East Asia Between the Two Imperial Doctrines: The Ideologies and Realities of Western Empires and Imperial Japan in the Pacific War

USS Yorktown shortly after being hit by Japanese bombs on June 4, 1942 during the Battle of Midway I Photos: U.S. Navy


This article debunks the simplistic assumptions of the Pacific War being a battle between good and evil by examining the hypocritical ideologies and practices of the Western empires and Japanese Empire respectively. On the one hand, while Western empires may have stated liberal ideals in their war aims, in practice their Asian colonies were run through racial discrimination and exploitation. On the other hand, while the Japanese Empire proclaimed to their conquered territories that they were liberators, they were even more brutal in exploitation. However, the Western empires’ liberalism allowed for reform, which allowed them a moral upper hand in the conflict.
Primary keywords: colonialism; Japanese colonies; WWII experiences; Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere; Atlantic Charter


The Pacific War is traditionally understood as a battle of good versus evil in which Western democracies, defending their principles of freedom and equality, vanquished a racist and overtly imperialist Japanese empire motivated by land-grabbing and greed. In recent years, revisionists like Gerald Horne have argued the reverse: that the Japanese fought a war of anti-colonial liberation, communicating an egalitarian message against racial discrimination that galvanized popular support from colonized natives who resented the Western powers’ severe racism and ideological hypocrisy. Both of these Manichaean views are simplistic; the truth lies somewhere in between. While the West may have espoused lofty ideals, it has often failed to execute them in practice. Yet the west’s principles left ample room for practical improvement, however insincere and instrumental the reasons for change were. Japan was not merely a cynical and Japanese-supremacist dictatorship. Although Japan effectively stirred nationalist and anti-colonialist sentiments in its occupied territories and often sincerely believed in its message, this did little to mitigate Japan’s brutality and imperialist territorial ambitions.

Part 1: Western benevolence?

Western powers are typically characterized by their commitment to spreading and defending liberalism, freedom, and equality around the world. This is most clearly demonstrated in the Atlantic Charter of 1941, wherein western states declared paramount the principles of self-determination, free trade and movements of people, and, implicitly, human equality. This official pledge to liberal ideals contrasted with the situation on the ground.

Although the Atlantic Charter called for a peace in which “all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want”[i], the Allies practiced oppressive racial and class divisions within their own territories, while greatly restricting individual freedoms and opportunities available for advancement. The British practiced segregation in all areas of life, from residential quarters to governmental opportunities to sexual intercourse. In Hong Kong, this segregation created a permanent underclass of impoverished Chinese and Eurasians who did not possess any means to climb the social ladder. For Eurasians who were socially exiled from both communities[ii], this was a clear violation of the “freedom from want” principle. Indeed, the concept of “freedom from fear” was ignored in Hong Kong to the extent that Chinese coolies and rickshaws were routinely assaulted for arbitrary reasons, and could be murdered without legal repercussions.[iii] This devaluation of non-white lives reached its apex when the British Army prioritized evacuating white individuals when the Japanese overtook Malaya and Singapore, while leaving non-white coolies to their fates.[iv]

Not even all white Europeans were spared from elite discrimination. British Hong Kong’s opulent lifestyle was largely reserved for English elites, while Jews, Irish, Russians, Portuguese, and Scots were resented and disadvantaged both at home and in Hong Kong.[v] During WWII, in Canada, “people with German or Italian names” were “more or less harassed and persecuted unjustly and unwisely” by their neighbours.[vi] Colonial elites flagrantly disregarded their own commitment to protecting every individual from fear and want, while systematically discriminating against certain groups.

While the Western powers have officially supported national self-determination since 1919, their colonial policies stand in stark opposition to the Atlantic Charter’s pledge to “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.”[vii] As Hobsbawm wrote, the “search for markets” by industrializing powers led them “to carve out for themselves territories which, by virtue of ownership, would give national business a monopoly position or at least a substantial advantage”.[viii] In order to sustain its widespread colonial rule with a minimal number of administrators and soldiers, the British resorted to illiberal practices. For instance, in prewar Hong Kong, the Chinese population was systematically oppressed by a “police state” run by a potentate Governor[ix]. This administration practiced censorship as well as suppression of labour unions, academic freedom, political activists, and a de facto apartheid system that limited Chinese participation in bureaucracy.[x] Colonized subjects were so thoroughly stripped of their rights to self-determination that they were barred from even minimal participation in their own affairs.

Non-whites were also deprived of the Charter pledge to protect “the enjoyment…of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world.”[xi] The United States routinely discriminated against non-white immigrants, as demonstrated by the 1790 naturalization law permitting only white immigrants individuals to become full citizens. In addition, the 1924 Immigration Act barred non-naturalized (i.e. non-white and non-black) citizens from owning land.[xii] The fate of resources like land and jungle were out of the natives’ hands. For instance, the 1941 newsreel “Alert in the East” praised the technical achievements of building great naval bases in Singapore and Hong Kong (both of which have limited usable land) and developing Malayan jungles for “rice fields, rubber plantations, or for the extension of fortifications”, while acknowledging colonial subjects’ help in building them. However, ultimately, these developments were conceived by, implemented by, and used to benefit the British colonial government.[xiii]

Although the Allies were often hypocritical about applying their principles in practice, they were nevertheless willing to entertain reform that better conformed to principles where necessary. Concerned that the poor treatment of enemy aliens might radicalize them during WWII, the Canadian federal government established the Nationalities Branch to help integrate immigrants into the Canadian nation. This laid the bureaucratic cornerstone of Canada’s multicultural policy in the 1960s.[xiv] Although America practiced domestic segregation, the Roosevelt administration disliked British colonization for humanitarian reasons. The British alienation of subject peoples was frowned upon by the American administration, which then made efforts to “[disentangle] itself from its erstwhile ally, Britain.”[xv] Although sincerity was lacking, their reasoning was still grounded in Western liberal thought, and small steps forward in converging ideals and deeds helped lay the foundation for future reforms.

Part 2: Japanese Ideology?

In addition to the Allies’ whitewashing of themselves as liberal heroes of the Pacific War, the Japanese Empire had also long been unfairly characterized as a one-dimensional military aggression machine. Although Japan was allied with the overtly genocidal Nazi Germany, it was motivated in part by anti-Western sentiments that accumulated through decades of discrimination. Japan perceived itself as being much more adept at exploiting colonial grievances while running its occupied territories. However, much like the Allies, no matter how sincerely these beliefs were held by its population and leaders, Japan’s actions fell far short of its lofty rhetoric, as it engaged in rampant war crimes and totalitarian oppression.

There are indeed indications that Japan was sincere about its desire to end racial discrimination. Despite being a de facto great power, Japan resented Japanese nationals were routinely discriminated against in Western countries. This resentment came to a head with the rejection of Japan’s anti-racial discrimination clause in the Paris Peace Conference by the Western powers. The western states were concerned that this clause may destabilize the racist colonial structure supporting their imperial rule.[xvi] In a speech to pan-Asian nationalists, Hideki Tojo not only demonized Britain and America to rally for his audience’s support, he also reached out to them by showing that the West’s policy was “to restrain Japan at every turn and…to alienate her from the other countries of East Asia” in a divide-and-conquer strategy.[xvii]

The Japanese did make a fairly successful attempt to match their policies with rhetoric, at least in the early stages of the greater Pacific War. In the years leading up to 1941, Japan sent in right-wing rabble-rousers recruited from true-believing students to Indonesia, where they would train and coordinate with Indonesian nationalists.[xviii] The Japanese produced manuals for occupation forces describing cultural norms and faux pas[xix], which helped Japanese soldiers act in a culturally sensitive manner towards the natives when they took over.[xx] Europe’s colonial racism was so great that the Japanese could win hearts and minds merely by being friendly and more intimate with the natives, all the while tearing down the Europeans through humiliation and brutality.[xxi]

In other areas, the Japanese also faked solidarity with peoples they had not yet conquered for strategic reasons. Indians were a prime target for Japan, boasting a racially oppressed population and a large diaspora.[xxii] To engage support from India, Japan helped train the Indian National Army as a liberation force,[xxiii] facilitated Indian independence rallies in Singapore, and hosted the Indian Independence League in Bangkok.[xxiv] Even without the Japanese occupying Indian territory, India was so strategically important such that Tojo specifically greeted Subhas Chandra Bose and mentioned India’s situation in his speech about Greater East Asia[xxv]. This helped promote the Japanese cause in India, while illustrating the ambitious expansionism Japan engaged in throughout Asia.

This anti-Western narrative ensured that the war was popular on the home front as well. As a mechanist recounted, Japan “had a kind of inferiority complex toward the Westerners”. This sentiment helped motivate the Japanese people, because “[they] didn’t want to lose to the whites.”[xxvi] Before the war, large numbers of enthusiastic students flocked to attend speeches by far-right demagogues, who promoted a view of Japan both as victim and as Asia’s would-be liberator.[xxvii] Even members of the military, who were interested in more materialistic issues such as obtaining oil, seemed convinced that they could secure Indonesia in part by convincing Indonesians that Japan would benefit them through the Co-Prosperity Sphere.[xxviii]

Nevertheless, one cannot deny that the Japanese Empire did not practice imperial racial superiority. Driven by rising racial and geopolitical tensions, some of Japan’s leadership during the early twentieth century characterized their escalating conflict against Western powers as an apocalyptic, inevitable “worldwide race war”. One official even described “world history [as] the history of rivalry and contention between the yellow and the white races.”[xxix] As the only Asian great power, Japan developed a paternalistic attitude toward the region. Joseph Stilwell noted that Japan aimed “for a 100 year program of expansion…. [with] culmination in a protectorate over all the yellow races” as early as 1902.[xxx]

The Japanese violated their ideals far faster and in a more hypocritical fashion than the West did. Although it promised to liberate Asia “from the yoke of British-American domination, and [ensure] their self-existence and self-defence,”[xxxi] Japan largely replicated the old system. In Indonesia, the Japanese merely replaced ethnic Dutch administrators with their own.[xxxii] Tojo’s pledge to “[respect] one another’s sovereignty and independence” was very quickly ignored, as Indonesia was placed under military administration. The Japanese suppressed nationalist groups despite fostering them before the takeover, and only “promised Indonesia independence ‘in the near future’” in late 1944.[xxxiii] Japanese propaganda was also similar to that of European colonizers. For instance, Japan’s 1942 newsreel reflected how the Japanese had benefited Southeast Asia by empowering locals under military supervision, which implied that the natives required a colonial intervention to successfully build their nations.[xxxiv]

Despite many collaborators and nationalists having a favorable view of Japan, the Japanese were extraordinarily brutal toward the Chinese population. Japanese colonists in Manchukuo were distrustful of natives. The Japanese officials racially segregated the Japanese from the locals, and the army even trained their “dogs to bite only Manchurians.”[xxxv] The Japanese army dehumanized Chinese soldiers, making them “raw materials” for recruits to execute as part of the training process.[xxxvi] Hundreds of thousands of prisoners of wars and civilians were massacred in Nanjing in 1937, while at least 20,000 women (according to the Tokyo War Trial) of all ages were raped.[xxxvii] Of course, none of these atrocities committed by the Japanese military or colonists even remotely resemble the ideals of equality and respect enshrined in their Greater East Asia declaration.


In many debates, the truth is often fragmented across all sides of the argument. Both the traditionalist and revisionist accounts claim particular elements of truth behind the Pacific War. The Western Allies were hypocritical about their ideals, but this was salvageable. On the other hand, the Japanese managed to partially bring to life its ideology of anti-racism and Asian solidarity, but was nonetheless a brutal military dictatorship. In many ways, this leaves us with a view that the Pacific War was not merely a morality play between good and evil, but a complicated clash of ideas and moral actions. Assuming this perspective is a much more dynamic way to study that battle theatre.


“Alert in the East.” BFI. Accessed February 2, 2015. http://explore.bfi.org.uk/4ce2b6e9ef1d8.

Choy, Christine, and Nancy Tong. In the Name of the Emperor. Documentary, N/A.

Cook, Haruko Taya, and Theodore F. Cook. Japan at War: An Oral History. Reprint edition. New York: New Press, The, 1993.

Dreisziger, N. F. “The Rise of a Bureaucracy for Multiculturalism: The Origins of the Nationalities Branch, 1939-1941.” In On Guard for Thee: War, Ethnicity, and the Canadian State, 1939-1945, edited by Norman Hillmer, Bohdan Kordan, and Lubomyr Luciuk. Ottawa: Canadian Committee for the History of the Second World War, Directorate of History, Department of National Defence, 1988.

Fujitani, Takashi. “Japan, the US, and the British Commonwealth at War.” Toronto, January 29, 2015.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. The Age of Empire, 1875-1914. Pantheon Books, 1987.

Horne, Gerald. Race War!: White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

Lebra, Joyce C. “Tojo Greets the Greater East Asia Conference.” In Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in World War II, 88–93. London: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Nippon News, No. 118. Newsreel. Nippon News, 1942.

Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, and Winston Churchill. “The Atlantic Charter,” August 14, 194.

The content of this article does not represent the positions, research methods, or opinions of the Synergy Editorial Committee. We are solely responsible for reviewing and editing submissions. Please address all scholarly concerns directly to the contributor(s) of the article.

Benson Cheung is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto, and majored in history and political science.


[i] Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, “The Atlantic Charter,” August 14, 1941.

[ii] Gerald Horne, Race War!: White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 17–31.

[iii] Ibid., 21–22.

[iv] Ibid., 187–193.

[v] Ibid., 24–25.

[vi] N. F. Dreisziger, “The Rise of a Bureaucracy for Multiculturalism: The Origins of the Nationalities Branch, 1939-1941,” in On Guard for Thee: War, Ethnicity, and the Canadian State, 1939-1945, ed. Norman Hillmer, Bohdan Kordan, and Lubomyr Luciuk (Ottawa: Canadian Committee for the History of the Second World War, Directorate of History, Department of National Defence, 1988), 13.

[vii] Roosevelt and Churchill, “The Atlantic Charter.”

[viii] Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, 1875-1914 (Pantheon Books, 1987), 66–67.

[ix] Horne, Race War!, 18.

[x] Ibid., 23–24.

[xi] Roosevelt and Churchill, “The Atlantic Charter.”

[xii] Takashi Fujitani, “Japan, the US, and the British Commonwealth at War” (Toronto, January 29, 2015).

[xiii] “Alert in the East,” BFI, accessed February 2, 2015, http://explore.bfi.org.uk/4ce2b6e9ef1d8.

[xiv] Dreisziger, “The Rise of a Bureaucracy for Multiculturalism: The Origins of the Nationalities Branch, 1939-1941.”

[xv] Horne, Race War!, 215–218.

[xvi] Ibid., 35–37.

[xvii] Joyce C. Lebra, “Tojo Greets the Greater East Asia Conference,” in Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in World War II (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), 90.

[xviii] Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook, Japan at War: An Oral History, Reprint edition (New York: New Press, The, 1993), 53.

[xix] Ibid., 96.

[xx] Horne, Race War!, 197.

[xxi] Ibid., 194–198.

[xxii] Ibid., 206–7.

[xxiii] Ibid., 208–211.

[xxiv] Nippon News, No. 118, Newsreel (Nippon News, 1942).

[xxv] Lebra, “Tojo Greets the Greater East Asia Conference,” 89, 92.

[xxvi] Cook and Cook, Japan at War, 50.

[xxvii] Ibid., 50–52.

[xxviii] Ibid., 80.

[xxix] Horne, Race War!, 33–34.

[xxx] Horne, Race War!, 37.

[xxxi] Lebra, “Tojo Greets the Greater East Asia Conference,” 93.

[xxxii] Cook and Cook, Japan at War, 107.

[xxxiii] Cook and Cook, Japan at War, 105–110.

[xxxiv] Nippon News, No. 118.

[xxxv] Ibid., 59.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 41–42.

[xxxvii] Christine Choy and Nancy Tong, In the Name of the Emperor, Documentary.

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