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Pan-Asian history writ large

by Jeff Kingston

Finally there is an excellent source book on Pan-Asianism, an ideology that has played an important role in Japan’s regional interactions since the late 19th century.

PAN-ASIANISM: A Documentary History (2 volumes 1850-1920; 1920-present), edited by Sven Saaler and Christopher Szpilman. Rowman & Littlefield, 2011. 358 pp. and 422 pp., $133.39 (hardcover)

Pan-Asianism promoted a unified Asian identity and response to western imperialism. Certainly it inspired Asian nationalists as they coped with western subjugation, but it also served as a fig leaf for Japanese imperialism.

One can only imagine the difficulties the editors overcame in compiling this opus involving 35 contributors from four continents. They and the publisher merit praise and gratitude for this massive undertaking. Having taught an undergraduate course on this subject for some 20 years, I only wish they had completed this project years sooner. These two volumes are essential for any university or research library as they cover modern Asian history from the mid-19th century until the present.

The set is an incredibly good value — there is even a bargain Kindle version — because it provides access to a comprehensive range of translated materials that encompass a number of languages. The contributors preface their translations with useful commentary that help readers understand the significance of what they are about to read, making this very useful for students and scholars.

Although Pan-Asian ideology has had a significant influence in the region over the past 150 years, there has been no comprehensive source book enabling students to study it properly. This is because apologists for Japan’s imperial aggression have discredited Pan-Asianism by invoking it to justify empire building.

Now scholars and students gain access to a treasure trove of primary documents, some translated into English for the first time. The editors note that they had to winnow down the number of entries to squeeze into the 780 pages. But interested readers can look at a Japan history website (asianism.japanesehistory.de) to access even more materials.

By easing access to seminal documents of Pan-Asianism the editors are stimulating further research into an area where linguistic and disciplinary boundaries have created a situation where “our knowledge of Pan-Asianism and its role in modern Asia remains fragmented, unsystematic and unbalanced.”

Here we can understand how Pan Asian thought evolved and how some Japanese tried to unite Asia for Japan’s own aggrandizement. But as the various selections demonstrate, Pan-Asianism was not only about legitimizing Japanese imperialism under the pretext of liberating Asians from the yoke of western imperialism.

Japan’s growing colonial empire including Taiwan (1895) and Korea (1910) did not present any insurmountable barrier to Pan-Asian rhetoric as the Annexation Treaty with Korea specifically refers to cultural commonalities and shared destiny.

The contradictions of Japan’s lofty goals and shabby realities were not lost on some Asian nationalists. Although not included here, pioneering Vietnamese nationalist Phan Boi Chau was an early critic of Japanese Pan-Asianism, pointing to the plight of Okinawans in his “Letter from the Ryukyus Written in Tears of Blood.” Phan lived briefly in exile in Japan, training other anti-colonial dissidents, but French authorities in Indochina prevailed on Japan to deport him and his comrades. So much for Asian solidarity.

Following Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, Atsumaro Konoe cautioned against arrogance toward the vanquished. He wrote that “if we mock the Chinese people and put them to shame and, in return, earn their hostility, apart from the fact that such behavior runs counter to the generosity expected of an advanced country, does it not also create a massive impediment to the advancement of our China policy, and will the trouble this stores up for the future not also be very great?” Indeed.

Oddly, for quite some time, the Japanese government distanced itself from Pan-Asianism because it did not want to contribute to the Yellow Peril conspiracy theories popular in Western nations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This Asian allergy evaporated after World War I, especially after the rejection of Japan’s suggestion to include a racial equality clause in the covenant of the League of Nations.

As early as 1917, Iichiro Tokutomi promoted an Asian version of the U.S. Monroe Doctrine based on “the principle that Asiatic affairs should be dealt with by the Asiatics. As, however, there is no Asiatic nation except the Japanese capable of undertaking these duties, the Asiatic Monroe Doctrine is virtually the principle of Japanese dealing with Asiatic affairs.”

Subsequently, in 1940, Tenshin Okakura called on Asians to “dissolve ourselves now in the ocean of common misery. The guilty conscience of the West has often conjured up the spectre of the Yellow Peril, let the tranquil gaze of the east turn itself on the White Disaster.”

Given wartime patriotism, it is surprising to read Masahiro Yasuoka’s 1942 speech scolding his countrymen for their arrogance and poor manners in Asia, “There are three bad things about Japanese clubs: drunkenness, arguments and public urination. … (Japanese) recklessly play with the law and turn their back on human feelings. … ever since the Manchurian Incident, Japanese have been viewed as lawbreakers, as bandits (and are) rash, impetuous, and lacking stamina and tenacity.”

One wonders how that went down with the audience.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.