The Japanese Empire in World War II, like many imperial efforts in history, was often presented in terms that suggested mutual benefit for the rulers and the ruled alike. The Japanese effort differed from most in that it purported to liberate east Asian and Pacific peoples from colonialism even as it imposed another form of colonialism on them. The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was an effort to harness the resources of the western Pacific for Japan’s benefit in the immediate term, but also to lay the groundwork for a future in which Japan was the leading power in Asia and the Pacific while preserving the illusion that Japan acted for the common good of all Asians.
Japan has a long history of distrust for Western powers. Japan had closed the country to outside influences in the seventeenth century in order to protect itself from domination by the West, and then in the nineteenth century it opened itself up to the world again for precisely the same reason. Japan had learned that it was necessary to learn modern technology and organizational methods if it wanted to maintain its place as a sovereign nation; adherence to ancient tradition was no longer sufficient. While Japan was eager to learn from Europe and the United States, however, it sought to keep these powers at a distance.
It was still possible for Japan to ally itself with the Entente in World War I. Proximity was a major factor, and Britain and France were distant, even if their reach was long. Russia and the United States were more questionable from the Japanese perspective, due to the former’s holdings in the Far East and the latter’s naval strength in the Pacific. Russia had been defeated in war in 1905, however, while the US was still neutral when Japan joined the Entente. The aftermath of the war magnified Japan’s feelings of inequity. Like Italy, Japan considered its territorial gains to be scant; subsequent naval treaties, allowing Japan to build only 70% of the tonnage that Britain or America could build, convinced many that Japan was still being treated as a junior partner. If Japan wished to change these circumstances, it would have to do so through its own strength.
A secondary lesson of the late nineteenth century, in Japanese eyes, might be that there are two kinds of nations in the modern world: those that build empires and those that are absorbed into them. Japan was determined to be part of the former group. It was an ethos that squared nicely with Japan’s feudal heritage and the regard with which it held professional warriors. There was a pragmatic and economic component to this as well, however. The Japanese home islands were poor in natural resources, and military development between the World Wars only further emphasized resources that Japan did not have, especially oil and rubber. Japan had only two options: to trade with those who had these resources, or to conquer them. Before World War II, Japan did both, extending its Manchurian conquests on the Asian mainland while conducting trade with Pacific islands and southeast Asia.
Indeed, the earliest manifestation of the Co-Prosperity Sphere concept was enacted in March, 1933, when Japan joined with China, Siam and the Dutch East Indies to institute the Great Asia Association. Japan was clearly the industrial power in this group, but it lacked the resources that the others had, and this association imitated many European or American trade agreements, exchanging key resources for completed products. For a while, Japan had the resources it needed.
Japan’s cooperation with China proved short-lived, however. In 1937, Japan invaded China, beginning a conflict that would merge into the Second World War. The war in China only heightened Japan’s need for natural resources. At the same time, international opposition to Japan’s military adventure threatened access to those resources. Many of Japan’s regional trading partners were administered by Britain, France and the Netherlands. The United States was also a major trading partner, and for the remainder of the 1930’s, Japan was careful about provoking its neighbor on the other side of the Pacific.
Ultimately, Japan had classified all of these western powers as rivals and potential enemies. Its leaders understood that they could not hope to defeat them in open war, at least not yet, but they spent much of the latter 1930’s in dealing with the West diplomatically. To a significant degree, Japan’s alignment with Germany and Italy was intended as a way to keep Britain busy closer to home. At the same time, the first step of the Axis alliance, the Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936, can be seen as an anti-colonial act. Soviet Russia sought to extend its form of government to the entire world, and the Comintern (the Communist International) was the organization that coordinated Communist activity across the world. While Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were also expansionist powers, their goals were local European ones.
Tokyo’s association with Berlin and Rome helped to revive the idea of a Pan-Asian economic zone with at least a theoretical sense of mutual benefit. This was the time when Germany and Italy proclaimed their ideas for a New Order, and it was natural for Japan to do likewise. Furthermore, the war with China had strained the older effort for Asian cooperation, and the Japanese government wished to renew the idea in a way that benefited Japan, but also presented Japan in favorable terms internationally. In 1938, Prince Konoe offered his country’s ideas for a new order, using occupied Manchuria as a model. Ostensibly, it presented an Asian market, free from foreign influences, in which all Asians could participate as equals. It required a certain amount of self-deception to believe this argument; Manchuria, the official model of the program, was only nominally independent, and in all real terms it was a colony of Japan.
German successes in the spring and summer of 1940 indirectly breathed new life into Japan’s goals. France and Holland were no longer in any position to defend their interests in Asia and the Pacific, and Japan could envision an expanded trade zone that included Indochina and the Dutch East Indies. The outright seizure of these territories was not yet possible, but Japan was paving the way for a diplomatic bid when the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was announced on June 29. It was described in terms that suggested mutual benefit for all Asians through harmonious cooperation, and it also promised protection from exploitation from Europeans.
The imminence of war with the United States accelerated Japanese plans. The American embargo compelled the Japanese to depend more than ever on its local partners. The decision to go to war with the United States was not taken lightly; most of Japan’s top leaders understood that America could not be defeated in purely military terms with the power that Japan had at its disposal. The intention was always to begin the war in terms that favored the Japanese as much as possible, and then to try to press the advantage in a way that persuaded the United States to make peace quickly, and in terms that were as favorable as possible. With this in mind, Japan made the conquest of its trading partners a key part of its opening strategy. Japan hoped to be able to hold off the Americans long enough that their new conquests could begin to participate meaningfully in the war effort; it also hoped that at least some it could be kept after the eventual peace treaty.
The initial campaigns proceeded well through December 1941 and on through the spring of 1942. There was a brief period when even the conquest of Australia was considered feasible, but then the Japanese reverted to the defensive strategy with which it had begun the war in the first place: it would try to defeat the American fleet at Midway, completing the task that had begun at Pearl Harbor, while the remainder of Japan’s forces would defend their nation’s existing conquests. Offensive action in the Solomon Islands was really meant to cut the supply lines between America and Australia, easing the pressure on Japan’s island outposts.
Japanese policy placed control over the Co-Prosperity Sphere in military hands, but both the Army and the Navy had areas to govern, and there was no agreement between the two branches of service over how they should be governed. For that matter, policy differences were common even within the territories run by either of the services. In November, 1942, Tojo created a Greater East Asia ministry in the government to bring some coordination to Japan’s administrative chaos, but this effort served mainly to enhance the perception of Asian cooperation. Ultimately, the enhanced perception was largely limited to the Japanese population; the populations of occupied territories saw clearly the differences between official policy and real practice. A year later, in November 1943, Tojo called a Greater East Asia Conference, drawing together the nominal leaders of the territories under Japanese control. Japan still held its Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere at that time, but it was clear that a concerted attack was coming, and Tojo had hoped to inspire the local populations to resist Allied invasion. This effort proved ineffectual.
In much of the Co-Prosperity Sphere, shortages and other forms of economic hardship came long before American armed forces. Inconsistent policies from one territory to the next exacerbated the perception that the Sphere was a sham, and resistance efforts grew, giving the Japanese the opposite of what they had hoped to engender. In the end, it provided Japan with little more than the raw materials it needed; the dream of Asian unity centered around Japan proved to be a fiction, although it did offer the Japanese a veneer of high-mindedness in a long and difficult war.
Even under better circumstances, the prospects of the Co-Prosperity Sphere would have been poor. It depended on the willingness of Asian and Pacific peoples to exchange distant masters for one closer to home; one who was known and, in some cases, feared or hated even before the war began. While it proved to be little more than a propaganda effort, however, the Co-Prosperity Sphere did have long-term consequences after the war: the anti-colonial message lingered long after Japanese troops returned home, and local revolts against returning European colonial powers began soon after World War II ended.
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