Kalakaua’s Asia-Pacific Federation: What if it had worked?


In 1881 Hawaii’s King Kalakaua traveled to Japan on what would be the start of his world tour, becoming the first reigning monarch in history to circle the globe. He proposed to the Meiji government the idea of putting together a federation of Asian – Pacific nations with the purpose of mutual aid in the face of Western imperialism, and he asked Japan to head it. Kalakaua hoped that this would protect Hawaii from the West, but to no avail. Japan gave it some thought, but ultimately politely declined Kalakaua’s idea under the belief that its best interests lay in forging stronger ties with and emulating the West, rather than siding with other Asia-Pacific nations.

kalakaua visit in japan

King Kalakaua (bottom center) with two of his ministers (standing left and right respectively) posing with three representatives of the Meiji government during their meeting in Japan.

Japan’s decision to follow the West would have tragic, world-changing consequences. Similar to the West, it would continue acquiring colonies by force (Japan had already forcefully annexed Ryukyu beginning in 1872 and coming to completion by 1878), using propaganda to instill Japanese nationalization upon the people they conquered, building up its industry and military, and committing numerous human rights violations, including some of the most horrific acts in recorded history. All this, of course, would culminate in Japan’s participation in World War II, or as it is known in Japan, the Asia-Pacific War, causing the deaths of tens of millions, and forever tarnishing Japan’s international image, particularly with Asian countries.

But what if Japan had agreed to Kalakaua’s idea of an Asia-Pacific Federation back in the 1880s? Rather than emulating the West, what if Japan had instead embraced its own unique culture and society and had forged stronger ties with other Asia-Pacific nations in a show of peaceful resistance towards Western imperialism?

Though we’ll never really know the answer, we can still speculate.

In addition to Hawaii and Japan, the Asia-Pacific Federation probably would have included nations such as China, Korea, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Siam/Thailand, Laos, Tahiti, and many other Pacific Island nations. Some of these nations were already experiencing Western colonization by the 1880s, but the formation of this Federation might have helped them gain self-determination much sooner than they actually did.

This Asia-Pacific Federation still would have struggled to maintain itself against the West, but these nations collectively would have been much stronger than they were separately. I dare say most, if not all, of the member nations would have benefited under the Federation. Hawaii would likely still be independent today if the Federation had existed. Much of the bloodshed of the Asia-Pacific War would have been avoided, including the Battle of Okinawa and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan likely would have continued its rapid industrialization and militarization, but instead of colonizing others, it probably would have used its strength to defend its allies from Western intrusion. Notably, the contentious relationship between Japan and China might have played out much differently under this scenario. As the head of this Federation, Japan’s economy probably would have boomed, and rather than alienating much of Asia through warfare, it would have gained the respect and admiration of its fellow Federation members, and it’s international relations would likely be quite different today.

Alas, it was not meant to be.

By the time Kalakaua approached Japan with this idea, they were already well on their way to Westernization. Had Kalakaua talked to Japan earlier – say, in 1871 – things might have played out differently.

Kalakaua was a visionary, a man ahead of his time, who did his best to protect his people from Western colonization.

Rob Kajiwara is a Ryukyu / Nahua – Hawaiian composer, writer, visual artist, baseball player, and human rights activist. www.RobKajiwara.com

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