Berlin, Germany September 27, 1940

On January 6, 1939, Japan was approached by Germany with a pro­posal to reshape the Anti-Comintern Pact. The anti-commu­nist pact, which Japan had signed with Nazi Germany in 1936 and Fascist Italy in 1937, largely targeted the Soviet Union, Tokyo’s decades-long adver­sary on the Asian conti­nent. The January pro­posal went dormant due to Germany’s entering into a non­aggres­sion pact or neutrality pact with the Soviets (Molotov-Ribben­trop Non­aggres­sion Pact) in August 1939 without consulting Japan.

After Germany’s “new order” had been imposed mili­tarily on Poland (1939) and France and the Bene­lux coun­tries (May–June 1940), Japa­nese mili­tarists and ultra­nationalists were advocating a simi­lar new order in East Asia. The Japa­nese mili­tary was espe­cially eager to acquire bases in northern French Indo­china (present-day Viet­nam) with the agree­ment of the Vichy French proxy govern­ment under German control in order to block supply routes used by the United States and Britain to funnel mili­tary aid to Japan’s other enemy, the Chinese Nationalists, with whom they’d been at war since 1937. The idea of a three-nation alli­ance involving Japan, Germany, and Italy was given a boost by Japan’s new prime minister, Fumi­maro Konoe, war minister Hideki Tōjō, and foreign minister Yōsuke Matsuoka, the alli­ance’s chief promoter. So too was the idea of incor­porating the Euro­pean colonies in South­east Asia into Japan’s New Order. On July 26 and 27, 1940, Japan’s poli­tical and mili­tary leaders settled on a two­fold mili­tary and diplo­matic strategy: forsaking the failed policy of northern expan­sion (advance) in favor of a new southern one and concluding a tripartite alliance.

On this date, September 27, 1940, Japan, Germany, and Italy signed the Tri­par­tite Pact, or Axis Pact as it was also known, in a formal cere­mony in Adolf Hitler’s New Reich Chan­cellery in the German capital, Berlin. Japan and the two Euro­pean dicta­tor­ships agreed that for the next ten years they would “stand by and coop­erate with one another . . . in greater East Asia and the regions of Europe . . . to estab­lish and main­tain a new order of things.” The “new world order,” as Foreign Minis­ter Matsu­oka described it, was one in which eco­no­mic barriers would be broken down and the natural geo­graphic divi­sions of the world estab­lished in com­ple­men­tary fash­ion to bring pros­per­ity to all peo­ples. Leading nations into the new nirvana were none other than the three coali­tion part­ners: Article 1 of the pact stip­u­lated that Japan “recog­nizes and respects the leader­ship of Germany and Italy in the estab­lish­ment of a new order in Europe.” On the flip side Article 2 stip­u­lated that Germany and Italy “recog­nize and respect the leader­ship of Japan in the establishment of a new order in Greater East Asia.”

From Japan’s point of view, the Tripartite Pact gave cover to its expan­sionist actions and imperialist designs in “Greater East Asia”: in China of course; in French Indo­china, where Japanese mili­tary bases had been secured by treaty days earlier, on Septem­ber 22, 1940; in British Malaya, Singapore, Borneo, and Burma; and the Dutch East Indies. Matsuoka was con­vinced that the Axis alli­ance strengthened Japan’s bargaining posi­tion vis-à-vis the United States and would help avert a war between the two coun­tries. (Emperor Hiro­hito was not so sure of that.) As it turned out, the Tripar­tite Pact was a snare (one of many) that entrapped Japan in a suicidal war it would never win. Ironically, when the Pacific War broke out, Matsuoka, no longer foreign minister, con­fessed: “Entering into the Tripar­tite Pact was the mistake of my life. Even now I still keenly feel it. Even my death won’t take away this feeling.”

Japan and Germany During the Axis Heyday, 1940–1941

Japanese embassy decked out with flags of Tripartite Pact (Axis) partners, September 1940

Above: Japanese embassy in Berlin clad in flags of the three Tripar­tite (Axis) Pact signa­tories in Septem­ber 1940. The treaty recog­nized the right of Germany and Italy to estab­lish a “new order” in Europe and Japan to impose a “new order” in Asia. Mem­ber­ship in the mili­tary and eco­nomic pact was expanded by new pro­to­cols signed by Hungary (Novem­ber 20, 1940), Romania (Novem­ber 23, 1940), Slovakia (Novem­ber 24, 1940), Bulgaria (March 1, 1941), and Croatia (June 15, 1941). Despite Hitler’s in-person appeals, the leaders of Spain and Vichy France rejected pact member­ship. The U.S. passed on the invita­tion to join. So, too, did the Soviet Union after Hitler, in mid-Novem­ber 1940, floated a trial balloon regarding some sort of Soviet collab­o­ra­tion with the pact. (A Soviet counter­pro­posal for a “four-power” pact ended up going nowhere.) At their zenith during World War II, the Tri­par­tite powers presided over empires that occupied large parts of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the islands of the Pacific Ocean. The war ended in 1945 with the defeat of the Axis powers and the dissolution of their alliance and empires.

Tripartite Pact signing ceremony, Berlin, September 27, 1940Japan foreign minister Yōsuke Matsuoka and Hitler, March 1941

Left: On September 27, 1940, the initial Axis powers (namely, Germany and Italy) grew by one when Japa­nese ambas­sa­dor Saburō Kurusu (left, leaning forward in photo­graph), Italian foreign minis­ter Galeazzo Ciano (to Kurusu’s left), and German foreign minis­ter Joachim von Rib­ben­trop (addressing guests at podium at right) signed the three-way Tripar­tite Pact. Adolf Hitler (slumped in chair) wit­nessed the gala pro­ceedings. Within five years all three signa­tory nations would be pulverized (literally) into surrender, and all princi­pal figures at the proceedings, excepting Kurusu, dead or soon to be dead. Ameri­cans know Kurusu as Japan’s “special envoy” to Washing­ton who, along with Japa­nese am­bas­sa­dor Kichisa­burō Nomura in Novem­ber and Decem­ber 1941, tried to nego­ti­ate out­standing differ­ences with the Roose­velt adminis­tra­tion over its support for Chiang Kai-shek’s Nation­alist China and its frozen trade rela­tions with Japan while that coun­try was secretly pre­paring the attack on U.S. military installations at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Right: Yōsuke Matsuoka, Japanese foreign minister between July 1940 and July 1941, paid a visit to Hitler in Berlin in March 1941. In the back­ground between Matsu­oka and Hitler is German foreign minis­ter Rib­ben­trop. Matsu­oka, who in 1933 led Japan’s walk­out of the League of Nations, which objected to Japan’s sei­zure of North­east China, was a major advo­cate of Japan’s alli­ance with Germany and Italy, whose assis­tance he saw as a per­fect balancing force against U.S. inter­ests in the Asia Pacific region. Ironically, by asso­ci­ating itself with the likes of Hitler and Benito Mus­so­lini, Japan gained negli­gi­ble bene­fits while it alie­nated the leading West­ern powers. After Japan’s defeat in 1945, Matsu­oka was arrested and held at Sugamo Prison near Tokyo, where he died in 1946 prior to his trial on war crimes charges before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (Tokyo Trials).

Axis of Evil Is Complete: Japan Joins Tripartite Pact, September 1940 (Begins 20 seconds into video)