'East Asia Alliance' was thinly veiled pretext for annexation

Proposal amounted to a conspiracy aimed at hegemony
By By Shi Guifang / 08-12-2015 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Hideki Tojo meets Wang Jingwei at the first anniversary commemoration of the “Greater East Asia War” in December 1942 in Tokyo.


Starting in the late 19th century, Japan waged a series of offensive wars to procure resources and fuel its own modernization and military progress. As its national strength surged, Japan’s foreign policy switched from Datsu-A Ron, variously translated as “Leaving Asia” or “De-Asianization,” to “returning to Asia.”

Yet, far from being cordial, the so-called return was an attempt to assert a dominant position on the continent and even the entire world. During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1931-45), Japanese elites concocted a number of “co-prosperity” theories to whitewash its expansionary pursuit. One influential example of these theories was the proposal of an “East Asia Alliance.”

Presented as solution to East-West confrontations and resistance to suppressive white imperialism, the proposal was nonetheless a conspiratorial fabrication aimed at establishing permanent hegemony over China and even the world.

‘Inevitable’ civilizational clash
Since the latter half of the 19 th century, Japan had modeled its modernization process on Western paradigms. Such an inclination became even more evident after intellectual luminary Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901) unequivocally stated that the correct path for Japan was to distance itself from Asian countries while striving to join the ranks of the European powers. Meanwhile, there was an ideological trend toward “alliance” with Asian countries. Along with the “Leaving Asia” tendency expressed in Fukuzawa’s writings, the “alliance” proposal was the guideline of Japan’s aggressive expansion starting in the late phase of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912).


Needless to say the “alliance” proposal, though seemingly inclusive, was blatantly self-interested. China was only an instrument for Japan’s ambition. After the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), the so-called alliance with Asian countries was employed as a pretext for invasion. “Standing proud in East Asia and soaring into the global scene ”— the phrase was evidence of Japan’s swollen ego. The inauguration of The Worldwide Japan magazine in July 1896 was another proof of its overreaching Zeitgeist.

Curiously enough, Japan’s “alliance” proposal struck a chord with leaders of Chinese reformist and revolutionist groups who were seeking to save the nation from Western oppression, such as Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925). At the beginning of the 20th century, Okakura Kakuzo (1862-1913) came up with a theory of pan-Asian unity, arguing that the continent should rely on Japan’s leadership to resist Western colonialism and achieve collective revival. In 1916, Kodera Kenkichi (1877-1949) published On Pan-Asianism. To him, the confrontation between Asian and Caucasian races was inevitable. As the indigenous inhabitant of the continent, Asians are supposed to stand together and rise up to expel Western colonists from their own land.

In the 1930s, pan-Asianism evolved into various forms of “coordination” and “alliance” theories. “East Asia Alliance” was the most comprehensive, systematic and action-oriented one. It served as the rational justification of Japan’s construction of “a new regional order in East Asia” and a political excuse for Wang Jingwei’s (1883-1944) collaboration with Japanese intruders. The theory was the brainchild of Kanji Ishiwara (1889-1949). Known as a noted strategist at home, he was also the main perpetrator of the 1931 Mukden Incident.

From his perspective, there is bound to be an ultimate civilizational clash between the East and the West. As the exemplar of Eastern Civilization, Japan must prevail, and replace Western hegemonic reign (badao) with Eastern kingly rule (wangdao). As the argument goes, to win the battle, Japan needed to accumulate strength through uniting  East Asian countries. In order to overturn Western colonial regimes led by Anglo-Saxon countries, East Asian countries should coordinate with each other in national defense, economic and political issues under the command of the Japanese emperor.

‘East Asia Alliance’
The term “East Asia Alliance” first appeared in the Conference Outline of Manchukuo Union in in March 1933. In August 1939, Ishiwara published the Outline of East Asia Alliance and On Showa Reform. In October 1939, the “East Asia Alliance Association” was founded in Tokyo, which announced the commencement of the “alliance” campaign.

Ishiwara’s “alliance” theory emphasized the fundamental philosophy of Eastern civilization—the kingly rule. He admitted that it was a shared intellectual heritage of Japan and China, yet China failed to put it into practice. He claimed that the doctrine of the kingly rule was the backbone of the East Asia Alliance.

The “alliance” aimed at promoting “common defense, economic integration, political independence, and cultural communication.”

“Common defense” and “economic integration” were bound together. Production of military supplies was at the center of the agenda. To feed the military sector, Japanese authorities prescribed central planning among East Asian countries. Regional economies and other industries were to be sacrificed whenever necessary. The so-called “economic integration” was all about coercing East Asian countries into the orbit of Tokyo’s military ambition and plundering their wealth, manpower and natural resources.

“Political independence” was the most deceitful part of the “alliance” theory. To safeguard the interest of “East Asian people as a whole,” each country was obliged to comply with Japan’s strategic planning and stop fighting for national independence and sovereignty. The Japanese government justified its prolonged military presence in China by claiming to safeguard against Communist forces. Regardless of how plausible the justification was, it is crystal-clear that Japan violated China’s sovereignty by stationing troops on its soil and terrorizing its citizens.

The notion of “cultural communication” was articulated as creating a culture of morality and justice (daoyi) under Japan’s spiritual guidance. Such a culture was considered prerequisite of a more promising global future. For Wang Jingwei and the entire puppet regime formed under his banner, the enterprise of “cultural communication” had five key points: mutual understanding and respect of each other’s sentiment, training programs for the general public, cooperation between education sectors in different countries, the exchange of intellectuals and cultural artifacts, and nurturing cultural undertakings.

 ‘A new regional order’
Assured of its comprehensive strength, Japan intended to bring the Kuomintang (KMT) government to its knees in one strike. Defying Japan’s presumptuous intention, the KMT government did not collapse. Instead, it moved to Chongqing and continued to fight. When the Japanese army occupied Guangzhou and Wuhan in October 1938, its offensive capacity was almost exhausted. The Japanese government had to change its military strategy and prepare for protracted war.

In December of the same year, Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe (1891-1945) issued the Third Official Statement to China, signifying a remarkable shift of Japan’s war policy. In addition to preparing for protracted war, Japanese government plotted to divide and demoralize China’s resistance forces and lure them into capitulation. The statement was drafted by Yuu Nakayama (1894-1973), who was also a proponent of the “alliance” theory. “Comprehensive cooperation is the only viable path for both Japan and China. Konoe’s statement is founded upon the principle of reciprocity with an eye toward a shared future,” Nakayama said. 

On July 26, 1940, Konoe’s cabinet enacted the Fundamental State Policies, proclaiming that “settling the armed conflicts between Japan and China is basic to the establishment of a new order in Greater East Asia.” In October 1941, Konoe’s cabinet was dissolved and Hideki Tojo (1884-1948) succeeded his position. In November, the new government issued the Executive Summary of State Policies, asserting that “Japan is determined to declare war on the US, the UK, and the Netherland in order to defend itself, resolve the current crisis and forge a new regional order for East Asia.”

On Dec. 8, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, starting the Pacific War. Two days later, the Japanese government dubbed its pan-Pacific military campaign the Greater East Asia War. “The country wages the war to build a Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere,” according to an official document issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which also specified the nature of  “a new regional order.” In 1942, Japanese government formulated a Greater East Asia Division to take charge of issues related to the “co-prosperity sphere.”

In November 1943, Wang Jingwei, Zhang Jinghui (1871-1959) and leaders of other puppet regimes attended the Conference of Greater East Asia in Tokyo. They signed the Manifesto of Greater East Asia, professing that “countries will join together to ensure regional stability, and shared prosperity will be achieved through reciprocal cooperation in economic development.”

In Wang Jingwei’s view, the conference and the manifesto would usher in the expansion of the “co-prosperity sphere” and the practical exercise of the “alliance” theory. However, none of this would come to fruition as Japan was defeated by the Allied nations two years later.

Shi Guifang is a history professor at Capital Normal University.