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Image is of moon-rise seen through cherry blossoms in Roppongi, Tokyo.

A 1942 Declaration for Greater East Asian Co-operation

Translation by Yayoi KOIZUMI and Zeljko Cipris
Introduction by James Orr

The “Declaration for Greater East Asian Co-operation” was a wartime booklet and elementary text published for use in Japan’s Asian and Pacific colonies and occupied territories. Through the presentation of attractive images of children and people of many lands and cultures, the images convey the noble mission that informed Japanese wartime propaganda—that Japan would unite fellow Asians under its leadership to throw off the yoke of exploitive Western imperialism. The text also reveals the imperialist assumptions that Japan shared with those same imperialist powers, but here cloaked in a rhetoric evocative of Confucian benevolence.

For example, a Japanese military officer on horseback is shown as a smiling agent of change with Asian brothers and children as eager recipients of Japanese guidance in the advance of civilization. As the metropole in the imagined Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, Japan naturally takes the lead in organizing and marshalling the energies and talents of this region's peoples as well as their territories' natural wealth. Japanese is imagined as the lingua franca of the region. Japanese universities are the citadels of learning where future Asian leaders are mentored by Japanese teachers. And an implicit division of labor identifies former Western colonies as suppliers of raw materials for the advanced industrial power that is Japan. It is a vision of an autarkic utopian community of harmony in which Japan would lead the way in smashing the old colonial order symbolized by Churchill and Roosevelt. Now, with the cooperation of the once colonized and occupied people across Asia, a new zone of cooperation and prosperity can emerge under the watchful gaze of the benevolent Japanese military: “Now, with ringing footsteps, let us all advance together.”

Map showing stages of formation of the Japanese empire

Yet the story of Japanese imperialism in Asia differs from that of Western imperialism precisely because, in addition to seeing themselves as mentors on the path toward advanced civilization, Japanese understood themselves to be culturally, racially, and historically linked with Asians. And rather than the bilateral ties that European powers sought to establish with their Asian colonies, Japan sought to create multilateral relations in an East Asian community, albeit ones that it would dominate. How does this wartime Japanese imperialist propaganda reflect this difference from the Western prototype? Does the message of Asian brotherhood and Japanese benevolence mitigate or exacerbate the exploitive reality of Japanese imperial leadership/rule? How are these concepts conveyed in the printed image? What expectations does the Confucian idiom of brotherhood and benevolence raise, and how might these expectations alter perceptions of Japanese hegemony in a culturally diverse Asia? Are the contradictions in the domestic Japanese discourse on Japanese national identity—a discourse that harbored extremely divergent visions from Fukuzawa Yukichi’s “Escape from Asia, Join Europe” modernism to Okakura Tenshin’s “Asia is One” traditionalism, to borrow slogans from Japan’s earlier Meiji era—reflected in this wartime propaganda? And finally, given the utterly central role of the Japanese Emperor in modern Japanese national aspirations, how can we explain his apparent absence from these images?

James Orr

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