Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Asian Society of International Law: Its Birth and Significance

  • Yasuaki ONUMA (a1)


The establishment of the Asian Society of International Law (hereinafter “the Society”) may be characterized as symbolizing a fundamental change in history: the transformation from the West-centric world of the twentieth century to the multipolar and multi-civilizational world of the twenty-first. The Society’s establishment suggests the urgent need for those living in this multipolar world—international lawyers in particular—to enhance their ability to appreciate this changing reality and the normative responses to it. The Society could also be an important forum for achieving these aims.

Global society in the twentieth century was dominated by “Western” powers. In the field of international law, it was mainly the governments, media institutions, leaders, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), experts, and international lawyers of the Western nations that constructed, interpreted, maintained, and implemented the international legal order. For a long time, it was the major Western universities and the American Society of International Law (ASIL) that played a leading role in the field of the academic and professional activities of international law.

From around the end of the twentieth century, it became evident that Asian nations had again risen in the global arena. Japan took the lead and has remained the world’s second-largest economy since the late 1970s. Yet it is the resurgence of China and India as world powers that is of fundamental importance from the perspective of human history.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      The Asian Society of International Law: Its Birth and Significance
      Available formats

      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      The Asian Society of International Law: Its Birth and Significance
      Available formats

      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      The Asian Society of International Law: Its Birth and Significance
      Available formats


Corresponding author


Hide All

Distinguished Professor, Meiji University; Professor Emeritus, University of Tokyo.



Hide All

1. This does not necessarily mean that these arguments should simply be highly evaluated. For the assessment of the positive and negative aspects of the arguments characterized as the “Asian values”, see infra note 29.

2. Speakers included SHI Jiuyong, Kenneth KEITH, Christopher. G. WEERAMANTRY, Professor V.S. MANI, and Rosalyn HIGGINS. For the programme of the Inaugural Conference, see online: Asian Society of International Law 〈〉. This article will use the naming convention of the Society, in which family names are capitalized, throughout the text and footnotes.

3. Speakers included outstanding international lawyers such as R.P. ANAND, Edith BROWN WEISS, Hilary CHARLESWORTH, B.S. CHIMNI, Florentino FELICIANO, Hélène RUIZ FABRI, Martti KOSKENNIEMI, OWADA Hisashi, and XUE Hanqin. Many of the panel papers were selected from a large number of applicants through highly competitive processes and their quality was generally very high. As to the programme of the Tokyo Conference, see online: The Japan Chapter of the Asian Society of International Law 〈〉.

4. In addition to the two biennial General Conferences, a number of inter-sessional conferences have also been held. In 2008, the Malaysian Chapter of the Society and the Malaysian Society of International Law were established with the assistance of the Society. The Japan Chapter, established simultaneously with the establishment of the Society, held its first annual conference on 18 April 2010 and has been very active in holding a number of stimulating seminars, workshops, and symposia, as well as in assisting various kinds of research activities conducted by its members. Subsequently, the Indonesian Society of International Law held an international seminar on 10 June 2010. There have been many other events held under the auspices of the Society since 2007.

5. The Foundation for the Development of International Law in Asia’s major task has been the publication of the Asian Yearbook of International Law. For more details on the DILA, see online: DILA 〈〉.

6. See my remarks in ONUMA, Yasuaki, “The Problem of Eurocentric Education in International Law” (1981) 75 American Society of International Law Proceedings 163.

7. I also worked hard to support the activities of the DILA, by mediating between KO Swan Sik and leading Japanese international lawyers, contributing an article to their journal, and securing financial support from SATA Yasuhiko for the activities of the DILA. On the other hand, having worked with the DILA for more than a decade, I came to consider that it had a number of limitations as a major forum for Asian international lawyers.

8. For many other Japanese international lawyers, his interest in Asian international law was also a surprise.

9. They were, among others, IWASAWA Yuji, NAKAGAWA Junji, NAKATANI Kazuhiro, and TERAYA Koji.

10. They include V.S. MANI, B.S. CHIMNI, Y. TYAGI, B.H. DESAI, Antony ANGHIE, LI Zhaojie, LI Ming, PARK Choon-Ho, PAIK Choong-Hyun, LEE Keun-Gwan, and many others. In addition, because I was engaged in the study and human rights activities of the Korean minority in Japan and the problem of Japanese war guilt, I had a number of Korean and Chinese friends who also supported me in establishing the Society.

11. There was a concern among the participants of the meeting as to the vastness of Asia and the limited human and financial resources available. They agreed that they should launch the project in a modest manner and seek to enlarge its capacity and membership gradually. It was agreed that, although Asia spans arguably from Turkey to Japan, East (North-East and South-East) Asians should, at least in the initial stage, assume a major responsibility. However, I felt it important to include Indian international lawyers in the project from the very beginning. Among Asian international lawyers it is the Indians who have most actively published in English, practically the common language in international law. Fortunately this view was accepted. The proponents of the project agreed that they should invite South Asians, particularly Indians, to the Tokyo preparatory meeting to share a major responsibility for the project from the very beginning.

12. I was responsible for the meeting, and the professors referred to in note 9 played a major role in the preparation and management of the meeting.

13. When the Japanese organizers of the meeting were deciding whom they should invite, the major criteria were: whether he/she was willing to share the burden for establishing the Asian Society; and whether he/she was influential enough in his/her country to persuade his/her colleagues for that purpose. Unfortunately, the two leading Korean participants of the Tokyo meeting passed away rather shortly after the meeting, but most of those attending this meeting have continued to contribute to the establishment of the Society. The participants included Professors Anand from India, Paik from Korea, LI Zhaojie from China, Tan from Singapore, Jaturon THIRAWAT from Thailand, and Judge Park of the ITLOS from Korea, Judge Owada, and several leading Japanese international lawyers.

14. Reference was made to the fact that both ASIL and ESIL have universal membership.

15. The problems of the membership and the management were repeatedly discussed in the following preparatory meetings. Some members wanted to have a stronger “Asian character” in the form of restrictive membership of the Society or its Executive Council. However, the majority, including Judge Owada and I, were of the view that such restriction was inappropriate and that the “Asian character” should be expressed in the general form of the purposes of the Society. The constitution of the Society ultimately adopted did not have any membership restriction in terms of nationality or “Asianness”. It was, and is, virtually impossible to define “Asia” either geographically or culturally, and the reference to Asia remains as a general guidance for the Society.

16. The most important of which is DILA, whose activities involve many of the participants of the Tokyo preparatory meeting, including myself. It was decided therefore that we should invite a major figure from the DILA to the next preparatory meeting to discuss possible forms of co-operation with him/her.

17. At first, it was not easy to obtain sufficient support even from Japanese international lawyers for a number of reasons: (1) because Judge Owada was (and still is) in The Hague, it was difficult for both of us to work together in Japan; (2) Japanese international lawyers had already joined various professional societies and were reluctant to join a new society; and (3) many of them were not particularly interested in Asia. Yet there were certain international law scholars who highly valued the project, including Professors FUJITA Hisakazu, AGO Shin-ichi, SAKAMOTO Shigeki, and FURUYA Shuichi, among others, in addition to the Japanese international law professors already referred to.

18. The positive responses from leading Japanese practising lawyers were made possible by firm and continued support from a few core practitioners: NAGASHIMA Yasuharu, a founder of the second-biggest law firm in Japan, as well as HARA Hisashi and EJIRI Takashi, who served as the first two representatives of the practising lawyers in the Japan Chapter.

19. Although Judge Owada made serious efforts to persuade some US law firms to contribute a substantial amount of money, his efforts did not materialize. I, as a university professor, could contribute only a limited amount of money for hosting the Tokyo preparatory meeting and subsidizing some of the preparatory meetings and other activities. Under such circumstances, the financial commitment from major law firms in Japan, together with the administrative commitment from NUS, was highly important. However, there were strict conditions imposed by the Japanese law firms in terms of how to spend the budget and the duration of their financial support. Strengthening its financial base remains an important priority for the Society.

20. Professor Li and Dean WANG Zhenmin of Tsinghua University played a leading role in hosting this second preparatory meeting which was combined with a seminar on international law and Asia. The Japanese members also contributed to the meeting by suggesting members to be invited and the composition of the seminar, and subsidizing the travel expenses of some participants.

21. In Beijing, it was agreed that the third preparatory meeting would be held in Bangkok. However, because the Thai members found this difficult, the meeting was held in Korea. Other members were extremely grateful to the Korean members, especially Judge Park, Dr CHUNG Il-Yung, and Professor Lee who played a leading role in organizing the Seoul meeting.

22. Upon the decision of the Seoul meeting, I requested several professors, including Nakagawa, Furuya, and Lee to carry out this important task. Later SUZUKI Isomi, a Japanese lawyer, and some Singaporean lawyers contributed to the elaboration of the draft.

23. Professor Thirawat and Mr Jayvadh BUNNAG played a major role. Professors Anghie and Mary GEORGE participated in the project from this meeting and became indispensable members of the Society. Anghie played a crucial role managing the programme for both the Inaugural Singapore and Tokyo Conferences. George established the Malaysian Chapter of the Society and Malaysian Society of International Law, and held the first inter-sessional conference at its launch in August 2008.

24. It had already been decided in the Bangkok meeting to hold the Inaugural Conference in Singapore as early as possible, either late 2006 or early 2007. However, some members wanted to continue the preparation further. After much debate, the view arguing for the speedy establishment of the Society was unanimously endorsed.

25. Singapore was chosen mainly for two reasons: it is conveniently located in Asia and the secretariat is located in Singapore.

26. For example, we had to choose the President and the members of the Executive Council (EC), yet the very act of holding the first EC meeting lacked a legal basis in the Constitution. According to the understanding of the participants of the preparatory meetings, the President should be a member of the host country of the General Conference, which means a Singaporean. However, the leading role in the preparatory stage and the stature of Judge Owada was apparent. In addition, a major reason for the President being from the host country of the General Conference was to give sufficient time for the preparation of the General Conference to be held every two years. It was taken for granted among all members engaged in the establishment of the Society that the Second General Conference should be held in Japan. Thus, Judge Owada was elected as the first President of the Society.

27. As to the content of the Inaugural Conference in Singapore and the Second General Conference in Tokyo, separate articles would be necessary. I leave the task of keeping the record and assessing the two Conferences to someone else.

28. The Editors’ Preface to this first issue of the Asian Journal of International Law expresses similar ideas.

29. Many of these arguments had problematic features: (1) regarding a particular interpretation of North-East Asian cultures as the Asian culture; (2) justifying the suppression of civil and political rights in states advocating “Asian values” under the name of culture; and (3) a simplistic and unfounded contrast between the “Eastern” culture or civilization and the “Western” one, etc. Yet their historical significance of questioning the very premises of the pre-existing “universalist” discourses should be highly appreciated. See ONUMA, Yasuaki, “Towards an Intercivilizational Approach to Human Rights” (2001) 7 Asian Yearbook of International Law 21.

30. It may be noted that the decision was made against the view of the President. It was regrettable that the decision was not unanimous, but it demonstrated the democratic nature of the decision-making process of the Society in the sense that even the view of the most prestigious President can sometimes be defeated.

31. Professors Anghie, Lim, PARK Ki-Gab, and Shirley SCOTT constituted core members of the committee. They also asked for advice and suggestions from other active members and prominent international lawyers, non-Asians included, whenever they deemed it necessary.

32. Holding a General Conference of the Society is the best opportunity for the host country to encourage its own international lawyers. Yet, if the speakers and discussants of the host country occupy the panels in an excessive manner, this may hurt the multicultural and multi-civilizational nature of the Conference. Moreover, this might invite a suspicion that the organizers selected the panellists not strictly according to the quality of the submitted papers. The selection should not allow such suspicion. These were the major reasons why the organizers had asked the RPC not to include the Japanese in the selection committee.

33. Even after the Roman Empire declined, Roman law and the Latin language continued to exert a great influence on Europeans for more than a millennium. Chinese or Confucian maxims, teachings, and cultures are still important in today’s East Asian nations, although the Sino-centric world order collapsed more than a century ago. As to the ideational/intellectual power of the Western nations, see, for example, SAID, Edward, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979); TOMLINSON, John, Cultural Imperialism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991); NYE, Joseph S. Jr., Bound to Lead (New York: Basic Books, 1990); and NYE, Joseph S. Jr., Soft Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).

* Distinguished Professor, Meiji University; Professor Emeritus, University of Tokyo.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

The Asian Society of International Law: Its Birth and Significance

  • Yasuaki ONUMA (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.