Seventy years ago, on Nov. 5 and Nov. 6, 1943, Japan hosted a meeting of Asian leaders in Tokyo, hub of the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere — the name it gave its wartime empire under the guise of Pan-Asian liberation.

Certainly, the toppling of colonial governments in the region gave some credence to the notion that Japan was liberating Asia from the yoke of Western imperialism. However, the realities of Japanese subjugation soon sank in: It was a continuation of empire under new management.

This historical gathering dubbed the Greater East Asia Conference included representatives from six nations: Japan, Thailand, Manchukuo (a puppet state of Japan carved off from northeast China and parts of Inner Mongolia in 1931), China (represented by the wartime Wang Jingwei government established by the Japanese in post-massacre Nanjing), the Philippines and Burma.

Apart from Thailand, the other states represented there were viewed as being run by collaborators who owed their positions more to Japanese than domestic support. But collaboration was a careful calculation, aimed at trying to extract as much as possible from Japan while limiting the harm inflicted. It was also a survival strategy, as the kenpeitai (military police) dealt harshly with critics.

Subhas Chandra Bose attended that Tokyo meeting as an observer representing the provisional government of Free India. Bose was easily the best-known figure there, and his presence lent the event perhaps more significance than it merited.

At the time, he was the Japanese-appointed head of the Indian National Army (INA) that had been assembled in the “liberated” British colony of Malaya from prisoners of war captured with the fall of Singapore in early 1942. Joining the INA was a ticket out of prison, so many of the British-trained Indian soldiers leapt at the chance, even if they had reservations about their ostensible mission of “liberating” India from the British Raj.

At the close of the conference, the delegates issued a document known as the Greater East Asia Declaration, which called for “the construction of an order of co-existence and co-prosperity, mutual support for autonomy and independence, and the abolition of racial discrimination.”

Clearly a riposte to the Allied nations’ 1941 Atlantic Charter, the Declaration offered a vision for Asia that challenged Western prerogatives and promises of a new post-World War II order.

Japan’s call for the abolition of racial discrimination was a festering sore point as its 1919 proposal to include it in the covenant of the League of Nations was rejected by the then U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who unilaterally overturned a majority vote in favor. Thus was the proposed postwar international order launched under clouds of recriminations and resentment.

In contrast, the Atlantic Charter neither included any renunciation of colonial rule, nor did it offer any promises of independence for colonized people.

However, as Waseda University historian Keni’ichi Goto points out, “To Asian peoples who longed for complete independence based on racial self-determination, the Greater East Asia Conference must have seemed like a farce performed by traitors who had succumbed to Japanese imperialism.”

And who was conspicuously missing from the party? Well, Indonesia, then constituting 60 percent of Southeast Asia’s population; Malaya; Indochina; and the Japanese colonies of Taiwan and Korea. Tokyo had secretly decided that Indonesia and Malaya would be retained as colonies; their natural resources trumped liberation rhetoric. So the bitter realities of the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere amply contradicted the lofty ideals.

Sukarno, Indonesia’s nationalist leader, was left fuming by Japan’s vague offer of independence in late 1944 — a gambit that smacked of desperation and insincerity.

Eri Hotta, in her book titled “Pan Asianism and Japan’s War, 1931-45” (2007), argues that this ideology was much more than a fig leaf for Japanese imperialism. However, the case she makes shows that it was not much more than that.

Without doubt, many Japanese at the time bought into the ideology and in it found a sense of purpose. Pan Asianism also proved convenient for mobilizing consensus among Japan’s policymakers; an expediently noble goal to ennoble ignoble aims.

Many Japanese invested great import in the concept of Asia for Asiatics, but despite grandiose gestures and uplifting rhetoric, those who held power had few illusions about delivering on the promises. Indeed, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo confided in his wartime diary the need to secure the region’s resources to win the war in China — and there’s nary an entry about Pan-Asian liberation. He also included acerbic asides about the Asian leaders he clearly didn’t regard as his equals.

Nowadays, in an attempt to craft a vindicating and more flattering wartime narrative, some Japanese take comfort in those supposed noble intentions and ignore all that went wrong. But ultimately, Japan’s vision for Asia did very little for Asians; Hotta and Goto agree that any benefits were inadvertent. It is also damning that concerted efforts to invest Pan-Asianism with significance never resonated with Asians.

Japan’s complicated relations with Asia date back to at least Yukichi Fukuzawa’s well-known 1885 essay “Forget Asia.” The obvious contempt recorded there toward China and Korea helps to explain a lot. He wrote, “Chinese are mean-spirited and shameless. … Koreans punish their convicts in an atrocious manner.” And he described both nations as being excessively cruel, arrogant and unworthy of Japan — hence his advice that Japan “cast its lot with the civilized nations of the West.”

But in doing that, Japan emulated the West and became an imperial power seeking regional hegemony at the expense of Asian peoples.

In this context, the ideology of Pan-Asianism played a critical role, helping to convince many Japanese (but few Asians) that Japan had the region’s best interests at heart. Pan-Asianism preached Asian solidarity and cooperation — yet the viciousness of Japanese colonial rule in Korea, its depredations in China and the horrific toll of forced labor and famines in occupied Southeast Asia undercut such pretensions.

World War II may have marked the beginning of the end of colonial rule in Asia, but Japan’s claim for credit in that process is a stretch that also belittles indigenous nationalist efforts that both preceded and outlasted the Japanese interregnum.

Hotta concludes, “Good intentions were never enough to compensate for Japan’s lack of necessary preparations, resources and institutions to bolster them.” Citing the mistreatment of POWs, vivisection and biological warfare, sex slavery, mass rape and massacres, she adds that those good intentions were “in the end unable to prevent more devastating consequences of immoral policies.”

This is the history Japanese leaders are still struggling to come to terms with, seven long decades on.

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

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