Pan-Asianism and International Law

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In this blogpost, professor Mohammad Shahabuddin introduces and discusses his latest research findings on pan-Asianism and international law

Professor Mohammad (Shahab) Shahabuddin

Pan-Asianism represents a regional alliance of Asian nations based on historical ties, common heritage, and a sense of solidarity.[i] As a concept, Pan-Asianism is conventionally associated with Japan’s imperialism vis-à-vis its Asian neighbours during the Second World War. The “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere”, which Japan propagated in 1940, epitomized the height of the country’s expansionist campaign in the region in the name of Asian unity and revival.

One of the most prominent Pan-Asianist ideologues in Japan was Shumei Okawa, who was a Class A defendant at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (the Tokyo Tribunal). The International Prosecution Section of the Tribunal formulated the conspiracy charge almost entirely on the basis of Okawa’s writings advocating the unity of coloured peoples and calling for resistance against the West.[ii] As the Prosecution Section chose defendants who would be a “representative group” of Japanese war criminals,[iii] Okawa became the face of Japan’s ideological and propaganda campaign against the West. He was ultimately excused from the trials due to his mental illness.[iv]

Due to this allegedly close association between Okawa’s work and Japanese imperialism, “there was a tacit yet determined endeavour” by post-war Asian studies scholars in Japan and beyond to dissociate themselves from his work and Pan-Asianist discourse in general.[v] Given that the Japanese international law during the Second World War was shaped by the hegemonic notion of the “Great East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere” under Japan’s control, in the aftermath of the war, the notion of the Great East Asia and the corresponding international law also “quickly sank into oblivion and never emerged again as a subject of discussion, whether academic or not”.[vi] This association of Pan-Asianism with Japanese imperialism is also why the discourse on Pan-Asianism pays little attention to the fact that colonial peoples in Asia used Pan-Asianism to advance their nationalist cause.

In contrast, I argue, Pan-Asianism was in fact used as an anti-imperial ideology and strategy against the West in the early twentieth century. As an anti-imperial ideology, Pan-Asianism put forward a normative argument for the emancipation of Asia from Western imperialism and provided an alternative vision of civilization premised upon a shared Asian spirituality, heritage, culture, and glorious past—however fictitious such a common Asian identity was—going beyond the dominant Eurocentric discourse on civilization. As an anti-imperial strategy, Pan-Asianism offered Indian nationalist leaders in exile the language they needed to gain support from the Japanese and the Chinese in favour of their nationalist movement against British rule in India. The Pan-Asianist slogan “Asia for the Asiatics” was simultaneously a call to end European imperialism in Asia and an invitation to Japan to lead this anti-imperial campaign.

The ideological and strategic aspects of Pan-Asianism in the early twentieth century had relevance to corresponding international legal regimes in at least four different areas: (i) international law of neutrality in relation to diplomatic tensions between the UK and the US concerning revolutionary activities by Indian nationalists within the US jurisdiction during the Great War; (ii) the right to self-determination of the colonized peoples with reference to the Indian Home Rule League’s unsuccessful petition to the League of Nations demanding independence of India from British colonial rule; (iii) the discourse on the yellow peril following the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and the diplomatic tension in relation to the proposed Racial Equality Clause during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919; and (iv) the discourse on an Asian Monroe Doctrine as a crystallization of the Pan-Asianist movement.

Although these issues are not always inter-connected, what binds them together is the common theme of Pan-Asianism as anti-imperialism. While anti-British activities by Indian nationalists and their allies in the US and in China under the banner of Pan-Asianism sparked serious diplomatic tensions between the US and the UK regarding the rights and duties of a neutral state in the course of the Great War, the anti-imperial underpinning of Pan-Asianism more directly informed the international law discourse on the right to self-determination during the Paris Peace Conference. Debates around the inclusion of a Racial Equality Clause in the Covenant of the League of Nations and the ensuing propagation of an Asian Monroe Doctrine also developed against the backdrop of Pan-Asianist ethos of racial justice and, in this connection, the mantra of “Asia for the Asiatics”.

The analysis of international law dimensions of Pan-Asianism as an anti-imperial ideology and strategy in the early twentieth century sheds light on an important yet ignored episode of the historical development of international law. At the normative level, seen through the lens of “Pan-Asianism as anti-imperialism”, it also reveals how international law of the time was an effective tool used by dominant Western Powers to crush anti-colonial nationalist movements, to deny colonial peoples their legitimate right to self-determination, or to reject racial equality, even in its mildest form, as a governing principle of the League of Nations.

On another level, the story of Pan-Asianism as anti-imperialism remains a story of failed promises and hopes—beyond ideology and strategy. By the first half of 1942 the whole of Southeast Asia had come under Japanese imperial rule. The world soon witnessed in utter horror what such a hegemonic vision of regional order unfolded in Asia in the final years of the Second World War. And with this, the concept of Pan-Asianism, despite all its anti-imperial ideological and strategic relevance, became the unfortunate symbol of imperialism and gradually sank into intellectual, political, and legal insignificance.

On the other hand, even after Japan’s humiliating defeat in the war and the ensuing US occupation of the country, in a number of Southeast Asian countries—including Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia—Japanese soldiers helped local people in their ongoing fight against Western colonial powers.[vii] Thus, like the concept itself, the promises, hopes, legacies, and histories of Pan-Asianism are far from singular. As China, the new regional hegemon in Asia, is now flexing its muscle in the continent and beyond, there is some value in revisiting these promises, hopes, legacies, and histories of Pan-Asianism and the role of international law therein.


[This blog is based on my new article: ‘Pan-Asianism, Anti-Imperialism, and International Law in the Early twentieth Century’, Asian Journal of International Law (2023) Open Access]


[i] See Eri Hotta, Pan-Asianism and Japan’s War 1931-1945 (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) at 30-51; Prasenjit Duara, “The Discourse of Civilization and Pan-Asianism” (2001) 12(1) Journal of World History 99 at 99-130; Cemil Aydin, The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia: Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian Thought (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2007).

[ii] Yuma TOTANI, The Tokyo War Crimes Trial: The Pursuit of Justice in the Wake of World War II (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008) at 89; Neil Boister and Robert Cryer, The Tokyo International Military Tribunal – A Reappraisal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) at 214.

[iii] Solis Horwitz, The Tokyo Trial: International Conciliation (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1950) at 496.

[iv] Report of Dr Yushi Uchimura, cited in Boister and Cryer, The Tokyo International Military Tribunal at 240.

[v] Yukiko Sumi Barnett, “India in Asia: Okawa Shumei’s Pan-Asian Thought and His Idea of India in Early Twentieth-Century Japan” (2004) 1 Journal of the Oxford University History Society 1 at 11.

[vi] Takao Suami, “Global Constitutionalism and International Law Scholars in Japan” (2021) 64 Japanese Yearbook of International Law 5 at 34.

[vii] Kristine Dennehy, “Overcoming Colonialism at Bandung, 1955” in Sven Saaler and Victor Koschmann, eds., Pan-Asianism in Modern Japanese History: Colonialism, Regionalism, and Border (London: Routledge, 2007) at 213, 217-222.

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