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Teddy Roosevelt is responsible!

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This year we are celebrating the centenary of one of the major events in Japanese militarism, that is, Japan’s annexation of Korea.  According to American author James Bradley, this initiative was encouraged by then US President Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt and very much suited American interests at the time!


East Asia’s efforts to create lasting peace, as well as prosperity, are burdened by the scar of Japanese militarism.  The leaders of the Meiji Restoration believed that a strong military was essential for a strong nation.  They were after all mostly ex-samurai or descendants of samurai.

Their militarism was not without reason.  They saw the example of Western powers colonizing much of Asia -- but they also feared these powers.  They were emboldened by their successes in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95 and Japan-Russia war of 1904.  But they still believed Russia to be a threat.  And they saw potential buffers in the weak, pre-modern societies across the Sea of Japan, in the form of China and Korea.  Lastly, for the resource poor and vulnerable Japanese, invading its Asia neighbours was a way to secure resource supplies.

Back to James Bradley.  In his book “The Imperial Cruise”, documents a previously unknown episode in US/Asian relations.  Having moved eastwards and settled the wild west, the US turned its eye further westwards to the riches of the weak and crumbling country of China.  Undercurrents of protestant evangelism were no doubt part of the ambient climate.  So the US put together a chain across the Pacific in the form of Cuba, the Panama Canal, Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines.  Teddy Roosevelt was however constrained in his adventures.  The US Congress would not authorize military activities in North East Asia.

So there was Japan, a country that had westernized, modernized and militarised, and could be used as an ally.  Teddy Roosevelt's Asian Aryans!  But Japan could also have been a threat to the prize jewel of the Philippines.  So, according to Bradley’s research, Teddy Roosevelt whispered in the ear of the Japanese Baron Koniko that the US would be happy for them to take Korea, if they kept their hands off the Philippines (a possible stepping stone to China).  This was confirmed in an agreement between US war secretary and future President William Howard Taft and Japanese Prime Minister Katsura Taro when the "Imperial Cruise" arrived in Japan.  But most importantly, this was all done informally so as to bypass the American Senate which must approve all treaties. 

This insight is hot.  Japan may well have invaded its East Asian neighbours even without this green light – it had already occupied Taiwan as early as 1895.  But it was not generally well known that Teddy Roosevelt supported and encouraged this. 

At the same time, Roosevelt never imagined that Japan had such big ambitions, and even the military capacities that it ultimately demonstrated and led it into war.

To achieve Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s dream of creating an East Asian Community, historical reconciliation is necessary between the countries of the region.  And for reconciliation, the key thing is getting the facts on the table.  Bradley’s book makes an important contribution to this end.


“The Imperial Cruise” by James Bradley