“China’s Muslims and Japan’s Empire: Centering Islam in World War II” by Kelly A Hammond


This year’s 75th anniversary of the end of WW2 and, in particular, the end of the War in the Pacific, has coincided with a number of books, some broad, some focusing on individuals. But few perhaps look at what is—at first glance—as unlikely a corner as Kelly A Hammond’s China’s Muslims & Japan’s Empire.

Hammond focuses in on “Sino-Muslims” (Chinese-speaking Muslims as opposed to, say, Uyghurs), a term she prefers to Hui, and which, she documents, were a target of strategic Japanese attention:


Japanese officials hoped their efforts would create a cadre of Muslims who supported  their anti-Western, anticommunist agenda, and who were loyal to the Japanese Empire.


Japanese government inducements to Muslims living in occupied China included scholarships to study in Tokyo and sponsorship for the hajj. Hammond places this policy in the context of, primarily, the previous few decades (noting in particular the Muslim Ma Fuxiang and the “Ma Family Warlords”), the demographic distribution of Sino-Muslims, and the recurring question of Muslim vs national identity.

However, perhaps more unexpected than this attempt to split Sino-Muslims from Chinese resistance to Japanese aggression, was Japan’s idea to deploy Sino-Muslims as a sort of advance guard to develop political and commercial relations with the wider Islamic world, particularly the Middle East, where Japan’s presence was relatively recent and still thin. Tea was considered a key product; the argument went that


because tea was a commodity consumed around the world, it required a “global  policy” … to disrupt current markets and displace Europeans as the top tea providers while extending Japanese tea sales into new markets. Muslims around the world were central to this global drive to sell more tea from the home islands and the colonies.


China was aware of all this as a secret 1940 Chinese Foreign Ministry report makes clear. It quoted such flowery-worded propaganda as


“Japan is the sun, Islam is the moon, which together emanate enough brightness to shine from East Asia throughout the entire world.”


China's Muslims and Japan's Empire: Centering Islam in World War II, Kelly A Hammond (he University of North Carolina Press, November 2020)
China’s Muslims and Japan’s Empire: Centering Islam in World War II, Kelly A Hammond (The University of North Carolina Press, November 2020)

This indicates a sort of global strategic vision not usually salient in accounts of WW2-era Japan. (The US was however aware of it as a 15 May 1943 OSS report entitled “Japanese Infiltration Among the Muslims Throughout the World” makes clear.) But it is not clear how much difference it made, politically, militarily or economically. The most extensive example Hammond discusses is of


Tang Yichen, who became the presiding head of the Japanese-sponsored All China Muslim League and went on a Japanese government-funded hajj in 1938-39…


The group, which seems to be only one of which there is much of a record, was just five and Tang seems to have had some ambivalence—he was happy to go on hajj but less sure about where his politics lay. He had to go via Italian-occupied Eritrea, and was shadowed by Chinese authorities even as far as Mecca. The trip seems to have few if any practical results.

Japan, Hammond writes, then used its experience with Sino-Muslims to inform its occupation of Muslim-majority Southeast Asian regions and countries:


It was the Japanese, not the Dutch or the British, who privileged mixing Islam and politics throughout Southeast Asia, and this had a lasting impact on the region. By undermining the Dutch in order to privilege young Muslim Indonesian nationalists like Sukarno and Hatta, the Japanese helped create a new generation of power brokers  in Southeast Asian politics that would outlast their short rule.


In the end, Japanese occupation didn’t last long enough for its overtures to Islam and Muslims to play out. Insofar as Japan achieved its international commercial ambitions, this was a post-War phenomenon and one that came through economics rather than appeals to religion.


The non-specialist reader could have benefited from some comparative analysis: placing Islam in the context of Japanese appeals (if any) to other ethno-religious groups or how Japan’s outreach to the Muslim world compared with that of powers. One wonders how, in particular, Japan’s positioning of itself as a liberator of “oppressed colonial peoples and Muslims living under the yoke of European imperialism” played out in the Arab world where some of those oppressors were Japan’s European allies. Some data would have been helpful as well: one is left with the impression that the use of Sino-Muslims as a political and commercial vanguard to the Muslim world seems to have been more theoretical than real.

Hammond, in a Conclusion, draws a quick link through the intervening decades to present-day controversies. A focus on Sino-Muslims may seem a somewhat oblique lens through which to look at WW2, but it is one that remains topical.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.