Community and Identity in Northeast Asia:

East Asian Community: The Unfinished Project of the 1930s


Japan‘s 1930s Manchukuo project concentrated the idealism, imagination, and energy of a generation of Japanese intellectuals who wanted a better world. Today, the ideal in whose name Manchukuo was founded remains to be accomplished and again compels attention: how to construct a peaceful, just, cooperative order in East Asia, especially among the three regions of China, Korea and Japan.


From the 1920s, as the confrontation between Japanese and Chinese nationalisms intensified, intellectuals in Japan were immensely attracted by the idea of resolving/dissolving the contradictions between nations and peoples in an East Asian community that would transcend the two nation states. Scientists, artists, film makers, town planners, economists, architects, Marxists, the smartest and most ambitious bureaucrats flocked to Manchukuo to help to bring this dream to life. The project strove for many grand objectives. Its ideal was encapsulated in the slogans of “interracial harmony,” “harmony of the five races,” and “all the world under one roof.” It would be post-colonial, multiracial, and multicultural, even a kind of post-nation state state, the first ever, crystallizing the essence of nation state while negating and transcending it. It involved the negation of the west, the negation of colonialism, capitalism, even Marxism, and the reaching for a stage of development beyond capitalism and communism. In the end, however, the heady vision produced instead what Yamamuro called the Chimera, strange, hybrid, monster state that, the moment the sun set, disappeared, like Atlantis.[1]


In the collective dreaming that some of the best imaginations of recent times give us, however, the experience continues to haunt and to disturb. How could such noble ideals have ended in such disaster? Some now see the US crusade in Iraq as the contemporary equivalent: an aggressive war undertaken in defiance of international society in the name of a splendid vision (the liberation of East Asia then, the democratization of the Middle East now) and on the assumption that absolute military superiority would prevail, with today’s Washington neoconservatives enjoying even less popular support now than did the Kwantung Army and its ideologues then. Pursuing the analogy, it is ominous that Japan‘s adventures culminating in a fifteen-year war in Manchukuo and China also spelled the death of prospects for democracy at home.


Behind the tatemae of the independence of this ideal state, with its own emperor, flag and anthem, lay the honne of puppet state; beneath the slogan of “harmony between the races” (minzoku kyowa), all institutions bore the distinctive DNA of imperial Japan’s family state, its kokutai. Japan was designated “parent country” (shinpo or in Chinese chinbang). Its identity was superior as father, or as “elder brother,” and its gods prescribed for worship by the Chinese and Korean and Mongolian people. The symbols of imperial authority — mirror, sword, and jewel — were carefully manufactured in Japan, and Pu Yi, its emperor, was designated a descendent of Amaterasu, his inauguration ceremony an exact copy of the Daijosai ceremony of the Japanese imperial accession. He was therefore both emperor of Manchukuo and also younger brother to Japan‘s Showa emperor — in his own words he felt “absolute unity of spirit with the Showa emperor.”


Manchukuo was provided with its own Yasukuni, the Kenkoku Chureibyo or “Shrine to the Spirits of those who Served in Foundation of the Country.” Its mass political party, the Kyowakai (usually known in English as the “Concordia Society”), was a fascist mass party, manipulated and controlled by the Japanese military, mobilizing rather than responding to popular opinion. Students entering the “Great Unity” college charged with training civil servants (Daido Gakuin, founded 1932) or the National Foundation University (Kenkoku Daigaku, founded 1937) discovered inequality entrenched under the name of equality. The reality was that while nominally a sovereign state, the basic principle of this would-be utopia was “direction from within” (naimen shido), that is to say, it was a puppet state, appearing to be independent but actually directed by the Kwantung Army, for Japanese ends, with Japanese power and privilege entrenched. In the words of the Kwantung Army’s Katakura Chu, Manchukuo combined “national defense state” and “interracial harmony” just like “Mohammad with Koran and sword.”[2] Japan was thus the “mother country” for the neocolonial state as it was developed and refined in the later 20th century.


Former Prime Minister Tojo, who was intimately involved in the creation and collapse of both Manchukuo and Greater East Asia, wrote on the eve of his execution in December 1948 that the real cause of Japan’s defeat in the “Greater East Asian” war was its loss of the genuine cooperation of East Asian peoples (Toa minzoku no honto no kyoryoku o ushinatta koto).[3] In other words, rather than any material deficiency, Japan’s decisive failure was intellectual, moral and imaginative. Established in the main by men who believed themselves honorable and driven by a sense of justice and desire for a better world, actually the Manchukuo design was humbug through and through. This state had no universal message, no message at all for Asia than the demand for its submission.


It is precisely this understanding of Japan‘s modern history, crystallized in Tojo’s wry comment, that contemporary revisionists refuse to accept. For them, the “pure” ideals of Manchukuo’s founders are much more easily defended than the record of the actual deeds of the Imperial Japanese forces whether in Manchuria, elsewhere in China or in East or Southeast Asia, and it is precisely Manchukuo that is a special ground for arguing for a “proud” Japanese modern history in Asia, for a Japanese mission quite distinct from that of European colonialism: nothing less than the liberation of Asia from Western imperialism. What Tojo came to see as moral and imaginative failure they see as virtue and as matter for pride.


East Asia: The Contemporary Project


Almost eight decades later, many contradictions divide the same states and regions, and again the idea of an East Asian or Northeast Asian community is to be heard. As in the 1920s and 1930s, state leaders, intellectuals and representatives of civil society in the post-Cold War era search for the formula to establish a stable, just, peaceful and cooperative new order.


Like their forefathers, contemporary intellectuals are attracted by the idea of “East Asia” or “Northeast Asia” as a solution to multiple contradictions. The question is whether their contemporary proposals are realistic, actually addressing the contradictions, or, like those in the 1930s, fantastic, simply achieving a solution in fancy verbal formulas.


First is the most superficially obvious, the contradiction between Japanese and Chinese nationalism. It is not so much expressed today in direct contest over territory as in the 1930s (with the exception of the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and their marine surrounds) but rather in the contest for hegemony over, or a helmsman’s role in, steering Asia to its future (with both subject — albeit in different ways — to the same constraint, the base presence and force projection capacity of the single power that does still seize and hold territory). China in the 1930s lacked the military, political, and economic weight to challenge Japan‘s prescriptions; now it has all three, and a sophisticated diplomatic establishment to pursue its agenda. Second is the contradiction between Asia and the US, i.e. between any scheme for a regional identity for Asia and the US insistence on hegemony over a global empire. Third is the classic contradiction embedded in the sense of Japanese national identity. Is Japan Asian or non-Asian? Is it an ordinary or superior country? Is its identity based on blood and ethnicity or on civic values? These contradictions, which in the 1930s revolved around the core geopolitical issue of Manchukuo, today centre on North Korea. The problematic zone, or “cockpit” as it was sometimes known in the 1930s, has shifted from one side of the Tumen River to the other.


Since the 1990s, in the wake of the Cold War there has been a plethora of proposals for cooperation in East Asia, a region that accounts for 33 per cent of the world’s people and 23 per cent of its trade [4] and expects to continue functioning as the dynamo for world economic growth for decades to come. The financial crisis of 1997, the growing sense of shared security, environmental and energy problems, and the mounting sense at least in some quarters of the need to unite to curb the arbitrary and aggressive actions of the single superpower, underlined the desirability of cooperation.


At the Hanoi meeting of ASEAN+3 in 1998, following the proposal from newly elected South Korean president Kim Dae Jung, an “East Asian Vision Group” was established, chaired by former South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung-Joo, which in due course presented its report to the Kuala Lumpur meeting in December 2001, beginning with the following words:


“We, the people of East Asia, aspire to create an East Asian community of peace, prosperity, and progress based on the full development of all peoples in the region. Concurrent with this vision is the goal that, in the future, East Asian community will make a positive contribution to the rest of the world.” [5]


Prime Minister Koizumi seemed to embrace the idea of East Asian community in the agreement he signed in October 2002 with North Korea‘s Kim Jong Il. The “Pyongyang Declaration” was the first use of the very term “Northeast Asia” in a Japanese diplomatic document since 1945, and it was surely notable that it came in the context of a joint statement with the leader of North Korea. South Korean president Roh Moo Hyun too, in several key speeches including his inaugural address, refers to this same ideal. In October 2004 “Building the Common House of East Asia” was the theme of a large gathering of religious leaders from the region held in Seoul. At the end of November 2004, the Japanese government presented proposals towards realization of an “East Asian Community” at the ASEAN+3 Summit in Vientiane, and an “East Asian Summit” is to be held in Kuala Lumpur during 2005, bringing together the leaders of ASEAN, China, Japan, and South Korea.[6]


In the 1930s, the key role in promoting Asian integration was played by the intellectuals of the South Manchuria Railway Company (Mantetsu), the Concordia Society (Kyowakai), and especially the Showa Research Society (Showa Kenkyukai, established 1933). In the 1990s, intellectuals, this time from a generally independent and critical stance, together with some in positions close to state power, especially in South Korea but also in Japan, return to the same task. Wada Haruki, as early as 1990, seems to have been the first to articulate the idea of a post-Cold War East Asian order in which the legacies of almost 200 years of war and confrontation would be healed and transcended by a community along something like European lines, which he dubbed the “Common House” of East Asia.[7] His design was in turn refined by his Tokyo University colleague Kang Sang Jung in his 2001 book (originally evidence presented to the Japanese Diet’s Constitutional Reform Commission), as a multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual community, full of creative diversity, in which identity would be defined by civic categories of “public” (kokyosei) rather than by race or nation. In Kang’s vision, the problem of Korea would be resolved within this larger entity in part by granting a united Korea a central role as a permanently neutral host for key institutions, somewhat like Luxemburg in Europe.[8]


These proposals, it must be said, are somewhat more radical and idealistic than most of the schemes for Asian commonwealth that now circulate at the behest of states and international institutions, whose “bottom line” tends to be the neo-liberal insistence on removing barriers to the free flow of capital and goods. The dynamic of the process is most evident in the ASEAN and ASEAN + 3 (or plus 8, since gradually India, Pakistan, Australia and New Zealand, Papua New Guinea etc are gradually being incorporated in various free trade agreements) formulas for tariff reduction, economic integration and ultimately a single market. The lesson of Europe, however, is that “Common Market” leads inexorably towards comprehensive “Community” and “Union“, i.e. to political and cultural integration, and Wada and Kang are undoubtedly right to insist on that long-term focus.


As moves towards economic integration gather momentum, however, the tension between Japan and China over the lead role surfaces, especially as China emerged as the driving force for negotiations in both Southeast and Northeast Asia, with Japan struggling to find appropriate means to regain the initiative. Chinese proposals in 2003 for a FTZ with the ASEAN counties pushed Japan to come up with a similar proposal, but it was hard-put to match the Chinese role as host and centre for the Beijing-based “Six-Sided” talks on North Korea. Japanese bureaucratic concern was manifest.[9] As Gregory Noble put it, “China’s central role in the effort to deal with the instability on the Korean peninsula, and its increasingly active participation in the ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN + 3 and its bold trade proposals have made it impossible for Japan simply to block or contain China.’[10] When a “Network of East Asian Think Tanks” (NEAT) was set up in Beijing in September 2003, Japan responded by setting up its own group of scholars and think tanks to push for establishment of a “Council on East Asian Community” (CEAC). The semi-governmental NIRA (National Institute for Research Advancement) set about drawing up a “North East Asian Grand Design,” a twenty-year perspective for a region that would comprise Japan, the two Koreas, the three Northeast China provinces, (Inner) Mongolia and the North China region (Henan, Hebei, Shanxi, Shandong, Tianjin and Beijing), with Far-Eastern Russia comprising a “Basic Area” and with the USA and EU classified as related regions.[11] It bore remarkable similarity in purely geographical terms to the old Japanese empire in Northeast Asia, although its substance was undoubtedly very different.


From 2003, the “Six-Sided” Beijing conference marks the first time for the leaders of North East Asia (minus Taiwan and Mongolia and plus the US) to sit around the same table to negotiate the future of the region. The position of the US, however, creates a certain ambiguity. What precisely is its stake? Is it a Pacific and Asian power and equal partner, or is it global hegemon and therefore in a position to dictate terms? The NIRA vision for the fu

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