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There are certain similarities that can be drawn between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Both were dictatorships, both believed in racism (though against different people), and both were wanting to invade nearby countries out of self-interest. But that could describe a lot of countries, past and present, Axis members and non-members.

Did ideological similarity play a role in Imperial Japan's decision to ally with Nazi Germany?

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Very interesting question. –  Felix Goldberg Apr 7 '14 at 12:43
This question is turning into quite the discussion, but with no actual answers anywhere below. –  Pieter Geerkens Apr 8 '14 at 3:47
Wasn't it just a case of "their enemy is our friend"? –  cup Apr 9 '14 at 10:19
Interesting question, +1, but as a preliminary we could ask whether this type of question is even one that we should expect to be answerable. A boy growing up in a gang-ridden city may join gang A or gang B. The tendency for gangs to form and come into conflict may be explainable from sociology or economics, but the reasons why the boy joins A rather than B may be trivial. It may not even be clear what would constitute a satisfying explanation of his choice. –  Ben Crowell Apr 10 '14 at 2:53
Just take a look at the timeline. Germany was originally allied with China, not Japan. They even gave help in developing military (against the Japanese) and Chinese visited and trained in the Wehrmacht. This alliance broke end got weaker after Sino-Soviet Nonaggression Pact(1937), but still was in effect till 1941. The reason why Germany hopped to an alliance with Japan is that Japan was more aggressive against the Sovietunion. Irony: soon after Japan also signed a non-aggression pact with Soviet-union. –  Greg Jun 25 at 3:29

13 Answers 13

I seriously doubt it. Japan was a traditional monarchy, philosophically and ideologically far closer to China than Germany.
Of course both were mortal enemies and had been for centuries.

Far more likely they were drawn together simply by the fact that both were shut out from the "international community" and felt slighted by the UK and US (and in case of Germany France).
That's no different than Iran and North Korea being very chummy nowadays, despite having ideologies that couldn't be further apart (like the German race laws, Iran's religious laws would dictate them exterminate their ally rather than deal with them).
So as is so often the case, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, or at least my associate.

And yes, you're quite right that a lot of countries had similar racial ideas to the Germans (Japan wasn't so much racist as placing no value on any human life, especially that of those who were shown to be inferior to them by being conquered in battle. What the Germans did to the peoples they persecuted was because of their race, what the Japanese did was far more casual. This is shown clearly at the very end, when the German government issued a decree that suicide missions were a disgrace and not to be pursued, were dishonorable, when the Japanese embraced them as a last ditch effort to save at least personal honour in the defeat of the Empire.

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The Japanese, Germans, and Italians primarily allied based on their late-bloomer status and desire for geopolitical revisionism. Whereas countries like Britain, France, Russia, and so forth had unified and developed empires in the centuries prior to industrialization, the Axis powers had not really unified and become politically and militarily centralized until the second half of the 19th century. As their power grew in the early 20th century, they sought to carve out colonies and empires for themselves, since they had missed the earlier imperial divisions. At least, this is one common theory.

The German Empire unified over the course of three wars from 1864-1871, resulting in the Kleindeutschland that excluded Austria but created a centralized German Empire based on Prussia. The Italians unified their Kingdom from 1848 to 1871 (with the Kingdom reasserted 1861). The Japanese had the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

None of these events are so singular as they seem (giving a solid date always sounds overly specific) but there was a clear trend among all three toward becoming more centralized in the late 19th century. That led to politics of assertiveness and trying to carve out a political and diplomatic role commensurate with their increased economic and political strength. All three clearly wanted imperial-like possessions, and their territorial designs were distinct enough that it seemed to make sense for them to form an alliance.

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Germany was trying to create a racially pure society and enslave or kill anyone who didn't meet that standard. That's not imperalism and they owned 23 colonies anyway, so I major problem with the way it sounds like Germany is just catching up. Japan tried to take over China in the 16th century when it unified. All the countries are expansionist, but claiming its not part of their ideology, fascism, is an opinion, since that is a characteristic of fascism. –  Razie Mah Apr 8 '14 at 2:50
@NL7 They aren't mutually exclusive, but broad generalizations can cause confusion. If Germany wanted more colonies, they would have attacked France, won, and then had France cede over some of their colonies. European imperalism wasn't their geopolitical priority. Other problems: Italy was allied with Germany bc it was fascist. (Mussolini invented fascism.) Russia was not unified until the 19th century, centuries after Japan. The Soviets allied with the US and UK because Germany attacked them, not because it had an early history of empire. On a positive note, I do think that Japans... –  Razie Mah Apr 8 '14 at 10:02
I thought that Germany not acquiring enough colonies was a factor for WW1, not WW2. –  Andrew Grimm Apr 9 '14 at 12:59
Note that "Germany" had been an empire for centuries (if without remote colonies); it was basically the successor of the western Roman empire. It just got splintered up during the middle of the second millenium. –  Raphael Apr 9 '14 at 22:05
@NL7 There certainly is an abstraction that covers all expansion, or even all conflict. The question is whether this abstraction is useful, and whether the details are irrelevant (to the subject discussed). –  Raphael Apr 10 '14 at 14:33

Of course!

There are major differences between the ideology of Germany, Japan and Italy, but there is one major similarity: they disliked the communists.

If the immediate threat from the left was less than in Italy and Germany, it nevertheless is apparent that the establishment was alarmed by it. After 1918, when spontaneous riots over the rocketing price of rice had spread over much of Japan, many conservatives and reactionaries formed or joined associations pledged to the maintenance or revival of Japanese traditional values. Some top leaders gave surreptitious support, not only to crude strike-breaking organisations, but also to the much more radical nationalist societies which now began to emerge.

The other major reason for organization of countries that made up the Axis is that no one else wanted to be their ally, because they were expansionist and aggressive and were untrustworthy as allies. Germany and Italy made many attempts to ally with the West. But since the Soviet Union really wanted to be in the Axis, probably the Axis being allied against them was genuinely ideologically motivated and not only realpolitik.

The Anti-Comintern Pact which was the fore-runner of the creation of the Axis.

The Anti-Comintern Pact was an anti-communist pact concluded between Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan (later to be joined by other, mainly fascistic, governments) on November 25, 1936 and was directed against the Third (Communist) International.

The pact replaced Germany's long running relationship with China before WWII. Germany originally felt closer to China when it opposed the terms of the Versaille Treaty giving Germany protectorates in China to Japan. China's civil war ended in 1949, but communism was a growing force in the country in the 1930's and the weakening of China's nationalist government translated into a gulf between China and Nazi Germany. So instead Hitler sought an alliance with Japan, which had also been undergoing ideological changes, who he saw it had more ideological similarity now.

I don't believe racism was an important reason or other ideological reasons. Japanese ideology, often referred to as "Japanese fascism" in the past was quite different in many ways. The most important way is that it was not a workers movement, as it was in Germany. It was instituted by the elite in Japan to "improve" and speed up capitalism and industrialization through the monopoly control of industry. Here is a good article.

A major reason for the lack of consensus over the validity of the term 'Japanese fascism' is the difficulty of defining fascism in general. Historians and political scientists have been unable to agree whether fascism is primarily revolutionary or conservative, modern or traditional; whether it was essentially a product of the First World War or of the general process of social modernisation; whether it belongs to a particular stage of capitalism or whether it depends on the nature of the adjustment of agriculture to economic modernisation; whether it was above all a form of ultranationalism or whether it was most concerned with maintaining or restoring the status structure.

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This is a good answer, basically, and I'd like to upvote. But I am held back by your insistence on the term "Japanese fascism". It's a contested term and the excellent article you have linked to makes very clear the difficulties with it. Perhaps it is possible to rework the answer a bit with less emphasis on "Japanese fascism"? –  Felix Goldberg Apr 8 '14 at 4:49
@FelixGoldberg I believe so. –  Razie Mah Apr 8 '14 at 5:06
"they disliked the communists" -- so why didn't the US join up? (intentionally provocative question) –  Raphael Apr 9 '14 at 22:10
@Raphael Roosevelt thought the USSR would act as a balance to Great Britian. Also, the USSR wasn't aggressive to the US, but Germany was. –  Razie Mah Apr 9 '14 at 23:21

No. For instance, you are wrong that Japan promoted racism on the official basis. In fact, throughout the war up to 1944 they conducted several international conferences against racism. This was very bold move given the position of Germany. Japan also was the government that proposed amendments to the League of Nations charter condemning racism (before the war), which were rejected by the US and Britain, the countries who officially implemented racial segregation at the time.

The reason why Japan sided with Germany may be that Hitler expressed explicit sympathy to the Japanese as early as Mein Kampf, especially for their fight against Russian Empire. But till the end of the 1930s Germany was in close relationships with China, that is in the opposite camp than Japan. For Japan the alliance with Germany was a no-loss game: in fact it virtually provided no support for Germany's war effort in Europe, at the same time having a powerful ally against the US.

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I disagree, they were "against" racism only because they were part of the "inferior" race as far as the Western world was concerned. They certainly had no problem seeing others cultures in Asia as inferior or even none-human, and acted accordingly. –  Kai Apr 9 '14 at 6:57
@Kai yes and no. Japan viewed others as inferior, but not because of racist ideology. They viewed anyone as inferior who wasn't a "winner" in their Bushido tradition, including other Japanese. –  jwenting Apr 9 '14 at 11:16
Can you supply more detail about attending conferences against racism until 1944, or provide references for that claim? –  Andrew Grimm Apr 9 '14 at 13:01
@Andrew Grimm Greater East Asia conference in November, 1943, it is mentioned here eng.the-liberty.com/2014/4941 and here wikitp.blogspot.ru/2009/11/history-of-racism.html –  Anixx Apr 9 '14 at 14:51

Yes and no.

Reasons for YES:

  1. Both were anti-communist and had geopolitical claims against the Soviet Union.
  2. Both were rebelling against the international order created by established powers as established in the settlement of World War I.
  3. Both were obsessed with economic autarky and wanted to build land empires to achieve it. Germany vis-a-vis "the East" and Japan in Korea/Manchuria/China.
  4. Both believed they were overpopulated and needed where for their populations to colonize.
  5. Both were obsessed with "purity" and creating "order" vis-a-vis the decadence of liberal democracy.

Reasons for NO:

  1. Germany expressed its drive for purity in language of race and space. Since Japan's ideology was formally anti-Western imperialism and sought to free Asia from the white man, race was anathema even though their imperial practice was racist.
  2. Since they were focused on building independent autarkic empires, they actually didn't think too much about each other, consider each other, or consult each other as they went about their alliance. Germany had to delay invading the USSR in part in order to secure the Balkans and rescue Italy in Greece; Germany signed the Non-Aggression Pact with the USSR without consulting Japan; Japan concluded its own pact with the USSR just before Germany invaded. Yes Hitler declared war on the USA after the USA declared war on Japan but he didn't have to, and the reasons weren't particularly related to loyalty or Japan.
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Excellent answer. –  Razie Mah Apr 9 '14 at 19:59

I think the answer is no, and in any case there are a variety of material and strategic factors, like a set of common enemies, that would make it hard to say that ideology was a driving force in the alliance between Germany and Japan.

Asking as someone from the US, you also have to keep in mind that our perspective is biased. It's easy to focus on the Holocaust and the Japanese atrocities in World War 2 and forget that these countries, like all countries, participated in global politics before WW2, and that many of their actions leading up to the war may have been motivated by strategic interests, not ideology.

I'm reading a book right now on the history of the Japanese navy from the Meiji Restoration up through the beginning of WW2. Japan had a history of intense rivalry between the Army and Navy, going back to the 1880's at least. The army was focused on the East Asian continent, and saw Russia as the main threat. The navy was focused on south Asia and the Pacific, and saw the USA as the main threat.

One of Japan's big weaknesses as an island nation was a dependence on foreign, overseas trade for most raw materials, and crucially, oil. The two major sources of oil available were in Southeast Asia (Borneo, Indonesia), and from the US. Given that Britain had strong interests in Southeast Asia itself, e.g. Singapore and Malaysia, this put Japan into potential conflict with Britain itself. But the main threat was the strong US presence in the Philippines and Pacific Islands, which stood in the way of Japanese expansion generally, and access to oil and resources further south in Borneo and Indonesia. Thus from the end of WW1 and through the 20's and 30's, the navy prepared for war with the US. Training, strategy, procurement of ships were all focused on a trans-Pacific war with the US.

Given that this thinking was in place long before Hitler rose to power in Germany, I think it would be hard to say that any ideological commonalities you might find are much more than convenience for an alliance driven by a common set of enemies: the US, Russia, and Britain.

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Thanks for the edits @kobunite! –  andybega Apr 29 '14 at 15:55

It would be very hard to say that they became allies because of ideology. Japan wasn't so much racist country as Nazi Germany was. Japan wasn't totalitarian state as Germany was. There were lot of differences between Japan and Germany and almost only idological similarity was that they both were strong anti-communist. I would say that they became allies because of their militaristic views. Japan wanted to expand their territories to China and North Korea and Adolf Hitler's Reich wanted to expand how they would make Lebensraum for German people. There was also one great reason why they became allies: World War I. Japan didn't get all territories on the east and they felt sidelined by four main powers. Germany had to pay great repqration what led to hard economic situation in Third Reich. All of that were reasons why they officaly became allies in 1936.

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Lots of opinions there; it would be better with facts/sources/citations. I'm not sure that we can quantify racism quite as neatly as you do. –  Mark C. Wallace May 19 '14 at 14:42

The common enemy was the U.S Japan's fuel supply was being blocked by the United States and the United States leadership was pro-Britain. If Hitler's ego had been restrained, he would not have declared war on the U.S. immediately after America declared war on Japan. So in reality it was more the friend of my enemy is my enemy. If Hitler had not declared war on U.S., if Germany had not invaded Russia the outcome would almost certainly have been different.

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Erm... wrong. Hitler's primary enemy was Russia (i.e. Bolchevism), his secondary enemy anyone who could threaten Germany's borders. If he could have helped it, he would have kept the western allies out of this war completely, and indeed he kept trying to appease England during the "phoney war" before eventually attacking France to keep his back to the wall. He hoped the Japanese would attack Russia on a second front, but instead they (the Japanese) drew the U.S. (which had been involved already through Lend-Lease) into the conflict at a time when Germany was already losing. –  DevSolar Apr 8 '14 at 11:37
(cont'd) Up until well after the invasion of Poland and the declaration of war by England and France, Hitler considered England "brothers" and potential allies, and his aggression was certainly not aimed at the U.S.; his whole ideology was as anti-communist as.. uh... the U.S. of the 1950'ies? To the east was what he considered the "Lebensraum" for the Germans. It was his heavy-handed approach to foreign policy that made this into a war against east and west, but his aim was due east. –  DevSolar Apr 8 '14 at 11:47
Hess' flight in 1941 was also an attempt to make peace with the UK. The attack on Russia may have been ideological, but having access to the oil and coal there must have been tempting. –  S Vilcans Apr 9 '14 at 9:02
Wow. Where to begin? Hitler primary enemy was Russia. Possibly philosophically. But until 1941 there was a Soviet/German non-aggression pact which Hitler broke unilaterally. In fact Russia was a major supplier of grain and fuel to Germany. Yes, Hitler though Brits were most similar to his idealized Aryans. Most English folk disagreed, certainly Churchill eas not in the pro-German camp. –  Sam Wallace Apr 12 '14 at 21:04
@SamWallace: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a fraud, intended to buy Germany some time to re-group before invading. Talking about any scenario of Germany not invading Russia (and instead aiming at France / Britain alone) is a fallacy, because it is ignoring about 95% of the reasons why Germany's leadership considered this war necessary in the first place. The kind of resources Germany was aiming for were not to be found in France or the British isles, and defeating England and France doesn't imply control over their colonies. Russia. Everything else was secondary. –  DevSolar Apr 14 '14 at 6:54

I would say no (well, you wanted a clear answer).

The ideological differences between Germany and Japan (and Italy) was greater than the similarities. Keep in mind that at Winston Churchill hated Jews as much as Hitler and at that time racism was very common even as official policy.

War makes strange bedfellows and the enemy of my enemy is my friend. There were other strange hook-up such as people fighting for Irish independence sided with Germany as Germany fought the British. Even stranger the Jewish group Lehi (aka the Stern gang) sought an alliance with Germany in the 1940s (as both were against the British).

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In many ways it was an alliance based on "my enemies enemy is my friend" After the Washington Naval Treaty Japan was very unhappy with the manner in which she was treated.

In particular the UK was already distancing itself; having been strong allies in the Great War we were prepared to sacrifice this for a convenient political solution that saved us money - in the eyes of the Japanese. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington_Naval_Treaty#Japanese_denunciation)

Our view was that we couldn't afford to carry on competing with the USA and so we would sacrifice just about anything to retain parity.

The USA (see warplan Orange) was already in 1919 planning a naval war against Japan. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_color-coded_war_plans)

And so the Japanese; who had considered themselves good allies in the great war - even sending a fleet to the Mediterranean were suddenly isolated and anathematised - leading to the question of who would support them.

The Japanese had a very clear view about the Third Reich; parvenus. The Third Reich had a very clear view about Japan - untermensch.

But they both had a consistent view about the UK and Europe - Targets.

Hitler in my view stupidly declared war on the USA after Pearl Harbour.

Stalin declared war on Japan after the Third Reich had collapsed. A convenient and effective time so to do. And indeed there is still propaganda available today that indicates that the surrender of Japan was due to the effects of the Soviet declaration of war, and the invasion of Manchuria, rather than the repeated use of nuclear weapons.

I personally would give this more credence had the Japanese had a merchant navy with which to access Manchuria - by then there were no ships upon the vine (to paraphrase Leonard Cohen)

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I'd like to start by saying that, at least up until 1942, neither of the two openly advocated racism against any ethnic or religious group. Nor do we find racism to be a salient feature in the society of the two countries at the time. Rather, much of the horrendous acts of World War 2 were done out of a mentality shaped by bigotry.

It was generally believed after the Great War, that the world was done with all the truculence and bloodshed. What would thus strike one as odd is how two countries (let's leave Italy out of the picture, as your question doesn't concern it) like Germany and Japan could possibly have come together. They made for the most anomalous of allies.

So while the world acknowledged what would probably have been described at the time as 'imperial tendencies' of both Japan and Germany, they were also fairly certain that the two nations would think twice before stirring up any trouble.

Here I'd like to make a passage from The Winds Of War by Herman Wouk available for your reading. It'll paint a more realistic picture of Germany and its people than the one that usually pops into your head when you hear the words 'total war'

Yes, here the Germans sit at the heart of Europe, these perplexing first cousins 
of ours, simmering and grumbling away, and every now and then they spill over in
in all directions, with a hideous roar. Out they pour from these lovely little 
towns, these fairy-tale landscapes, these clean handsome cities--out they bubble, I
say, these polite blue-eyed music lovers, ravening for blood. It gets a bit 

The Germans were genteel people, who were probably trying hard to come to terms with the humiliating conditions set by The Treaty of Versailles. Now let's get down to the dynamics.

Japan and Germany had been working closely with each other for a while, but they cemented their relationship with the Tripartite Pact of September 1940. This sent a strong message to the Allies, who were mustering support at the time.

What historians find particularly fascinating about the Axis Powers is how each of them went independently about their imperial goals, only occasionally lending out a hand to each other.

The political climate in Europe was very nebulous at the time and relationships between countries was hardly ever water-tight. Therefore, the 'enemy of my enemy is a friend' line of reasoning couldn't have played as pivotal a role as most of the answers have made it out to be.

As this video suggests, Japan became relevant in the international scene only after World War 1. Their expansions in the Pacific, as they correctly recognised, had limits. This because of the naval power held by U.S.A and Britain. Less than 35% of the Japanese territory, at that time, must've been arable (at the moment, it's a meagre 15%, with the percentage still falling). Japan also does not have a good stock of natural resources.

This is what made Japan join the war. They wanted to extend their territory and make itself into an imperial power. It's important to mention that they were successful in doing so, by seizing a good part of Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. This should make much more sense when seen in the light of some of the country's actions in the early parts of the decade. A suitable example would be that of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, which was done in a bid to increase industrial might.

In the case of Germany, people were aroused to action by Hitler, who claimed to be a nationalist seeking to unify what he felt was German territory. He also promised to make amends by solidifying Germany and giving it back its former glory.

German troops being welcomed in Austria

When the initial conquests under Hitler, like the Anschluss that sought to unify Germany and Austria, garnered plenty of support from civilians on both sides of the border, the movement grew to an unprecedented scale.

There was, therefore, very little in the way of ideology that played a role in Japan and Germany fighting together. It is, as you rightly point out, a union based on self-interest and personal gains.

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Japan became an international player after the Russo-Japanese war, not WWI. Minor detail that doesn't affect your core arguments. Your reference to "total war' is also... distracting, since total war usually refers to the leveraging effect of GDP on wartime progress rather than bloody brutality. –  Mark C. Wallace Aug 19 at 11:34
What I meant by total war was a war on all fronts. –  Sampark Sharma Aug 19 at 11:43

Not Nazism, but I would point you to a man called Jakob Meckel, who was the founding instructor of the Japanese Army War College.

Literally all of the Japanese Army high command then was his student, or his student's student, or so on. Their army high command was far more drawn to Prussia and Germany culturally than they were to the United States or Britain.

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Did ideological similarity play a role in Imperial Japan's decision to ally with Nazi Germany?

A: nope...they made this decision at a time were there was no Nazi Germany...

the axis germany/italy/japan were basically formed at the end of WW1 as a result of the treaty of Versailles -> their claims has been ignored during the peace negotiations...

short said -> they were pissed because they got punked and didn't get a piece from the cake called germany...that's why they formed this axis later...that's all...so you see...there are no nazis, no cats and -of course- no squirrels involved here ;-)

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That is incorrect. The German-Japanese alience was formed shortly before WWII. Germany was actually closely allied with Chine, and not Japan, before that. Also, treaty of Versailles has nothing to do with Japan. Japan and Italy were victors in WWI. –  Greg Nov 10 '14 at 13:26

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