Ethiopia and Japan tightened their diplomatic and economic relationships between 1927 and 1931. Haile Selassie and the “progressive” intellectuals around him were striving to strengthen Ethiopia’s claim to sovereignty. Japan as an example of non-white success added ammunition to their claim that Ethiopia had a right to sit at the table of the "great nations". The Japanese government sought to expand its trade, and probably understood its economic penetration in Ethiopia as a tentative imperial foothold in the African continent. The two governments never envisioned the alliance as a substitute for their respective pro-Western foreign policy, but sectors of their societies thought otherwise. Both the Young Ethiopians and the Japanese Pan-Asianists were critical of their respective governments’ capitalist internationalism and thought that the racism that shaped Western attitudes towards non-Europeans should be antagonised, not appeased. The analysis of the international context with which Ethiopian elites had to contend allows us to recontextualise and reframe the “alienation debate” in Ethiopian intellectual history. The “turn to Japan” should not be understood as an xenophilic infatuation with a fashionable foreign model, but on the contrary as a sophisticated and calculated response to the international relations of the time.