The success of the republican revolution in 1911 had enabled Chinese revolutionaries and reformers in Japanese exile to return to their homeland. The “father” of that revolution, Sun Yat-sen, retained his Japanese connections, which he renewed through occasional visits. For public intellectuals and political activists from colonised Asia, the attraction of Tokyo as a diasporic city space for anti-colonial action grew during World War I. To be sure, Berlin and Istanbul also emerged as diasporic spaces for the congregation of global revolutionaries as Germany and Ottoman Turkey ranged themselves against the British and other Western empires that dominated Asia. Yet Tokyo as an Asian anti-imperial metropolis had a special appeal to Asians who were eager since 1905 to fuse nationalisms with a larger conception of Asian universalism.

Despite the penchant of the Japanese state to curry favour with Britain, France, and the United States, Tokyo welcomed a steady flow of academic and political visitors from colonised Asia between 1915 and 1918. Sojourners and seekers of knowledge or asylum from India included the redoubtable swadeshi leader Lala Lajpat Rai, the poet Rabindranath Tagore, and the revolutionaries Rashbehari Bose, Narendranath Bhattacharya (before he became MN Roy), and Taraknath Das. The cultural ethos of Asianism cultivated since 1905 became the foundation for efforts at mounting interferential and interconnected revolutionary action between 1914 and 1918.

The keenest observations on the rise of “young Asia” came from the energetic, globe-trotting Indian intellectual Benoy Kumar Sarkar, based on his extended visits to Japan and China from 1915-1916. While offering deep insights into quotidian life in both countries, he sought out and interacted with every major Japanese and Chinese intellectual and political figure of that time in Tokyo, Shanghai, and other major cities. While placing Japan’s 1905 military victory in a broader Asian and global historical context, he also delved into the promise and frailty of the republican experiment in China. A scholar with a deep political commitment, he prepared the intellectual field in which interdependent revolutionary action against Western empires could take root across Asia.

He also emerged as the foremost theorist of the concept of “young Asia” which inspired an entire generation to take a resolute stand against Western imperial power. The Bengali word “nabin” could be rendered as either “new” or “young.” The invocation of youth signalled a rebirth of Asia after a century of temporary aggression and illegitimate usurpation by Euro-American imperialists. Liberated from a sorry recent past and an oppressive present, the young could lay claim to the future. The adjective “young” was deployed in two senses: the youth of Asia were exhorted to craft a young, self-confident Asian continentalism. Whereas Lala Lajpat Rai chose Young India as the title of his 1916 book and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi of his 1919 political journal, Sarkar decided to unfurl the intellectual banner of young Asia.

Born in 1887, Benoy Kumar Sarkar was a brilliant student who read history and literature at Presidency College, Calcutta. As a young man, he enthusiastically joined the swadeshi movement in 1905 and played an innovative role in mass mobilisation in his home district of Malda. By reinterpreting a local performative musical tradition named gambhira, he was able to connect a folk element to the imagination of the Bengali and, by extension, Indian nation. He emerged as one of the finest examples of the colourful cosmopolitan, rooted in local learning and patriotic activism while embarking on a global intellectual quest.

In 1914, he travelled to Egypt, Ireland, and England and then boarded the Philadelphia in November to cross the Atlantic from Liverpool to New York. Lala Lajpat Rai, the preeminent leader of swadeshi nationalism in the Punjab, and the renowned scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose along with his wife, Abala, were fellow passengers on the transatlantic voyage. The ship was also the venue of his meeting with a young Austrian woman, Ida Stieler, whom he would marry in November 1922. As part of his efforts to forge Asian connections in America, Sarkar traveled with Lala Lajpat Rai to Boston where he introduced the Indian leader to Masaharu Anesaki from the University of Tokyo who had come as a visiting professor to Harvard. After half a year in the United States, he embarked on his Pacific crossing and arrived in Japan on a ship named Tanyo Maru from Honolulu in early June 1915.

Benoy Kumar Sarkar’s major English works have been receiving belated scholarly attention from historians. These interpretations have ranged from the sophisticated analysis of his internationalism and futurism by Manu Goswami to a superficial misreading of him as a “Hindu nationalist” by Nile Green. Sarkar’s travel writings in Bengali, by contrast, have remained neglected even though they are arguably the best sources for understanding the affective bond forged with an entity called Asia.

In 1915-1916, Sarkar spent three months in Japan, nearly ten months in China, and again four months in Japan. His essays on Japan were published during those years in the journals Grihastha, Upasana, and Prabasi among a profusion of articles in Bengali journals on Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sarkar’s Japan travelogue appeared as a book titled Nabin Asiar Janmadata Japan (The birth giver of young Asia, Japan) in 1923. In his introduction to the book version, Sarkar mentioned that Indians often ask, “Are the Japanese friends or enemies of Asia?” The problem with this line of inquiry would become apparent if one asked similar questions as to whether the Germans or the English or the French were friends or enemies of Europe. The answer regarding Japan would be the same as any of those types of questions. He discussed this matter at various places in his ketab (book), which contained a sprinkling of Persianate words bringing the written register of Bengali prose close to both Hindus and Muslims.

By 1923, Tokyo was “no longer the only capital of free Asia”; Ankara was “also a new centre of this freedom.” Kemal Ataturk had emerged as the defender of Asia’s western gate. To Japan went the credit of being the deekshadata (giver of initiation) and shikshaguru (mentor) of “young India, young China, young Afghanistan, young Iran and young Egypt.” Sarkar noted that Indian literature had only a few books about foreign lands authored by Asians or Indians. He certainly followed the pioneers of earlier times to enrich that genre during the early 20th century.

Excerpted with permission from Asia after Europe: Imagining a Continent in the Long Twentieth Century, Sugata Bose, Harvard University Press.