Stemming from the Empire of Japan’s propaganda machine, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (GEACPS) sold the idea of Asia for Asiatics under Japanese rule. Envisioning a self-sufficient political bloc in Asia governed by Japanese leadership, the GEACPS promised economic viability and freedom from Western colonial subjugation. As we would later learn, most Asian countries that had been under Japanese rule would consider the experience painfully traumatic and nowhere near prosperous. Was the GEACPS completely a myth? What were the intentions behind the concept and how was it propagated? How did the people in the Japanese-occupied territories react to it, and what was reality like for them living under Japanese rule?
The Origins of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere
In August 1940, Japanese foreign minister Yōsuke Matsuoka announced on national radio the concept of a unified East Asia free of Western colonial subjugation. This came to be known officially as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. It promulgated the belief that Asia was meant for Asians and that any foreign subjugation would no longer be accepted under the newly established Japanese rule. Geographically, on top of mainland Japan, Manchukuo (Japan-occupied Manchuria), and China, Japanese rule would be expected to stretch to Southeast Asia, Eastern Siberia, and even extend to the outer regions of Australia, India, and the Pacific Islands.
Intuitively, most political observers would make the assertion that the concept resembled the United States’ Monroe Doctrine which opposed European colonialism in the Western hemisphere. With the same conviction to dominate a unified area of influence, Japanese imperial rule had long dreamt of putting into practice the ideals of Pan-Asianism. Typically imperialistic in nature, Pan-Asianism is characterized by the belief in the political and economic unity of the Asian people. Although the official announcement only came in 1940, Japanese propaganda from the 1930s had already demonstrated the tenets of this concept.
The Greater East Asia Conference, 1943
On 5 November 1943, the Empire of Japan hosted a high-profile international summit known as the Greater East Asia Conference in Tokyo. In attendance were the top politicians of the various component members of the GEACPS. They included Zhang Jinghui (Prime Minister, Manchukuo), Wang Jingwei (President, Republic of China, Nanjing), Ba Maw (Prime Minister, State of Burma), Subhas Chandra Bose (Head of State, Provisional Government of Free India), Jose P. Laurel (President, Republic of the Philippines), and Wan Waithayakon (Prince, Kingdom of Thailand).
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A show of superficial solidarity without any concrete framework for economic cooperation or integration, the conference achieved its propagandistic aims nonetheless. A Greater East Asia Joint Declaration was later announced, marking the members’ commitment to ensuring co-existence and co-prosperity, as well as liberation from Western colonialism. While the former might just be lip service, the latter was what Japan had hoped to emphasize at the summit, that the Japanese people were the saviors of the Asiatics, single-handedly liberating them from Western colonial subjugation.
Asia for Asiatics: Driving Out Western Imperialism
As was affirmed repeatedly during the Greater East Asian Conference, Japan’s cry for a united East Asia hinged heavily on the removal of Western colonial influences from the continent. Japan’s Vice Minister for Commerce Etsusaburo Shiina portrayed the ongoing war as a moral and constructive one fought to restore the dignity of the Asiatics. In other words, it was a holy war led by Japan to replace the egotistical and power-oriented blocs established previously by the Western colonial leaders. This set of beliefs manifested in the propaganda materials put forth by the Japanese rulers in the occupied territories. The 1942 wartime booklet and elementary text titled Declaration for Greater East Asian Cooperation is a prime example of such efforts.
Featuring colorful illustrations and a children-friendly design, the booklet aimed to convey the essence of the GEACPS. This can be seen from the map above which shows the various instances of Western colonialism in the region. The caption translates to Look! America, England, the Netherlands, and others have been keeping us down with military force and doing bad things to us in Greater East Asia. In a bid to highlight the exploitative nature of the Western colonial experience, a lone Japanese soldier is portrayed trying to protect parts of China from Western military incursions, juxtaposed against the hovering caricature of the nonchalant-looking Allied leaders Churchill and Roosevelt.
Roosevelt himself was often the subject of ridicule in Japan’s anti-west propaganda. As with Western propaganda dehumanizing the Japanese people in their anti-Japan posters and leaflets, the Japanese often portrayed Western leaders as hairy and demonic looking. In one of the propaganda posters targeted at the Filipino people, Roosevelt was depicted as World Enemy No.1 who was the sole cause of the wartime sufferings. In most of these prints, a clear-cut call to action or rally call would be emphasized. This was usually in the form of galvanizing the local people to join Japan to make reprisal on [their] common enemy.
Apart from print media, films were also widely used as a medium to stoke anti-west sentiments to promote the GEACPS. Emphasizing traditional Japanese values, filmmakers in Japan often portrayed the Japanese as pure, righteous, and loyal folks determined to liberate Asia from colonial oppression. Usually sponsored by the Ministry of Army, these films were also known for featuring themes of sacrifice and seppuku, Japanese ritual suicide.
In furthering the idea of the GEACPS, the Japanese proclaimed themselves as the liberators of Asia, swearing to save their fellow Asian brothers from centuries of Western colonial exploitation. However, within it existed an implicit, underlying agenda that sought to differentiate the superior Japanese race (Yamato) from the other Asiatics. A top-secret official document in 1943 titled An Investigation of Global Policy with the Yamato Race as Nucleus revealed such tendencies.
Detailing notions of racial supremacy, nationalism, as well as colonization for living space, the 3,127-page-long document reeked of the racist beliefs of Nazi Germany. Behind the so-called Asian fraternity and brotherhood, Japan had projected to the people in the occupied territories existed the master race theory that deemed the Yamato race as hereditarily superior. This manifested in abusive and vicious acts towards the people in occupied territories, which could range from the slapping of faces to torture and indiscriminate killings.
Beyond the grandeur of the ideological struggle put forth by the Japanese, a practical concern prevailed as part of the GEACPS, at least implicitly. Japan had long known of the vast resources in Asia it could feast on the once Western colonial rule was destroyed. In December 1941, Minister of Commerce and Industry Nobusuke Kishi reported on the extent of resources in Southeast Asia during a national broadcast. He detailed the abundance of iron ore, flax, and coal in the Philippines and the rich supplies of oil, tin, and coal in the Dutch East Indies. Malaya as the world’s largest producer of rubber and tin also made the conquest of Southeast Asia a priority so as to extend Japanese supremacy. In essence, the projection of the GEACPS was but a means to allow Japan to extract these resources to fuel its war machine.
The Sobering Reality in Japan-occupied Asia
As promising and liberating as the GEACPS sounded, the reality in Japan-occupied Asia was far from it. Not only did Asia not prosper under Japanese leadership, but the wartime experience was also fraught with widespread starvation, poverty, and suffering. This was made worse by an oppressive and iron-fisted Japanese rule intolerant of the slightest hint of opposition. With the sobering reality on the ground, few could bring themselves to fully subscribe to the ideals of the GEACPS. The years of the Japanese Occupation wrote itself into the history of Asia as one of the darkest periods the continent had witnessed. Resembling nothing of the bright future the GEACPS had promised, a regime of terror unfolded in the occupied territories, characterized by torture, mass killings, rape, famine, and widespread suffering. Collectively, the death toll from Japan’s war crimes in Asia ranged from 3 million to 14 million between 1937 to 1945, mostly consisting of civilians and prisoners of war.
Exploring Different Perspectives on the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere
With the collapse of the Empire of Japan in 1945, the GEACPS ceased to exist, or has it ever really existed? Most scholars argued that it was at best an impractical concept that was created to cloak the sinister nature of Japanese imperialism. It was merely a justification for Japan to exert full political domination over Asia and exploit the resource-rich continent. Revisionist arguments, however, leaned closer to Imperial Japan’s idea of a holy war fought to liberate Asians from Western colonial subjugation. Though unpopular with academics, the revisionist school of thought found favor with right-wing politicians who propagated a liberal (mostly subjective) historical view or jiyushugi shikan.
There is also a select group of scholars who took a step back to look at the bigger picture in the context of the GEACPS. Containing elements of fascism, Japanism, and Neo-Confucianism, the GEACPS reflected Pan-Asianism which fundamentally motivated Japan to wage a war of such scale. Finally, another emerging view suggests that the GEACPS was a political dream for Japan to impose its new order, but the realization of this dream was hampered by the reality of Japan’s defeat.
While there exists a variety of views on the GEACPS, the reality on the ground had doomed it to oblivion. At its core, the GEACPS was a spectacular failure, no matter how sincere or sinister its motivations might or could have been at various points during the war. As historian Jeremy Yellen puts it, the GEACPS is a contested, negotiated process of envisioning the future during a time of total war. Vague and always in flux, the GEACPS was a victim of the shifting wartime circumstances and came to be what Yellen deemed as Japan’s failed process to represent the future they had envisioned.