Japan History Lab

The League of Nations and Japanese Politics

By David Somerville


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A map showing countries that withdrew from the League of Nations1.

Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933 had many negative repercussions on Japan, with the most influential being diplomatic isolation. Prior to the country’s withdrawal, Japan had been a founding member of the League in 1920 and had benefited from global cooperation. Japan originally joined the League because it had planned to maintain accommodation with the Western powers in an effort to compromise and this became a centerpiece of Japan’s foreign policy up until the 1930’s.2 After a decade of peaceful relations with the Western Imperial powers, Japan started interfering with its Asian neighbours at the expense of the Western Nations. The global economy had been in decline after the 1929 Stock Market Crash and this put tremendous pressure on Japan to obtain resources in order to accommodate a growing population on the Japanese mainland.

Eventually, the Japanese Army, also known as, the Kwantung, was instructed to invade the Chinese region of Manchuria on September 18, 1931. There was an alarming concern from the international community over Japan’s invasion and soon the League of Nations commissioned an investigation into the Chinese-Japanese conflict, called the Lytton Commission. On February 24, 1933 the findings of the Lytton commission were presented to the League and Japan was condemned as the aggressor. Feeling that Japan had been wrongly accused and knowing that the League couldn’t enforce its demands, Japan’s delegation led by Yosuke Matsuoka voiced their disapproval and immediately withdrew from the League of Nations. This was the moment when Japan decided to cut itself from the international community, leading to future hardships for the Japanese people. Although the League of Nations itself was unable to stop Japan directly, the ensuing political division ultimately led to Japan’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, as well as the Pacific War.


When the Kwantung exerted itself into Manchuria in 1931, the military and the government felt confident that the members of the League of Nations would not be able to use military force to stop them, which did appear to be the case at the time. In justification for its military action in Manchuria, Japan believed that Manchuria was rightly theirs to administrate dating back to the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). Japan had made great sacrifices in terms of bloodshed during the Russo-Japanese War and, by reason of sacrifice, Dr. Shūmei Ōkawa (who previously worked for the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff) believed that his country was entitled to have control over Manchuria and its resources.3 (533) Dr. Ōkawa highlighted that Japan had been the ones that defeated the Russian forces so when the stock market caused global economic insecurity, he viewed this as Japan’s opportunity to save its economy by claiming rights to this territory.3 (533) Uchida Yasuya, who was President of the South Manchuria Railway Company in 1931 and Japan’s Foreign Affairs Minister under the Saitō Makoto Government from 1932- 1933, supported the Kwantung Army during the Manchuria Crisis of 1931-1933 with support from other government ministries and the Diet, which was composed of the House of Representatives and the House of Peers.4 (pg.23-24) This calls into the question Tokyo’s support for the Kwantung Army during this time. It was suspected that if a Japanese diplomat or politician disagreed with the military’s actions, they couldn’t afford to show it because doing so would have meant admitting to the civilian population that the government was powerless to curb military adventurism.4 (pg.24) As the economy continued to cause the Japanese government concern, Dr. Ōkawa, along with the aid of the East Asia Research Foundation and the officers of the Army General Staff, believed that Japan was being too passive abroad and argued that seizing Manchuria would provide a lifeline to a struggling industry.3 (pg.533-534) To get his message across that Manchuria was Japan’s lifeline, Dr. Ōkawa issued a propaganda campaign that advocated for a stronger policy when it came to Manchuria. When Lt. Colonel Hashimoto returned to the General Staff Office he made certain that this propaganda was given to all the editorial writers and ultra-nationalistic speakers in hopes of manipulating public opinion to call for more aggressive action in Manchuria.3 (533-534)

Although this would indeed help the struggling economy, it was only a short term solution to a larger problem and the risk entailed with this decision would be the possibility of condemnation from countries across the world. One important reason why this invasion was worth the political risk was the fact that the Chinese Nationalist government (Kuomintang) had been growing stronger in the region. Shifting loyalties and alliances among Chinese warlords, anti-imperialist (especially the anti-Japanese) sentiment among the Chinese populace, and Western Imperial meddling in Chinese politics and the economy all contributed to the fear that China was becoming more powerful.4 (pg.23-24) In the end, pressure from a poor global economy, dissatisfaction from the military over foreign affairs, and growing fear of Chinese power ultimately led to the invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

When Japan decided to invade Manchuria, it accepted that the countries from the League would not approve of Japan’s actions. Despite the probability of being found the aggressor, Japan was able to stay in the League of Nations for the time being as an investigation was being done to see if Japan had a just cause to be in the region. The Japanese argued that their invasion could be attributed to the Mukden Incident, which occurred on September 18, 1931. The Mukden Incident was a dynamite explosion that detonated close to a railway owned by Japan’s South Manchurian Railway, leading to the Japanese army accusing Chinese radicals of the attack. This would have given Japan a cause to retaliate if it had been true. Instead, the incident was actually planned beforehand by officers of the Army General Staff, officers of the Kwantung Army, members of the Cherry Society (“Sakurakai”-under sponsorship of Hashimoto) and others.3 (532,553) There is extensive evidence showing that the Mukden Incident was secretly planned by these groups in an attempt to justify its future invasion and creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo. Colonel Seishirō Itagaki was a senior staff officer and was in active command during the Mukden Incident until he was replaced by General Shigeru Honjō, who arrived a day after the explosion and assumed command of the Japanese forces. He would then vow to wage a punitive war against the Chinese and this conflict would go from being the Mukden Incident into the Manchuria Incident.3 (557) As the international community heard of this event, the accusation of war by Japan was a discussion being taken seriously by the League during the period of 1931-1933, hence the Lytton Report.

Visit Jordan Hilderman's article: "Everyday Life in Manchukuo" for more information about Manchuria.

The Lytton Report and Japan's exit from the League

Members of the League's Commission of Inquiry in the Far East

Members of the League's Commission of Inquiry in the Far East arriving at Hankow, China in 1932.5.

After Japan’s apparent desire for war with China, the League of Nations chose not to jump to conclusions and gave fair consideration that Japan may be telling the truth about the incident in that it wasn’t violating any international treaties. Foreign Affairs Minister Uchida Yasuya maintained that Japan was acting in self-defense and that Japan never violated any peace treaty with China due to Manchuria being an independent state with ties to Japan.4 (pg.36) In July 1932 the League dispatched the Lytton Commission, which was headed by Lord Lytton of Britain who was instructed to investigate and report on the current situation in Manchuria and to come to a conclusion of what really happened. When Lord Lytton arrived in Manchuria he was constantly supervised by the Kwantung Army and the Japanese Gendarmes (armed police officers) for the sake of his “protection”.3 (605) On February 21, 1933 a draft report was submitted to the League based on Lord Lytton’s findings. Much of what was covered in this report was not going to be in favour of the Japanese, leading to Japan’s delegates pleading to the League to think twice before making a final decision.6 (pg.48) Finally, on February 24, 1933 the wait was over and the League acted on the draft’s recommendations, which included Japan having to withdrawal from Manchuria on the grounds that the invasion violated Chinese Sovereignty. This was not the Japanese point of view and the delegates representing Japan in Geneva were infuriated at the result. On March 27, 1933 Japan gave a notice of intention to withdraw from the League. Although Japan’s withdraw from the League presented challenges diplomatically, Yosuke Matsuoka, Chief Japanese Delegate, acknowledged the impact this can have on the Japanese people.

Farewell message given out by Yosuke Matsuoka on the eve of his departure from Geneva on February 25, 1933:

Japan leaves the League of Nations in 19337

"The only good I can think can out of all this will be incidentally to help further to unite Japanese people, making them better realize the magnitude and the difficulties of Japan’s task, and increase their determination to risk all to achieve their end - that is to recover and maintain peace and order throughout the region of Eastern Asia.".6 (pg.64)

In his address, Yosuke Matsuoka tried to convey the message to the Japanese people that Japan’s exit from the League will only make them stronger, but in reality, Japan would be left friendless as future wars destroyed their newly acquired Empire. The move to withdrawal from the League of Nations was the first time a country with a fearful military did this and it did so with no foreseeable action from the League for the short term. The weakness of the League was exposed and other hostile countries such as Germany and Italy would follow in Japan’s example. These events would eventually cause the League of Nations to fail as a model of maintaining world peace, but as the League of Nations failed, so did the Japan’s chance to engage in diplomacy.

Diplomatic Consequences

After Japan’s exit from the League, Japan was virtually friendless and isolated from the international community. Japan did share common imperialistic policies with Italy and Germany, but they were fighting their own wars in Europe and Africa. This meant that they were not reachable for trade deals and this hurt Japan at home in terms of acquiring food and supplies. With a lack of trade partners, the country had no choice but to continue its expansionist’s agenda in hopes of acquiring the necessary resources to keep the military and the Japanese economy moving forward. After Japan’s six and a half years of “peace” after conquering Manchuria, Japan decided it was time to engage in open war with China and this is commonly known as the 1937 Sino-Japanese War. Then as that war started to yield little progress in 1940, Japan shifted its focus to the south and eastern Pacific islands, where many more resources could be found. These southward and eastward regions consisted of Malaya, the Netherland Indies, the Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, the Gilbert Islands, Thailand, and Burma.8 (pg.499) Although no action came from the League of Nations over the Manchuria incident, the Japanese military was concerned that moving into these regions would upset the United States and lead to wider war. To deal with the American influence in the region, Japan determined that a pre-emptive sneak attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor would be sufficient in neutralizing the American Navy, making it a weak force in the Pacific.8 (pg.499) The Japanese military soon discovered that this was a bad plan and that it had failed its objective to contain the U.S Navy. The fall of the Japanese Empire thus started as defeats. Such as those at Midway and the Philippines started to pile up. The Pacific War started on December 7, 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and would end on September 2, 1945 after the detonation of the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was obviously not the outcome Japan had hoped for, but it’s isolation from trade and global relations forced Japan to continue its ambitious expansion of their Empire, regardless of the possibility of failure and defeat.


At the onset of the Twentieth Century, Japan’s involvement in foreign relations was active and constructive. The country was a founding member of the League of Nations in Geneva and was involved with trade with fellow nations. When the global economy collapsed in 1929, Japan felt it had to secure additional resources to offset the negative implications this would have on the Japanese civilian population. These resources were on the Chinese mainland in Manchuria and Dr. Ōkawa and Lt. Colonel Hashimoto were able to manipulate the Japanese population into thinking this was Japan’s lifeline out of the economic depression. They decided to claim Manchuria as Japan’s on the grounds that Japan was the country to push Russia out of the region during the Russo-Japanese War, as well as claiming Manchuria being an independent state with close ties to Japan since then. Secretly, the Kwantung attacked its own railway in hopes of convincing the international community that China was to blame. The Lytton Report refuted these Japanese claims and the League of Nations ordered Japan to get out of Chinese owned Manchuria. Yosuke Matsuoka and other Japanese delegates were appalled at this decision and the Japanese decided to withdrawal from the League, making Japan the first major country to do so. This move undeniably put strains on Japanese trade and potential alliances and as Japan was running out of resources, additional expansion was viewed to be the only option going forward. As the war in Eastern Asia expanded into an Asia-Pacific War with America, the Japanese military started to increasingly feel the negative effects of a prolonged war and this would then be passed onto the Japanese civilians, leading to Japan’s inevitable defeat.