Historian Jeremy Yellen on the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere

Jeremy A. Yellen is an assistant professor in the Department of Japanese Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and author of The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: When Total Empire Met Total War, published by Cornell University Press in 2019. Yellen’s work is a thorough investigation of Japan’s vision for the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, a frequently misunderstood (or insufficiently understood) concept promoted by leaders in Tokyo between 1940 and ‘45. Under the banner of hakkō ichiu (“the whole world under one roof”), Japanese officials sought to establish a regional bloc in which subsidiary territories would support Japan as the leading power; how, exactly, such a sphere would operate in practice proved to be a stumbling block, especially given the exigencies of war.

The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the first monograph-length treatment of the topic in English, is impressively transnational in its perspective. Yellen spends the book’s first half in Japan, examining the various depictions of the Co-Prosperity Sphere that circulated among leaders there and analyzing how ideas about the Sphere changed with time and circumstance. He then shifts focus to Southeast Asia for the book’s second half, exploring how nationalist elites in the Philippines and Burma sought to use the Co-Prosperity Sphere for their own ends even as they cooperated, to varying degrees, with Japanese rule over their nominally independent countries.

Ultimately, Yellen argues, we must take the Co-Prosperity Sphere seriously and regard it not as a cynical or abstract slogan, but as the central focus of Japan’s wartime policy. Though Japanese leaders never fully realized their ambitions for the Sphere—and, indeed, never articulated those ambitions in a coherent final form—it was a meaningful concept at the time and left behind lasting effects in both Japan and the countries that fell under its control during the war.

Yellen shared his thoughts on The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere with me in the Q&A below, conducted via email.

MEC: Many discussions of the Pacific War quickly mention the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, dismiss it as Japanese propaganda, and move on to other topics. What led you to investigate the Sphere in greater depth?

JAY: I have always been interested in political and diplomatic history, international relations, and questions of war and peace, so I naturally gravitated toward writing a history of World War II in Asia. I found Japan’s wars to create a new order for the region all the more fascinating because they were waged in the face of huge logistical challenges and a striking weakness vis-à-vis Japan’s major enemies. As I read more about wartime history, I began to notice a huge gap in research. Few authors dealt in an authoritative way on the question of why Japanese leaders declared the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and what they hoped to achieve. Why declare it at all? Did leaders really believe they could implement it? Was it more than propaganda? Were there any detailed visions or plans behind it? The more I read, the more interested I became, especially because (as you say) most discussions tend to dismiss the concept outright as mere propaganda. I found the topic even more intriguing once I realized that Japanese leaders themselves were not always clear about what the Co-Prosperity Sphere was. Owing to this, I believed I had an opportunity to make an intervention into historical studies of World War II.

Two other factors influenced my decision to explore the Co-Prosperity Sphere. I recognized that such a book had the potential to become a transnational study of Japan’s wartime empire. This, I believed, would be more interesting and potentially reach a broader readership than focusing on Japan alone. And I was excited by the opportunities to travel across Asia and to eat a lot of great food!

Finally, I was fascinated by the Sphere’s long afterlife, and how the term has become an epithet for imperialism in Asia. In the 1980s, yen-wielding Japanese businessmen along with government bureaucrats were welcomed across East and Southeast Asia as a driving force for the regional economy. But at the same time, commentators fretted that after failing in war, Japan was seeking to establish a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere through peaceful economic means. The fact that the Sphere was used to emphasize distrust of Japan’s postwar rise as an economic power, despite the overall excitement at Japanese investment, was proof positive that the ghosts of Japan’s wartime empire were difficult to exorcise. Lately, even the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and its “community of common destiny” is seen as the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere 2.0.” The idea of the Co-Prosperity Sphere thus lives on in the politics of the present.

MEC: You write that “The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere is best understood as a contested, negotiated process of envisioning the future during a time of total war.” Who were some of the actors attempting to see into the future, and how did their visions differ?

JAY: I discuss a wide variety of actors, both in Japan and across Southeast Asia. More than half of the book focuses on Japanese elites: policymakers, political intellectuals, research associations, and wartime ministries. What fascinated me was the constant clashes over what the Sphere stood for. Although all saw it as a regional order led by Japan, they could not agree on the specifics. Matsuoka Yōsuke, Japan’s bombastic foreign minister who announced the Sphere in August 1940, saw the Co-Prosperity Sphere as an attempt to reorder the world. He sought a return to what I call the “sphere-of-influence diplomacy” of late-nineteenth century imperialism. Yet Matsuoka often clashed with members of the army general staff who saw the Co-Prosperity Sphere as serving Japan’s “self-existence and self-defense.” Many political intellectuals complained that the Sphere was “banal” or “unrealistic,” or simply noted that they could not understand what it was. The cabinet planning board and the ministry of commerce and industry clashed over the future regional economy the Sphere was supposed to encompass. And Prime minister Tōjō Hideki clashed with foreign minister Tōgō Shigenori over the creation of Greater East Asia ministry—an organ that was supposed to direct policy for the Sphere—leading to the foreign minister’s dismissal. Initially, then, the Sphere was little more than a process, wherein Japanese leaders were groping in the dark for a new way forward.

It was only in 1943, during the lead up to the Greater East Asia Conference, that the Tōjō government came to a consensus about a new, liberal-internationalist vision for the future. Japan gave independence to select countries (Burma and the Philippines; and helped establish the Provisional Government of Free India) and signaled a new commitment to ideals of independence, equality, and cooperative regionalism. This new vision was less the result of high-minded ideals than it was a pragmatic effort to escape the war with empire intact. But by mid-1943, Japan was so weakened that this new vision was next to impossible to implement. The closer Japan came to defeat in war, the more leaders paired their Pan-Asian mission with liberal internationalist norms.

Finally, my book discusses Southeast Asian nationalist actors in Manila and Rangoon. Aside from Filipino President Jose P. Laurel, few nationalist elites gave serious thought to what the Co-Prosperity Sphere was. Instead, they saw the Sphere as an opportunity. To many of them, the Sphere was the backdrop against which they imagined futures of national independence that might arrive after war’s end. 

MEC: In writing about those nationalist elites in Burma and the Philippines who viewed working with Japan as a means to an end, you describe them as “patriotic collaborators.” How did you come up with this category? Do you think that adding the descriptor “patriotic” serves to mitigate the weight of the often fraught term “collaborator”?

JAY: I found it strange that the term “collaborate,” or to work together, has come to mean high treason. Collaborators = traitors. Why is this the case? Why is collaboration with an occupying foreign power always seen in such starkly negative terms? Even in the case of a nation-state’s relationship with an invading foreign power, it is not always clear that collaboration always needs to be read this way. Robert O. Paxton, for instance, noted in his classic book, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944, that French collaborators like Philippe Petain, Pierre Laval, and François Darlan saw defeat and occupation as an opportunity to enact a revolution in institutions and values. To these French collaborators, Nazi domination was the price they had to pay to restore French greatness. Although Paxton did not use the term “patriotic collaborators,” after reading his book I began to see collaboration in less simplistic terms. 

More pointedly, I wondered why such a value-laden term as “collaboration” applied at all to Southeast Asia. The Philippines and Burma—the cases I use in my book—were not nation-states. They were colonial territories. In this sense, they were caught between two empires (the original colonial power and the invading Japanese). Nationalist elites in those countries had to collaborate with at least one foreign power. Moreover, the collaboration of those at the helm of the colonial state was in many senses part of an attempt to ensure greater political freedoms or national independence. The more I thought about their attempts to secure or preserve longer-term goals of freedom and independence, the more I associated their collaboration with patriotism (granted, my book only talks about the nationalist elites in the centers of power of Manila and Rangoon—the story looks quite different if you shift your gaze to the provinces, where the meaning of collaboration shifts).

This is why I decided to foreground the patriotism of collaboration. The term “patriotic collaborator” was part of an effort to mitigate the weight of the term “collaborator.” The baggage that comes with using this new term, however, is that it appears I argue that patriotism was the only reason for collaboration. I am most certainly not doing so. My goal was simply to highlight the ends for which World War II-era collaboration took place, and to explain why some wartime collaborators in Southeast Asia are now seen as national heroes.   

MEC: We’re often quick to write off “puppet regimes” as unimportant, as if their lack of autonomy means that we shouldn’t regard them as major historical actors. In this book, you push readers to consider the lasting effects of such governments in Burma and the Philippines. What are some of those effects, and how did the Co-Prosperity Sphere play a role in their creation?

JAY: I show how cooperation with Japan was in part an effort to co-opt Japan’s Co-Prosperity Sphere for nationalist ends. Both the Philippines and Burma received nominal (and significantly constrained) independence in 1943. This independence was in many ways a sham, but even sham independence brought opportunity. I highlight efforts by Filipino and Burmese collaborationist governments to use their independence to engage in state-building processes. Both governments created institutions their countries lacked in the colonial era. Both established functioning diplomatic establishments, creating new foreign ministries as well as embassies in Tokyo. Both regimes created new central banks that ultimately had no time to make any impact. And Burma was unique in the institutionalization of a fully functioning defense establishment, symbolized by the Burmese army and headed by a ministry of defense. These institutions provided hands-on training and gave valuable experience in governmental affairs. This is why Burmese leader Hla Pe later argued that “civil servants began to share with politicians a pride in what Burmese could accomplish on their own.”

I try not to overstate the postwar impact of wartime state-building. That said, there were important legacies in both countries. For the Philippines, the main impact of the Co-Prosperity Sphere was in the training of diplomats, many of whom went on to serve in the postwar department of foreign affairs. For Burma, the main legacy was military in nature. The war years witnessed the rebirth of the Burmese army, which stood as the most visible sign of its new sovereignty. After 1942, it was military men, not politicians or colonial officials, that would dominate the political stage. This was most dramatically realized with General Ne Win’s coup d’état in 1962 and Burma’s subsequent rule by military junta.

I am lucky that I had the chance to build off an already rich tradition of scholarship on individual Southeast Asian countries. My biggest contribution here was to connect the individual stories of Burma and the Philippines more squarely to the overall story of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In the process, I hoped to tell a regional story of Japan’s wartime empire that gave agency and voice to nationalist elites in Southeast Asia.

MEC: The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere began life as your dissertation project. Undertaking transnational scholarship as a graduate student can be a daunting prospect, given that it requires reading a wealth of scholarly literature about multiple locations, dealing with multiple languages, and finding the time and funding to carry out fieldwork in multiple sites. How did you manage these challenges, and what advice do you have for anyone (especially a graduate student) considering whether or not to embark on this path?

JAY: I am not sure how to answer this, partly because I never saw the multiple locations as a stumbling block to my research. Far from it, they were always opportunities to learn something new, to go someplace new, or to eat new food (yes, I’m serious). Also, I was lucky in that I went to an institution (Harvard) that had so many resources to send its students abroad for summer research and language training. It was that summer research that really helped launch my project and helped me realize what historical interventions I could try to make. A more dauting challenge for me was figuring out how to narrow down my topic to make it more manageable, and to figure out what stories I should tell. But I had a sense that if I was going to bite off more than I could chew, then graduate school was the time to do so.

I have three pieces of advice for future graduate students. First, work on your grant-writing skills. Whether you can explain the importance of your project to a non-specialist audience can make or break your project even before it gets off the ground. Like it or not, funding is what makes the academic world go round, so learning how to sell your ideas is a skill you need to master. This is also a skill you’ll continue to use throughout your academic career. Second, meet and learn from as many specialists as you can. They can introduce you to the best historical research on your topic, guide you to new or existing documentary collections, and provide introductions to major figures in the field. Third, and finally, it is okay (even exciting!) to work in a different field from your specialty. Go where your project takes you. Know that even if something is not your specialty, you may still have important points to make.  

MEC: Finally, what are you spending your time on now that this book has been published?

JAY: The weird thing about publishing is that the book is basically done over a year before it finally comes out in physical form. After finishing, I took a brief break and started to read novels again, which I hadn’t been able to do while in the throes of writing. My father had always told me how much he loved Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev. That was the first book I read to detox after writing—and I am truly glad to have finally found the time to do so (as well as read a number of other novels on my list). Now, I am back to work on two projects—a short book on Japan’s empire from World War I, and a biography of the infamous Japanese general and prime minister, Tōjō Hideki.