Pan-Asianism and the Japanese Wartime Empire

This past spring, upon the invitation of Peter Anderson, I gave a lecture to all of the first-year History students at Leeds University on the following topic, as part of a module on world history. Some of the reading materials listed at the conclusion are paywalled (or, like Marc Driscoll’s stunning Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque, should just be bought), but most are free, and all are worth reading. The lecture summary:

Before the Second World War merged with East Asia via the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Western colonial powers were entrenched in the region. Uprooted by the Japanese military in 1941-42, Western powers successively lost Hong Kong, Singapore, Indochina/Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and were in danger of losing control over Bengal, the eastern edge of British India. Upon what basis did Japan undertake this massive project of throwing off the heavy bonds of Western colonialism? And how did they justify their rapid imposition of a new and often brutal style of colonialism, one cloaked in the propaganda of pan-Asian liberation?

A new wave of documentation about Japanese crimes in this process has emerged, including forced labor, killing and humiliating of Anglo-American (and French and Dutch) prisoners of war, and the creation of a military brothel system into which women from across the region were forced. Yet recent work on the spread of Japanese empire suggests that pan-Asianism was a more magnetic and complex phenomenon than a paper-thin justification for Japanese economic and cultural exploitation of its massive new Asian empire. This lecture explores the forced retreat of Europe from East Asia, Japanese ideologies and practices of both domination and collaboration, and the role of race in the Pacific War.


E. Hotta, Pan-Asianism and Japan’s War, 1931-1945 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

C. Aydin, “Japan’s Pan-Asianism and the Legitimacy of Imperial World Order, 1931–1945,”The Asia-Pacific Journal (2008).[Available online.]

Elizabeth van Kampen, ‘Memories of the Dutch East Indies: From Plantation Society to Prisoner of Japan’, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 1-4-09 (2009).[Available online.]

M. Driscoll, Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead, and Undead in Japan’s Imperialism, 1895-1945 (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010), Chapter 7 [‘The Opiate of the (Chinese) People’,  pp. 227-262] & Intertext 1 [‘A Korean is Being Beaten: I, a Japanese Colonizer, am Being Beaten’, pp. 119-131].

T. Ishimaru, Japan Must Fight Britain, trans. G.V. Rayment (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1936), pp. 160-163, 170-176, 271-280.

H. Hirofumi, ‘Government, the Military and Business in Japan’s Wartime Comfort Woman System’, The Asia-Pacific Journal (2006).[Available online.]

Lord Rennell of Rodd and Viscount Mountbatten of Burma, ‘Travels in Japanese-Occupied Malaya: Discussion,’ The Geographical Journal , Vol. 110, No. 1/3 (Jul. – Sep., 1947), pp. 36-37. [URL:]

M. Gandhi, ‘A Letter to Every Briton,’ 6 July 1940. [Available online.]

D. Ford, ‘British Intelligence on Japanese Army Morale during the Pacific War: Logical Analysis or Racial Stereotyping?’,The Journal of Military History , Vol. 69, No. 2 (Apr., 2005), pp. 439-474 . [URL:]

J.Dower, War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), Chapter 1 (‘Patterns of a Race War’, pp. 1-14) and Chapter 4 (‘Lesser Men & Supermen, pp. 94-117).

S.Connor, ‘Side-stepping Geneva: Japanese Troops under British Control, 1945-7’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 45, No. 2 (2010), pp. 389-405. [URL:].

T. Marukawa & D.L. Bhowmik, ‘On Kobayashi Yoshinori’s “On Taiwan”’, positions: east asia cultures critique, Volume 12, Number 1 (Spring 2004), pp. 93-112. [URL:

Image: Japanese soldiers enter Shanghai in 1937; photographer unknown. 

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