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I recall in history class learning that the Japanese could have attacked the USSR in the 1940s and potentially split Stalin's forces - which presumably would have been more useful for the Nazis than bringing the US into the war.

Which would indicate that Japan wasn't part of the Axis in any real way.

At the same time, after Pearl Harbour, the Nazis declared war on the US (siding with the Japanese), indicating a close relationship.

But again, I cannot imagine the Japanese fitting into the Aryan image if the Russians didn't...

So, did the Nazis have a relationship with Imperial Japan? If not, why are they always referred to as the Axis?

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Welcome to History.SE! My personal guess (which probably isn't correct) would be that if the Nazis and Japanese had won the war, they would have eventually turned on each other regardless. –  Reliable Source Jan 21 '13 at 0:20
    
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The formal German-Japanese relationship in World War II (as part of the Axis) was established in the Tripartite Pact of 1940 (see also Anti-Comintern Pact).

The "Axis powers" formally took the name after the Tripartite Pact was signed by Germany, Italy, and Japan on 27 September 1940, in Berlin. The pact was subsequently joined by Hungary (20 November 1940), Romania (23 November 1940), Slovakia (24 November 1940), and Bulgaria (1 March 1941). Its most militarily powerful members were Germany and Japan. These two nations had also signed the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936.

Inevitably, theirs was a complicated relationship. This is from Conrad Black's Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom:

The German invasion of Russia [in 1941] came as a complete shock to the Japanese. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 23, 1939, had undercut the former Japanese policy of pursuing a joint German-Japanese anti-Soviet policy and came just as the Russians, under future Marshal Georgi Zhukov, decisively defeated the Japanese in a multi-division "border incident" at Nomonhan.

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German racialism was historically flexible enough to accomodate pro-Chinese and pro-Japanese reconfigurations. Japan did not attack the Soviet Union as it was manifestly not in the interests of Japan to do so after the Nomohan incident (see Battles of Khalkhin Gol at the encyclopaedia). Germany did maintain diplomatic and political links with Japan. Some technology transfer occurred, and some trade in incredibly high value strategic goods. The level of coordination and trade was far less than the relationship between Britain and China for example. Yet China is one of the Allies. Propaganda often obscures the real relationships between states.

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The original "Axis" was the Berlin-Rome Axis. When Japan was added, it became the "Three Power Pact."

Even so, Germany had a higher regard for Japan (although Asian) than for its Italian allies. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hitler exulted, "We cannot lose this war. We have an ally that has not been defeated in 350 years."

At some level, Germany considered Japan part of the Axis (and an "ally") because of shared fascistic and militaristic tendencies. Whether Japan "reciprocated" is a matter of debate. But they considered themselves to have common enemies in Britain and the United States.

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Your first sentence is incorrect, Japan and Nazi Germany signed the Anti-Comintern Pact almost a year before Italy signed it. –  Yannis Rizos Jan 21 '13 at 1:19
    
@YannisRizos: According to this source, the Axis was signed on October 21, 1936, and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact November 25, 1936 pacificwar.org.au/historicalbackground/HitlerfindsAlly.html –  Tom Au Jan 21 '13 at 1:25
    
Mussolini first used the word "axis" when announcing that he signed a "treaty of friendship" with Nazi Germany in Nov 1, 1936, he boasted that Europe would revolve around the Berlin-Rome axis. This document is probably what your link refers to as a formal alliance, but I can't find any source for any official document signed between the two countries at that time. My guess is what Mussolini referred to wasn't exactly formal but the groundwork for the Anti-Comintern Pact, and Japan was part of the negotiations from early on. –  Yannis Rizos Jan 21 '13 at 1:44
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