Why did the US want to isolate Japan in the '20s?

I recently read a book called “The Yamato Dynasty” which describes the Japanese Imperial family and the politics surrounding it from the Meiji restoration of 1868 to the present day. It’s a fascinating read. The book reconfirmed something I had heard before, that the US inadvertently caused the war in the Pacific.
Since the Meiji restoration, which was brought on by US Admiral Perry sailing to Japan and forcing them to open their borders for trade, those that were for open trade and diplomatic relations with the West and those against, balanced the Japanese ruling elite. Britain became an ally of Japan at the turn of the century and supported the Japanese in their annexation of Korea and Taiwan (colonialism was an accepted policy with Western nations back then) as well as the Russian-Japanese war where the Japanese were victorious. This alliance and support from Britain boosted the Japanese Pro West faction considerably. All was well until the end of WWI when the US took over from the British as the most influential world power.
The Americans did not fancy the Japanese-British alliance and pressured the British to give it up. The British did not want to give up the alliance and even proposed a three-way (US, Britain, Japan) alliance, which the Americans rejected. The British, succumbed to the pressure from the Americans and agreed not to renew the alliance with Japan in 1921. The immediate effect in Japan was a realignment of power from the Pro-West to the Anti-West faction. The new rulers began preparing for war 15 years before the first bullets were fired. Had the British remained allied to the Japanese, or better yet, had the Americans joined the alliance, the war in the Pacific would probably never have occurred.

The above is a general recap. For the details, read the book. The thing that is not clear to me is why the Americans were so adamant in isolating Japan. Was it purely a case of yellow jingoism? Or was there something else? I would hate to think it was purely a racial reason.


P.S. Moderators: I’ve posting this in GQ. However, I think it could develop into a debate, if so, please feel free to move it as you see fit.

I did a quick scan through sites, and found this one:

Big concerns for Washington those days was Japan’s likely policy of aggression toward Asian and Pacific neighbours. Japan still had parts of China and Siberia, as well as Korea, and was building up a navy again. While Britain couldn’t afford an arms race, and so agreed to the treaty, Japan coukdn’t afford to compete with both Britain and the USA, and so backed down.

One of the more immediate causes of the attack on Pearl Harbor, IIRC, was the US embargo on petrol to Japan in 1941. (This remembered from class lessons years ago).

NiceGuyJack wrote:

It was, like most things, a lot more complicated than that. Japanese-US antagonism stemmed from the US’s ‘Open Door’ China policy, first declared in 1899. China at the time was in an advanced state of national disintegration and France, Germany and Great Britain were eager to carve out territorial and trade concessions in China (that’s where Hong Kong and numerous other enclaves came from). The US policy aimed to preserve the territorial integrity of China and block restrictive trade treaties. The US wasn’t a disinterested party in the rivalries, seeing new markets and trade opportunities in China, but it preferred to pursue those markets through free trade, rather than colonialism.

Japan was involved in the squabbles over China from the beginning, gaining a protectorate over Korea, control of Taiwan and territorial concessions in Manchuria from the Sino-Japanese War of 1894. Japan made further demands in 1915 that the US opposed.

Another area of diplomatic tension was the naval arms control agreements of the 1920’s, in particular the Washington Naval Treaty that pegged Japanese naval strength to about 60% of the US’s fleets. Japan felt it was being strongarmed by both the US and Britain to keep it weaker than the US and Britain and thus in an inferior position in the colonial rivalries in Asia and the Pacific.

So the US-Japanese friction can’t entirely be characterized as a ‘racial’ dispute, as the China confrontations show. However, US immigration policy was a cause of serious friction between the US and Japan and that was largely a racial issue.

US immigration policy underwent a number of reforms in the early 1900’s that sought to restrict immigration by ‘inferior’ races like Asians, Eastern and Southern Europeans, while encouraging ‘good’ races, like German and Scandanavian. This caused a great deal of friction over the years and a number of accomodations were arrived at, in particular Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ under which the US federal government sought to limit anti-Japanese discrimination in return of Japanese efforts to limit immigration to the US.

Andrew Warinner

This doesn’t quite ring true. Up until the '20’s, the entire Japanese fleet was built by the British. Only after the alliance was cancelled did the Japanese focus their effort build up an industrial base capable to manufacture enough military hardware to be self reliable.
In addition, Japanese navy ships were serviced at British naval basis during the alliance. Britain would have made a lot of much needed revenue had they maintained their alliance with Japan. As for Japanese aggression towards neighbors, Britain had already encouraged and supported Japanese conflicts in Korea, Manchuria and Russia. Only when the alliance ended did the Japanese look at Western held territories.