Tokyo, Japan October 13, 1940

On this date in 1940 Japan’s foreign minister Yōsuke Matsuo­ka, who had grown up in Ore­gon and Cal­i­for­nia (1893–1902), invited the United States and other non­aligned nations to join the Tri­par­tite Pact, which Axis powers Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan had initi­aled in Berlin the pre­vious month (Septem­ber 27). The Pact was an out­growth of the “Rome-Berlin Axis” cele­brated by the Italo-German “Pact of Steel,” which Adolf Hitler’s foreign minis­ter Joachim von Rib­ben­trop and Benito Musso­lini’s foreign minis­ter (and son-in-law) Count Galeazzo Ciano had signed in Berlin in late May 1939.

The “new world order” envisioned by Tri­par­tite founding mem­bers, said Matsuo­ka, 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 the nations into the new nirvana were the signa­tories them­selves: Article 1 of the Tri­par­tite Pact stip­u­lated that Japan “recog­nizes and respects the leader­ship of Germany and Italy in the estab­lish­ment of a new order in Europe.” 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,” which the Japa­nese called the Greater East Asia Co-Pros­perity Sphere. (The Greater East Asia Co-Pros­perity Sphere was a mili­tary-econo­mic asso­ci­a­tion con­sisting of the Japa­nese Empire and vari­ous national organi­za­tions through­out East Asia and the East Indies.) Ten days after Foreign Minis­ter Matsu­oka had floated his invi­ta­tion to the U.S. and other non­aligned nations, the leader of the Pact, Hitler him­self, on a whirl­wind tour of van­quished-foe France, appealed in per­son to Spanish dic­ta­tor Fran­cisco Franco and Vichy presi­dent Marshal Philippe Pétain to join the three signatories. Neither did.

A seldom noted footnote to the above three-part pact was Hitler’s offer to open “pact-hood” to Germany’s his­tori­cal neme­sis, the Soviet Union. When Hitler and Ribben­trop sat down with Soviet Foreign Minis­ter Vyache­slav Molo­tov in Berlin during the latter’s visit on Novem­ber 12–14, 1940, the German duo presented Molo­tov with revi­sions to the orig­inal Septem­ber 17, 1940, treaty that now included the Soviet Union as an equal part­ner. Because the treaty establ­ished each sig­na­tory’s “natural spheres of influ­ence” in the world, Hitler was keen on deflecting Soviet dicta­tor Joseph Stalin’s inter­est away from Fin­land, Roma­nia, Bul­garia, and the Bal­kans to Iran and Iraq, where the British pressed a claim of hege­mony. Stalin’s heavily condi­tional reply on Novem­ber 25 was inter­preted by the German dictator as dead on arrival.

Starting in late November 1940 the Tri­par­tite Pact swiftly expanded: Hun­gary, to which Hitler had gen­er­ously given half of Roma­nia’s Tran­syl­va­nia in late August, signed up on Novem­ber 20; Roma­nia, threatened by Stalin’s Soviet Union on its north­eastern border, joined on the 23rd; and the Slovak Republic, formed from a por­tion of dis­mem­bered Czecho­slo­va­kia, came aboard the next day. By the time Bul­garia, recip­ient of Roma­nia’s southern Dobruja, joined the Tri­par­tite Pact in March 1941, the entire Bal­kans and East­ern Europe were either in treaty relation­ship with the Axis powers or, like Yugo­sla­via was soon to be, under Axis occu­pa­tion. Urged on by Japan, Japa­nese-occu­pied Thai­land and the Chi­nese pup­pet state of Manchu­kuo (Man­churia) and the Japa­nese col­lab­o­ra­tionist “Republic of China” (led by Chi­nese Nation­alist foe Wang Jingwei) became unoffi­cial signa­tories of the Tripartite Pact on February 15, 1942.

Germany and Japan During Axis Heyday, 1940–1941

Tripartite Pact signing ceremony, Berlin, September 27, 1940Japan foreign minister Yōsuke Matsuoka (1880–1946) and Hitler, March 1941

Left: On September 27, 1940, the Axis Powers (Germany and Italy) grew by one when Japan’s ambas­sador Saburō Kurusu (left in pic­ture), Italy’s foreign minis­ter Galeazzo Ciano (to Kurusu’s left), and Germany’s foreign minis­ter Joachim von Rib­ben­trop (standing at podium at right) signed the three-way Tri­par­tite Pact. Adolf Hitler (slumping in chair) wit­nessed the gala pro­ceedings. Despite signing a ten‑year mili­tary and com­mer­cial con­ven­tion in 1940, Germany, Italy, and Japan for the most part fought sepa­rately during World War II and sur­ren­dered sepa­rately less than five years into the pact: Italy in Septem­ber 1943, Ger­many in May 1945, and Japan in Septem­ber 1945. Amer­i­cans remem­ber Kurusu as one of two Japa­nese envoys who tried to nego­ti­ate peace and under­standing with the Roose­velt adminis­tra­tion in Novem­ber and Decem­ber 1941 while their coun­try was secretly preparing the attack on U.S. military installations at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Right: En route to Moscow where he signed the five-year Soviet-Japa­nese Neu­trality (or Non­ag­gres­sion) Pact in April 1941, foreign minis­ter Yōsuke Matsu­oka paid a visit to his country’s Axis partner in Berlin in March. 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, was a major advo­cate of Japan’s alli­ance with Germany and Italy, whose assis­tance he saw as a perfect balancing force against U.S. and British interests in the Asia Pacific region. (In his March 1941 dis­cus­sions with his German counter­part, Matsu­oka reassured Ribben­trop that Japan was making prep­a­ra­tions to occupy the British strong­hold of Singa­pore on the Malay Penin­sula in reponse to Ribben­trop’s urging Japan to do just that.) Following Japan’s defeat in Asia and the Pacific by the Allies in 1945, Matsu­oka was arrested on the orders of Supreme Com­man­der of the Allied Powers, Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur, 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).

Japan Joins Germany and Italy in Tripartite Pact, September 27, 1940 (Skip first 20 seconds)