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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 155-182

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"Colossal Illusions": U.S.-Japanese Relations in the Institute of Pacific Relations, 1919-1938

Jon Thares Davidann
Hawaii Pacific University

The failure of the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR)--a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) founded in 1925 to promote mutual understanding and create better relations in the Pacific in the interwar period--is usually thought of in terms of external circumstances. The rise of Japanese militarism, the struggles of China to emerge as a sovereign nation, the Great Depression, and stubborn American isolationism are some reasons given for the collapse of the IPR's project. While these reasons cannot be ignored, I would like to suggest that there were other conditions present in the interwar period, both within the IPR and in the world at large, which made the goals of the IPR unachievable. 1

Two issues stand out. First, the internationalism of the IPR was surrounded by a resistant strain of nationalism throughout the period from the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II. Not simply limited to the late 1930s, the nation was ubiquitous throughout the period. The existence of nationalism made attempts to take a broad "objective" internationalist view difficult and encouraged the various parties involved in the IPR to use the organization to pursue their own national interests. Consequently, while Japanese nationalists made a [End Page 155] concerted effort to make their presence felt in the IPR, American national interests and influence predominated. Thus it is that one Japanese Christian in 1919 called postwar internationalism a "colossal illusion." 2

The second concerns the perceptions through which the IPR formed its opinions about the problems of the Pacific and solutions to those problems. Simply put, the IPR believed that a fundamental problem in the Pacific was one of irrationality. Sentiment and emotions dominated the debate there. IPR members believed that if they could bring objective facts to the forefront, they could promote mutual understanding and the tensions would subside.

While it is quite true that many tensions in the Pacific, especially between the United States and Japan, were due to misperceptions about the intentions and motives of the other player, the IPR's attempt to bring rationality to the Pacific through its conferences and research program failed. In spite of the IPR's well-known and considerable achievements in establishing research agendas that laid the foundation for Asian studies scholarship today, the "objective" facts the IPR thought it could bring to the table were from the inception of the organization never completely objective. In addition, the partners in the IPR defined rationality in different ways. Some Japanese delegates defined the new internationalism of the postwar era as dominated by sentiment and an unwise approach to geopolitics. They suggested instead that a rational calculation of national interests could provide the basis for realistic discussions. American internationalists believed nationalism to be irrational, and they began to see the Japanese as dominated by irrational and authoritarian nationalism. East Asians, including both Japanese and Chinese, believed the protection and strengthening of the nation were the only reasonable response to a situation in which Western imperialism in East Asia threatened the very survival of the nation. So the perception of rationality was not solid ground but shifting sand for the IPR, that in the end helped to cause its downfall. Hope for a rational Pacific, like the belief in internationalism, was illusory. [End Page 156]

Americanization and Internationalism after World War I

Before the troubles in the Pacific that erupted in the 1930s, there was considerable hope that the sometimes tense relationship between Japan and the United States could be placed on a more stable basis. In the aftermath of World War I, there was great revulsion at the horror of war by both Americans and Japanese who were interested in cooperation. Both tended to embrace Wilsonian internationalism, although for different reasons and with differing amounts of faith and skepticism.

Woodrow Wilson's ideas of freedom--free trade, self-determination, democracy...