The Greater East Asia Conference was held in Tokyo on November 5–6, 1943, during the Greater East Asia War. The participants were Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo; Wang Jingwei, president of the Reorganized National Government of China in Nanjing; Zhang Jinghui, prime minister of Manchukuo; Jose P. Laurel, president of the Philippine Republic; Ba Maw, head of state of Burma; Prince Wan Waithayakon of Thailand; and, attending as an observer, Chandra Bose, head of the Provisional Government of Free India. They fiercely criticized the colonialist rule of the Western powers.
Seventy years after the conference, on November 6 of this year, a meeting to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Great East Asia Conference was held at the Kensei Kinenkan in Tokyo. Mr. Okisuke Toyama and Mr. Hideaki Kase served as co-representatives of the organizing committee, and keynote speeches were given by Mr. Surya Kumar Bose, the grandnephew of Chandra Bose, and Mr. Henry Stokes, former Tokyo bureau chief of the New York Times.
Mr. Surya Kumar Bose quoted from Chandra Bose’s speech at the conference as follows: “Your Excellency, this is not a conference for dividing the spoils among the conquerors. This is not a conference for hatching a conspiracy to victimize a weak power, nor is it a conference for trying to defraud a weak neighbor. This is an assembly of liberated nations, an assembly that is out to create a new order in this part of the world, on the basis of the sacred principles of justice, national sovereignty, reciprocity in international relations, and mutual aid and mutual assistance.”
As shown by Bose’s speech, the words of the national representatives at the Greater East Asia Conference were laced not only with appeals for things like the liberation of colonies and racial equality but also with criticism of the modern Western values that governed the world order at that time. They proposed replacing these modern Western values, which had brought about imperialism, colonialism, and racial discrimination, with Asian values.
There were problems for sure. Looking back at the policies of the Japanese government from the Meiji period (1868–1912), there were times when it had given too much consideration to the Western powers and turned its back on Asian patriots aiming for liberation from colonial rule; sometimes Japan’s diplomatic policies could be seen as an imitation of those of the Western powers; and during the Greater East Asia War, some elements in the Japanese military behaved in ways that were contradictory to the ideals advocated by our country.
Nevertheless, the speeches by the national representatives at the Greater East Asia Conference criticized the modern civilization of the West and expressed their aspirations to create a sounder human civilization.
Japanese Prime Minister Tojo said “This new order of Greater East Asia is to rest upon the spirit of justice that is inherent in Greater East Asia” and went on, “. . . the spiritual essence of the culture of Greater East Asia is the most sublime in the world. It is my belief that in the wide diffusion of the culture of Greater East Asia by its further cultivation and refinement lies the salvation of mankind from the curse of materialistic civilization and our contribution to the welfare of all humanity.”
In response to Prime Minister Tojo’s speech, Philippine President Laurel said that the “East was the cradle of human civilization and had given the West its religions and cultures,” and Thai Prince Wan Waithayakon remarked that “the Asian continent is the fountainhead of humankind’s development.”
Prime Minister Tojo also stated that “the United States and Britain . . . do not hesitate to practice injustice, deception and exploitation in order to promote their own prosperity.” And President Wang Jingwei of the Reorganized National Government of China similarly criticized the values behind the policies of the West, saying that the declaration of the Greater East Asia Conference “has swept away the West’s utilitarian views.”
In other words, the Greater East Asia Conference was a moment in history demonstrating the truth behind the famous remark by the Japanese scholar Tenshin Okakura (1862–1913) that “Asia is one.”
The principles of the Greater East Asia Conference, which were embodied in its joint declaration, have faded from people’s memory, but they played an important role in subsequent international politics. Their legacy was continued, for example, in the principles of the Afro-Asian Conference held in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955 and the Non-Aligned Movement inaugurated in 1961.
Mr. Surya Kumar Bose is one of grand children of brother of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and made a speech at the conference commemorating 70th Anniversary.
The leaders who participated in the Greater East Asia Conference: (from left) Ba Maw, Zhang Jinghui, Wang Jingwei, Hideki Tojo, Wan Waithayakon, Jose P. Laurel, and Chandra Bose