I am slowly building an alternate history story where America and the Empire of Japan are closely allied during the early 1940s instead of at war. They are so close, in fact, that Anchorage is seen as a metropolitan hub for travelers going between Asia, Europe and the Americas (EDIT: when the Soviet Union formed, they banned foreign flights going through their airspace, which meant a flight between London and Tokyo couldn't go through Siberia. Therefore, aside from taking the long route through India, the shortest route for flights between Europe and Asia was through the Arctic, with Anchorage becoming a hub for continental flights).

In my timeline, Anchorage eventually gets nicknamed,'The Gateway to the East'.

But I was wondering:

What historic, political and economic factors would need to change for Japan and the USA to be close during the 1940s? (EDIT: Americans will still be racist, but I'm looking for a way the U.S. and Japanese Empire are allied, even if it's an 'enemy of my enemy is my friend' scenario).

  • $\begingroup$ Europe? Not exactly a good location for Europe, so I'd rethink that one. $\endgroup$ – Stephan Dec 2 '19 at 21:08
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    $\begingroup$ Not likely for Europeans: Transpolar flights from Europe to Alaska would be 4000 miles without any en-route emergency airfield. Seems too far and too risky in the early 1940s. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Dec 3 '19 at 3:40
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    $\begingroup$ "when the Soviet Union formed, they banned foreign flights going through their airspace" In real life the Soviet Union formed in 1922, and I don't think international flight was really a thing at that point. $\endgroup$ – Justin Lardinois Dec 3 '19 at 9:38
  • $\begingroup$ You could just find a lot of oil in (under) Japan. That would either make the USA friendly (if the japanese could defend themselves, or agreed to become a vassall), or they would find weapons of mass destruction... $\endgroup$ – Burki Dec 3 '19 at 13:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Burki That's a good start, why don't you flesh that out into a full answer? $\endgroup$ – thanby - reinstate Monica Dec 3 '19 at 13:57

10 Answers 10


I think that if you made two changes to history, that it would be believable that the USA and Japan became allies.

The first change is to alter the Meiji Restoration to be more defensively focused and less conquest motivated. If the outcome of the Meiji Restoration was to make Japan a leader in the fields of modern technology and comfortably able to defend itself against other rising modern powers, then they could have sought more cooperative avenues to gain access to resources they needed besides military conquest.

The other change is to China. To accelerate the rise of communism in China. If their long-time geopolitical rival and the cultural enemy were shedding their peasant driven economy and were embracing the command economy mania sweeping the world at that time, then the USA and Japan may have seen a militaristic China as a greater threat to their own interests and combined forces against the axis -- which might have included Italy, Germany, Soviet Union and China, until Hilter-baby declared war on the communists.


A single car accident could do the trick

Emperor Hirohito had a younger brother named Takamatsu. In 1930-1931, Takamatsu chose to travel across the US and Europe to improve relations with Western Civilization and became much more fond of and respectful of Western nations than his brother. He was fairly successful at this and garnered a lot of respect from US and European leaders. During WWII, Takamatsu knew that the US would defeat Japan before the war even started and warned his brother against the attack being much more aware of US industrialism and the ridiculous number of civilian firearms that would make a ground invasion impossible.

Had something so simple as a family car-accident killed his older two siblings, he would have ascended to the throne and would have likely guided Japan in a far more pro-western direction. Instead of being a threat to US pacific assets, Japan may have been seen as more of a buffer zone between the US and the Russians making them an obvious alliance for the US to pursue.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Dec 5 '19 at 0:23
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    $\begingroup$ When Hirohito surrendered after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some elements within the military were unhappy with this and attempted to overthrow him. This was after the US demonstrated nuclear firepower. I cannot imagine a change of Emperor would have been enough to steer the ship of state off the Imperial course it was on. $\endgroup$ – Ton Day Dec 6 '19 at 6:03

According to wikipedia, relations began to sour when Japan attacked the USS Panay and committed the Nanjing Massacre during the Second Sino-Japanese War. These two events drastically altered foreign sentiment, and painted Japan as the clear bad-actor in the war. This led to arms sales to China, and Oil Embargoes, which is largely believed to be the straw that broke the camel's back forcing their hand to attack the US directly.

Having Japan maintain their discipline in Nanjing is likely enough to stop the sequence of events. The US has a fairly long history of brushing off attacks on one naval vessel now and then, but have always been driven to action by large death tolls.

Also, Japan would need to not attack the Philippines, as that was a US protectorate at the time.

  • $\begingroup$ I think you have the right idea, but I'd argue you'd have to go back even further than that. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asiatic_Exclusion_League $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Dec 2 '19 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree, the AEl is a domestic labor issue, not likely the stuff of war. However, it would prove to be a roadblock toward support in wartime. Not enough to be an enemy, but not enough to be a friend kind of scenario. It would definitely need to be addressed to produce the OP scenario tho. $\endgroup$ – Stephan Dec 2 '19 at 21:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Stephen exactly. If the goal is for Japan and the United States to have the kind of relationship by 1940 that the United States had with Britain or France in our real history, I don't think you can get there starting from the state of affairs in the '20s. $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Dec 2 '19 at 21:29
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    $\begingroup$ That whole China-Japan conflict originated with a drought and famine in Korea, to which China and Japan were both asked to help out. China was supposed to inform Japan, but didnt because they werent needed to stay. That eventually put Japan and China in a state of competition and honor chest-puffing that escalated into a battle over a bridge dispute, escalating into full on war, escalating into another war, escalating into conflict with French colonies, drawing allies into the party. Had China just called Japan before sending the troops, that whole mess could have been avoided. $\endgroup$ – Stephan Dec 2 '19 at 21:43

Make Mao Zedong and the Chinese communists much, much more successful in the 1930's.

A united communist China, especially one powerful enough to export revolution, would be seen as a threat to US commercial interests in Asia. The US would then favor and support Japan's invasion of China.


The seeds would have to be planted in the 1918 intervention against the nascient Soviet Union, when American troops were in Siberia to support the "White" Russians, and Japan and the British Empire were still allies.

Since the US, the British Empire and Japan all have reasons to be allied against the Soviet Union, then the expansion of Soviet power needs to be somewhat more ominous to all concerned. Perhaps the Comintern's propaganda and infiltration of Western institutions is far less successful, or Lenin manages to squeak through without relaxing collectivism in the 1920's in order to avoid famine (as they did in OTL). If the Russio Finnish "Winter War" had continued, the Finns might have been able to get the UK and United States off the fence and allied them against the USSR in northern Europe as well.

Japanese intervention in China would need to be handled differently, since the Americans believed that China was a rising market for American goods and services. The Japanese Empire could facilitate this by acting as a "middleman" between American traders and the Chinese market, making it well worth the American's while to remain on good terms with the Empire.

The rising power of the Soviet Union, their ruthless behaviour and eventually their pact with National Socialist Germany then lines up the Allies and Axis differently. The Japanese confrontation with the USSR in 1937 at the Battles of Khalkhin Gol might then trigger American intervention in the Pacific against the USSR, with a second invasion of Western Siberia.

WWII would look a lot different, with the hard core of the Axis being Germany and the USSR, and the British and Japanese Empires joined with America against the massive manpower, resources and technology of the Axis. Allied naval power could bring forces all around the edges of the Axis, but the land war would end up being brutal and grinding across Europe and Asia, since a naval blockade would not be able to starve out a continental power like the USSR.


I think you could make Russia a bigger deal on the world stage a bit sooner. Historically, Russia had a considerably different culture to other european nations, even in things like their religion and their language.

I don't know how many historical liberties or stretches are you willing to take, but if we suppose the Tsars invasions of east Europe were more succesful, and Russia was a more stable state even before the Soviet Union, I think you could make the argument that the expansionist policies of Japan would have the USA less concerned about Russia, keeping them busy on Korea, maybe.

I think part of Japan's decision to expand south was, simply, that it was easier, and seen as less of a threat to allied nations, and the ever-growing fear of Russia. So, in this sense, if you make Russia a bigger threat (at least perceived that way) to the ally interests, maybe Japan would have less fear of advancing into mainland Asia, fully annexing Korea and parts of eastern Russia. Also, Japan shouldn't join the axis powers, clearly, and maybe you could even put some other invented justifications to make the allies have a better relationship with Japan, with maybe Japan helping the british at least with just intel during the opium wars in China.

Making the japanese more allied-friendly (more geopolitically than ideologically, I would say) seems like an important step, not just more USA-friendly.

  • $\begingroup$ "considerably different culture to other european nations, even in things like their religion and their language." This is blatantly false, and is only true if you have a worlfdview completely centered on northwestern europe. Russia shares a language group with Poland, Chezs, Slovaks, Slovenians, Croats, Bosnians, Serbians, Bulgarians, Macedonians,... and they share a religion with just the Greeks, Serbians, etc. $\endgroup$ – 5xum Dec 4 '19 at 8:49
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    $\begingroup$ It's not only true, but verifiably true. Peter the Great lead massive westernization reforms in Russia specifically to homogenize their culture with that of the rest of Europe. He toured Europe incognito in 1697, and when he returned home instituted western clothes and shaved beards as the required garb of nobility, and shifted them from the byzantine calendar to the Julian. (It was the year 7207 in the old calendar, and 1700 in the new) $\endgroup$ – Stephan Dec 4 '19 at 19:11

You will need to change the time line so that it is unrecognisable.

I suggest the following: make Japan a democracy, give Japan a lot of natural resources and no inclination to expand, remove Japan from the Axis and make her hostile to Nazi Germany. Finally perhaps ensure that Japan has a lot of resources that the US would like to trade and vice versa. That should do it.

All you need to do then is to find a reason why Hitler declared war on the US without Pearl Harbour. Perhaps the US aid to the UK was greater than it had been historically, was seen as being even more effective than it was or perhaps there were some hugely inflammatory remarks made by the Roosevelt. Better still perhaps the US didn’t get involved in WW1 and consequently was less isolationist.

It’s going to be very different…


A common rival

USA and Japan were somehow forced to compete, since both were expanding in the same area (Pacific). But what if there was a third actor in the Pacific scenario?
Think of a timeline where the United Kingdom (and its Navy)

  • continue to pursue a strongly expansionistic policy even through 20th century
  • isn't such a close ally of the USA (even as a consequence of the previous point)

In such scenaio, UK could become a rival of the USA in the Atlantic and South Pacific, through Australia and New Zealand. Seeing the UK as a possible rival, the USA could decide to maintain good relations with Japan in a UK-containing perspective, by closing an eye on its expansion in China and not imposing the famous oil embargo. This should also prevent Japan from joining the Axis.

Note that this situation doesn't imply that USA and UK would become enemy: they could still become allied against Nazi, maybe without trusting each other too much (like both were allied to USSR). In such scenario, I think more likely that Japanese would remain neutral in exchange of free hand in China, even because being in the same alliance with UK, USA, USSR they wouldn't have a lot of options to expand, and because the war would be fought too far for them to feel involved.
I think Japan could join the war together with the Allies if allowed to invade the French colonies in Indo-China (but they should remain loyal to Vichy and not to Free France).


You'd have to make white Americans much, much less racist. I mean, you'd probably have to go all the way back to the eighteenth century when the United States was forming and work racial tolerance into the very fabric of the nation. No Trail of Tears. No Slavery. No Klu Klux Klan. No Yellow Peril

That's really the only way you'd get the United States as a whole to have the kind of relationship you're describing with ANY non-white nation.

You would ALSO need to make the Japanese much, much less racist. The two problems might have the same solution, if the United States had been a reliable ally to help the Japanese and the Chinese resist exploitation by the European powers, you might be able to drive cultural exchange much earlier and have an example for the Japanese to follow that wasn't "The only way to win is exploit everybody else".

The big problem that this whole idea has is that BOTH the United States and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th century were in a race to match the colonial example set by the European powers, and both nations felt that they had a manifest destiny to rise to prominence in the world. There's no way for either nation to do that without coming in direct conflict with the Europeans (As the United States did with the British, the French, and the Spanish, and the Japanese did with the Russians.)

The Japanese and the United States were also directly competing for the same resource-rich areas in the Pacific, particularly the Philippines and southeast Asia.

Bottom line, you'd have to back up quite a long way to start building the kind of relationship you're thinking of. I don't think it can start with something changing in the twentieth century.

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    $\begingroup$ The US did not go to war because of racism. The US went to war because Japan was invading nations the US wanted to keep in its sphere of influence. $\endgroup$ – Ryan_L Dec 2 '19 at 21:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Ryan_L We're not talking about 1940 here though. If you want the United States and Japan to be allies by 1940, that has to start decades earlier, and in the late 1800s most Americans thought Japanese and Chinese were even less worthy of respect than black people. You'd never get American leadership to have public support for that kind of alliance with Japan, and vice versa. The Japanese saw all white nations as utterly corrupt and decadent, and wanted nothing to do with them except to learn everything they possibly could about modern industry and then use that to take their stuff. $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Dec 2 '19 at 21:22
  • $\begingroup$ I think this ignores the complexities of East Asian geopolitics of the time. Japan was coming out of hundreds of years of Isolationism, industrialization of those regions, french and spanish colonization, and the complex rivalries between China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, the Filipino people, etc. Much of these complexities are still at play today in disputes like that currently under way in the South China Sea. $\endgroup$ – Stephan Dec 2 '19 at 21:47
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    $\begingroup$ @MorrisTheCat Japan was allied with Nazi Germany, the quintessential racist state. I don't agree that the groundwork for the alliance must start all that early. The Japanese alliance with Germany didn't start until the Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936. That's so late, in fact, that Germany had actually already sold China a great deal of military equipment. Chinese soldiers fought Japan with German weapons. $\endgroup$ – Ryan_L Dec 2 '19 at 23:29

I don't think that it is possible for the USA and Japan to be allied by the 1940s without changing world history to a degree that it becomes unrecognizable. American racism was built into the American character right from the beginning, it was simply part of the cultural landscape at the time that the Americas were colonized by Europeans, and the conflicts with the native Americans during the colonization served only to reinforce that. The nature of the colonization was such that capitalism became enshrined in the national character, and along with that and the relatively primitive nature of African civilisations - plus the propensity of some African tribes to sell the captured members of other tribes into slavery - and the technological inferiority of the Asian nations that served only to reinforce that.

On the Japanese side of the equation, the asian colonists who were the ancestors of the modern Japanese also had their own conflicts with the pre-existing native Ainu population, and later, they were involved in a failed invasion of the Korean peninsula, and they successfully fought off an invasion by the Mongols.

The Japanese have also had a long history of internal warfare, and a tradition of strong central authorities with a highly bureaucratic style of government. Militarism and a class-based society had become enshrined in the national character, with the ruling class also being the primary military class.

In Europe, the ruling military class held the concept of chivalry to be the highest military virtue. Most importantly, Chivalry enshrines the concept of respect of weakness, which translates to the modern western concept that once an enemy's surrender has been accepted, that enemy must be treated with a degree of respect, that while they may continue to be an enemy and may be imprisoned for the duration of hostilities, they must be provided with the basic necessities of life, and may even be paroled to return to return to their home provided that they swear an oath not to participate in any further hostilities in the conflict in which they were captured, tho the practice of parole has fallen into disuse in more recent times.

The Japanese had a similar code of military conduct, Bushido. While similar to Chivalry in many respects, it lacks a concept of respect of weakness, and contains a concept of courage in the face of any danger, and is entirely more fatalistic. In the Japanese outlook, surrender is dishonorable, a failure to fulfil a duty that may only be fulfilled by victory or death. So, to the Japanese, those who have surrendered have by their own actions marked themselves as being dishonorable, the lowest of the low, and not deserving of honorable treatment. Bushido makes no distinction between combatants and non-combatants, in war, all fight for their side of the conflict, even if not part of an army, and should engaging in combat be futile, then the only honorable options are escape in order to regroup and fight another day, or death, by one's own hand if necessary.

While Bushido didn't explicitly include the concept of suicide attacks that guaranteed the death of the warrior in return for a disproportionate number of enemy casualties, its fundamental tenets allowed the easy addition of suicide attacks.

With these fundamental differences between the respective nations concept of military honour, it is inevitable that the military personnel of each nation would be reluctant to work with those of the other nation, on the grounds of cowardice or cruelty. Only if the Americans and the Japanese were generally unaware of the requirements of each other's military honour code could an alliance reasonably be made, and I doubt that it would long survive the outbreak of hostilities against a common foe.

For many years, Japan practised a policy of isolationism, seeing those from outside their islands as being inferior and uncivilized. For many years, the main contact the Japanese had with Western nations was through missionaries attempting to spread Christianity. Unlike other peoples to whom missionaries have been sent, the Japanese recognised the presence of the missionaries as an attack upon their culture, and the message preached by the missionaries being antithetical to the interests of Japan's rulers. This led to an absolute ban on contact with the outside world, with only a few strictly controlled exceptions.

Japanese isolationism was only broken when the US sent warships commanded by Admiral Perry to force open the Japanese market. The Japanese, realizing that their isolationism had led to their falling behind the rest of the world, began an aggressive policy of modernization which led naturally to Japanese imperialism.

The fact that Japan's rapidly increasing technological base and population were at odds with the limited natural resources of the Japanese islands gave the Japanese an imperative to gain access to more resources, and given historical enmities, and the the nations who were the major source of the resources the Japanese needed refusing to trade made conflict inevitable.

So, given that the cultural differences that made conflict in WWII likely go back a thousand years, it would take a major event similar to Japan's defeat in World War II to change the Japanese national character sufficiently that an alliance would be possible... and if such an event had happened, one or perhaps both nations would no longer be the Japan or USA that we recognize, but another nations or nations that just happened to have the same name.


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