Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsSo it can be hard to understand in retrospect, but ardent Nationalist leaders like An Jung-geun in Korea or Liang Qichao in China were actually looking at Japan with intense admiration, and even trying to take Japan as a model for their own country and for their Nationalist movements. Remember that for decades if not centuries, Asians had been trying to hold off the pressures of European imperialism.
Skip to 0 minutes and 36 secondsAnd now the Chinese and Koreans were worried about a resurgent Russia, a great Eurasian power which was increasingly looking to the East, as well as the United States, a new player as a rising expansionist power in the Western Pacific which, after the Spanish American War of 1898, had started to establish military outposts and garrisons on islands reaching all the way into Asia. So this was the landscape for Asian Nationalists. And the role of Japan in all of this was quite a bit different where they stood looking forward than where we stand looking backward knowing the path that Japan would take going into the 1930s and 1940s. You have to in thinking about history, you have to use empathy.
Skip to 1 minute and 26 secondsEmpathy not in the sense of loving or caring about someone, but standing in their shoes, understanding what the world looks like from their perspective. That is a critical, essential tool of historical thinking. And once you start to use that empathetic technique, it helps you understand how Nationalists could be pro-Japanese or look to Japanese with hope, even into the 1920s. And in this video I want to talk about another one of these Nationalist leaders from China, Sun Yat-sen. So Sun Yat-sen is known to all Chinese today as the father of the country or the father of the nation, which is a little bit ironic because he spent so much of his upbringing outside of China.
Skip to 2 minutes and 10 secondsHe was born in South China in Guangdong province, but his education took place, especially in terms of his formative educational influences, took place in places like Honolulu and Hong Kong, which were essentially colonial outposts. And he was exposed to foreign languages like English. He was exposed to foreign religion through Christianity. And he was exposed to foreign philosophies, more liberal notions that were popular at that time among Western educators working in these colonial areas. So Sun Yat-sen brought out a whole new, you could say modern, or certainly Western set of ideas into the mixture back in China.
Skip to 2 minutes and 52 secondsNow another key feature of Sun Yat-sen's background, which helps us understand how a Nationalist in China could be pro-Japanese, is that he spent so long in Japan after he was exiled in the 1890s by the Qing for his efforts to overthrow the Qing. Basically Japan was his base all the way until 1912, when the Qing dynasty finally collapsed and Sun Yat-sen actually came back to become, briefly, the leader of the country, and then, for the rest of his life, one of the prominent figures in national politics in China. But for that whole period of time, from the late 1890s until 1912, he was based in Japan. His friends were Japanese.
Skip to 3 minutes and 37 secondsRemember, there was a dynamic mixture in Japan of militarists and proto-militarists, but also liberals and progressives. And Sun Yat-sen was receiving constant support, political but also material financial support from various elements within Japanese society. So he was well-integrated into the world of late Meiji Japan, and he took it as a model and an inspiration for his Nationalist movement back in China. As late as 1924, Sun Yat-sen gave a major speech in Japan, in the city of Kobe, in which he put forward his vision for East Asian unity.
Skip to 4 minutes and 19 secondsAt this point he was already terminally ill with cancer, so he knew this would be not just a political speech, but a part of his last will and testament that he would pass on to his movement and to the future leaders of the party that he established, the Nationalist party, which, incidentally, still runs the government, the Republic of China government, on the island of Taiwan. In his Kobe speech, Sun Yat-sen nostalgically looks back to 1905 to Japan's victory over Russia in the Russo Japanese war as a victory for the Asian race over white people, overthrowing the yoke of Imperial subservience to Western powers, and in racial terms, to the white man.
Skip to 5 minutes and 9 secondsThis is 20 years later, he's still looking back this way. Sun further argues in the speech that once the Nationalist movements have succeeded simultaneously in both Japan and China, then these two countries will lead a pan-Asian liberation, again, from the pressures of Western Imperialism. So you can see how at this relatively late stage, and certainly late stage in his life, Sun Yat-sen continues to see, essentially, Japan as part of the solution to China and Asia's problems, rather than as part of the problem itself. Now in the speech, which you can read for yourself as a related file this week, Sun talks about many countries in Asia from Turkey to India.
Skip to 5 minutes and 54 secondsBut you'll notice it's always important to look in a text for what is left out. you'll notice there's no mention of one place that obviously concerns us in this course, which is Korea. At this point, of course, Japan had fully colonised Korea, essentially swallowed it up whole. And so the absence of Korea speaks to something. It's either a blind spot or something deeply problematic with Sun Yat-sen. Perhaps, in his wishful thinking, he wanted to ignore the Korean problem. Or perhaps because he wasn't paying enough attention to what had happened in Korea, he failed to anticipate the true future direction that Japan was taking.
Paradox of East Asian unity
Modern leaders such as An Jung-geun in Korea and Sun Yat-sen in China did their best to combine nationalism with Pan-Asianism, a strategy that hinged on the role of Japan in a way that become increasingly untenable. But it behooves us to understand the logic behind their formula for East Asian unity premised upon Asian nationalism.
© John Delury