Jan Schmidt

Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

Since 2015, Jan Schmidt has been Assistant Professor on tenure track for Modern Japanese History in the Faculty of Arts of KU Leuven. After receiving his MA in Medieval and Modern History as well as in Japanese Studies from Heidelberg University in 2006 he worked as lecturer for Modern History of Japan at Ruhr University Bochum, where he also obtained his PhD in 2013.

He has published extensively on the First World War and Japan and East Asia, became an editor for East Asia in the article section of the online encyclopedia “1914-1918-online” and a member of the research project “Trans-Disciplinary Study of the First World War” of the Institute for Research in Humanities of Kyoto Universities.

Frequent research stays have lead him to Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, to the National Museum of History in Sakura and to Kyoto University as a Visiting Associate Professor. This year his monograph Nach dem Krieg ist vor dem Krieg. Medialisierte Erfahrungen des Ersten Weltkriegs und Nachkriegsdiskurse in Japan (1914-1919) and a volume on The East Asian Dimension of the First World War: Global Entanglements and Japan, China and Korea, 1914-1919 co-edited with Katja Schmidtpott will be published.

High Expectations - Deep Disenchantment

Reactions to the Paris Peace Conference in East Asia

The frustration with the Paris Peace Conference in China and in the eyes of Korean independent activists is not only related to the Wilsonian Moment’ having failed, but—in Japan as well—also to the high expectations towards the postwar order that had built up already from 1914 onward. It is not that surprising that the Japanese Emperor Hirohito and his entourage were able to write in 1946 in preparation of a possible trial as war criminal that if “one searches for the reasons [of the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941], they are hidden in a broader sense in the treaties of the peace conference after the First World War”.

The deep disenchantment with Paris ultimately strengthened those forces in Japan that opted for a ‘revolt against the West’, and it also weakened liberal forces in China. The realpolitik of Paris dealt a severe blow to the young Chinese republic, which, shortly after 1919, descended into an era of warlordism. Too obvious to critiques of alleged Western hubris were the implementations of turning down the Japanese proposal for a ‘racial equality’ clause in the covenant of the League of Nations, while the acceptance of the Japanese demands regarding the former German rights in Shandong was an important catalyst of the ‘May Fourth Movement’ in 1919 China, which again was influenced by the violently suppressed Korean ‘March First’ independence movement.

And although the acceptance of the League in China and Japan was more widespread in the Interwar period than previous research had assumed, one might argue that Emperor Hirohito in 1946 could rely on a layer of collective memory, a powerful undercurrent originating in the perceptions of 1919, that had cast a shadow on the sincerity of the initial design of the postwar order. The ‘Anglo-Saxon’-based standard behind it—as Konoe Fumimaro, secretary to the head of the Japanese delegation to Paris and later presiding as Prime Minister over the opening of hostilities with China in 1937, had remarked in his criticism of the conference—, became a common argument of proponents of later Japanese expansion as well as of those who turned to communism in China.

It will be argued that the high expectations in East Asia that originated during the war years and the overtly critical reception of the Paris Peace Conference should, aside from all differences, be understood as part of an East Asian collective “space of experience” that was influential in political communication at least until the 1940s. Many of the Chinese and Japanese participants of the conference—as well as excluded Korean independence activists—were successful in forging and distributing their own narratives of what had happened after returning home, with important implications of the understanding about what had to be expected for the future.

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