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Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere

Japan proclaimed the idea of a Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere [Dai-to-a Kyoeiken, variants: Dai Ta Kyeiken, Kyujitai Shinjitai] or a New Order for East Asia, in the late 1930s. The fundamental idea behind this concept was that under Japans leadership Western imperialism in the region would be ended, giving rise to a cooperative economic order that would benefit all hitherto oppressed Asians in the region. Never a precise blueprint, it was an expression of a widely-held belief that Japans destiny was to become the regions dominant power. It was also an appeal to the peoples of the East Asian region to throw off European imperial rule and accept a benign Japanese hegemony.

The scale and duration of the fighting during World War I had convinced Japanese military planners that the next war would involve a competition for global resources that would be a long-drawn-out affair. In such a war, Japan would need to be economically self-sufficient to avoid the sort of blockade the had strangled Germany and nearly strangled the UK during the Great War. Thus was born the idea of strategic autarky which entailed resource mobilization within a regional rather than merely national framework. This new conception of imperialism also allowed the colony or dominated region was to be made structurally and organizationally amenable to imperialist intent by utilizing the principle of the nation-state and nationalism.

In November 1936, the Anti-Comintern Pact, an agreement to exchange information and collaborate in preventing communist activities, was signed by Japan and Germany (Italy joined a year later). War was launched against China after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 7, 1937, in which an allegedly unplanned clash took place near Beiping (as Beijing was then called) between Chinese and Japanese troops and quickly escalated into full-scale warfare. The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) ensued, and relations with the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union deteriorated.

In 1937 Japan invaded China, a country with which America had a special relationship and with which both Britain and America had close commercial links. Japan aimed to replace the Western "open-door" policy of maintaining China as an open market for all with its projected Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The European powers had empires in Asia. Japan also wanted its empire.

The idea emerged as Japan, after its conquest of Manchuria, created the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932, and conquered large areas of China in subsequent years, and occupied French Indochina. With its territorial acquisitions, the Japanese economy expanded. Japan needed new markets and resources to continue its growth and prosperity. The nearest markets and resources were the European possessions in East Asia. Japan occupied French Indo-China in two stages (1940, 1941) and established new military bases which threatened Dutch, American and British possessions. The US responded by expanding economic sanctions on trade with Japan, to include an oil embargo. The new Japanese leaders felt that the European powers had to removed from East Asia and that force would be the logical instrument.

In January 1938 Germany offered Japan a proposal on the setting up of a tripartite alliance. But Germany demanded that the alliance oppose not only the Soviet Union but also Britain, the United States, and other Western countries. Members of the Japanese ruling class unanimously supported the plan to establish the alliance, but they had great differences of opinion over the question of which countries should be classified as enemies of the alliance. Their disputes were closely linked to the Chinese issue. The Japanese army was in favor of Germany's proposal, holding that Japan, in order to solve the "Chinese issue," had to make use of Germany's force, prevent the Soviet Union from intervening in the Sino-Japanese war, and warn Britain and the United States not to support China.

However, the Navy and Foreign Affairs Ministries objected to directing the spearhead at Western countries. On the one hand, they held that Japan needed to make use of the appeasement policy followed by Britain and the United States and had to rely on them for material supply; on the other hand, they were reluctant to engage the United States and Britain before the end of the Sino-Japanese war, being aware that the US and British Navies were not forces to be ignored.

Yoichi Shimatsu writes that "Karl Haushofer, Nazi Germanys chief geopolitical theorist, developed a strong interest in Tibetan-style esoteric Buddhism while on assignment as an artillery officer in Japan prior to World War I. With Hitlers rise, his grand strategy was for a German and Japanese military pincers offensive into the heartland of the Eurasian Continent. At the center, Tibet was the key to world domination. Under his influence, Heinrich Himmler sent a 1938 SS expedition to Tibet to form a Berlin-Lhasa Axis. .... Thousands of Japanese Zen warrior monks, along with their co-believers from the Nichiren and Pure Land sects, volunteered as combat troops to liberate Manchuria, Mongolia and ultimately Tibet.... the opening of a Tibetan theater of operations would enable the Japanese Army to attack at will along the northern perimeter of British India. This flanking movement would spread its Thin Red Line to a breaking point, providing relief for the Japanese-backed Indian National Army on the malaria-infested Burma-Manipur border. The seizure of Tibet, in short, would crush British resistance and bring a victorious end to World War II."

Under the prime ministership of Konoe Fumimaro (1891-1945) -- the last head of the famous Fujiwara house -- the government was streamlined and given absolute power over the nation's assets. In 1940, the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of Japan, according to tradition, Konoe's cabinet called for the establishment of a "Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere," a concept building on Konoe's 1938 call for a "New Order in Greater East Asia," encompassing Japan, Manchukuo, China, and Southeast Asia.

The policy of the Japanese aggressors to dominate China was indicated in the specific plans of establishing a "Manchukuo," a "Mongolian state," a "north China state," and a "central China state. The Japanese aggressors needed different kinds of running dogs, but did not want a head among them.

The Japanese had for a long time bifurcated management at the top because of two political realities: the army and the navy were intense rivals, and no agency, institution, or individual proved strong enough to prevent military predominance in matters of national policy. And even each service was divided so that, for example, one of the principal commands in China, the Kwantung army, was independent of Imperial headquarters in Tokyo and chose its own course, including opening hostilities with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) at Khalkin Gol in 1939, while Japan was already embroiled in a struggle with China.

On 4 May 1939, Hiranuma, then Japanese prime minister, sent a letter to the German and Italian Embassies in Japan saying: "In the hope of strengthening our relations. . . Japan is determined to firmly stand by the side of Germany and Italy, giving political and economic support to them, or even providing them with military aid as long as it can afford to, in case the two countries are attacked by one or more than one countries including or excluding the Soviet Union." However, the letter also asserted: "In view of its present situation, Japan cannot provide at present and will not be able to provide in the near future any substantial military aid to the two countries." Since the main force of the Japanese army was trapped on the Chinese mainland, Japan actually gave no military aid to Germany before the Pacific War broke out.

The increased military activities in China -- and the Japanese idea of establishing "Mengukuo" in Inner Mongolia and the Mongolian People's Republic -- soon led to a major clash over rival Mongolia-Manchukuo border claims. When Japanese troops invaded eastern Mongolia, a ground and air battle with a joint Soviet- Mongolian army took place between May and September 1939 at the Battle of Halhin Gol. The Japanese were severely defeated, by one estimate sustaining as many as 80,000 casualties, and thereafter Japan concentrated its war efforts on its southward drive in China and Southeast Asia, a strategy that helped propel Japan ever closer to war with the United States and Britain and their allies.

In April 1940 Japanese military strength in Manchuria, consisting mainly of the Kwantung Army, was in the midst of a general expansion. The number of divisions had increased from two in 1931, when the Mukden Incident led to full Japanese control of Manchuria, to nine. Nondivisional strength, moreover, a significant proportion of the total Japanese garrison, had increased steadily. It was only after the German troops' invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg in May 1940, and especially the surrender of France on 22 June that Japan decided to take the opportunity of Germany's victory to advance southward, in anticipation of an early end to the war in Europe.

Japanese military forces moved southward to take over the Southern Resources Area [Indonesia and South East Asia]. The Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere was to integrate Asia politically and economically--under Japanese leadership--against Western domination and was developed in recognition of the changing geopolitical situation emerging in 1940.

There had been a long-standing and deep-seated antagonism between Japan and the United States since the first decade of the twentieth century. Each perceived the other as a military threat, and trade rivalry was carried on in earnest. The Japanese greatly resented the racial discrimination perpetuated by United States immigration laws, and the Americans became increasingly wary of Japan's interference in the self-determination of other peoples. Japan's military expansionism and quest for national self- sufficiency eventually led the United States in 1940 to embargo war supplies, abrogate a long-standing commercial treaty, and put greater restrictions on the export of critical commodities. These American tactics, rather than forcing Japan to a standstill, made Japan more desperate.

On 27 July 1940 Japan declared the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere concept, desiring to ensure its dominance in Asia and the Pacific and its ability to take raw materials from its neighbors. Japan's determination to realize the concept through a policy of expansion through aggression would lead to direct conflict with numerous nations, particularly the United States and Britain.

As a result of Japan's involvement in China and the extension of Japan into Indochina, the United States, Great Britain, and other countries froze Japanese assets and exports, threatening Japan's industrial survival. This led to accelerated Japanese economic expansion into Southeast Asia and the Dutch East Indies, bringing her into direct conflict with western countries which also had economic interests in these areas. By 1941, Japan was committed to a policy of aggression to achieve her goals. Her inability to come to diplomatic terms with the United States, which she saw as her most formidable opponent, led to the Pearl Harbor attack.

For American diplomacy, the war against Japan was not just about the destruction of Japanese supremacy in the Pacific, China, and Southeast Asia. The ultimate issue was just what would replace Japan's imperial design of a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." President Roosevelt and his diplomats saw the conflict as an opportunity to end not simply Japan's imperialism in the area, but also that of Britain, France, and the Netherlands.

After signing the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact in April 1941, and while still actively making war plans against the United States, Japan participated in diplomatic negotiations with Washington aimed at achieving a peaceful settlement. Washington was concerned about Japan's role in the Tripartite Pact and demanded the withdrawal of Japanese troops from China and Southeast Asia. Japan countered that it would not use force unless "a country not yet involved in the European war" (that is, the United States) attacked Germany or Italy. Further, Japan demanded that the United States and Britain not interfere with a Japanese settlement in China (a pro-Japanese puppet government had been set up in Nanjing in 1940). Because certain Japanese military leaders were working at cross-purposes with officials seeking a peaceful settlement (including Konoe, other civilians, and some military figures), talks were deadlocked. On October 15, 1941, army minister Tojo Hideki (1884-1948) declared the negotiations ended. Konoe resigned and was replaced by Tojo. After the final United States rejection of Japan's terms of negotiation, on December 1, 1941, the Imperial Conference (an ad hoc meeting convened--and then only rarely--in the presence of the emperor) ratified the decision to embark on a war of "self-defense and self-preservation" and to attack the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor.

After Pearl Harbor, Japan swiftly took control of Burma, the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, the Philippines, and less consequential Western possessions. Landing first on the north-east coast of Malaya on 8 December 1941, Japanese troops took just 70 days to crush the British Empire forces in Malaya and Singapore, which was surrendered on 15 February 1942. The Japanese had already captured Rabaul, the capital of the Australian-controlled territory of New Guinea, on 23 January 1942, and early in February Australian and Dutch forces surrendered the island of Ambon in the Netherlands East Indies.

Japan also achieved a dominant relationship with a quasi-independent Thailand. These were impressive conquests, rich in raw materials that Japan badly needed. In practice, however, the Empire was unsuccessful in exploiting them. Because of bureaucratic ineptness and military rivalries in the new territories, Tokyo was never able to establish a workable administration. Nor, by and large, did it gain the loyalty of peoples who rightly surmised that they were exchanging one set of rulers for another. The swiftness of US-British counter-offensives, moreover, denied Japan the time required to establish a durable hegemony.

In 1942 the Greater East Asia Ministry was established, and in 1943 the Greater East Asia Conference was held in Tokyo. Also in 1940, political parties were ordered to dissolve, and the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, comprising members of all former parties, was established to transmit government orders throughout society. In September 1940, Japan joined the Axis alliance with Germany and Italy when it signed the Tripartite Pact, a military agreement to redivide the world that was directed primarily against the United States.

On November 5-6, 1943, in order to invigorate collaboration in the occupied territories, Japan held a conference in Tokyo and invited Japanese collaborators from Thailand, Philippines, Burma, Manchukuo, China (the collaborationist regime based in Nanjing), and India (the provisional government of Free India). The conference adopted a declaration stating that the countries of Greater East Asia would cooperate to pursue the war and liberate the region from American/British rule. The conference declaration called for Asian unity and the expulsion of Western power. An effort to rally Asians as a group and counter the appeal of the Atlantic Charter, it had little success. The declaration had no real effect on the war. By then, Japan already had suffered important defeats at the hands of Westerners.

The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere delivered scant benefits to its originators. China unquestionably suffered the worst depredations during the Japanese occupation and war from 1937 to 1945, with plunder, arson, and widespread killing characterizing Japans occupation of vast sections of China. Japan's wartime use of slave labor or coerced workers was extensive. During the war years, the Japanese government forcibly removed workers from Korea, China, and elsewhere in Asia and shipped them to Japan as unpaid labor for dangerous work in coal mines and for heavy construction. American POWs were also subjected to brutal labor details that were illegal according to the Geneva Convention protocols governing the rights of prisoners.

The Japanese Armys system of coercing young women to work as prostitutes in army field brothels, the so-called comfort women issue, was later documented by the 1994 publication of George Hicks The Comfort Women: Japans Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War. This book presented the issues in the English language and described the coerced womens attempts to gain restitution from Japan.

Increasingly dominant American naval power allowed Japan only mixed and transitory success in exploiting East Asias raw materials. In Southeast Asia especially, the era of Japanese imperialism ended just a few years after it had begun. But the days of Western imperialism were also numbered. The imperial regimes that Japan expelled were unable to reestablish themselves over the long run. East Asians saw themselves as distinct peoples with unique destinies, not as an undifferentiated mass to be organized by outsiders.

The Japanese conquests of 1942 had already expelled European colonialists. As Japan was forced to retreat, indigenous nationalist movements would begin to stake their own claims to power. The American anti-imperialist vision was motivated in part, no doubt, by an economic interest in formerly closed Asian markets, but in the main it was the product of a long-held American faith in freedom and self-determination. This vision was enshrined in the Atlantic Charter, a document of far greater importance to Americans than to their British or Soviet allies. As the war in the Far East moved toward a close, American diplomacy had to grapple with the differing visions and objectives of other important partners in the Grand Alliance.

Throughout the war, the United States adhered to the strategy of defeating Germany first and devoted the bulk of its resources to the war in Europe. However, American manpower was so extensive and war production so great that it was possible to conduct increasingly major operations in the Pacific. By the time of the Yalta conference in February, 1945, Japan, although still in control of Indochina and much of China, had been pushed back across a broad front in the Pacific. Its leaders could only hope that fierce suicidal resistance would inflict such serious casualties that the United States would refrain from an invasion of the home islands, negotiate a peace, and leave the wartime establishment in power.

Despite a terrible toll of killed and wounded, however, President Roosevelt and other US leaders were determined to extract unconditional surrender from Japan. One of their major goals at the Yalta Conference was to reconfirm Soviet entry into the war on the Asian mainland. The USSR was more than willing to comply, given US support for the recovery of territory and influence Czarist Russia had lost in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905-06. Stalin and Roosevelt would seal the deal at Yalta. The Yalta accords deprived Japan of the southern half of Sakhalin Island (acquired from Russia in 1906) and the Kurile Islands, long a Japanese possession. They also conceded dominant Russian influence in Outer Mongolia and effectively guaranteed that Manchuria, the most heavily industrialized part of pre-1931 China, would become a Soviet sphere of influence. These last two provisions were concessions made by the United States to the USSR at the expense of another ally, China.

Indochina emerged as the great test case for the reestablishment of imperial rule. Japan had occupied the country before Pearl Harbor with the agreement of the Vichy French government and had reduced French garrisons there to little more than a lightly armed constabulary. The new Free French government, under General Charles de Gaulle, determined to restore French sovereignty, pressed the US and Britain to transport its troops to a colonial possession that it insisted was part of France. Churchill was supportive. Roosevelt, reflecting a general American policy of anti-imperialism as well as a personal loathing for the difficult de Gaulle and widespread American contempt for the way in which France had collapsed in 1940, disregarded de Gaulle's requests.

After almost 4 years of war, resulting in the loss of 3 million Japanese lives and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan signed an instrument of surrender on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbor on September 2, 1945. As a result of World War II, Japan lost all of its overseas possessions and retained only the home islands. Manchukuo was dissolved, and Manchuria was returned to China; Japan renounced all claims to Formosa; Korea was occupied and divided by the US and the USSR; southern Sakhalin and the Kuriles were occupied by the USSR; and the US became the sole administering authority of the Ryukyu, Bonin, and Volcano Islands. The 1972 reversion of Okinawa completed the US return of control of these islands to Japan.

Since World War II, Japan has been edging cautiously and discreetly toward a wider leadership role, acutely conscious at every step that bitter memories of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere might rise to haunt her if she pressed too hard or too eagerly. Japan rejected responsibility, downplayed the historical evidence of aggression and atrocity in its schools with sophistry and euphemism, and apologized to no one. Worse yet, ultra-conservative Japanese commentators insisted the war crimes, if they happened at all, were exaggerated to embarrass the Japanese people.

When confronted by advocacy and human rights groups, the Japanese government insisted these issues had been settled by stipulations of the peace treaty signed in San Francisco in September 1951. Nothing more needed to be said on the matter. Not only did Japanese authorities refuse to acknowledge any wartime responsibility, but several conservative politicians and senior bureaucrats went so far as to publicly denounce the accusations as groundless historical revisionism and Japan bashing. There was, of course, a domestic political dimension to the accusations (no candidate from the conservative ruling party could win an election by blaming Japan for a war of aggression), but the hardline official Japanese position created the impression in the United States that Japanese war crimes and related subjects such as war guilt or the role of Emperor Hirohito in the war were taboo subjects in Japan.

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Page last modified: 06-09-2021 15:33:41 ZULU