Since the end of World War I, the Japanese political thinking has been greatly influenced by the ongoing changes in the international order and the necessity for ideological adjustments. In this view, the state authority tended to incorporate the elements of Pan-Asianism into the political doctrine of the state. The concept emerged as the policy of regional unification turned into a consuming desire for domination in Asia. In other words, the initially peaceful Japanese policy of claiming the Asian identity quickly evolved into an anti-Western expansionist strategy.
The term “Pan-Asianism” refers to the opposition to the drastic influence of the Western expansion in Asia by means of collective efforts under the Japanese leadership. Contemporary politicians struggled to highlight the racial, cultural, and geographic differences between the Asian and European population. As regionalism became the trend of that time, the Japanese ideology underwent rapid and noticeable changes. Namely, Japanese intellectuals primarily struggled to shift the obvious focus from the racial and cultural supremacy to the area of geopolitics. The proposed agenda envisioned the existence of the Asian region “in harmony with the flow of world opinion.” The assertion referred to the opposition to the idea of the Eurocentric world order and found its reflection in the Asian Monroe Doctrine that essentially called for pushing the Western conquerors out of the region.The doctrine presupposed the formation of the united Asia whereas China, Afghanistan, and Japan were the driving forces behind the increasing growth of the Pan-Asianist movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Later on, the ranks of countries that supported the approach included India, the Philippians, Siam, and Korea; these states became the founders of the Oriental Association in Tokio.
Nevertheless, the ideology strongly suggested that Japan should spearhead the rise of the Greater Asia. In fact, leadership was largely Japan’s self-imposed obligation. According to the official statements, the Japanese government had “special responsibilities” of cultivating the sense of solidarity among the Asian states due to Japan’s technological supremacy, political stability, and promotion of large-scale modernization. Meanwhile, it is highly likely that the novelty of the international situation led Japan to believe in the absolute necessity to play the leading part in the facilitation of the regional cooperation in order to avoid war. As the state officials feared the repetition of the war horrors, the preservation of peace seemed to have become the primary concern for the political intellectuals of that time. In their opinion, the multilateral cooperation would largely contribute to the maintenance of regional stability. Thus, the Japanese authorities appeared ready for the adaptation to the new circumstances. Under the pressure of the changing world tendencies, the state policy acquired a twofold purpose of solidifying the regional cooperation and ensuring the overall stability.
Meanwhile, the history of Pan-Asianism can be traced back to World War I. Since the emergence of the ideology in the 1930s, it had undergone three stages in its development. In Hotta’s words, Pan-Asianism initially concentrated on the Asian commonalities and developed into a regional movement only to turn into a Japanese policy of imperialism and ultranationalist thinking. At the first stage, Japan sought to facilitate the sense of historical unity. Namely, political thinkers exploited the idea of the historical memory about the perpetual opposition to the Western expansion in order to incorporate the assertive objectives into the state policy. Britain’s victory in the Opium War of 1839-1842 became the reason for labeling the Western countries as the external threat.
At the second stage, Japan attempted to build mutually beneficial alliances. The Russian defeat in the 1904-1905 war with Japan helped the latter obtain the support that was necessary for building anti-Western coalitions. Later on, the Pan-Asianist organizations came to join the existing movement. For example, China, India, and Japan became the founders of the Asian Humanitarian Brotherhood in 1907. Two years later, the Japanese and Muslim adherents of Pan-Asianism established the Asian Congress, a political body that was responsible for the liberation propaganda. Finally, Japan exhibited an overly decisive attitude to the promotion of the ideology. The withdrawal from the League of Nations was the first sign of refusal to embrace the multinational world order. Later on, the occupation of Manchuria raised the first suspicions about the dangers of the Pan-Asianist policy. Eventually, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor allowed the political thinkers to qualify the assertive course of the Japanese foreign policy as a success in the anti-colonial struggle. Evidence clearly indicates the popularity of Pan-Asianism in Japan.
Several factors led to the dynamic popularization of Pan-Asianism in Japan. One of the reasons was the pressing necessity to counter the Eurocentric order. The promoters of Pan-Asianism in Japan highlighted the overall incapability of the European empires to determine the fate of Asia in the wake of World War II. Therefore, they argued, the Japanese leadership was a historically predetermined necessity. The alternative version, based on the Asian values, was considered an appropriate foundation for the cultural and racial equality as well as a peaceful environment for further progress in protecting Asia’s well-being. Meanwhile, Japan’s unilateral self-nomination for the position of the regional leader was the result of both external and internal changes. In the post-war period, Japan emerged as the leading power in the Asian region, whose economic and military superiority was recognized by the neighboring countries. The newly acquired status of the regional power allowed Japan to exploit the West-East dichotomy and translate the conflict into the clash of civilizations. Numerous scholars supported the idea of the two-sided confrontation. Okawa Shumei, in particular, believed in “a spiritual, moral, and timeless” unity of the Asian societies that may rescue the region from the Western involvement in the regional affairs. Evidently, Japan had the means and the justification for the adoption of its ultranationalist policy.
At the same time, a strong commitment to the establishment of overall control over the region was attributable to internal factors. In the 1930s, the Pan-Asianist activists gained considerable support in the Japanese government and initiated a nationwide propaganda of the compulsory prevalence of the national interests in the foreign policy of the state. Okawa was particularly active in proving the importance of regional domination for Japan’s reconstruction as well as Asia’s well-being. The focus on the mandatory obligations stimulated the growth of propaganda, i.e. the process that required the preparation of a new generation of devoted patriots. In that view, Okawa initiated the establishment of a specialized educational institution that provided training in the Asian studies for the future state officials that would serve their purpose overseas. The goal of the project was to disseminate the knowledge about the Asian cultural heritage and prepare the foundation for further unification of the Asian countries by means of propagandistic activism abroad. In addition, the pragmatic strategy quickly acquired the features of blind faith. In the early 1910s, such terms as “divine mission” and “liberation of Asia” became part of the expansionist rhetoric. The theory of civilizational division underscored the Japanese self-imposed holy duty of ensuring Asia’s liberation and Japan’s well-being. In fact, some scholars considered the prospect of conflict unavoidable. Okawa strongly believed that “progress born out of war” would ensure Japan’s military supremacy in Asia. Moreover, the liberation from the Western influence appeared to be “Japan’s moral duty despite the ingratitude of the Asian peoples.” The emergence of the aggressive rhetoric signified the incorporation of militaristic objectives into the Japanese ideology of imperialism. At the same time, the educational efforts were aimed at building an effective propaganda machine that could start operating in the near future. Evidently, the technological advantage, militaristic slogans, and ideological campaigns constituted the main reason for the implementation of such an aggressive foreign policy.
However, the academic community and the state population responded to the adopted policy in different ways. Internationally, Japan encountered various reactions from other countries. Korea, in particular, was one of the strongest supporters of the Japanese foreign policy. The small state got in the middle of the ideological struggle between the Asian and Western countries and wished to avoid racial discrimination inflicted by the European invaders. Thus, it sought help from the superior powers. Similarly, India hoped to receive extra support in gaining national independence from the British monarchy. The long history of relations between the nations forged strong ties between the states. Meanwhile, China exhibited a skeptical attitude toward the ideology that the Japanese followed. It strongly condemned its usage for the implementation and justification of the imperialistic objectives. Even Japan’s ideological advisories were concerned with the popularity of Pan-Asianism. The Western states understood the potential consequences of the Asian unification, including the collapse of the colonial system. As for the domestic affairs, the local politicians generally held unfavorable positions about the effectiveness of Pan-Asianism. Some Japanese experts called the ideology “unrealistic and anachronistic” and suggested the establishment of an alternative to the League of Nation. The suggestion was especially relevant since it signified a refusal from the forced cooperation as well as set an example for others.
Furthermore, the key features of Pan-Asianism suggested that the ideology was responsible for Japan’s participation in World War II. Firstly, it was an essential part of the Japanese military training. Pan-Asianism provided the guiding assistance for planning, policing, and mobilization in the wartime. Secondly, the ideology strongly advocated racial intolerance. Japan entered World War II with a clear understanding of the possible outcomes of the war for the European colonial empires. The decision was a well-calculated step since the Japanese authorities hoped that the human costs and financial burdens of the battles would cause a decline in the enemy’s power. In this case, Japan would achieve its goal of eliminating the Western presence in the region. Finally, World War II essentially exemplified the Japanese concept of the civilizational division of the world. The conflict appeared to be the basis for reviving the anti-Western rhetoric of perpetual confrontation between the different races. Ultimately, the military conflict was considered an effective method of destroying the Eurocentric order. Evidence indicates a strong correlation between the dominated ultranationalist views and the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In conclusion, the Japanese foreign policy reflected the key tendencies in the post-war world order by adopting the Pan-Asianist worldview. The newly emerged concept was aimed at the establishment of the Japanese regional domination as well as the diminishment of the Western influence in the region. In this view, the withdrawal from the League of Nations, the Manchurian occupation, and the attack on Pearl Harbor exemplified the self-assertiveness of the foreign policy that Japan had decided to pursue. Moreover, a close look at the history of the Japanese political process reveals the benefits of the chronological method for studying the state’s foreign policy. It allows identifying the key events and stages in the development of the Japanese foreign policy from the peaceful movement to the open expression of hostility during the period from the 1930s to World War II.