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World War 1 History: Japanese Navy in the Mediterranean

Updated on August 3, 2017
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

Japanese Soldiers in China

World War I: Japanese troops taking part in the assault on Tsing-tau (China) stopping for lunch.
World War I: Japanese troops taking part in the assault on Tsing-tau (China) stopping for lunch. | Source

Japan: Forgotten Ally?

Japan's participation in World War 1 has been largely relegated to the footnotes of history. The Western World has largely forgotten that the Japanese fought on the side of the Allies against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Many are further surprised to learn that the Japanese Imperial Navy fought German and Austrian submarines in the Mediterranean Sea. This general amnesia can be attributed to several factors.

First, less than 500 Japanese were killed in combat. This would seem to indicate an almost complete lack of participation in the war, especially compared to, say, France, which alone suffered 1,400,000 military deaths.

Second, Japan's brutal aggression during World War 2 as a member of the Axis Powers with Germany and Italy, almost completely eclipsed Japan's involvement in the earlier war.

Lastly, the racial bigotry of the Western Powers toward Asian nations and Japan in particular colored Western perceptions of events.

Japanese Battleship

WW1: Japanese Pre-Dreadnought Battleship Kashima, 16,000 tons, 4 X 12" guns, 4 X 10" guns.
WW1: Japanese Pre-Dreadnought Battleship Kashima, 16,000 tons, 4 X 12" guns, 4 X 10" guns. | Source

Japan's World-Class Navy

In fact, it was the Japanese Imperial Navy (Dai Nippon Teikoku Kaigun) and not its army that had drawn the interest of the British well before the war. In 1902, Britain and Japan signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The British, at that time, were concerned about the Russian threat to British interests in the east, while the Japanese saw an opportunity to expand their own influence in Asia. Before a decade passed, Germany had supplanted Russia as the main threat in the Pacific and the treaty continued to be beneficial to both the British and Japanese, so it was extended. When the war started, Japan had one of the largest navies in the world, including twenty-one battleships and twenty-nine cruisers.

Less than a week after the start of the war, Japan proposed that, in return for German territories in the Far East and its Pacific Islands, Japan would join the Allies. When Britain requested that the Japanese navy help patrol the eastern Pacific, Japan agreed and declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary on August 23, 1914.

With the Japanese patrolling in the Pacific, the British Royal Navy was able to move more of its ships from the east to the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea as well as bolster the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, north of Scotland, where it could keep the Kaiser's main fleet bottled up in German ports. The Japanese, also began moving against German possessions in China (notably the port city of Tsingtao in northern China) and German colonies in the Pacific, occupying the the Mariana, Caroline and Marshall Islands. Their success alarmed the Allies as well as the United States, which, though not at war, viewed the Japanese as threatening their interests in the Pacific. Further discussions yielded a compromise: Japan could have German territories north of the equator.

Protecting Hawaii

As the war dragged on, the Japanese navy assumed more and more duties. They ranged much of the Pacific and into the Indian Ocean, hunting German marauders and safeguarding Allied troopships headed for Europe. Japan also supplied Russia from the east with supplies and military equipment, even returning several cruisers they had captured during the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War. When the United States entered the war, in order to allow American ships to bolster the Royal Navy in the Atlantic Ocean, Japan took over even more responsibility in the Pacific. Their North American Task Force defended the West Coast of Canada, while, ironically, other Japanese ships protected the United States' Hawaiian Territories.

Japanese Cruise in the Mediterranean

WW1: The cruiser Akashi, Admiral Kozo Sato's flagship in the Mediterranean. 2,700 tons, 2 X 6" guns, 6 X 4.7" guns.
WW1: The cruiser Akashi, Admiral Kozo Sato's flagship in the Mediterranean. 2,700 tons, 2 X 6" guns, 6 X 4.7" guns. | Source

The Mediterranean Theater

By 1917, German and Austrian submarines operating in the Mediterranean were sinking Allied shipping at an alarming rate. During the entire war, the Allies would lose 12 million tons of shipping and a full quarter of that shipping was lost in the Mediterranean Sea. Despite misgivings about the quality of Japanese seamanship (based on bigotry and ignorance), the Allies pressured Japan to help out. What was needed were more escort ships like destroyers. In fact, most of the naval activity during the Great War involved submarines and destroyers, while the large warships of both sides-- the dreadnaughts and battle cruisers-- spent most of the war in port deterring each other.

The Japanese Second Special Squadron Arrives in the Mediterranean


On March 11, 1917, Admiral Sato Kozo aboard the cruiser Akashi and eight destroyers comprising the Second Special Squadron left Singapore headed west and arrived at Malta, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea on April 13.

The slaughter on the Western Front meant that a constant stream of reinforcements was needed. If the Mediterranean route was squeezed shut, French and British Empire troops would have to go all the way around the southern tip of Africa. The Japanese Imperial Navy then began their escort duties, based in Malta and protecting Allied shipping between Marseilles, France, Taranto, Italy and Egyptian ports. During their patrols, Japanese destroyers engaged German and Austrian submarines 34 times. Two of their destroyers were damaged. One, the Sakaki, lost 68 sailors killed when the Austrian U-Boat U-27 attacked her in June 1917. Despite the damage, she remained afloat and was repaired.

The Japanese were based in Malta and escorted ships between Egypt, Italy and France

Efficiency Eclipsing Even the British Navy

Additional Japanese destroyers joined the Second Special Squadron and two old British destroyers were manned by Japanese sailors. At its peak strength, the squadron numbered seventeen warships. The British quickly came to recognize and value the professional and efficient manner of the Japanese. French warships were under way 45 percent of the time; British warships were at sea 60 percent of the time. The Japanese were at sea an astounding 72 percent of the time, in effect making more warships available.

By the end of the war, the Second Special Squadron had escorted 788 ships across the Mediterranean, safely transporting more than 700,000 troops to the Western Front. Reportedly, several Japanese commanders committed Hari-Kari after ships under their protection were lost.

Japanese Destroyer

World War One: Japanese Kaba-class destroyer like those used in the Mediterranean.
World War One: Japanese Kaba-class destroyer like those used in the Mediterranean. | Source

Praise for the Japanese

The Japanese were lavishly praised for their performance in the Mediterranean by British leaders. Winston Churchill, who as First Lord of the Admiralty when the war started, had been a driving force behind British and Japanese naval cooperation. Although he fell from grace because of the 1915 Gallipoli disaster and spent time in the trenches, by the end of the war, his reputation had been restored and he had been appointed Minister of Munitions. Summing up the general feeling, he stated that he "did not think that the Japanese [squadron] had ever done a foolish thing."

Praise is Cheap

The Japanese Second Special Squadron headed back home in May, 1919. As part of their spoils of war, they took with them seven German submarines. As the three Great Powers-- Great Britain, France and the United States-- decided the fate of the world during the Versailles Treaty negotiations, many countries felt short-changed or humiliated. Despite all the words of praise and the confirmation that they could keep their German possessions, the Japanese were rebuffed when they tried to get a racial equality clause inserted into the treaty. The Americans and Europeans appreciated the Japanese help, but they weren't ready to treat them as equals. That the Japanese were arrogant and bent on taking every advantage to further their own ends is uncontested and they were a source of irritation to the Western powers carving up the world among themselves.

In addition, with the Russians and Germans out of the world picture, the British no longer needed the Japanese navy and the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance lapsed. At the same time, Japan turned to German expertise to incorporate the seven captured U-Boats into their navy and a relationship blossomed. German technology and influence filled the void the British left behind. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Allies Refused to Include This Racial Equality Clause

“The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord as soon as possible to all alien nationals of states, members of the League, equal and just treatment in every respect making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality.”

The Japanese Imperial Navy During World War One

(click column header to sort results)
TYPE  
1914  
WARTIME ADDITIONS  
Losses  
Dreadnoughts
2
4
1
Battlecruisers
5
3
1
Pre-Dreadnought Battleships
14
0
0
Armored Cruisers
8
0
0
Other Cruisers
21
0
2
Seaplane Carriers
1
0
0
Destroyers
50
27
1
Submarines
12
3
0
TOTALS
113
37
5

Japan in World War One

© 2013 David Hunt

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    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks MJFenn. I will add, though, that every country on either side, had their own self-interests at heart and the war served to instill national identities to the Australian, New Zealanders and Canadians as never before, though, as you point out, at a terrible cost. The Canadians, for example, were considered by the Germans as fierce storm troops. As such, Canadians were sometimes deployed as decoys to draw German troops away from areas where actual attacks were launched.

    • MJFenn profile image

      MJFenn 2 years ago

      Fascinating! it seems that the British Imperialists at the end of the war treated ther Japanese Allies with disdain: as they did with the Canadians in sending them to capture strategically insignificant Passchendaele at a high cost in Canadian lives - and then vacated Passchendaele without a shot. The political repercussions of the British Imperialists in treating Canadians as Colonial canon fodder, were to make the Canadian government determined to act more independently. It should come as no surprise that the Japanese Allies acted similarly, but with a military build up, instead of running down the military, as happened in Canada between the wars.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi justthemessenger. I don't know whether I'm a history nerd or a history geek, but I know what you mean when you say you enjoy coming across little-known historical facts. Thanks for the comment.

    • justthemessenger profile image

      James C Moore 2 years ago from The Great Midwest

      Wow! A wealth of information concerning a little known contribution in the first world war. A history nerd like me enjoys this type of hub. Before reading this, I knew Japan was in WW1 but didn't know how they were involved.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hello, Alphapx. I am trying to remedy my relative ignorance of Asian history (my niche is American and European history). I enjoy unearthing historical truths that give people pause and challenge their preconceived ideas of what happened in the past. I always learn something myself. As I mentioned earlier, the unknown (to me) fact that the Japanese fought in the Mediterranean aroused my interest and led to the understanding that Japan's experience during the peace negotiations was probably a factor that led them to "switch sides" 25 years later-- though make no mistake, I'm not excusing the atrocities they committed. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Marilyn, thanks so much for your comment. Sometimes I spend as much time looking for images as I do writing a first draft. I am always careful to use only public domain images and sometimes they are hard to find, but I think they add a lot to articles. Many times, however, I have not used images that would be perfect because I can't verify they are in the public domain.

    • Alphapx profile image

      Alphapx 2 years ago from Philippines

      This is a touching story of us Asians. I have never known this in my school days. I thought Japanese were that monster when they conquered our country Philippines. They were once a member of Allied Force.

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      Marilyn Fritz 2 years ago

      Wow, what an awesome informative page! I love the photographs you acquired, and thank you so very much for sharing this vital portion of history! There was quite a difference between Japan and the Mediterranean, what a crazy adaptability they must have experienced. I guess it is up to those of us who are interested in things like this to research and provide the information to give credit where it is due. That was a time when Japan proved to be a great help in battle!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      You are so right, Jay. Remember when the Soviet Union was a loyal ally and then they weren't? Allies are allies when there is a need or it's convenient to both governments.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you, Kawi. There is so much to learn besides the histories we are taught in school, no matter which country you live in. The bad are not all bad and the good are not all good. A real patriot must acknowledge and accept ugly truths along with the heroics.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 2 years ago from Houston, TX USA

      Very good hub. You wrote. The Western World has largely forgotten that the Japanese fought on the side of the Allies against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.

      Let us not forget that political alliances form and reform. They keep changing. As individuals we should not put our faith in politics. The moral is to avoid war and fighting entirely. Do not become enmeshed in the causes of others. We as individuals have a choice, not to fight another human.

    • KawikaChann profile image

      KawikaChann 2 years ago from Northwest, Hawaii, Anykine place

      Thanks David for an another interesting article - like many, I had no idea of Japan's involvement in actually facing off against early Germany. It's sad that so much of our world's history is recorded with such likeness.

      Thanks for another great hub and congrats on HOTD! Peace. Kawi.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      I appreciate your comment, MHiggins. The only problem with these relatively unknown aspects of history is that the more I write the longer it takes for me to dig them up. But it's an interesting quest. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi Graham. Always nice to hear from you...repeat visits always welcome! I was surprised that this 20-month-old hub was even considered for HotD. So we can all take heart that it isn't just the "fresh, new" hubs that make it. Thanks, as always.

    • MHiggins profile image

      Michael Higgins 2 years ago from Michigan

      Excellent hub! I knew very little about this. Great research and a great read!

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 2 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi David. Hub of the day well done! I have visited before but this hub deserves more than one visit. Tip top work.

      voted up and all.

      Graham.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Mickji, I'm glad you liked it. When I started looking into it (prompted by a single statement somewhere that the Japanese actually served in the European theater) I learned a lot. I am more than pleasantly surprised at the Hub of the Day award, since historical hubs rarely attain that honor. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Aesta1, thank you for reading and commenting. While the Japanese Navy may not be the second most powerful navy nowadays (the top three would be U.S., China and Russia) your comment prompted me to look into it. I was surprised to see that some rank it as the fifth-most powerful navy, which is astounding, given that, officially, it's not a "military" force but is classified as a "self-defense" force. So, because of your comment I learned something new!

    • Mickji profile image

      Mickji 2 years ago from between Italy and Switzerland, travelling around the world thanks to a little special object

      I thank you for your Hub, it is very interesting. I've often wondered why in the history pages there where never given any importance to the Japanese Navy nor their part in the WW. I really thank you for your Hub, I will share it with my friends and congrants on HotD!

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Efficiency is a Japanese trait we can learn from. Japan is now No.2 navy in the world. They have to protect their islands so they have developed a strong navy tradition.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      I'm glad you enjoyed it, Michael. It did take time to research and write-- partly because it was mostly new to me as well. What caught my interest was discovering that the Japanese were active in the Mediterranean. At that point I knew I had a Hub. It's always gratifying when readers appreciate the a writer's efforts.

    • Michael Kismet profile image

      Michael Kismet 3 years ago from Northern California

      Wow, this article is packed to the gills with interesting information and facts, it took me a better part of half an hour to really digest it all. You must have put in quite a bit of time, and it clearly shows.

      When I find the time I will definitely peruse more, your other hubs seem just as quality laden as this one was, cheers! Thanks for putting in so much work to share your passion for such provocative history.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      And thank you, Kiyoshi for commenting. So much of World War 1 has affected us in the 100 years since it's start.

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      Kiyoshi Shimotsu 3 years ago

      That's the debut on world politics (world affairs) from Far Eastern tiny island. I appreciate your article. ありがとうございます。Thank you,Haraldさん。

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi, Graham. Great to hear from you and thanks for your kind compliment. All I knew before researching this was that Japan was an ally and, based on casualties alone, not a significant one, but as I found out that her Navy patrolled half the world, I dug deeper. I'm sure that Japan's actions in the next war had a significant impact on her WW1 history as remembered in the West. Thanks again!

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      David. I have just come back to read this hub. I has got better with time. I really do congratulate you on this one. First class.

      Graham.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you, Theresa. High praise indeed. I enjoy digging up these bits of history as much as putting together the articles. When someone besides me enjoys them, that's what scratches the writer's itch.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Terrific Hub. I had no idea. Of course I am focused on WW II, but if my high school and college history teachers knew about this, they skipped right over it. You always fill in the blanks in the most interesating ways, Harald. Excellent Hub -- Sharing. Theresa

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks again, Pavlo. The only thing I knew was that Japan was involved with the allies in some "minor" way and a look at the death count for Japan proved it. It wasn't until I read something about Churchill pushing the British government to get Japan's navy involved that I started reading up on it. While not suffering anything like the other allies, they did a lot more than most thought. And, again, thanks for sharing.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      This is an amazing piece of history still unknown to many people. WW1 involved so many countries and I did not know that Japan was one of them too. Great hub, David! Shared

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for reading and commenting, panpan. You're right. And I also discovered that the Japanese were the first to launch an air attack from the sea using a seaplane carrier in 1914 during their assault against the Germans and Austrians in Tsing-tau, China. The fragile seaplanes didn't take off from the carrier; they were lowered to the water and, after coming back from the attack, landed in the water and hoisted back aboard.

    • panpan1972 profile image

      Panagiotis Tsarouchakis 4 years ago from Greece

      Japanese in the Mediterranean! Fascinating! It also reminds us how important tool in world politics a navy can be.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      And, as always, great to hear from you, Graham. I've been wanting to do something on Japan for months. I finally did it. Glad you liked it!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you, Nate. It really does show that there ARE consequences, that actions beget actions. I also was surprised to learn of the size of the Japanese navy during WW1-- and I certainly did not realize they fought in the Mediterranean. Researching is half the fun of writing-- there's always something unexpected.

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi David. As always this is an excellently researched hub. Your ability to find the little known facts of your subject is admirable. Well done.

      As is usual voted up and all.

      Graham.

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      Nathan Bernardo 4 years ago from California, United States of America

      That is fascinating, I had no idea the Japanese fought with the Allies in World War One, and how formidable was their navy. It is interesting too that the fall-out of World War One, Germany humiliated and extorted, and the Japanese snubbed, seems to have led to Germany and Japan's actions leading to World War Two. Also, that period around the end of 19th century and beginning of the 20th seems to have been a time in which trade in Asia led to much war and various alliances and enmity. The aftermath of the Spanish-American War and the subsequent war in the Philippine had much to do with the US wanting a foothold in trade in Asia and fearing the competition. Amazing how much things change in war; from allies to enemies.