Moscow, Soviet Union (USSR) March 23, 1941

On this date in 1941 Japanese Foreign Minister Yōsuke Matsu­oka (1940–1941) arrived in Moscow after a 7‑day jour­ney by train from the Sibe­rian port city of Vladi­vostok. On this his first of two visits to senior Soviet offi­cials, Matsu­oka met Soviet Pre­mier Vya­che­slav Molotov. At the top of Matsu­oka’s diplo­matic agenda to three world capitals—the Soviet Union’s, Germany’s, and Italy’s—was his effort to reverse the pre­vious Decem­ber’s dead­lock between his nation and the Soviet Union over the con­tents of a neu­tral­ity (or non­ag­gres­sion) pact accept­able to both signa­tories, “pending,” as the U.S. ambas­sador in Moscow explained in a con­fi­den­tial Febru­ary 27 tele­gram to the State Depart­ment, “the solu­tion of cer­tain out­standing ques­tions between the two coun­tries.” Indeed, last year’s draft had largely been held up by Japan’s refusal to cede the south­ern half of Sakha­lin Island (Kara­futo in Japa­nese) and cer­tain islands in the neigh­boring Karil (Chisima) archi­pel­ago. The island terri­to­ries had been awarded by the Treaty of Ports­mouth to the Japa­nese following their aston­ishing vic­tory in the 1904–1905 Russo-Japa­nese War. (For 30 years prior to 1905, south Sakha­lin Island, which lay north of the large Japa­nese island of Hok­kaido, had been valu­able to Czarist Russia on account of its timber, coal, oil, and fish resources.)

According to Japan’s ambassador to Moscow (1940–1942), Lt. Gen. Yoshit­sugu Tate­kawa, Matsu­oka’s visits to Berlin and Rome following his brief appear­ance in Moscow were strictly “camou­flage”: the Japa­nese foreign minis­ter really had “nothing he wanted to dis­cuss” with Adolf Hitler or Benito Musso­lini. The raison d’étre for his Euro­pean trip was ful­filled during Matsu­oka’s April return trip to Moscow, namely, fines­sing lan­guage what would become the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact.

Signed in Moscow on April 13, 1941, by Molo­tov for the Soviet Union and by Matsu­oka and Ambas­sador Tate­kawa for Japan, the first arti­cle in the treaty focused on “main­tain[ing] peace­ful and friendly rela­tions” between the two states and “respect[ing] the terri­to­rial integ­rity and invi­o­la­bility” of each. Article 2 addressed the issue of neu­trality should either nation “become the object of hostil­i­ties” by one or more non-con­tracting powers “through­out the dura­tion of the con­flict.” Article 3 defined the dura­tion of the pact—5 years following its ratifi­ca­tion by each con­tracting nation unless either nation “denounces the Pact one year before the expi­ra­tion of the term”; other­wise, the pact would be auto­ma­tic­ally extended for another 5 years. On the same day the three states­men signed a second treaty “pledg[ing] to respect the terri­torial integ­rity and invi­o­la­bility” of their two client states on the Chi­nese main­land—Japan’s Man­chu­kuo (Man­chu­ria and Jehol), former pro­vin­ces of North­east China seized in 1931–1932, and the Soviet Union’s Mon­go­lian People’s Republic (Outer Mongolia) since 1921.

Fortune did not reward the two con­tracting nations for long. Japan’s Tripar­tite Treaty (1940–1945) part­ner, Germany, mounted an unpro­voked attack on the Soviet Union on June 21, 1941, 70 days after the signing of the Soviet-Japan­ese Neu­trality Pact. On Decem­ber 7, 1941, Japan mounted its own unpro­voked attack against the United States 5½ months after that. In between June and Decem­ber the United States in late Octo­ber dispatched its first Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union, thus entering into an U.S.-Soviet mili­tary alli­ance that lasted through August 1945, when Japan capit­u­lated to the Allies 14 weeks after Germany.

On April 5, 1945, Molotov, sole Soviet signa­tory to the 1941 Japa­nese-Soviet Neu­trality Pact, stated that “Japan, ally of Germany, is aiding the latter in its war against the USSR [and] the USA and England, which are allies of the Soviet Union. . . . In these circum­stances the neu­trality pact between Japan and the USSR has lost its sense, and the pro­longa­tion of that pact has become impos­sible.” Three days later Molotov announced over Moscow radio that the Soviet Union stood with its Western allies and that “from August 9 the Soviet Govern­ment will consider itself to be at war with Japan.”

Foreign Minister Yōsuke Matsuoka Returns to Tokyo Bearing Gifts

Ribbentrop, Matsuoka, Hitler confer in Berlin, late March 1941In Stalin’s presence Molotov (seated), Matsuoka (to Molotov’s left), and Tatekawa (bald head to Molotov’s right) sign the April 1941 Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact

Left: German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribben­trop, Matsu­oka, and Hitler confer in Berlin as seen in this photo from late March 1941. On the eve of his much-publicized trip to the major capitals of conti­nental Europe Matsu­oka told reporters that following “a whirl­wind of offi­cial duties [in Japan] . . . I have some leisure and I am taking this trip to Europe.” To counter any sus­picions other­wise, the offi­cial Japa­nese news agency, Domei, assured the inter­national com­mu­nity that “his [Matsu­oka’s] mis­sion to Europe is as peace­ful as peace­ful can be.” Hardly that. His treaty achieve­ments in Moscow not­with­standing, his two visits to Berlin sand­wiched between a visit to Benito Musso­lini’s Rome were sweet music to the ears of Tokyo’s war­lords. Should Japan “get into” con­flict with the United States, “Germany would,” Hitler pro­mised Matsu­oka, “inter­vene immedi­ately . . . , for the strength of the three Pact powers was their com­mon action” lest they be picked off singly by the U.S. Hitler’s gratu­i­tous and unso­lic­ited 1941 offer became a verbal coda to Article 3 of the 1940 Tripar­tite (Axis) Pact entered into by Germany, Italy, and Japan the pre­vious year in Berlin. In the after­math of Decem­ber 7’s sur­prise (to Hitler and Mus­so­lini alike) Japa­nese attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany and Italy were per­force sucked into a world war with the United States, ready or not.

Right: The assurances Hitler and Ribben­trop gave Matsu­oka in late March and early April 1941 were made all the sweeter for Japan’s war hawks following the suc­cess­ful nego­ti­a­tions Matsu­oka and Tate­kawa con­cluded with Soviet offi­cials on the last leg of the foreign minis­ter’s return to Tokyo. The Japanese-Soviet Neu­trality Pact of April 13, 1941 (also known as the Soviet-Japa­nese Non­aggres­sion Pact), ensured that Japan would not be dragged into a con­flict between Germany and the Soviet Union when Nazi Germany unleashed its ill-fated attack on the Soviet Union in mid-1941. Hitler’s skul­dug­gery was, of course, in vio­la­tion of the Soviet-German (Molotov-Ribben­trop) Non­aggres­sion Pact that the two erst­while ene­mies had signed in August 1939. Japan’s north­ern flank in East Asia was thus pro­tected by mutual agree­ment when Japan expanded mili­tarily into South­east Asia; in turn, the Soviet Union’s east­ern flank was pro­tected by treaty with Japan as Stalin with­drew troops and materiel from Siberia to con­cen­trate resources in the Euro­pean theater of war. Matsu­oka’s tease to reporters covering his depar­ture to Europe in March 1941, namely, “I must return as soon as pos­si­ble, as the Japa­nese nation seems to be looking forward to what pre­sents I will bring back,” did indeed cheer—to say nothing about emboldening—Tokyo’s war planners. As early as January 1941 Adm. Isoroku Yama­moto had begun developing plans that cul­mi­nated in the land-sea-air assault on Amer­i­can, British, and Dutch Asia-Pacific pos­ses­sions in Decem­ber of the same year. Inter­est­ingly, Matsu­oka tried stran­gling the off­spring of his April 1941 Moscow assig­na­tion with­in months of its birth, urging Japa­nese leaders to include invading Siberia in their war plans, but to no avail and he was dismissed from office.

The Role of the Japanese-Soviet Neu­trality Pact in World War II

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