Many Japanese wished to join the West in Africa’s exploitation, and some saw Ethiopia as a potential gateway. In 1899, Dr. Tomizu Hirondo, a professor of law at Tokyo Imperial University, published a short pamphlet, Afurika no Zento [The Future of Africa]. Admiring Cecil Rhodes and Harry Johnson, he concluded that Japan had to expand its influence and profit in Africa before Europeans completely controlled the continent. During the First World War, recalling Tomizu, some Japanese wanted to send troops to occupy Germany’s African territories [just as the Japanese Navy occupied Germany’s Micronesian colonies in 1914—J.].
The Japan Mail Steamship Company began regular service to Europe via the Suez Canal when the Tosa Maru left Japan in March 1896 and arrived in London in May. Stopping at Port Said, Japanese merchantmen set up direct commercial connections with Africa for the first time. Tokyo got first hand information on Africa by sending official economic missions, establishing consular offices, and by using the information networks established by shipping companies and trading houses. Japan designed its economic penetration to secure a cheap and stable supply of raw materials, especially cotton, as well as to capture markets. By 1899, silk thread from Japan was entering Ethiopia through Harar. And by 1918, Japanese cloth had superseded American unbleached muslin, which had dominated Ethiopia’s imports.
European colonialism in Africa, however, blocked Japan’s military and political penetration and confined Japan’s African relations to trade and commerce. Not necessarily by choice, Japan could and did claim “clean hands in Africa.”…
Young, educated Ethiopians responded. One of them, the future foreign minister Heruy Wolde Sellassie, published in 1932 Dai Nihon [Great Japan] in which he explained that, “Ethiopia was not knowledgeable of the situation in the East until the [Russo-Japanese] war. Because of the war, we learned tremendous amount about Japan from Russians living in Ethiopia, and our Ethiopian people started to admire courageous Japan.”
An Eritrean intellectual, Blatta Gabra Egziabher … was one of many young Ethiopians who saw Japan as a living example for Ethiopia in liquidating feudalism and developing capitalism through the agency of the modern state and revolution from above. Called “Progressive Intellectuals,” “Young Ethiopians,” or simply “Japanizers,” these foreign educated, young intellectuals stressed the similarities bonding the two non-Western nations. These included myths of eternal dynasties and similar histories in overcoming European powers. Japan’s dramatic and rapid transformation from a feudal society—like Ethiopia’s—into an industrial power by the end of the nineteenth century attracted Ethiopians. Further, Japan’s military victories convinced these Japanizers that they too could master western scientific and technological skills and turn them against Europeans. The appearance of the Japanizers created contradictions within the feudal ruling classes, enlightening some while hardening others. Hence arose the conflict between what one Marxist scholar has called the “liberal,” “enlightened feudalists” on the one hand and “ultra feudalists” on the other.
Gebre Heywet Baykedagn well-represents the ideas of the Japanizers. Born in 1886, he studied in Germany and Austria, and returned to Ethiopia in 1905. Exiled in 1909, he returned in 1911 to become palace treasurer and head of customs for Menelik’s grandson and heir, Lidj Iyasu. Convinced of the need for sweeping administrative and fiscal measures, by 1914, Gebre Heywet had become a confidant of Täfäri Makonnen—the future Emperor Hayle Sellase….
Japan’s victory over Russia impressed Prince Täfäri, an ardent student of military matters, and his trusted adviser, Heruy. Täfäri, whose original interest in Japan probably had been inspired by his father, Ras Makonnen, understood that Japan and the United States were the new centers of the world economy. By 1906 when Ras Makonnen died, the thirteen year-old Täfäri clearly had developed his goal, an essential part of which was to draw on the Japanese model. Japan had proved that a non-European nation could embrace modernization and stand as a cultural and technical equal to Europe….
As emperor, [Ras ‘Head’] Täfäri imitated the Japanese Emperor in his “attitude of exclusiveness,” because he thought it would help create “an imperial dignity lacking in Ethiopia.” Later as the Italo-Ethiopian war was brewing, the British Minister to Ethiopia, Sir Sidney Barton, explained: “the Emperor has always been interested in the achievements of Japan and his imagination sees similarities between the two countries which—however incredible it may seem to foreign observers—lead him to dream of Ethiopia as the Japan of Africa.”…
Ethiopia’s constitution of 1931 shows Japanese influence. Modeled on the Meiji Constitution of 1889, it concentrated and made more emphatic imperial power than did the Japanese. A Russian-educated intellectual and “Japanizer,” Takle-Hawaryat Takla-Maryam, wrote the draft of the Ethiopian Constitution, and the Emperor with his advisers Heruy and Ras Kasa modified it.
Even more dramatically, Foreign Minister Blaten Geta Heruy, special envoy of the Ethiopian emperor, left Addis Ababa on September 30, 1931, bound for Japan. Officially, his party was visiting to repay the Japanese Emperor for Japan’s representation at the recent coronation in Addis Ababa. In cultivating mutual relations, Heruy also wanted to see if the Ethiopians could carry out their plan for modernization along Japanese lines. Heruy and his mission were grandly treated. He later wrote: “Upon our arrival in Japan, I heard people’s joyful cries. Many Japanese citizens awaited us at the port waving Ethiopian and Japanese flags. The route to the hotel was flooded with people acclaiming us. Everywhere we went, it was the same phenomenon.”…
The Japanese welcome had impressed Heruy. After returning to Ethiopia, in 1932 he published a book to introduce Japan to his countrymen. Entitled Mahdara Berhan Hagara Japan [Japan: The Source of Light], it was probably the first book by an African to make a serious attempt to introduce Japan to Africans. It was translated into Japanese as Dai Nippon [Great Japan] and published with a preface by the former foreign minister Sidehara in Tokyo in 1934….
It would seem the true reason for Heruy’s journey to Japan in 1931, however, was to seek arms and munitions from the Japanese government. But then, Japan was dealing with the Manchurian Incident and had worries other than supplying arms and munitions to Ethiopia.
Heruy’s admiration for Japan as a model alarmed the Western powers that had no wish to see a second Japan—this one in Africa. One European wrote in 1935 that during the previous four years Ethiopia had “embarked, with the close cooperation of Japan, on a life-and-death struggle with the white race, the consequences of which are incalculable.” He added that Italy was fighting the battle for sake of all colonial powers in Africa….
Despite the fervent adulation by Japanese civilians, in the end Heruy got none of the tangible aid he had hoped to get. Japan’s government eventually adapted itself to Italy’s conquest of the Ethiopian Empire by exchanging recognitions with Italy—Ethiopia for Manchukuo. This led in turn to the Anti-Comintern Pact, a wartime alliance, and, ultimately, to mutual devastation and defeat for Italy and Japan. Ethiopia, on the other hand, in 1941 became the first Axis-occupied country to be liberated.