Racial Equality Proposal
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The Racial Equality Proposal was an amendment to the treaty under consideration at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference offered by the Empire of Japan. Though broadly supported, it did not become part of the Treaty of Versailles, largely because of the opposition of Australia and the United States.
After the end of seclusion in the 1850s, Japan signed unequal treaties (so-called the Ansei Treaties) but soon came to demand equal status with the Western powers. Correcting inequality became the most urgent international issue of the Meiji government. In this context, the Japanese delegation to the Paris peace conference proposed the "racial equality clause" in the Covenant of the League of Nations. The first draft was presented to the League of Nations Commission on 13 February as an amendment to Article 21:
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 delegation did not realize the full ramifications of their proposal, since its adoption would have challenged aspects of the established norms of the (Western dominated) international system of the day, which involved the colonial rule over non-white peoples. The Japanese delegation believed it was asking only that the League of Nations should accept the equality of Japanese nationals; however, a universalist meaning and implication of the proposal became attached to it within the delegation, which drove its contentiousness at the conference.
Then, Makino Nobuaki, the career diplomat who headed the Japanese delegation, announced at a press conference: "We are not too proud to fight but we are too proud to accept a place of admitted inferiority in dealing with one or more of the associated nations.We want nothing but simple justice."
The proposal was also problematic for U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who need the votes of segregation Southern Democrats if to succeed in getting the votes needed for the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty. Strong opposition from the British Empire delegations gave him a pretext to reject the proposal.
On April 11, 1919, the commission held a final session. Makino stated the Japanese plea for human rights and racial equality. British representative Robert Cecil spoke for the British Empire and addressed opposition to the proposal. Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando spoke in favor of the statement on human rights. French Senator Léon Bourgeois urged adoption and stated that it would be impossible to reject this proposal that embodied "an indisputable principle of justice".
The proposal received a majority vote on the day. 11 of the 17 delegates present voted in favor of its amendment to the charter, and no negative vote was taken. The votes for the amendment tallied thus:
- Japan (2) Yes
- France (2) Yes
- Italy (2) Yes
- Brazil (1) Yes
- Republic of China (1) Yes
- Greece (1) Yes
- Serbia (1) Yes
- Czechoslovakia (1) Yes
Total: 11 Yes
- British Empire (2) - Not Registered
- United States (2) - Not Registered
- Portugal (1) - Not Registered
- Romania (1) - Not Registered
- Belgium (2) - Absent
The chairman, President Wilson, overturned it, saying that although the proposal had been approved by a clear majority, that in this particular matter, strong opposition had manifested itself, and that on this issue a unanimous vote would be required. This strong opposition came from the British delegation. French Delegate Ferdinand Larnaude immediately stated "A majority had voted for the amendment". The Japanese delegation wanted the transcript to show that a clear majority had been voted for the amendment to the Charter.
Though the proposal itself was compatible with British stance of equality for all subjects as a principle for maintaining imperial unity, there were significant deviations in the stated interests of its Dominions, notably Australia. As it risked undermining the White Australia Policy, then Prime Minister of Australia Billy Hughes and Joseph Cook vigorously opposed the proposal behind the scenes, and so advocated against it through the British delegation. Without the support of its Dominions, the British delegation could not take such a stand on principle. According to Robert Cecil, the delegate representing the British Empire at the Conference, in his diary:
...it is curious how all the foreigners perpetually harp on principle and right and other abstractions, whereas the Americans and still more the British are only considering what will give the best chance to the League of working properly.
In the end, Cecil felt that British support for the League of Nations was a more crucial goal. The Japanese media fully covered the progress of the conference, leading to an alienation of Japanese public opinion towards the United States of America, leading to broader conflicts later on. In the United States, racial riots resulted from the American deliberate inaction. Although the exclusion of the racial equality proposal allowed Wilson to keep Southern Democratic allies on his side, this proved insufficient to get the treaty ratified by the United States Senate, and the United States never joined the League of Nations. The mood of the international system changed dramatically by 1945, so that this contentious point of racial equality would be incorporated into the United Nations Charter in 1945 as the fundamental principle of international justice.
As such, some historians consider that this point could be listed among the many causes of conflict and which led to Japanese actions later on. They argue that the rejection of the racial equality clause proved to be an important factor in turning Japan away from cooperation with the West and toward nationalistic policies. In 1923, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance expired, which gradually resulted in a closer relationship of Japan to Germany and Italy. However, Prussian militarism was already entrenched in the Imperial Japanese Army, many members of the Army had expected Germany to win the war, and Germany had approached Japan for a separate peace in 1916. The rapprochement towards Germany did not occur until the mid-1930s, a time when Germany had greater ties with Nationalist China.
After the Nazis gained power, Japan decided to not expel Jewish refugees from China, Manchuria, and Japan and advocated the political slogan Hakkō ichiu (literally "eight crown cords, one roof" i.e. "all the world under one roof").
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- Kajima, Diplomacy of Japan p. 405 as cited in Lauren, p. 90
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Japan and the Race Question at the Paris Peace Conference - A Western View of 1921
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Japan and the Race Question at the Paris Peace Conference: A Japanese View in 1919
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