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Abstract This article uses expenditure-based purchasing power parities (PPPs) to estimate GDP per capita in comparable prices for 12 Asian countries for six benchmark years during the period 1913-69. The article finds that in 1913 levels of real GDP per capita in several countries were comparable to those in Japan. GDP per capita in Japan and other Asian countries diverged during and after the First World War. The article questions whether Asia’s ‘little divergence’ between Japan and other Asian countries dates back to the late eighteenth century. It draws attention to the different resource endowments of Japan, China, and India compared to other Asian countries, and their implications for the development trajectories of Asian countries. The article demonstrates that using historical PPP estimates yields estimates of GDP per capita that diverge from those based on retropolations of the single 1990 PPP-converted benchmark year. It concludes that historical estimates of PPPs are needed to confirm analyses of comparative economic performance based on available GDP per capita data.