that Japan was being courted by Germany, which hoped to detach Japan from the other Allies; the secretary dared not press Japan too hard.As a result of the Lansing-Ishii talks, Japan believed that their political control of China had been recognized by the U.S. and that their hands were free to take any necessary actions. The United States, to the contrary, believed that they had recognized only economic rights for Japan in China.Tensions were further heightened at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, when the U.S. refused to include a condemnation of racial discrimination the Covenant of the League of Nations. Adding fuel to the fire was the Allied intervention in Russia (1917-22), in which Japan dispatched a huge military force, prompting fears of Japanese territorial expansion.Efforts would later be made to improve the relationship between the two countries in the postwar Washington Conference (1921-22).The Lansing-Ishii Agreement was formally annulled in April 1923, but Japan and the U.S. continued to disagree on their respective roles in the Pacific.
See other foreign policy activity under Wilson and World War I Timeline.