Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), French Indochina July 25, 1941

On September 21, 1937, Japanese planes bombed the capi­tal of China, Nan­king, shortly after igniting the Second Sino-Japa­nese War. Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt expressed the shock of “every civil­ized man and woman” over “the ruth­less bombing” of Chinese civil­ians. Gen­er­ally, how­ever, U.S. and Euro­pean reac­tion to Japa­nese aggres­sion in China was mostly bark and no bite. Just under two years later, Adolf Hitler’s Luft­waffe bombed the capi­tal of Poland, War­saw, launching (as Euro­peans viewed it) the Second World War. But again, with the October 1939 onset of the so-called Phony War (Sitz­krieg, or “sitting war” in German), there was a lot of barking but little action. Not until April 1940, when Hitler turned his atten­tion to West­ern Europe and wolfed down Den­mark, Nor­way, the Nether­lands, Bel­gium, and France in less than three months, was the bark of the last dog standing—Great Britain—matched with bared teeth.

Back in Asia, the Japanese govern­ment and the German puppet regime of Vichy France signed a treaty in mid-Septem­ber 1940 per­mitting the sta­tioning of Japa­nese forces in parts of north­ern French Indo­china (in what is now Viet­nam). Four months later, at the end of Janu­ary 1941, Japan threw its weight behind a nego­ti­ated end to clashes between Vichy French forces and those of Thai­land along their con­tested border. The Japa­nese-im­posed armis­tice not only con­firmed Japan’s mili­tary occu­pa­tion of French Indo­china (modern-day Viet­nam, Cam­bodia, and Laos), but it opened the Vichy colony to min­er­al and agri­cul­tural exploit­a­tion by Tokyo’s expan­sionists in what Japan was calling the Greater East Asia Co-Pros­perity Sphere under its leader­ship. Eco­no­mic col­lab­o­ration was formalized by a treaty in early May.

On this date, July 25, 1941, Japan cemented its rela­tion­ship with Vichy France by moving air and naval forces into South­ern Indo­china and declaring the whole French colony a Japa­nese protec­to­rate. Vichy was permitted to admin­ister the colony, but in the interests of their Japa­nese masters. Japan’s diplo­matic and mili­tary moves set off a three-day whirl­wind of activity by West­ern govern­ments, which in pro­test froze Japa­nese assets in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Aus­tralia, New Zea­land, and the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indo­nesia). The U.S. and the London-based Dutch govern­ment-in-exile, both of which con­trolled vast oil reserves, upped the pain by halting ship­ments of oil and motor fuel to Japan, turning off 80 per­cent of Japan’s oil imports. Without new oil supplies Japan’s oil reserves would last only two years. The next moves by the country’s military were predictable.

Japan’s “Place in the Sun”: The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, 1940–1945

Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, 1942

Above: Maximum extent of the Greater East Asia Co-Pros­perity Sphere, 1942. Based on a geo­graphically smaller ver­sion called the New Order in East Asia (late 1938), the Greater East Asia Co-Pros­perity Sphere was invoked into being in late June 1940. Japa­nese idea­lists, nation­al­ists, econo­mic expan­sionists, and the mili­tary were all drawn by varying degrees to the “Asia for Asians” con­cept. Princi­pal actor in the cast of players was the Japa­nese mili­tary, whose role was to secure by con­quest the raw mate­rials that were unavail­able on the four home islands of Hokkaido, Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshū and, after the success­ful con­clu­sion of the Second Sino-Japa­nese War (begun in 1937), com­plete the building of a self-sufficient Japa­nese empire. Although Japan suc­ceeded in stimu­lating anti-West­ern senti­ment in East Asia as “elder brother,” the Co-Pros­perity Sphere never materi­alized into a unified block economically or militarily.

1942 Japanese 10-sen stamp Greater East Asia Conference participants, Tokyo, November 1943

Left: Japanese 10-sen (1/10th of a yen) stamp from 1942 depicting the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Right: Six “independent” participants and one observer attended the Greater East Asia Con­fer­ence, a sort of Asian sum­mit held in Tokyo in early Novem­ber 1943. Standing in front of the Japan­ese Diet, or national par­lia­ment building, are (left to right) Ba Maw, head of Japa­nese-occupied Burma (State of Burma); Zhang Jinghui, Prime Minis­ter of Japan’s pup­pet state of Man­chu­kuo (Man­churia); Wang Jing­wei, head of the Japa­nese pup­pet govern­ment of China (Reor­ganized National Govern­ment of China); Hideki Tōjō, Prime Minis­ter of Japan; Prince Wan Waitha­yakon, envoy from the King­dom of Thai­land; José P. Laurel, Presi­dent of the Japa­nese-spon­sored Second Philip­pine Republic; and Subhas Chan­dra Bose, Head of State of the Provi­sional Govern­ment of Free India (the “observer,” since India was still under British rule). In a joint decla­ra­tion, the parti­ci­pants praised Asian soli­da­rity and con­demned West­ern colo­nialism but could not pro­duce any prac­ti­cal plans for either eco­no­mic develop­ment or inte­gration. The Co-Pros­perity Sphere collapsed with Japan’s surrender to the Allies in August 1945.

Japanese Expansionism in China and South­east Asia During 1930s, Early 1940s

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