Great White Fleet’s Visit to Japan
Fostered Temporary Good Relations
By DAVID F. WINKLER
With its victory in the Spanish-American War, the
United States suddenly possessed territories in the
Pacific and, with them, requirements to provide for their
defense during an age when other powers were aggressively seeking to expand their influence within the
region. One of those powers, Japan, had triumphed in the
Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and then achieved victory
at sea during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.
The relationship with Japan served as a major impetus
for the deployment of the Great White Fleet. Japanese-American relations had been amiable, as President
Theodore Roosevelt brokered the Treaty of Portsmouth
that ended the war between Russia and Japan, and
Secretary of War William Taft had had positive discussions
with Premier Taro Katsura during a visit to Japan in 1905.
However, in 1906 and 1907, discrimination against
Japanese immigrants on the U.S. West Coast created
tension between the two countries. When anti-Japanese riots broke out in San Francisco and elsewhere in May 1907, the press began to speculate about
war. A year later, with the Great White Fleet having
arrived on the West Coast, tensions had eased.
While some newspapers opined that Japan’s willingness to host the Great White Fleet represented an
acknowledgment of American naval supremacy, in reality the Japanese, who had established an alliance with the
British, desired to thwart a potential counter-alliance
among Germany, China and the United States.
However, American naval officers, having little appreciation for Japan’s ulterior motives, did not know what to
expect. As the fleet departed from Manila on Oct. 9, 1908,
the Japanese Navy was at sea for maneuvers and some
speculated that the Americans were heading into a trap. A
typhoon ensured no contact between the two navies, and
the American battleships reached Yokohama on Oct. 18.
The commander, Rear Adm. Charles S. Sperry, understood that an unintended incident could set back relations.
Roosevelt had proposed no Sailors be allowed ashore, but
Sperry recognized this could be seen as a slight by the
Japanese and convinced the president to reconsider.
With Japanese schoolchildren singing “Hail
Columbia” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” upon the
fleet’s arrival, concerns began to diminish.
On Oct. 19, Adm. Heihachiro Togo hosted a huge
reception at the Shinjuku Imperial Gardens. Shortly
thereafter, at a luncheon prepared for American flag
NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER
Officers of the battleship Missouri pose on the quarterdeck
with officers from the Japanese Armored Cruiser Nisshin
at Yokohama, Japan, Oct. 24, 1908, during the Great White
Fleet’s visit as part of its cruise around the world.
officers at the Imperial Palace, Emperor Meiji appeared, and the monarch alleviated any remaining suspicions of ill intent.
For many American officers and their wives who
had traveled to Japan, a highlight was a ball hosted by
Togo on the battleship Mikasa. Japanese naval officers
honored Sperry by tossing him up in the air three
times. American officers, led by Ensign William F.
“Bull” Halsey, returned the honor for Togo.
Reflecting on subsequent events (World War II),
Halsey later wryly commented that they should not
“have caught him a third time.” The visit was capped
by a torchlight parade attended by 50,000.
The Sailors served as excellent diplomats. In one
incident, a celebratory arch caught fire and three
Sailors and a Marine climbed the structure and saved a
Japanese flag before flames reached it. Needless to say,
the heroic action cemented warm feelings.
Although the two nations would go to war in 1941,
during World War I, Japan would be an important ally
in the war against the Central Powers. ■
Sources: The World Cruise of the Great White Fleet,
Michael J. Crawford, editor (Naval Historical Center, 2008);
Robert C. Hart, The Great White Fleet: Its Voyage Around
The World, 1907-1909 (Little Brown and Co., 1965).
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical