Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere

Japanese propaganda poster

Japan Focus (2008-3-10). Fair use may apply.

Japanese propaganda claimed that the Japanese were the liberators of Asia from Western colonialism. While the appalling conduct of the Japanese Army in China and elsewhere put the lie to this claim, there were significant numbers of Asians who were willing to take seriously the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere (Daitoa Kyoeiken). As a result, the Japanese were able to establish collaborationist governments in most of the conquered territories.

Origins of the concept. The notion and terminology went back at least as far as 1 August 1940, when Matsuoka Yosuke, the Japanese Foreign Minister, declared that Japan's policy was to establish a Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere that would include French Indochina and the Netherlands East Indies. On 24 January 1941, Prince Konoye, the Japanese Prime Minister, stated that:

I am convinced that the firm establishment of a Mutual Prosperity Sphere in Greater East Asia is absolutely essential to the continued existence of this country.

The Yomiuri, a prominent Japanese newspaper, stated that:

Japan must remove all elements in East Asia which will interfered with its plans. Britain, the United States, France and the Netherlands must be forced out of the Far East. Asia is the territory of the Asiatics...

On 27 January 1941 Matsuoka gave a speech in which he said:

The Co-Prosperity Sphere in the Far East is based on the spirit of Hakko Ichiu, or the Eight Corners of the Universe under One Roof.... We must control the western Pacific.... We must request United States reconsideration, not only for the sake of Japan but for the world's sake. And if this request is not heard, there is no hope for Japanese-American relations.

(All quotes from Prange 1981.)

Central to the concept of the Co-Prosperity Sphere was that it would be an economically self-sufficient yen block. With Japan in control of sufficient resources to feed her population and provide for all her military requirements, she would thereafter have considerable freedom of action, freed from Western interference with whatever policies she chose to pursue.

While some Japanese pan-Asians, such as the diplomat Shigemitsu Mamoru, Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori, and possibly even Prime Minister Tojo Hideki, were sincere in their motives, most Japanese leaders believed the Japanese were racially superior to other Asians, and they viewed the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere as simply a euphemism for the Japanese Empire. This became increasingly clear as the war turned against the Japanese and the Japanese, in turn, began making greater demands upon the resources of the conquered areas. By the time the war ended, "Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere" had become a pejorative throughout Asia, and even the most ardent Asian nationalists, such as those in the Netherlands East Indies, had turned against the Japanese. Thus Japan in Asia, like Germany in Russia, squandered a valuable political opportunity because it contradicted a defining racist ideology.

Military occupation. The tone of the Japanese occupation of southeast Asia was set even before war broke out in the Pacific. At a liaison conference on 20 November 1941, Army chief of staff Sugiyama Gen gave his support to an Army policy document calling for military government of all occupied territories in southeast Asia, overriding the objections of Foreign Minister Togo:

Economic hardships imposed upon civil livelihood as a result of acquisition of resources vital to the national defense and for the self-sufficiency the occupation troops must be endured, and pacification measures against the natives shall stop at a point consistent with these objectives.... Native inhabitants shall be so guided as to induce a sense of trust in the Imperial forces and premature encouragement of native independence movements shall be avoided.

Also revealing is the "Land Disposal Plan in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" prepared by the War Ministry in December 1941. Since Tojo was known to keep a very tight control on his ministry, this document provides some of our best clues on Tojo's vision of the postwar world. The document clearly presupposes a total Axis victory in Europe and the Pacific. The list of territories to come under direct Japanese administration was a long one: A Government General of Formosa would control Hong Kong, the Philippines, Macao, and Hainan. A South Seas Government Office would take control of Guam, Nauru, Ocean Island, Wake, and the Gilberts. A Melanesian Region Government-General would control eastern New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, the Solomons, Santa Cruz, Ellices, Fiji, New Hebrides, and New Caledonia. An Eastern Pacific Government-General would control Hawaii and its outlying islands, the Phoenix Islands, Marquesas, Tuamotu, Society Islands, and Tonga. Australian and New Zealand Governments-General would control those respective territories, while a Ceylon Government-General would also control the southern third of India. Finally, an Alaska Government-General would control Alaska, the Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, and the state of Washington, while a Government-General of Central America would take in all of Central America south of Mexico and a good share of northwestern South American and the Caribbean.

Manchuria and occupied China would continue to be administered by puppet governments. New client states would include an East Indies Kingdom, a Kingdom of Burma, a Kingdom of Cambodia, and a Kingdom of Annam, while Thailand would receive substantial territory from its neighbors in return for accepting de facto client status.

It is not known how seriously this plan was received elsewhere in the Japanese Government, but the indications are that even the most diehard militarists did not anticipate seizing all this territory in a single war. Certainly Yamamoto envisioned a grand strategy limited to seizing a much smaller defensive perimeter and the negotiating a peace treaty from a position of strength. One wonders how the Indian nationalist movement would have felt about the proposed partition of India. The proposal to set up client states as monarchies is also revealing. In any case, the reverses of 1942 prevented Japan from ever being in a position to implement such a sweeping plan.

A 1942 Army General Staff memo promulgated a "nationality policy" that divided the inhabitants of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere into three groups. The "master peoples", meaning the Japanese, were to take the lead while maintaining "purity of blood." The "friendly peoples", such as Koreans, would have similar rights and duties but lesser status, based on their perceived lesser capability.  The "guest peoples", non-Asians, would have virtually no rights.

On 12 December 1942, the Army proposed to split the occupied territories into Area A, composed of the Netherlands East Indies, Malaya, the Philippines, and Borneo, and Area B, composed of  French Indochina, Burma, and Thailand. Area A was to be under direct military government while Area B would be ruled by puppet governments.

Much of the exploitation of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere took place under the Asia Development Board or Kōain, which was originally established as the China Board in October 1938. The Board was composed of senior Army and Navy officers and had power to issue military scrip without restrictions. This was equivalent to confiscation of whatever material and property the Japanese wished to take.

Greater East Asia Ministry. On 1 November 1942 Tojo took the administration of the occupied territories completely out of the hands of the Foreign Office with the creation of the Greater East Asia Ministry. This move had been protested by Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori at the Cabinet meeting of 1 September, when he pointed out that the establishment of the Greater East Asia Ministry would divide Japanese foreign policy and create distrust in the people of the occupied territories. Togo and Tojo ended the meeting by challenging each other to resign. That night, the Emperor intervened to force Togo to resign rather than bring down the whole Cabinet.

Because the Greater East Asia Ministry was effectively controlled by the Army, this gave the Army complete control of the occupied territories. Area army commanders had almost complete freedom to run local military government as they saw fit, a tradition going back at least to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894.

At this time Korea and Formosa were integral parts of the Japanese Empire administered by governors-general selected from the leadership of the Army and Navy; Manchuria was nominally ruled by the puppet state of Manchukuo, but the real power was with the commander of Kwantung Army; China was nominally ruled by puppet states controlled by China Expeditionary Army; and the newly captured territories of southeast Asia were under military government. Efforts were later made to establish puppet states in India, Burma, the Netherlands East Indies, Malaya, and the Philippines, while French Indochina was nominally still under French administration, though this was closely watched by the Japanese occupation forces.

In November 1943 the Greater East Asia Ministry held a conference of representatives from the occupied territories. The representatives were carefully chosen and made many favorable speeches that Tokyo exploited for their propaganda value. However, Tojo could not resist chiding the gathered delegates (Hoyt 1993):

While constantly keeping their own territories closed to us, the people of Asia are denying us equality of opportunities. Impeding our trade they sought solely their own prosperity.

This had long been a complaint of the Japanese, going back decades, and its mention here could not have helped make a success of the conference. Ironically, most of the conference had to be conducted in English as the one language spoken by most of the participants.

Japanese Exploitation. In the spring of 1942, the zaibatsu (Japan's industrial cartels) established the Economic Federation of Japan to plan the exploitation of the occupied territories. This was initially given a friendly face, with Fujiyama Aichiro, president of the Japan Chamber of Commerce, opening a Dai Toa Club to welcome important visitors to Japan from throughout Greater East Asia. However, the insatiable demands of the Japanese wartime economy led to increasingly ruthless economic exploitation.

To assist this exploitation, the Japanese set up political parties in each occupied territory modeled on the Japanese Imperial Rule Assistance Association. Religion, language, and culture were increasingly turned towards Japan. Attempts were made to outlaw English and Dutch, but were largely abandoned when it was found that this made administration almost impossible. Each territory was required to be self-sufficient while maintaining large exports to Japan, an imbalance of trade that could be sustained only through increasingly draconian measures.

Japanese demands on French Indochina, which included the conversion of rice paddies to production of fiber crops and the commandeering of much of the remaining rice crop for export, resulted in a famine in 1944-45 that killed at least a million persons. Other harsh policies produced an overall death toll in southeast Asia estimated at five million persons. By August 1945, somewhere between 100,000 and 250,000 excess deaths were taking place monthly among Asian noncombatants in Japanese-occupied territories.

Burma badly needed almost every kind of import, and the puppet Prime Minister, Ba Maw, who remained a Japanese apologist even after Burma gained true independence postwar, claimed that the Japanese worked miracles to bring in supplies ranging from basic necessities to transport and machinery. However, one of Ba Maw's associates, U Hla Pe, concluded (in the words of Allen 1984) that "the Japanese produced next to nothing and imported next to nothing into Burma."

The Japanese planned to aggressively colonize their conquests. The Ministry of Health and Welfare projected that, by 1950, there would be 2.7 million Japanese in Korea, 400,000 in Formosa, 3.1 million in Manchuria, 1.5 million in China, 2.38 million in other Asian territories, and 2 million in Australia and New Zealand. These emigrants would constitute 14% of the Japanese population. Rigid segregation would be enforced, including a ban on intermarriage with the local population.

Japanese contempt for other Asian cultures was manifest in other ways. One Japanese historian noted that "More than a million Japanese soldiers served in China, and not one of them troubled to learn its language" (quoted in Hastings 2007). As a result, Japanese occupation forces became known to Chinese peasants as YaKe, "the dumb ones" (Hastings 2011). The China Affairs Board is alleged to have controlled a $300 million per year traffic in opium, both to raise cash and to weaken the Chinese. At least part of this opium was obtained from the Chinese Communists, and it was distributed by Mitsubishi in Manchuria and Mitsui in north China. Malays were horrified by the Japanese habit of urinating in public and of rebuking civilians with a slap to the face. A 1943 decree that only Japanese officers of rank of colonel or above were permitted to slap natives wsa largely ignored.

The Japanese conscripted large numbers of slave laborers, or romusha, from occupied territories. Their treatment was appalling. For example, their calorie allotment was set at 60% of that for a Japanese soldier. Figures are uncertain, but one authority (Frank 1999) estimates that the Japanese impressed a total of 600,000 laborers, of whom 290,000 perished.

The fear of a genuine pan-Asian movement taking root, and proving hostile to Western interests in Asia, lay behind much of the American emphasis on keeping China in the war. The Americans also put considerable pressure on the British to make concessions to Indian nationalists, which likely hastened the postwar independence of India and Pakistan.


Allen (1984)

Browne (1967)

Drea (2009)

Frank (1999)

Gruhl (2010)
Hastings (2007, 2011)

Hoyt (1993)
Hsiung and Levine (1992)

McClain (2002)

Myers and Peattie (1984)

Prange (1981)

Roberts (2011)

Spector (1985)

Weinberg (2005)

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