Academic Papers

“Asia is one”: Understanding the rise and fall of Pan-Asianism

Devika Nambiar


As Asian societies succumbed to Western dominance during the early twentieth century, a group of Japanese thinkers and nationalists were prompted to reinstall Asian control and values in the region through a socio-political ideology known as Pan-Asianism. Pan-Asianism emerged as a promising macro-nationalist ideology calling for Asian solidarity to confront and end Western imperialism. Throughout its fifty-year run, the ideology went from being a cause for Asian unity and harmony to being a political tool for legitimising Japan’s territorial expansion and military aggression in East Asia. This essay will explore and examine the development and execution of Japanese Pan-Asian ideology. Through a review of its historical context and an analysis of its structural limitations, the essay will offer a broader understanding of the rise and fall of this influential yet relatively overlooked ideology in Asian history.


The beginning of the twentieth century saw national and anti-imperial movements emerging across Asia[1]. Amid this transformational climate, Japanese art historian Okakura Tenshin famously penned, “Asia is one.” The following decades saw the rise of a macro-nationalist ideology known as Pan-Asianism. Almost an extension of Okakura’s words, the ideology highlighted the shared history and cultural similarities of Asian peoples and called for Asian solidarity to resist and end Western imperialism. Throughout its fifty-year run, Pan-Asianism went from being a cause for cultural exchange and unity to a political ideology cushioning Japan’s military aggression in East Asia. This essay will examine the development of this powerful yet short-lived ideology and attempt to understand the reasons for its failure. It will begin with an overview of European imperialism in Asia to explain the political conditions that fostered Pan-Asianism. This will be followed by a detailed account of Pan-Asian thought and its development in the cultural and political realms. The essay’s final section will summarise the negative reception of Pan-Asianism and outline the structural limitations of the ideology that prevented its triumph. Overall, the essay will demonstrate that while Pan-Asianism came to a decisive end because of its synonymity with Japanese imperialism, the innate structural flaws of the ideology also contributed to its fall.

European Expansion in Asia

Asia’s experience of European expansion began in the guise of trade relations. In 1498, Portuguese explorers discovered an all-sea route linking Europe to Asia when they sailed along the Cape of Good Hope to arrive at the southwest coast of India. From there on, the explorers encountered the long-standing and intricate network of Indian Ocean trade, through which they gained access to the ports of Southeast and East Asia (Prakash, 1997). While the Portuguese could maintain a monopoly initially, the majority of Euro-Asian commerce and trading routes were taken over by Dutch, English and other European trading companies over the seventeenth century.

The European maritime contact with Asia saw a dramatic shift in the trade relations between both continents. However, the political and power relations between both transformed only after Europe’s Industrial Revolution. The development of the telegraph, along with the technological advancements in producing firearms, steamships, and steam engines, granted Europe a technical and military advantage over Asia. This led to Europe’s merciless expansion into Asia and colonising the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. As explained by Wesseling (2015), “(t) the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century provided the basis for a new power structure in Asia… the European governments themselves became interested in exercising colonial authority. The days of mercantilism and monopolies were over” (unpaginated).

Most of Asia succumbed to European expansionism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries at varied intensities. After the Rebellion of 1857, the Indian subcontinent came under the direct rule of the British Empire. A similar fate was inescapable for most of Southeast Asia, where the Indonesian archipelago fell under Dutch rule, Burma was consolidated into British India, and the current states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were colonised by France, creating the French Indochina Union.

The threat of European conquests and socio-economic disruption encouraged China and Japan to close their mainland to European trade as early as the sixteenth century (McNeill, 2009, p. 566). The minimal and regulated trade directly between Europe and East Asia occurred through isolated enclaves outside of China and Japan – namely, Macau in China and the Nagasaki harbour in Japan (Porter, 1993; Totman, 2007). However, this relative isolation from European trade could not outlive Europe’s expansionist missions in the post-Industrial Revolution era. After the Anglo-Chinese conflicts between 1839 and 1860, known as the Opium Wars, China was forced “to engage in commercial and diplomatic intercourse according to western rules” (Bard, 2000, p. 1). Similarly, Japan was provoked to “open” its borders due to the looming threat of an attack after the first Opium War (Jansen, 1991, p. 191). When American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan in 1853, he presented the choice of “a treaty of ‘peace and amity’ – or naval bombardment of the Tokugawa capital city of Edo”(Totman, 2007, p. 39). This was followed by Japan’s official entry into commercial and diplomatic exchanges with the West on Western terms, leading to the Meiji Restoration and vigorous modernisation of the nation.

The Essence and Evolution of Pan-Asianism: Reclaiming Asia

The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the aggressive and unchallenged rise of the West[2] in Asia. As summarized by Mitter, “India was colonised, China’s resistance crushed and, finally, Japan’s isolation shattered”(2020, p. 149). Although Asian societies escaped total colonisation and a fate similar to that of the Americas, by the turn of the century, almost the continent operated according to the terms and needs of the West. Moreover, Europe’s self-bestowed “civilizing mission” ensured that modern Western values and systems replaced traditional Asian ones (Osterhammel, 2006, p. 8).

This unyielding dominance of so-called Western civilisation led to the emergence of a regional ideology known as ‘Pan-Asianism.’ Developed in late-nineteenth-century Japan, Pan-Asianism was a macro-nationalist ideology that rallied for Asian solidarity in the face of Western imperialism. The ideology highlighted the inherent spiritual quality of Asian cultures and the shared histories of the continent’s inhabitants to inspire the creation of an ‘Asian’ identity (Saaler & Szpilman, 2011). One of the foremost thinkers of Pan-Asian thought Japanese art historian Okakura Tenshin writes in his influential book The Ideals of the East

“Asia is one. The Himalayas divide, only to accentuate, two mighty civilisations, the Chinese with its communism of Confucius, and the Indian with its individualism of the Vedas. But not even the snowy barriers can interrupt for one moment that broad expanse of love for the Ultimate and Universal, which is the common thought-inheritance of every Asiatic race, enabling them to produce all the great religions of the world, and distinguishing them from those maritime peoples of the Mediterranean and the Baltic, who love to dwell on the Particular, and to search out the means, not the end, of life.” (1903, p.1)

Pan-Asianism relied on the assumed similarity of communities within Asia. However, it is essential to note that “Asia” came into use in the region only as late as the nineteenth century. Saaler and Szpilman explain that the term “Asia” was introduced to East Asian mapmakers by Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century (2011, p. 1). However, “it was only with the resumption of European colonialist expansion in the nineteenth century that “Asia” ceased to be a technical term used by East Asian cartographers and … came to represent a specific geopolitical space bound together by such commonalities as a shared history, close cultural links, a long record of diplomatic relations, trade exchanges, and the notion of a “common destiny” (ibid., pp. 1-2). This notion of “Asia” presented Japanese Pan-Asian thinkers with the possibility of an alternate civilisation to that of Europe (Duara, 2001, p. 109). And, despite its novelty, this “Asian” civilisation, if strengthened and unified, would be the solution to the “Western threat” (Saaler & Szpilman, 2011, p. 1).

Initially, Pan-Asian ideology did not arrive as a concrete policy or agenda. Rather, vague Pan-Asian sentiments were dispersed through versatile mediums such as “in the writings of intellectuals, political statements, popular slogans, and even in songs and poems” (Saaler & Szpilman, 2011, p. 2). Only in 1903, when Okakura Tenshin published his book mentioned earlier, the idea of Pan-Asianism formally entered the global political discourse. Okakura endorsed the idea of a Pan-Asiatic alliance to challenge Western imperialism. He called for the revival of the “immanent” spiritual and cultural qualities of Asia established in the Vedas, Confucianism, and Buddhism. As noted by Duara, “(Okakura) was aware of differences between Asian “civilizations,” but he believed that they all differed from Western Civilization in principle – in their promotion of peace and beauty” He encouraged Asian societies to connect over this similarity and to “produce an alternative to the aggressive and dominating Civilization of the West.” (2001, p. 110).

Okakura’s contribution to Pan-Asianism also materialised through this involvement in artistic revivalism in both India and Japan. By the early twentieth century, European imperialism dominated the realm of arts and culture in Asia, where traditional Asian artistic practices were replaced by European-style academic painting and aesthetics. This impelled a group of Pan-Asian artists and intellectuals – led by Okakura and Indian painter Abanindranath Tagore – to embark on a mission to protect and continue the native artistic traditions of Asia. As Mitter explains, “the Pan-Asian movement aimed to create an alternative mode of artistic expression that would pose a challenge to the western colonial aesthetics” (2020, p. 151).

The artistic creations of the Pan-Asian movement aimed to restore centuries-old practices and fostered a unique merging of Indian and Japanese art. While Okakura was inspired by the 5th-century Buddhist art of India’s Ajanta caves, Tagore employed Japanese wash painting techniques to depict scenes of Indian mythology. This fascinating cultural exchange not only led to the creation of an Indo-Japanese artistic tradition named ‘oriental art,’ but it also nurtured two uniquely revivalist art movements: Nihon-ga in Japan and the Bengal School in India (Mitter, 2020, p. 153).

Although the scope of cultural amalgamation through Pan-Asianism was powerful and endless, it would not be the sole or primary application of the ideology. Duara notes that Japanese Pan-Asianism contained two narratives: “the solidarity-oriented, non-dominating conception of Japan’s role in reviving Asia” and “the conception of Japan as … the harmonizing or synthesizing leader” (2001, p. 110).The latter gained prominence after Japan’s expansionist missions in the early twentieth century. After the Sino-Japanese war over Korea in 1895, Japan established itself as the regional leader. However, its victory over Russian forces during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 presented Japan as the Asian leader capable of combatting Western imperialism. As articulated by Stolte and Fischer-Tiné, “the triumph of the Japanese over a European opponent crushed not only the widely held belief of the natural superiority of the white “race”; it also demonstrated to Asia the formidable achievements in the modernization by Meiji Japan” (2012, pp. 69-70).

The victory gave rise to the notion that only Japan could “rescuing Asia and harmonizing East and West civilizations” (Duara, 2001, p. 110). As explained by Duara, the idea was that

“(b) because it “belonged” to Asia, the Japanese nation could bring modernity to the timeless sacrality of Asia, and because it had mastered Western Civilization, it could bring material modernity to Asia” (ibid.). Hereafter, Japan assumed the title of Asia’s guardian who would liberate the remainder of Asia – particularly East and Southeast Asia – from the rule of the West and “bring them into the modern era without destroying their traditions” (2001, p.110).

Keeping with this narrative, the following decades saw Japan’s relentless expansion into East Asia, paving the way for Japanese imperialism. By 1942, the Japanese empire established control over most of the region – ranging from Manchuria and the Korean peninsula to Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Although Pan-Asian thought it was not directly credited with instigating Japan’s imperialist missions, the ideology validated the colonial practices and exploits of the period. As Saaler and Szpilman elaborate, “(a)s early as 1910, pan-Asian rhetoric was used by the Japanese government to legitimize the annexation of Korea. The Annexation Treaty referred to commonalities between Japanese and Koreans, such as racial origins, a common history and culture, and a shared destiny … The same pan-Asian rhetoric was continuously reaffirmed and applied to other colonial territories” (2011, p. 7).

Japan’s transition into an Asian colonial power soon led to the waning of Pan-Asian sentiments and solidarity in the rest of Asia, particularly in India, Korea, and China (Stolte & Fischer-Tiné, 2012, p. 71; Saaler & Szpilman, 2011, p. 16). However, at home in Japan, Pan-Asianism gathered even more attention among officials and leaders over the Pacific War – i.e., the final years of Japanese colonialism. As Japan’s military losses worsened by the day, the idea of Asian solidarity and brotherhood was amplified to foster support from East Asian societies (Saaler & Szpilman, 2011, p. 20). To quote one of Japan’s leading philosophers, Nishida Kitarō: “The Great East Asian War is sacred because it is the culmination of the historical progress of Asia … The task of the liberated peoples is now to win the war and establish the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere … Japan’s victory will save Asia and will offer new hope for mankind.” (Saaler & Szpilman, 2011, p. 21)

After almost half a century of relevance and promise, Japanese Pan-Asian thought abruptly declined, if not disappeared, after the end of the Pacific War in 1945. Japan’s surrender and humiliating defeat to Western forces, as well as the creation of a bipolar world order during the Cold War era, ensured there was no scope for a Pan-Asian direction.

The Fall of Pan-Asianism: What Went Wrong?

During its almost fifty-year run, Pan-Asianism remained relevant and important to Japanese society in subtle and robust ways. From offering the romantic idea of an ‘Asian’ civilisation to encouraging cultural exchanges with India to legitimising Japan’s colonial ambitions, the narrative of ‘Asian unity’ worked alongside the operations of the Japanese empire. However, the ideology did not flourish as much in other parts of Asia from its very beginning.

To elaborate, Korea had developed suspicions of Pan-Asianism and a Japanese annexation since the nineteenth century. After it became a Japanese colony in the early twentieth century, Korean leaders “advocated resistance and “self-strengthening” instead of the unified approach endorsed by Pan-Asianism (Saaler & Szpilman, 2011, p. 16). Similarly, China rejected Pan-Asianism early on in the twentieth century. Understandably, its defeat during the Sino-Japanese did not create the ideal sentiments for agreeing to a Japan-led model of Asia. The resistance from Southeast Asia came much later than Korea and China. Saaler and Szpilman explain, “unlike in Korea and China, the Japanese were not perceived as a threat to a region dominated by Western powers” (2011, p. 18). Thus, it was only after Japan’s occupation and exploitation of the region during the late 1930s and early 40s that the Southeast Asian population “called into question the sincerity of pan-Asian rhetoric” (2011, p. 18).

As mentioned earlier, India essentially accepted the idea of Asian unity. However, it is important to note that the influence of the specific Japanese Pan-Asianism in India, although positive and beneficial to both cultures, was minimal compared to the other ideologies and movements that circulated in India. Its influence was almost entirely limited to the cultural realm. Also, much like the rest of Asia, “Japan’s ascent to intra-Asian colonial power soon dampened pan-Asianist aspirations in India” (Stolte and Fischer-Tiné, 2012, p. 71).

These largely negative responses towards Pan-Asianism demonstrate that, although it was forced to end in 1945, Japan’s idea of Asian unity was deficient and problematic from its very launch. In other words, Korea and China’s rejection, Southeast Asia’s suspicion, and India’s insubstantial adoption of Pan-Asianism show that the idea survived its course solely because of East Asia’s reluctant adherence to Japan’s aggressive efforts. This inspires an analysis of the strength of Pan-Asian ideology on the structural front – i.e., its foundations and beliefs. The following section will outline and explain three main structural faults or limitations of Pan-Asianism that contributed to its ultimate decline.

The first limitation of Pan-Asianism is the ambiguity of its definition. Pan-Asianism did not emerge with a fully-fledged ideological framework. Rather, it arrived as a vague sentiment calling for Asian solidarity in the face of Western imperialism. The lack of definite structure and virtues during its early stage made sure that the ideology was at risk of being misused or appropriated in the future. Predictably, the majority of Pan-Asianism’s short life saw exactly that. Pan-Asianism was used to justify the violence, exploitation, and ruins of Japan’s ruthless expansion in East Asia and operations during the Pacific War. Saaler and Szpilman explain that although there was no official conversion of Pan-Asianism into foreign policy during Japanese colonialism, “it is undeniable that the Japanese government frequently utilized pan-Asian rhetoric in the 1930s and 1940s to bolster claims to Japanese leadership in East Asia and legitimize its colonial rule over parts of Asia” (2011, p. 7). For instance, although Okakura was not supportive of Japan’s imperialism, his Pan-Asian writings – especially the quote “Asia is one” – were notoriously repurposed by the Japanese military as political propaganda during the 1930s and 40s (Duara, 2001, p. 110; Shigemi & Singleton, 2012, pp. 39-40).

The second limitation of Pan-Asianism is its reliance on an Orientalist worldview. Asia has been the seat to great many diverse yet thoroughly connected human societies and empires for centuries. Yet, as mentioned earlier, the notion of ‘Asia’ as a unit came about in the region only when faced with Western imperialism in the nineteenth century. Hence, constructing a Pan-Asian identity involved defining ‘Asia’ concerning the West (Aydın, 2006, p. 212). This led to the ideology’s reliance on Orientalism to differentiate Asia and the West – with Asia serving as the spiritual counterpart of the material West. As Mitter explains, “the myth of ‘One Asia,’ propounded by Pan-Asianism, was based in part on western stereotypes of the Orient … The Pan-Asian doctrine rested on the binary relationship between masculine/materialist Europe and feminine/spiritual Asia” (2020, p. 150). This phenomenon, dubbed as “self-orientalization” by Stolte and Fischer-Tiné (2012, p. 69), does not do justice to the actual potential for unity within Asia. It reduces Asia’s identity, history, and worth to merely an antithesis to ‘The West.’

The third limitation of Pan-Asianism is its imitation of Europe’s ‘civilising mission.’ The driving force behind Pan-Asianism was the need to liberate Asia from the clutches of Western powers. However, that did not imply that Pan-Asianists were against European-style modernism or progress. In fact, having originated in the thoroughly modernised Meiji Japan, most Pan-Asian thinkers endorsed the European-style development of Asia – but without the pain of Western imperialism. As put by Aydın, “they believed in the necessity of westernizing reforms, almost in terms of a self-civilizing discourse, to uplift Asia… from their backward condition” (2006, p. 205). Thus, Pan-Asianism called for a transfer of “civilising” duties from the West to the Asian leader, Japan. Saaler and Szpilman elaborate, “as early as the late 1910s, several writers, such as Kanokogi Kazunobu, Kita Ikki, and Ōkawa Shūmei, spoke of a divine Japanese “mission” to liberate Asia. This high-sounding objective was often difficult to distinguish from the substitution of one form of colonial oppression (by Europeans) for another (by fellow Asian Japanese)” (2011, p. 8). Moreover, the destructive and forceful colonial practices and agenda of Imperial Japan were not far off from those of the West. Aydın makes the interesting observation that “(w)hile claiming to overturn modernity and to end European colonialism in Asia, the Japanese Empire in fact embodied a most radical experiment in modernization” (2006, p. 221).


Pan-Asianism arrived when Asian societies were left powerless and fragmented by European imperialism. While a united effort to liberate Asia from European domination could have been ideal in these circumstances, the reality of Pan-Asian operations was far from it. This essay has attempted to provide a broader understanding of Pan-Asianism and its failure by summarising its historical context, explaining its rationale and application in the real world, and, finally, analysing its limitations on the structural front. It has demonstrated that the apparent downfall of Pan-Asianism, which ultimately led to its decline, was its use as a legitimising tool for Japanese imperialism and military operations. However, the essay has also shown that the mounting negative or insubstantial responses against Pan-Asian thought from the outset show that the ideology contained several structural faults – specifically, the ambiguity of its definition, its reliance on an Orientalist worldview, and its imitation of Europe’s ‘civilising mission.’ The essay has proved that even though Pan-Asianism ultimately ended due to Japan’s defeat during the Pacific Wars, its ideology was built on faulty foundations that would have prevented its success or continuity either way.


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[1] Abiding by the limits and focus of this essay, Asia will comprise East, South and Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, it is essential to note that Pan-Asianism was also relevant to Central and West Asia’s history and politics.

[2] Europe and the United States


Devika Nambiar received her undergraduate degree in Development Studies and International Relations from the University of Westminster in 2017. She is a communications consultant and writer specialising in the arts, culture, humanitarian, and education sectors.

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