Empire in Asia

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The Lansing-Ishii Agreement, 1917

The divergence between President Woodrow Wilson’s Open Door policy towards China, and the Japanese policy of carving out a sphere of “special interest” that emphasized its hegemony in East Asia, became open and serious during the course of the First World War. The result was this formal diplomatic understanding, concluded as an attempt to amend and reconcile Japanese and American policies concerning China.

        Since the end of the Russo-Japanese War, Japan tried, without success, to extend its rights in the leased territory in the Liaodong Peninsula and in the South Manchuria Railway (SMR) zone, which it took over from Russia, rights set to expire in 1923. At the same time, Japan tried to persuade the United Kingdom to enlarge Japanese economic activity in China through “economic cooperation” in the British sphere of influence in the Yangtze Valley--again, without success.*R.J. Gowen, ‘Great Britain and the Twenty-One Demands of 1915: Cooperation versus Effacement,’ in The Journal of Modern History, 43, 1, 1971. However, once the First World War broke out, Japan seized an opportunity to declare war on Germany and replace it as the main power in Shandong Province, exploiting European preoccupation with war at home. By seizing the German leased territory, an important economic and military position leased for 99 years, Japan hoped to settle its unsolved problem regarding Manchuria. It used the new position of advantage to get past the problem of expiring rights in Manchuria by presenting to Chinese authorities the Twenty-One Demands, in January 1915. In general, the demands were divided in five groups. They included negotiations regarding Shandong Provinces (Group I) and the Liaodong leased territory; the SMR zone (Group II); a joint-venture of the Hanyeping Company (Group III) in which Japan had already made substantial investments; a demand that China not cede or lease any concessions along the coastal area to any other power (Group IV), which referred to American interests; and (Group V) demands to reinforce the “Japanese protectorate over China”.*Ibid.

        The Demands would if granted have destroyed the American policy of the Open Door in China, which rested on its territorial integrity and political sovereignty. Consequently, they marked a turning point in Japanese-American relations, provoking an increasing American tendency to see Japanese policy as a threat in East Asia.*N. Kawamura, Turbulence in the Pacific – Japanese-U.S. relations during World War I, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000). To intensify the rivalry between Japan and the US, China declared war against Germany. China’s entry to the war was marked by numerous Japanese loans, known as Nishihara loans, which, in turn, secured to Japan greater influence in Chinese policy. Japan thus tried to steady her “special interests” in China through financial assistance.

        On the other hand, China’s declaration of war against Germany also caused an intense confrontation between Chinese Premier Duan Qirui and President Li Yuanhong. To try to reduce the strain, and block further Japanese interference in Chinese domestic affairs, the US Minister to China, Paul Samuel Reinsch, proposed that “the nations at war with Germany would guarantee the independence of China and the integrity of Chinese territory,” a point clearly aimed at Japan.*Ibid. Japan agreed to negotiate the issue with the US, and talks ensued between Secretary of State Robert Lansing and Japanese Ambassador Kikujiro Ishii.

        A confidential protocol and part of the diplomatic notes exchanged between the Lansing and Ishii during the 1917 are presented here. The protocol reveals corrections made and agreed by both parties. This was the result of an impasse lasting many weeks between Lansing and Ishii regarding the meaning of “special interests” in China. Two notes, both dated October 30, 1917, show a secret negotiation in which a Japanese warship replaced the American warship USS Saratoga in the Hawaiian Islands in mid-October which, in turn, joined US naval forces in the Atlantic.*Also quoted in T.D. Saxon, ‘Anglo-Japanese Naval Cooperation, 1914-1918’, in Naval War College Review, 2000. The Agreement was signed in November 2, 1917, but later cancelled, on April 14, 1923. The Agreement was published as The Imperial Japanese Mission 1917: a record of the reception throughout the United States of the special mission headed by Viscount Ishii, together with the exchange of notes embodying the Root-Takahira Understanding of 1908 and the Lansing-Ishii Agreement of 1917.*J.C. Vinson, ‘The Annulment of the Lansing-Ishii Agreement,’ in Pacific Historical Review, 27, 1, 1958. Rather than being seen as a temporary wartime measure aimed at postponing an underlying dispute, it is better seen as reflecting a clear understanding between the American and Japanese governments that their long term visions regarding China were not compatible. Given how pivotal China was to the foreign policy of each power, the Agreement marked an important moment in the unfolding of enmity between Japan and the US.

The Lansing-Ishii Exchange of Notes, 1917


Washington, NOV. 2, 1917.


I have the honor to communicate herein my understanding of the agreement reached by us in our recent conversations touching the questions of mutual interest to our governments relating to the republic of China.

In order to silence mischievous reports that have from time to time been circulated it is believed by us that a public announcement once more of the desires and intentions shared by our two governments with regard to China is advisable.

The governments of the United States and Japan recognize that territorial propinquity creates special relations between countries, and, consequently, the government of the United. States recognizes that Japan has special interests in China, particularly in the part to which her possessions are contiguous.

The territorial sovereignty of China, nevertheless, remains unimpaired, and the government of the United States has every confidence in the repeated assurances of the Imperial Japanese government that while geographical position gives Japan such special interests they have no desire to discriminate against the trade of other nations or to disregard the commercial rights heretofore granted by China in treaties with other powers.

The governments of the United States and Japan deny that they have any purpose to infringe in any way the independence or territorial integrity of China, and they declare, furthermore, that they always adhere to the principle of the so-called "open door" or equal opportunity for commerce and industry in China.

Moreover, they mutually declare that they are opposed to the acquisition by any government of any special rights or privileges that would affect the independence or territorial integrity of China or that would deny to the subjects or citizens of any country the full enjoyment of equal opportunity in the commerce and industry of China.

I shall be glad to have Your Excellency confirm this understanding of the agreement reached by us.

Accept, Excellency, the renewed assurance of my highest consideration.


Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary
of Japan, on Special Mission.



Washington, Nov. 2, 1917


I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your note today, communicating to me your understanding of the agreement reached by us in our recent conversations touching the questions of mutual interests to our governments relating to the republic of China.

I am happy to be able to confirm to you, under authorization of my government, the understanding in question set forth in the following terms:

[Here the special Ambassador repeats the language of the agreement as given in Secretary Lansing's note].

(Signed) K. ISHII,
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary
of Japan on Special Mission.


Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Division for Intercourse and Education. The Imperial Japanese Mission, 1917: A Record of the Reception Throughout the United States of the Special Mission headed by Viscount Ishii. Washington: Byron S. Adams, 1918. pp. 121-122.

Annotated by Miriam Kaminishi