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  • The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: When Total Empire Met Total War by Jeremy A. Yellen
  • Barak Kushner (bio)
The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: When Total Empire Met Total War. By Jeremy A. Yellen. Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 2019. xii, 286 pages. $45.00.

In late April 1997, the Asahi shinbun published a series of conversations between former Japanese Prime Ministers Nakasone Yasuhiro and Miyazawa Kiichi. The statesmen agreed on many issues but remained divided on the 1946 constitution. Miyazawa assessed it as a force for good even though it did not emerge from the will of the Japanese people. Nakasone did not dismiss it but felt that Japan had lost its "independence." Therefore he wanted to try and redraft the nation's own constitution.1 The debate was supposed to focus on contemporary Japan but the discussions kept turning back to Japan's war in Asia, which influenced how the leaders viewed the postwar. Was the nature of Japan's postwar constitution reflective of its past or indicative of a peaceful future? After the Abe Shinzō administration stepped down after almost eight years in power, the current push for constitutional reform continues to remain pertinent.

Most contemporary political discussions in Japan still pivot on an assessment of the character of the war and Japan's empire, so Jeremy Yellen's book arrives at a propitious time. He leads us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the scaffolding that the Japanese employed in their imperial construction of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Yellen's book opens with the 1937 China Incident. The imperial general headquarters-government liaison conference was created in November 1937, as the army marched toward Nanjing, so it is an apt beginning. It is fitting, as Tomoko Akami explains, because the idea of "equality and independence of colonies from European powers" grew to be "a significant strategic matter for the Allied forces and Japan, for both needed the cooperation of China and other colonies." This shift to gain support propelled the Japanese to further define "its war ideology, the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere."2

Yellen describes in his deep empirical analysis, showing mastery of the archival record in Japan and the long stretch of Japanese secondary scholarship, how Japan was attempting to shape its own new world order. There [End Page 215] are four schools of thought on the sphere as he sees it: (1) the Kobayashi Hideo school which sees the sphere as starting with the Manchurian Incident in 1931 and then evolving in Japan's push for industrialization and self-sufficiency; (2) the revisionists who see the sphere in an uncritical and congratulatory light as the zenith of Japan's holy war and efforts to liberate Asia; (3) an ideological third school, which sees it as an outgrowth of pan-Asianism and imperialism as an ideological mission containing fascist and neo-Confucian elements all at once; and (4) those who hold that the sphere was an abortive vision of the future.

Building on research examined in The Japanese Wartime Empire, 1931–1945, Yellen takes a more in-depth approach to examine the interactive nature of the sphere in Southeast Asia. By 1942, Japanese rule over 350 million people stretched almost from the Aleutian Islands to India.3 Japanese hegemony was, of course, more illusory than actual but we cannot ignore its impact. In this vein, Yellen embarks on the prior journey that Louise Young analyzed in her description of Manchuria as a key element for Japan's launch of total empire.4 However, historians in mainland China have depicted Manchukuo as a "fake" empire, not worthy of analysis. Yamamuro Shin'ichi cautions us in his autopsy of the region that we need to take care when assessing Japan's imperial periphery because to merely label it as a puppet erases our chances of understanding its complicated legacy.5

In Yellen's analysis, the sphere was a hybrid construction of both fantastical conjecture and practical realpolitik to preserve a space for imperial Japan in an expanding world war. Japanese ideologues saw the sphere as colonial and anticolonial at the same time (p. 20). Japan was...