Sweden, Japan, and the Long Second World War 1931–1945

Authored by Pascal Lottaz and Ingemar Ottosson. With a chapter by Bert Edström.

Lottaz and Ottosson explore the intricate relationship between neutral Sweden and Imperial Japan during the latter’s 15 years of warfare in Asia and in the Pacific. While Sweden’s relationship with European Axis powers took place under the premise of existential security concerns, the case of Japan was altogether different. Japan never was a threat to Sweden, militarily or economically. Nevertheless, Stockholm maintained a close relationship with Tokyo until Japan’s surrender in 1945. This book explores the reasons for that and therefore provides a study on the rationale and the value of neutrality in the Long Second World War. 

We thank Ekman & Co AB and Gadelius Holding Ltd for their kind and generous support, making this research available online for free.

Chapter 1:

On the night of April 13, 1945, a lonely plane crossed the Japanese Sea. Coming from Tokyo, at the height of Japan’s doomed war in the Pacific, the aircraft was not carrying bombs or soldiers, but a foreign diplomat—the Swedish envoy to Japan, Widar Bagge. It was a solemn flight in several ways for Stockholm’s most senior representative in East Asia. For one, it was an emotional farewell after more than a decade of service in Tokyo, where he witnessed some of Japan’s brightest moments as well as its darkest days. He knew the “good” Japan of the 1920s, the cooperative contributor to the League of Nations, the supportive pillar of internationalism, and the friendly nation that welcomed foreigners to trade and collaborate. But he also experienced first-hand the Japan of violence, xenophobia, and murder, when fanatics militarized society, assassinated politicians, and invaded numerous territories in the name of the Empire’s “natural” right to lead the peoples of Asia. Finally, when the bombs started falling, he had to watch the slow but steady destruction of a country he loved. Read more….

Chapter 2:
In the beginning: Early Swedish–Japanese relations

Swedish–Japanese relations date back to the time when Stockholm and Kristiania (Oslo) were still under the same king. The United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway was the twelfth country to establish diplomatic relations with Japan after the archipelago’s 250 years of relative seclusion from the world. Just as in the case of Japan’s contacts with other Western powers, the relations to Sweden underwent a rather amazing metamorphosis. Originally treated as a backward and weak Asiatic country, Japan later entered the Great Power club, joining Great Britain, France, Russia, and the United States. From around 1895, the country was considered to be the dynamic force in the East, a state that played in a differ- ent league from a small power like Sweden. Some also viewed it as a dangerous future economic competitor. This was due to the resolute Japanese moderniza- tion experiment, accomplished in one generation, and the victorious wars against China (1894–1895) and Russia (1904–1905). Read the entire chapter for free.

Chapter 3:
Trade under protest: A war in all but name


The violent expansion of Japan’s Kantō Army into China, which resulted in the creation of the artificial state of “Manchukuo,” and a bloody “war in all but name,” was not only a serious challenge to the world community but the first time that Sweden and Japan found themselves at opposite ends of a diplomatic struggle that touched their core interests. In Stockholm, it took months until some form of consensus on the crisis emerged. However, once the decision to stand resolutely behind the principles of the League of Nations was taken, Sweden sent its most apt diplomats to Geneva to forcefully defend a rule-based international order and the noble ideas of collective security. For once, countries the size of Sweden and Czechoslovakia stood at the forefront of League actions against an aggressor state, but that did not meet with much enthusiasm by the Great Powers. Britain and France had colonies in the East and did not want to risk a confrontation with the Japanese Empire, which also served as a check on Chinese nationalism and the influence of the Soviet Union. But to Sweden and other states in favor of active internationalism, the situation looked different. The long-awaited disarmament conference of the League had started its sessions in early 1932 and negotiations demonstrated the vital link between disarmament and credible security guarantees. In the opinion of the Swedish Government, disarmament was the key issue of their time. If the League could not enforce collective security at this crucial moment, the dream of a peaceful world would have to wait for another generation. Stockholm, therefore, took the calculated risk of alienating Japan for the sake of the power of the League and, in the long run, for its own security at home. Unfortunately, this failed. Japan left the League, Manchukuo became a fait accompli, collective security was heavily discredited, and on top of that, Sweden’s image in Japan deteriorated to that of a “nasty dog” that had dared to “bite” Asia’s Great Power. At the same time, however, there was no spillover effect from the diplomatic into the commercial realm. Swedish business to Japan continued undisturbed. Trade grew significantly until 1937. Not even Swedish trade with Manchuria suffered. On the contrary, the very lucrative business with Manchukuo’s soybeans grew manifold, benefitting not only the companies engaged in the business but Sweden in general who gained access to a food source that would become important in the nutrition-depleted years to follow. The initial fears over Japanese commercial retaliation for Sweden’s political opposition to its actions in China turned out to be unfounded. Japan did not try to punish Sweden for its position on the world stage. By 1937, the backbone of Swedish–Japanese relations remained unchanged. Even under protest, the two nations kept trading. Read the entire chapter for free.

Chapter 4:
Fading protest: Total war in China


the Marco Polo Bridge incident sparked full (but undeclared) warfare between China and Japan. The Japanese army attacked Chinese military positions and started assaulting the Government of Chang Kai-shek, raiding cities and attacking the capital Nanking, which fell on December 13, and subsequently subjugated to some of the worst atrocities of the war. These developments were closely followed in Sweden, but public perception was mixed, ranging from utter indignation that even produced attempts at a private boycott movement, all the way to tacit approval by the business community and anti-colonialists. Although the League of Nations made another attempt at pacifying the belligerents, Japan simply refused to participate. The League condemned Japanese actions as violations of both the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the Nine-Power Treaty, but the only concrete effect that this had was that Japan’s Privy Council cut the remaining ties to nonpolitical organs of the League on November 2, 1938. It was during this episode that Swedish foreign policy changed noticeably not only toward Japan but toward collective security in general. While its diplomats in Geneva initially still tried to convince the League of a meaningful stance that might imply sanctions or even military aid to China, the unwillingness of Great Powers to even consider labeling Japan as a perpetrator against Article XVI wiped away the remaining internationalist sentiments in the UD. In the following conference in November, under the provisions of the Nine-Power Treaty, Sweden’s lack of engagement and enthusiasm bordered at sabotage. Within two months, the UD had shifted from engagement to apathy which was an expression and consequence of a major foreign policy realignment to “strict” neutrality, as we shall see in the next chapter.

Apart from the obvious failure and humiliation of the Swedish internationalist position, the most impactful problems that the new situation created had again to do with trade. Not only because the markets in China disappeared, or fell under Japanese control, but because the Japanese blockade of the Chinese coastline made trading routes unsafe. Shipping became dangerous to the point that Swedish companies had to offer war risk allowances to sailors on dangerous routes. Similarly, Swedish missionaries and merchants in China came under pres- sure from both the Japanese and Chinese sides. Many had to be evacuated in 1938 and 1939. Trade with China naturally suffered from these conditions. Exports fell from SEK 15.4 million in 1937 to SEK 8 million a year later and to SEK 6 million in 1939. Import numbers remained stable at around SEK 31 million but that was only because the official statistics were still counting Manchurian soybean as a product of China. The actual total sum of imports for 1939 was SEK 5.2 million. That was only a third of what Sweden at the same time imported from Manchukuo (SEK 15.6 million). Trade with Japan also took a sharp downturn. Whereas 1937 had been the most outstanding year for exports, with SEK 47.8 million, the number plummeted back to SEK 26.3 million in 1938. This was not solely the effect of war-related trade hurdles. In 1937, the Japanese parliament enacted laws to eliminate trade deficits and spur domestic production of vital goods that would decrease the Empire’s dependence on foreign products. Japan’s industries came under tight control, resembling a nationalization process. This meant that Swedish trading companies had to adapt not only their merchandise but their entire business practice, negotiating more with Japanese ministries than with private-sector partners. In the wake of this wind of economic nationalism, the products that survived the wrath of the regulators were those that were difficult for Japan to replace. Ball bearings, for example, on which SKF had a near monopoly and high-quality machinery. Those were needed in even higher quantities due to the warfare in China. That, on the other hand, seriously impeded Swedish interests there. Ever since the beginning of open warfare, Bagge had to protest to the Gaimushō in the name of Swedish companies and the consulate in Shanghai, when Japanese attacks struck their property or when Japanese forces confiscated them. Usually, his protests were of little help. The good years for Swedish trade with East Asia were over. Read the entire chapter for free.

Chapter 5:
Staying relevant: Total war in Europe


By the time Hitler attacked Poland, the Swedish attitude toward Japan had come full circle. It had moved from a relationship defined mainly by trade interests before 1930, to one of “trade under protest” during the early years of Japan’s expansionism, back to trade without protest when it became clear that international anarchy was becoming the norm again. Developments at the League of Nations were pivotal for that shift. After the failure of sanctions against Italy and Japan, and a joint declaration of European neutrals, Swedish foreign policy became increasingly cautious. The new global situation with antagonistic Great Power blocs and diminishing respect for international treaties was indeed alarming, leading to calls for a return to Swedish neutrality. At the beginning of the 1930s that policy had only few friends among Swedish politicians. It was commonly emphasized that neutrality was incompatible with League membership. However, the winds changed between 1936 and 1939. After a period of internal struggle, all gov- ernmental parties agreed to support the return to Swedish neutrality, effectively abandoning the collective security approach through the League. At the same time, Japan, too, opted for a neutral policy in the ensuing European war, under the guise of “noninvolvement.” Deterred by the Soviet Union in Nomonhan and surprised by Germany’s sudden Non-Aggression Pact with Stalin, Tokyo chose to focus on its warfare in China while maintaining normal relations with all others. In comparison with Sweden, the Japanese approach came with the important difference that the Empire kept the option open to join the war in the future. Under these circumstances, Swedish–Japanese trade could have continued as usual after 1939, but it was eventually slowed down by external circumstances. The dangers of the high seas in connection with Britain’s insistence to control commerce to and from Europe through navicerts and the difficulties to obtain permits from the Soviet Union for transit through Siberia resulted in a decline in trade. Inside Japan, the situation became more dangerous to Swedish citizens due to the rise of attacks against Westerners. But neither Minister Widar Bagge nor the UD believed that the situation warranted an evacuation. Only 10 percent of the Swedish colony left the Empire before the attack on Pearl Harbor. All in all, during the first two years of the War in Europe, Swedish–Japanese relations took a clear turn toward bilateralism, with an increasing role of Swedish diplomacy in trade questions. It was a trend that would become more pronounced during the dramatic years of the War in the Pacific. Read the entire chapter for free.

Chapter 6:
Fully engaged: Total war in the Pacific


Pearl Harbor was a watershed moment for Swedish–Japanese relations. Diplomatically, Sweden became Japan’s second largest Protecting Power and one of the three neutrals tasked with organizing the exchange of enemy nationals among the belligerents. Especially its role as Japan’s Protecting Power in Hawaii and as provider of exchange ships made it a crucial neutral partner to Tokyo. On the other hand, Sweden collaborated in several areas with Switzerland to protect Allied POWs, diplomats, and civilians. It also became an enabler for private humanitarian relief efforts by lending a helping hand to the Neutral Committee of the YMCA, consisting of Swedish and Swiss diplomats, which acted as the Japan-based branch of the international YMCA. Through the committee, the Swedes could channel YMCA goods and funds to interned enemy nationals in the Empire. While Switzerland was the diplomatic partner of the ICRC, Sweden became the partner of the YMCA.

For Swedish business, everything changed with Japan’s new mode of produc- tion for the war economy. Trade and diplomacy became so interconnected that they were barely distinguishable. Widar Bagge suddenly was not only Sweden’s highest diplomatic representative in Japan, but also became the chief representative of Swedish commerce. Only he had the necessary authority to negotiate prices with the Ministry of Finance. Japan’s nationalization drove, to a large extent, a quasi-nationalization of Swedish trade in the country under its diplomatic outpost. This went so far that Swedish companies complained about the interference of the legation in their business. Minister Bagge defended the measures, arguing that under the new rules of the game, only the Swedish state—as represented by him—had an adequate standing for negotiations with Japan. Indeed, he was able to get higher concessions than the company directors.

Paradoxically, the new role Sweden came to play occurred in tandem with Japan’s declining interest in bilateral relations with the Scandinavians. For nearly two years (January 1941–November 1942), Japan did not have a minister plenipotentiary stationed in Stockholm, operating its legation on minimum capacity only. Sweden strongly disliked the situation since it meant even fewer possibilities to make its interests and grievances heard in Tokyo. The official reason the Gaimushō gave was a lack of skilled personnel, but the truth was probably more mundane—the geopolitical situation of these years had isolated Sweden in the eyes of Japan, making diplomatic efforts there unnecessary. That perception changed radically toward the final years of the war. Once the Gaimushō and Japan’s armed forces realized the value of Stockholm as an outpost for intelligence gathering, Japan sent not only a new minister but a dozen delegates to gather information on Allied activities.

Sweden’s new role as a provider for diplomatic and humanitarian services increased the workload of the UD considerably. To cope with the situation, it founded a division dedicated only to foreign interests, the Section B. In Japan, Bagge made a former Swedish company director the head of his local chapter of that section. In general, Bagge had to hire many more Swedish and Japanese employees to cope with the increased workload. His mission grew from a handful of people to over 20. Besides the apparent necessity to assist individuals in danger, Bagge recommended to his government not to turn down request for Sweden’s Good Offices because he hoped that these favors would grant Sweden an advantageous position for its own interests, especially inside Japan. These expectations, however, did not come true. With every year of the war, it became more difficult for Bagge to uphold commercial interests and to protect even Swedish citizens in the Japanese Empire. Read the entire chapter for free.

Chapter 7:
In the end: Widar Bagge, Japan, and the end of World War II

By Bert Edström

In the final phase of the war, Sweden became involved in a maneuver aimed at attaining peace for Japan on terms acceptable to its military and political leadership. In the autumn of 1944, it was obvious to some influential Japanese that defeat in the war was inevitable, and various channels were used to sound out the possibility of reaching a peace agreement. One of these channels involved the Swedish minister to Tokyo Widar Bagge in what is now known as the Bagge kōsaku, “the Bagge maneuver,” often also called “the Bagge peace feeler.” The endeavor in which he was involved differed in one important respect from all other peace efforts in that two (successive) Japanese foreign ministers supported it. Although none of the initiatives came to fruition, it is still worth pausing to consider this moment of a failed peacemaking effort, as it exemplifies both the possibilities and limitations of neutral diplomacy. Bagge’s deed has entered the annals of Japan’s diplomatic history but is mentioned only in passing in the standard work on Swedish foreign policy during World War II written by Wilhelm Carlgren, the head of the archive of the Swedish Foreign Ministry 1965–1987. Bagge appears only briefly in a footnote in this monumental work of almost 600 pages. Read more…

Chapter 8:

After War

As the war in Europe approached its inevitable end, Finland sued for peace with Moscow, Denmark and Norway were liberated, and on May 2, 1945, two days after Hitler had committed suicide, Berlin fell to Soviet troops. Although not all occupied nations were liberated (the unfortunate Baltic states would not regain independence for half a century), on May 7, Stockholm witnessed boisterous peace celebrations, observed by dismayed Japanese diplomats. As we know, relations between Stockholm and Tokyo remained normal, which contrasted with Finland and Denmark that broke off diplomatic contact, and Norway that even declared war.[1] On July 31, 1945, Sweden’s national coalition government was dissolved and replaced by a Social Democratic cabinet, with Östen Undén as the new foreign minister. The war in Europe was over and the road to postwar prosperity lay open.[2]

The situation could not have been more different for Japan. On August 15, the Emperor’s voice was aired in a radio broadcast for the first time. Announcing the unconditional surrender of the nation, he ordered all forces to lay down their weapons. Two weeks later, on September 2, Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru signed the instrument of surrender on the USS Missouri. The Long Second World War that had begun at a railway track in Manchuria, ended on board of a battleship in the Pacific. Japan accepted defeat. With that started seven years of US occupation, a transitional leadership in Tokyo, war crime trials, and the restructuring of the former Empire. Korea became an independent state again but soon broke up into two separate countries, later suffering from another devastating war—the first one of the emerging Cold War. Manchukuo was reintegrated into China, while Taiwan was liberated and later became the home of Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China after he lost the mainland to Communist Mao, who proclaimed the People’s Republic of China from the old capital Peking, in 1949. Large parts of the Empire’s diaspora, Japanese soldiers and civilians, returned to Japan, sometimes after years of imprisonment. They came home to a destroyed country, where major cities lay in ashes. Hiroshima and Nagasaki being only the most infamous examples because of their obliteration by the first atomic bombs. Many other cities had suffered similar destruction by conventional weapons. The firebombing raid of Tokyo in the night of March 9–10 alone killed more than hundred thousand people—roughly similar to the death that the A-bombs wreaked. Minister Bagge did not have to witness the devastation anymore, but his Swiss colleague, Camille Gorgé, described the capital in September 1945 as “a moon-like city, disfigured. Ruins, kilometers on end. I do not know any more where I am. I do not recognize a single district. I am somewhere else, on a different planet.”[3]

The Gaimushō, too, lay in ashes, as did its diplomacy. With the loss of sovereignty, all decision-making power on Japan’s external affairs passed to the US occupying forces under General Douglas MacArthur and the US government. The Americans swiftly forbade an independent Japanese diplomacy, ordering its embassies, legations, and consulates abroad to be handed over to US representatives. It was the end of official diplomatic contact between third states and Japan. Only for administrative purposes were foreign representatives allowed to interact with the beaten-down Gaimushō in its temporary premises, but not for political contact with the provisional Japanese Cabinet. Until mid-November 1945 when Japan broke the diplomatic relation with Sweden, Erik von Sydow served as charge d’affaires. Later, Olaf Ripa took on the role as Diplomatic Representative to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers. Sweden could no longer appoint a new plenipotentiary to Tokyo nor receive new Japanese representatives in Stockholm. It is an irony of history, that Swedish–Japanese diplomacy survived fifteen years of war but not the reestablishment of peace. 

To be fair, Shigemitsu’s signature on the Missouri did not technically restore peace, it just ended hostilities. A peace agreement was not signed until 1952, in San Francisco. Only then Japan regained its sovereignty, after which Swedish–Japanese diplomatic relations were promptly reestablished. In the meantime, Sweden’s other primary interest—trade—started to recover from the disruptions of the war. Surprisingly fast, commerce became possible again. Although the official statistics in Sweden are empty for the year 1946, trade figures reappear already for 1947 again. They show that although exports were only worth a meager KR 0.5 million, imports were valued already at over KR 9 million. That is nearly the level at which imports stood right before Pearl Harbor. The following years of US occupation would see further growth in both directions. By the time Japan became independent again, trade was worth many times what it was before the Pacific War (see Figure 12). Hence, although the occupation ended the official diplomatic contact between Sweden and Japan, it did not terminate their trade relationship. On the contrary, the end of belligerency was conducive to the return to business as usual.

Text Box: FIGURE 12: Value of imports from and exports to Japan 1947–1952
Source: Statistisk årsbok för Sverige, 1950, 142–3; 1953, 132–3.

Final Remarks

The purpose of this book was to study Sweden’s interactions with Japan during a volatile and violent moment of its history, with the goal of shedding light also on the wider international context of the Long Second World War. So, what did we learn? For one, we can now answer the question why Swedish–Japanese relations remained intact during the warfare in China and the War in the Pacific. The trivial but honest answer is that it simply always made sense for Sweden and Japan to continue normal relations. The Swedish experience was, as social scientists call it, path dependent. In the same way that Sweden continued its relationship with the United States and Great Britain, there was no reason for Stockholm to give up its relationship with Japan. After 1905, Japan was a pivotal state for Sweden’s Far Eastern trade-strategy. Although commerce with Japan and China was far less extensive than trade with western Great Powers or Scandinavian countries, individual firms and the business community in general wanted to maintain access to this region, which they saw as an important market with much potential. Although Japan’s actions in the League of Nations went strongly against Sweden’s strategic interests for a law-based international society, Japanese provocations were never directly targeted against Stockholm. There was no Swedish “Pearl Harbor moment,” not even a “Manila moment,” as for Spain. Japan was never responsible for the death of many Swedes or infringements on other vital interests. Bilaterally, Stockholm was unhappy with Tokyo’s actions but never ostracized to a point that would have called for a rupture of relations. In addition, once the war turned against Japan, Sweden had become so deeply engaged in diplomatic activities for Tokyo and the Allies, that cutting ties with Japan would have been to the detriment of both sides. From a humanitarian perspective, Sweden was useful as a neutral that could act diplomatically between the fronts. It did so in the name of all parties. Be it well understood, however, that these actions were not taken out of pure generosity. As Envoy Bagge so clearly formulated, Sweden’s Good Office services were part of its engagement strategy that was supposed to enable its own (trade) interests. It was a tactic that did not always produce direct results—especially during the last years of the Pacific War—but considering how quickly trade rebounded after the end of hostilities, one is tempted to conclude that it was not completely without merit.  

The previous chapters also show that Sweden’s return to its traditional neutrality in the late 1930s was influenced not only by the Abyssinian sanctions fiasco, and the threat from a rearming Germany, but also by Japan’s aggressive challenge in East Asia. Sweden was among the most outspoken voices in Geneva against these aggressions, but without collective action in form of sanctions or an intervention, there was no way of reining in Japan’s militarists. Tokyo even withdrew from the League of Nations, but no consequences followed. This is not to argue that Sweden was on higher moral ground. Stockholm, too, did not try to impose punishment from its side. Unilateral action would, theoretically, have been an option but even a grassroots consumer boycott, after the bombing of Chinese cities, failed to gather enough support. There were prominent voices not only in the business community but also among diplomats and publicists, who subscribed to Japan’s version of the “Manchurian question” which held that Japan was only policing a lawless region. In short, there was no common interpretation of Manchuria or the “Chinese incident,” neither domestically, nor internationally, and that paralyzed attempts at collective security through the League. Only once this failure became painfully evident (increased by the Abyssinian crisis) politics in Stockholm started to initiate a return to the principles of neutrality since that was the last available security paradigm in the absence of multilateral forums.

Once that decision was taken, it was clear that there would be no more question about opposing Japan politically or commercially. In addition, during the First World War, Sweden’s foreign trade policy had been strictly impartial, which the Government at the time had viewed as a pillar of an equidistant neutrality. But trade based on “fairness” toward both belligerent parties instead of the needs of the Swedish population had caused serious food shortage which translated into widespread social unrest. In 1939, it was clear that neutrality would have to be more flexible, less concerned about symmetric trade, and more centered with national priorities. Just like other states, the neutrals, too, had a right to put their own interests first. It was nobody less than the ardent internationalist Östen Undén who formulated that policy in 1938.[4]  Over the course of the European war, Sweden consequently traded asymmetrically with the Allied and Axis powers. Which belligerent received what kind of economic benefits depended mostly on the development of the war and the relative threat level.[5] In light of this European strategy, and the fact that Sweden had already strictly separated commerce and politics when dealing with Japan, it comes as no surprise that the “business as usual” approach continued all along, until 1945 (and beyond). Although to do so, Sweden needed to leverage its full weight in the form of Envoy Bagge actively taking over the trade interests of the companies in the Empire—even to the point where the directors of the trading companies would complain about his interferences in setting prices and negotiating terms with customers. Then again, that was but a natural reaction to the nationalization of the Japanese industry under government ministries. As private enterprise in Japan was integrated into the state (although the zaibatsu never were purely private), Swedish trade had to parallel the development if it wanted to maintain eye-level in negotiations. It is important to note, however, that the integration of diplomacy and commerce was a two-way street. When the Pacific War led to a massive increase in the diplomatic work and costs for Bagge and the legation, because of the Protecting Power mandates and the new humanitarian work, it was only the availability of Swedish personnel and capital in Japan and around the world that allowed him and the Swedish state to cope with the situation. The ability to hire Swedish staff from the companies into his services and use their funds was necessary for the functioning of Bagge’s legation. The time when foreign nationals could act as agents of Swedish diplomacy in the form of honorary consuls was over. Between 1941 and 1945, only a Swedish passport had any chance of opening doors to internment camps or persuade the Kenpeitai to let their holders fulfill their Protecting Power duties. In short, the private-public partnership of the Swedish network abroad was essential to neutral trade and diplomacy alike.

It is also worth noting that Sweden was busy diplomatically during the entire fifteen years. First, Stockholm was deeply involved in the processes in Geneva, during the period when it implemented a multilateral foreign relations strategy through the League of Nations. Later it was engaged mostly bilaterally with Japan and other belligerents when warfare made its position as a diplomatic service provider valuable. That engagement even came during a time when Japan had lost all political relevance to Sweden and when Swedish politicians and the general public were occupied with the European situation. Neutrality did not mean passivity. The UD never disengaged. On the contrary, it made additional resources available to cope with the increased workload that its active diplomacy needed. On the other hand, it must also be pointed out that semantics mattered surprisingly much. That Mukden and the Marco Polo Bridge were both known as “incidents” (just like Nomonhan), and that Japan’s belligerency in China, was framed in a similar low-key manner, impacted the way in which Sweden could deal with these situations. That becomes clear in comparison to the official “war” that Japan started with the US and the Allies. Tokyo even wrote and transmitted an official declaration of war through its embassy in Washington—albeit only after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although none of these instances led to a termination of Swedish–Japanese relations, their impacts on the bilateral relationship were distinctly different, as we have seen.

Lastly, although this was clearly a story of change—the waves of violence of Japanese militarists in 1931, 1937, and 1941, all led to visible changes in the way that Sweden interacted with Japan—in the end, it was also an uninterrupted experience. From the Swedish perspective, the Long Second World War, was akin to the Cold War—a conflict that raged around it and was dangerous but never actually turned “hot” for Stockholm. Although the Long Second World War impacted the international sphere heavily, and with that the way in which a neutral country could engage with its international partners, those wars of others never created an all-or-nothing moment for Sweden. Certainly, the warfare of the 1940s could also have engulfed its shores—it was a highly contingent moment. But the fact that it did not, opened possibilities for Sweden to act internationally in a way that was different from the possibilities of belligerents but consistent with its interests and historical developments. In this sense the present narrative shows how neutrality for Sweden was not only a security paradigm at home but also an effective instrument of its foreign policy—even as far away as in Japan. 


[1] Onodera, An den Gestaden der Ostsee, 218–19; Yoshitake, Nihonjin wa Hokuō kara nani wo mananda ka, 34.

[2] Hadenius, Modern svensk politisk historia, 80–81.

[3] DDS, Debâcle au Soleil-levant, 404.

[4] Undén to UD, undated reply to memorandum of August 10, 1938, UD to Undén (UDA, 2210.03.1, H 40, Ct). See also Martin Fritz, “Sveriges ekonomiska relationer med Nazityskland” [Sweden’s economic relations with Nazi Germany], in Sverige och Nazityskland: Skuldfrågor och moraldebatt [Sweden and Nazi Germany: Questions of guilt and the moral debate], ed. Lars M. Andersson & Mattias Tydén (Stockholm: Dialogos, 2007), 257–8.

[5] On the economic aspects of Swedish WWII neutrality with European belligerents, see Eric B. Golson, “The Economics of Neutrality: Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland in the Second World War.” (PhD diss., The London School of Economics and Political Science, 2011).Especially chapters 2 and 5.