Japan far from establishing Co-prosperity Sphere
The United States gradually started to assume control in the war with Japan. Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet Isoroku Yamamoto was killed when his airplane was shot down on April 18, 1943 (the American codebreakers read his flight itinerary). As Japan became more obviously on the defensive, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo adopted a measure to nip in the bud rebellious elements in the occupied areas.
On April 20, two days after Yamamoto’s death, Tojo appointed Mamoru Shigemitsu as the new Foreign Minister who would handle wartime diplomacy in providing logistical support to the military. Seven months earlier, in September 1942, Shigenori Togo left the post of Foreign Minister after a clash with Tojo over the administration of occupied areas. While Tojo was trying to set up a “Greater East Asia Ministry” that would deal with the affairs of the occupied areas, including the Southern Areas, Manchuria and China, Togo insisted that all external affairs should be handled by the Foreign Ministry. Togo reportedly told Tojo: “The establishment of such a ministry would hurt the pride of people in East Asian nations who will suspect the ministry is actually the ‘Colonization Ministry.’” But Tojo overrode his opposition.
Immediately before becoming Foreign Minister, Shigemitsu had been Ambassador to the Nanjing Nationalist government of Wang Chao-ming (Wang Zhaoming), which had sided with Japan in the war against the United States and Britain. Shigemitsu was working to revise the unfair Japan-China Basic Treaty of 1941 with the pro-Japanese Nanjing Nationalist government to give the latter a certain level of autonomy as part of new support measures to that government. As Foreign Minister, Shigemitsu emphasized the “self-determination of people” and the “decolonization of China”—an emphasis that could lead to the negation of military rule.
Why, then, did Tojo think highly of Shigemitsu? Shigemitsu’s belief was as follows: “It is a matter of fact that Japan is the leader of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere while supporting the notion of equality and fairness. But I deem it would not be a sensible idea to make this fact known to people.” His intention was to obscure Japan’s superior position over other Asia nations and to give them nominal equal status so as to win their cooperation in the creation of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere and also in the ongoing war. On this point, Shigemitsu and Tojo were in agreement.
On May 31, 1943, the Greater East Asia Political Leadership Principles, which provided the basis for granting independence to Burma (now Myanmar) and the Philippines, were approved. Also, under the principles, Japan approved the Free India government in exile led by Subhash Chandra Bose and concluded a treaty to forge an alliance with the Wang regime.
To promote its new policy Japan held the Greater East Asia Conference on November 5, 1943. Tojo himself instructed that the attendants should include the Republic of China’s leader Wang Chao-ming, acting Prime Minister of Thailand Prince Wan Waithayakon, Manchukuo Prime Minister Zhang Jinghui, President Jose Laurel of the Japanese-backed Second Republic of the Philippines, Burmese Prime Minister Ba Maw and Subhash Chandra Bose. The preamble of the joint declaration adopted at the assembly urged those nations to cooperate with Japan’s war efforts. “The United States and Britain have persistently been invading and exploiting Greater East Asia, which they are finally trying to destabilize at its foundations. The nations of Greater East Asia will cooperate in successfully concluding the Greater East Asia War.” The main text of the joint declaration spelled out five principles, such as “co-existence and co-prosperity based on ethics”and “respect for autonomy.”
At the time of the assembly, however, Japan had sent its troops to the war front to die to the last man in battle after battle. Two months earlier in September 1943, the government approved the conscription of a student corps at a Cabinet meeting. How did other countries view the Greater East Asia Conference hosted by a country on the decline?
Ba Maw of Burma demonstrated his anti-U.S. and anti-British stance by saying in his speech that he could hear the “calls of Asia” for the first time in reality and not in dreams. Laurel of the Philippines tried to warn Japan by saying the establishment of the Co-prosperity Sphere should not be for the benefit of Japan alone. Thai Prime Minister Plaek Pibulsonggram did not attend the meeting because he thought his attendance would give the impression of submission to Japan and instead sent his deputy.
Takao Saito, a successful dissident candidate in the April 1942 general election, criticized the Greater East Asia Conference, saying: “Japan was saying that it would win in the end because its war purposes were just, while those of other nations were unjust. Nobody took that propaganda seriously.”
Ian Nish, a British expert on the history of diplomacy, wrote about the Tokyo conference’s declaration: “For most Asians, the declaration had a hollow ring as a piece of unrealistic propaganda; to believe that Japan would act as their equal partner was impossible.”