Jeffrey W. Alexander
Japan has a local, centuries-old tradition of brewing sake from rice and distilling spirits from ingredients such as grain and sweet potatoes, but pioneering entrepreneurs began producing imported “Western liquors” (yōshu) in the late 19th century. This Western liquor marketplace was driven chiefly by beer brewing and whisky distilling. Western liquors were marketed, advertised, and consumed with rising popularity through the early 20th century, as living standards rose and ordinary Japanese came to afford them regularly. Following the Second World War (1939–1945), these Western commodities were no longer viewed as foreign imports, and were instead broadly regarded as domestic, if not indigenous, products. The impact of wartime rationing transformed beer into a lighter-tasting beverage that became very popular with women and young people, and whisky advertising focused closely on professional “salarymen” seeking increased prestige as well as escape from their demanding jobs.
Buddhist culture was most active and prosperous in early modern Japan (1600–1868). Buddhist temples were ubiquitous throughout the country, and no one was untouched by Buddhism. Buddhist priests wielded considerable power over the populace, and Shinto was largely subject to Buddhist control. Buddhist culture attained this considerable influence in early modern Japan through the performance of death-related rituals and prayer.
Death-related rituals (also known as funerary Buddhism) were rooted in the nationwide anti-Christian policy of the Tokugawa bakufu that utilized the administrative machinery of Buddhist temples. Using the opportunity provided by the anti-Christian policy, Buddhist temples were able to bind all households to death-related rituals and this, in turn, gave rise to the danka system in which dying a Buddhist soon became the norm in early modern Japan.
Given the rigid social status, mutual surveillance, and highly regulated nature of everyday life in Tokugawa Japan, people through prayer often turned to Buddhist deities to seek divine help for their wishes or ad hoc solutions to worldly problems. Beyond being sites of prayer services, Buddhist temples also served as spaces of learning, relief, and/or leisure, thus catering to people from all walks of life. Both prayer and play were also integral to Buddhist culture in early modern Japanese society.
Ethnic groups of the geographical region of Manchuria can be understood in relation to their cultural, demographic, and linguistic differences and similarities; historical formation; and modern status. Manchuria is a macroscopic entity, Greater Manchuria, which comprises areas administered by China (the People’s Republic of China) and Russia (the Russian Federation) as well as, until recently, by Japan. Geographically Manchuria is closely associated with the maritime dimension formed by the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese Islands as well as the island of Sakhalin.
Japan’s first movement for civil rights emerged in the 1870s, and a small number of women were part of it. Women’s legal status was significantly inferior to men’s in the pre–World War II era, and feminists struggled for decades to improve it. Their activism in transnational organizations often gave them a voice they did not have at home. For example, the Japanese branch of the International Woman’s Christian Temperance Union worked to end international sex trafficking, licensed prostitution, and marital inequality. The Japanese cultural world took a feminist turn in the second decade of the 20th century. Increasing numbers of women entered the classroom as teachers, nurses served on the battlefield and in hospitals, and actresses performed in plays like A Doll’s House. Many of these women were called “New Women,” and an explicitly women’s rights organization, founded in 1919, called itself the New Woman’s Association.
When the Tokyo earthquake killed 100,000 people and destroyed millions of homes in 1923, women’s organizations of all types—Christian, Buddhist, alumnae, housewives, and socialists—coalesced to carry out earthquake relief. The following year, several of those groups decided to address women’s political rights. The Women’s Suffrage League grew from this collaboration in 1924. Annual Women’s Suffrage Conferences brought together women of diverse organizations from 1930 to 1937. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Japanese feminists also made their voices heard through transnational organizations, including the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association. When Japanese militarism at home and abroad repressed freedom of expression in the 1930s, feminist groups continued to meet, turning to community activism (like improving municipal utilities) and nonthreatening feminist legislation (the Mother-Child Protection Law of 1937). During World War II, many feminists accepted government advisory positions to improve the lives of women and families, viewing this as a step toward greater political integration. By the 1980s, however, feminists strongly critiqued prewar feminists for collaboration with the wartime government.
Women voted for the first time in 1946. In 1947, the new Constitution granted equal rights, the new Civil Code eradicated most of the patriarchal provisions of the 1898 Civil Code, and the Labor Standards Law called for equal pay for equal work. Nevertheless, women continued to face discrimination in the workplace, at home, and even in the law. Feminists supported the United Nations International Women’s Year (1975) with vigor. Since then, they have successfully advocated for strengthened employment and child-care leave laws as well as anti–domestic violence laws. But gender-neutral legislation has been hotly contested and has led to a backlash against feminism in general.
Japan’s experience with modern capitalism and finance is characterized by a remarkable combination of shocks and adaptation. After being steamrolled by Western institutions and financial technologies, the country attempted to retaliate against this intrusion. However, regaining financial sovereignty proved a protracted process of trial and error. In the 1880s and 1890s, under the auspices of Matsukata Masayoshi, Tokyo seemed to get it right. The establishment of the Bank of Japan and related institutions, on the one hand, and the adoption of the gold standard, on the other, appeared designed to lift Japan out of its peripheral status. In reality, however, they mostly served to emphasize its role as an enabler of the British-led international order. Only in the 1930s, during the worldwide Great Depression, would it break with this role, if only to find that its autonomy had been compromised from the very beginning. Japan’s disastrous loss in World War II drove the country into the arms of the newly arisen global hegemon: the United States. In the early 21st-century, Japan remains a linchpin in the still surviving American-led world order and the corollary “dollar standard.”
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Please check back later for the full article.
In 1907 the first Japanese-made motorcar was unveiled. A century later, the phenomenon of kuruma banare [車離れ], literally “turning one’s back on the car,” but often translated as “de-motorization,” appeared in the international press. Falling sales suggested that Japan’s domestic car market had reached full capacity reversing an almost continuous historical trend of increasing car ownership. In the 1960s and 1970s, personal car ownership changed the social and cultural fabric of everyday life and transformed the urban environment and landscape. However, the automobile also became the focus of anxieties about traffic congestion, air pollution, noise levels, and safety and by the end of the 20th century was seen as ultimately damaging to community, social harmony, and the environment. While reports of the death of the motorcar turned out to be exaggerations, Japan became the “Asian pathfinder” for setting ultimate limits for the growth of fossil-fueled automobiles worldwide. Historiographically, the focus on the astounding success of Japan’s major automobile manufacturers in international markets drew attention away from the social and cultural history of the car itself in Japan. Yet the story of how Japan was transformed from an essentially wheel-less society at the dawn of the 20th century into the first industrial power to have achieved almost full-capacity car ownership is no less remarkable and sheds light on current dilemmas surrounding car use and sustainability in developing countries such as China and India.
Between the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the Japanese Empire experienced outflows of its people to both its own colonies and foreign countries that were mainly located in the Asia-Pacific region. In their destinations, a majority of these migrants were engaged in physical labor in agricultural, construction, and lumbering industries. Coffee production also became a significant economic activity for many Japanese migrants in Brazil as well as some in Hawai‘i (the US territory, 1898–1959), Taiwan (the Japanese colony, 1895–1945), and Saipan (part of Nan’yō, the Japanese mandate, 1920–1945). Previously, historical studies of the Japanese migration have been focused on one-directional and one-site migrations, that is, migrations from Japan to a single destination. This is partly due to a lack of comprehensive statistical data that could enable researches to trace individual multiple-directional trajectories, and partly due to the scholastic divide of studying Japanese migrations according to destinations—whether they moved to the Japanese territories as colonial settlers or non-territories as immigrants.
This article utilizes coffee, which has a long history of being connected to global-scale movements, as an analytical lens to highlight more dynamic and multi-directional migrations of Japanese people, including those who moved from Japan, to Hawai‘i, to Saipan, and to Taiwan by being involved in coffee farming or businesses. Furthermore, this article argues that coffee functioned as an agency to connect the metropole of the Japanese Empire, which consumed coffee, and the newly established coffee farms and plantations in Japan’s Taiwan and Saipan. While the project of sending Japanese immigrants to Brazil contributed to the popularization of coffee-drinking culture in urban areas of Japan, Japanese coffee farmers in Hawai‘i played a key role in establishing coffee farms and plantations in Taiwan and Saipan from the 1920s to the 1930s. In this way, part of coffee’s trans-pacific movement was supported by the Japanese diasporic network that linked coffee-producing areas in the Asia-Pacific, where, at the same time, included the areas that absorbed a significant number of Japanese people migrants. These dynamic and trans-pacific interactions between coffee and Japanese diasporic communities indicate that migrations of Japanese people can be considered in the context of the global history of coffee and possibly, other crops and materials.
The Japanese colonial empire was composed of territories adjacent to the Japanese archipelago, ranging from Southern Sakhalin in the north to Taiwan in the south. Unlike most European powers, Japan did not acquire colonial territories that were far away from the metropolis; rather, it did so within the region in which it was located—East Asia. The geographical proximity between the metropolis and its colonial territories influenced not only the structure of the colonial administration, racial hierarchies in the empire, and colonial and metropolitan identities but also the rhetorical strategies that were used to legitimize colonial rule.
Although the government generally envisioned a European-style empire, the creation of which would earn Japan the respect of the Great Powers and eventually lead to the recognition of Japanese equality, a significant number of politicians, writers, and activists argued that it was Japan’s mission to unite the Asian people and protect or liberate them from Western colonial rule. These discourses have been summarized under the term “Pan-Asianism,” a movement and an ideology that emerged in the late 19th century and became mainstream by the time World War I began. However, although some advocates of Pan-Asianism were motivated by sincere feelings of solidarity, the expansion of Japanese colonial rule and the escalation of war in China and throughout Asia in the 1930s brought to the fore an increasing number of contradictions and ambiguities. By the time World War II started, Pan-Asianism had become a cloak of Japanese expansionism and an instrument to legitimize the empire, a process that culminated in the Greater East Asia Conference of 1943.
The contradictions between Japan’s brutal wars in Asia and the ideology of Asian solidarity continue to haunt that country’s relations with its neighbors, by way of ambiguous historical memories of the empire and war in contemporary Japanese politics and society.
The temporal span of the Japanese Empire is most commonly given as 1895–1945, from the acquisition of Taiwan following Japan’s victory in the First Sino-Japanese War to Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. Within this interpretation, the Japanese Empire was largely a reaction to the advances of the Western colonial powers during the 19th century. This “orthodox” narrative of the empire rests on a key assumption: the current borders of the Japanese state demarcate the inherent territory of Japan. But when viewed from Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, a second story of the Japanese Empire emerges. Before 1869 Hokkaido was known to Wajin (ethnic Japanese) as Ezo. While the Japanese considered Ezo to be within their sphere of influence and there was a Japanese zone (Wajinchi) in the southern tip of Ezo from the 16th century, Ezo was a foreign land inhabited by the Ainu people. Hokkaido was only fully incorporated into the Japanese state in 1869 following the Meiji Restoration (1868), after which Japanese settlers colonized the island beyond Wajinchi. The indigenous Ainu people were dispossessed of their land and forced to assimilate.
Rather than Taiwan, therefore, the story of the Japanese Empire begins with the colonization of the peripheries of the modern state: Hokkaido, and also Okinawa. Seeing imperial history from the vantage point of Hokkaido sheds light on some of the assumptions and oversights of much writing on Japan’s 19th- and 20th-century history. It reveals how the legacies of empire affect Japanese people today in those spaces where the colonizers and colonized continue to coexist. And it gives insights into how official and popular narratives of empire and war have been formulated at local and national levels in the postwar era.
China’s three northeastern provinces (Fengtian, Heilongjiang, and Jilin) were transfigured by Japanese imperialism in the opening decades of the 20th century. South Manchuria and the Kwantung Leasehold on the Liaodong Peninsula in particular became the site of a railway imperialism that would, beginning in 1905, allow Japan to claim a sphere of influence in the northeast and profit from the export of soybeans, coal, lumber, and other raw materials from the region. The South Manchuria Railway Company (or “Mantetsu”), which held the dual mantle of joint stock-owning company and governmental national-policy company, was the central organ in Japan’s so-called management of Manchuria. The expansion of Mantetsu’s rail network (originally built by Czarist Russia in the late 1890s) in the post–World War I years allowed for greater extraction of resources and greater wealth for company stockholders, while giving rise to an upswell of protest from a burgeoning nationalist movement in mainland China as well as in the northeast itself. Throughout the preconquest period (pre-September 1931), bureaucrats, Mantetsu employees, doctors, teachers, and economic sojourners of every stripe made a home for themselves in Japanese Manchuria, parts of which were transformed to replicate the modern conveniences and amenities of the metropole’s urban centers.
The Manchurian Incident, which began on September 18, 1931, with a plot by renegade officers from the Kwantung Army (a division of the Japanese Imperial Army) to destroy Mantetsu track and blame it on Chinese brigands, led to the military takeover of the three northeastern provinces by January 1932. The establishment of the army-led state of Manchukuo in March 1932 gave way to a new kind of Japanese power and influence on the continent—one that operated independently from Tokyo and at the pleasure of the Kwantung Army. Despite repeated proclamations of pan-Asian unity and the harmony of the five races by the state’s propaganda agents, Manchukuo existed for the purpose of strengthening Japan’s war machine, as well as for planning a total renovation of the domestic Japanese state in line with army objectives.
Paul D. Barclay
On April 17, 1895, the Qing dynasty ceded the province of Taiwan to Japan in the Treaty of Shimonoseki, ending the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). Thereafter, Taiwan was governed as a colony of imperial Japan through 1945. Armed resistance to the Japanese occupiers flared from 1895 through 1915, and it continued sporadically into the 1930s. Tens of thousands of Taiwanese were killed, wounded, or displaced in the collateral damage that was part and parcel of Japanese state-building on the island. Taiwanese civil protest movements against Taiwan Government-General despotism crested between 1914 and 1934. Concurrently, Japanese politicians in Tokyo, administrators in Taiwan, and civilian settlers implemented various economic development and population management schemes. Deep water harbors, hydroelectric dams, agricultural research institutes, and an island-wide railway system were built, while functioning systems of commercial law, public health, and education were implemented. After the great depression hit in 1929, the Taiwan Government-General severely curtailed the activities of Taiwanese nationalists, communists, and labor organizers. From 1936, Taiwan became a hub for Japanese southward expansion into the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia. Thereafter, increased exploitation, surveillance, and militarization were coupled with intensified assimilation campaigns. After 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army recruited Taiwanese to serve as soldiers in Southeast Asia and Pacific Island campaigns. At least 200,000 Taiwanese were mobilized during World War II, as soldiers, auxiliaries, translators, medics, and laborers for Japan’s armed forces. Over 30,000 perished. Upon Japan’s surrender to the Allied Powers, sovereignty over Taiwan was transferred from the Government-General of Taiwan to the Republic of China, which formally assumed power on October 25, 1945.
Peter D. Shapinsky
Historians translate a variety of terms from 13th- through 17th-century Japan, China, Korea, and Europe as “Japanese pirates” (e.g., Jp. kaizoku, Kr. waegu, Ch. wokou). These constructs reflected the needs of regimes and travelers dealing with a maritime world over which they had little direct control, and often denoted bands of seafarers who based themselves in maritime regions beyond and between the reach of land-based political centers. Seafarers rarely used the terms to refer to themselves.
Japanese pirates opportunistically traded, raided, and transmitted culture in periods when and places where the influence of central governments attenuated. However, some innovated forms of maritime lordship that enabled them to establish dominance over sea-lanes and territories at the heart of the Japanese archipelago. Pirates developed expertise in navigation and naval warfare that helped them acquire patrons, who provided access to networks of diplomacy and trade. In the 16th century, some Japanese pirates forged multiethnic crews that seized control of the maritime networks linking East and Southeast Asia.
Labels for Japanese pirates also operated as ethnographical, geographical, and historical symbols. Traumatic assaults by waves of Japanese pirates who massacred and enslaved local populations were indelibly etched into the collective memories of Koryŏ–Chosŏn Korea and Ming–Qing China. By contrast, in early modern Japan the eradication of piracy enabled the state to extend its maritime sovereignty as well as to then commemorate pirates as ethnocentric symbols of Japanese warrior prowess.
Japan has territorial disputes with each of its international neighbors in the form of sovereignty contests over small islands that are shards of its once vast 20th-century empire. Recently emerging global ocean laws have taken root that make it in every nation’s interests to lay claim to exclusively controlled ocean space. As a result, a new kind of ocean imperialism is underway, compelling some nations to take maximalist approaches and others more flexible positions toward defining their countries’ respective claims. Since the 1990s, Japanese leaders have made clear that they are collectively committed to national policies and planning that reorient Japan as a maritime nation, which was not the case in the wake of the nation’s devastating losses in World War II. The question now is whether Japanese leaders will adopt a rigid definition for Japan or a more fluid one that emphasizes borderlines in the sea around it.
Japan defined its northern edge against Russia over the course of the 19th century. In earlier periods, an area and people known as Ezo marked the northern edge of Japanese state and society, but expansion of both the Russian and Japanese polities brought them into direct contact with one another around the Sea of Okhotsk. Perceptions of foreign threat accelerated Japan’s efforts to map and know Ezo, and shifted understandings of Japan’s northern edge outwards. Maritime routes defined this new northern edge of Japan, and their traces on the map tied distant locales to the national body.
Maritime space was therefore crucial to this expansion in conceptions of the nation, through which the maritime boundary of Japan came to incorporate much of the Ezo region. The mid-century opening of Japan transformed this maritime boundary, which was shaped in the latter half of the 19th century by Japan’s particular situation, even as global and universal concepts were drawn upon to justify its operation. Japan’s participation within international and inter-imperial society conferred upon it the ability to appeal to such concepts for legitimacy, a participation made possible by the state’s efforts to satisfactorily map and administer the boundaries of Japan’s northern edge.
Since the world in its entirety cannot be grasped through direct experience, world maps are mental constructs that serve as a radiography of a given culture’s attitudes towards its environment. Early modern Japan offers an intriguing study case for the assimilation of a variety of world map typologies in terms of pre-existing traditions of thought. Rather than topography, these maps stress topological connections between “myriad countries” and therefore embody the various mental maps of cultural agents in Japan. The maps’ materiality and embeddedness in social networks reveal connections to other areas of visual and intellectual culture of the period.
The Meiji Revolution (1853–1890) transformed Japan from a double-headed federation state with hereditary status system into a unitary monarchy that afforded greater rights and freedoms to the Japanese people. After ending the revolution by the establishment of constitutional monarchy, Japan promoted industrialization that would later energetically support its imperial expansion during the first half of the 20th century.
Intellectuals during the late Edo period (1603–1868) became disillusioned with the hereditary system of the Tokugawa regime. Because tradition prohibited them from criticizing any upper authorities directly, the intellectuals capitalized on a threat from outside to advocate for the necessity of political reforms, when Western envoys urged the opening of Japan toward the West after more than 200 years of seclusion. The intellectuals at first appealed to their lords to recreate military powers. Soon, they directed their efforts towards the emperor in Kyoto, and began to criticize the Tokugawa Shogunate openly. After ten years of political negotiations and small civil wars, they finally chose imperial restoration to oust the Tokugawa and set out for a series of radical reforms that would abolish local governments, dismantle samurai status, integrate discriminated people with commoners, and introduce various social institutions from the West.
Interesting characteristics distinguish the Meiji Revolution from other modern revolutions. For one, it fully utilized the authority of monarchy. Second, it appealed to the symbol “return to our ideal past” instead of the symbol “Progress.” Third, the death toll was also quite low: about 30,000, in contrast to 2,000,000 in French Revolution. At first glance, these characteristics would seem to set the Meiji Revolution apart from European movements—nevertheless, the Meiji Revolution inaugurated the beginning of an egalitarian and free society, and careful examination of the Meiji Revolution has the potential to shed new light on hidden aspects of other modern revolutions across the globe.
Also known as the “Rape of Nanjing,” Nanjing Massacre refers to the mass killings of disarmed Chinese soldiers and civilians, as well as other atrocities such as rape and looting, committed by the Japanese troops after they occupied Nanjing in the winter of 1937–1938. It is widely regarded as one of the worst Japanese war crimes in World War II.
Shortly after the Imperial Japanese Army entered the Chinese capital of Nanjing (previously written as Nanking) on December 13, 1937, Western newspapers reported horrific conditions in the fallen city including mass execution of Chinese captives. Wartime records, mostly compiled by a few Westerners who stayed in the city and organized a refugee zone, showed widespread Japanese atrocities of rape, random killing, and looting that continued for weeks.
After Japan’s defeat in 1945, the Nanjing Massacre became a leading case of Japanese war crime at the military tribunals conducted by the victorious Allies between 1946 and 1948. Citing witness accounts and burial records, these tribunals put the total number of Chinese killed in the Nanjing area variously from 100,000 to over 300,000. In addition, they estimated that there had been around 20,000 cases of rape and that one third of the city had been destroyed by the Japanese troops within six weeks of occupation.
Largely overlooked before the early 1970s, the Nanjing Massacre has since become a hotly contested issue in Japan and between Japan and China. In 1985, China opened a large memorial museum in Nanjing, where the number of 300,000 victims is on prominent display. The Chinese government has designated December 13 a day of national commemoration. Documents related to the Nanjing Massacre submitted by China have become part of the UNESCO Memory of the World registry.
In recent decades, many important first-hand evidence has emerged and makes it both possible and necessary to reassess this historical event. Wartime Japanese military and personal records confirm that at least several tens of thousands of Chinese had been killed in mass executions that were condoned, if not ordered, by the high command of the Japanese army in China. Moreover, killing disarmed Chinese captives and atrocities against Chinese civilians had already begun well before Japanese troops reached Nanjing; many such atrocities continued long afterward, thus suggesting there was more than a temporary breakdown of Japanese army discipline in Nanjing. Western and Chinese accounts add vivid details of sexual violence, indiscriminate killings, and looting by Japanese soldiers. They also reveal grave errors on the part of the Chinese defense that likely made the situation worse. Despite these points of convergence among historians, however, there is still disagreement over the exact number of victims and causes of the Japanese atrocities in Nanjing.
When the coalition government composed of the Tokugawa shoguns and daimyō set about to give visual expression to the entire territory under its rule, it chose to produce enormous hand-drawn maps of each of Japan’s provinces, which corresponded to administrative spatial divisions that had been established by the government in the ancient period on the model of China. These maps followed the example of political maps being produced in China at the time, and systematically deployed icons representing a centralized order based on administrative and military organizations were embedded in the landscape and topography of the provinces.
While basing itself on the style of Chinese political maps, the shogunate devised its own distinctive methods of spatial representation. Countless villages, corresponding to the primary financial base for the shoguns and daimyō, were inserted in the form of geometrical icons into the hierarchical order of provinces and their subdivisions in the form of districts. Recorded on each of these village icons were the village’s official name and its official rice yield as agreed on by the shogun and daimyō. In addition, the shogunate did its utmost to gain a fresh grasp of the borders of each province. The shoguns and daimyō were able to produce such maps because the leaders of local village communities possessed the knowledge and surveying techniques that made it possible for them to submit maps able to meet the demands of the shogun and daimyō. In the eighteenth century, the eighth shogun created a hand-drawn map of Japan by combining these provincial maps.
But around the same time, from the eighteenth century onwards, the world of the Pacific Ocean surrounding Japan was undergoing considerable change. There arose a need for reliable coastal maps that could be shown to Western nations. For Japan, making this kind of map available to international society meant asserting the extent of its national territory. Amidst attempts to find ways to build a modern form of national territory and moves to represent it visually to international society, maps of Japan’s national territory, different from provincial maps and past maps of Japan, were beginning to take shape. The driving force behind the creation of these new maps was a private intellectual’s desire for knowledge, while those who accurately understood the meaning of making public maps of national territory in the context of the international situation in the nineteenth century and made the shogunate face the implications of this were not the shogun’s senior statesmen but intellectuals and technical experts employed at the shogunate’s institute for Western studies.
The shogunate exhibited a new woodblock-printed map of Japan at the 1867 International Exposition in Paris and presented copies to leading figures in Europe. The shogunate wished to proclaim to Europe that he himself was Japan’s ruler. But after Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the fifteenth and last shogun, surrendered his position as shogun and was defeated in battle, the political order centered on the Tokugawa family finally collapsed.
Although the political and military aspects of Japanese imperialism have received ample attention from historians, other dimensions of the country’s expansionist experiment with total war have been left largely untouched. Nevertheless, technologies of “soft” power played a very substantial role; in many ways, they predated and prefigured many of the repressive and militarist hallmarks of Japanese expansionism. Gold standard adoption, for instance, was directly related to Japan’s geopolitical positioning. It was a tool for projecting financial power abroad and establishing enclave economies in the colonies, for example through the creation of gold-exchange standards, the direction of the colonies’ central banks and financial institutions, and so on.
Nevertheless, the adoption of the gold standard was not an aim in itself. It was a means to a yet higher end: the very establishment of the yen as a “vehicle currency” comparable to the British pound or, after World War I, the American dollar. For that reason, policymakers in Tokyo fostered distinctly mercantilist ideas about trade and, in particular, the share of Japan’s banking institutions and the Japanese yen in financing international trade and settling international trade transactions.
The institution in the vanguard of this project was the Yokohama Specie Bank (hereafter: YSB), a bank with the explicit mandate of insuring trade among regions or countries on different currencies and, by extension, different metals (gold and silver). Soon after its creation in 1879, it was made to team up with the Bank of Japan (hereafter: BOJ) and put in charge of the international aspects of the country’s financial and monetary policy. In that role,
1. It financed the bulk of Japanese imports and exports.
2. It collected specie, part of which was added to the BOJ’s currency reserve.
3. It underwrote Japan’s sovereign loan issues.
4. It represented the BOJ abroad.
5. It even issued currencies in Japan-occupied territories before and during World War II.
In view of its controversial role in Japanese imperialism (especially because of point 5), the General Headquarters of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) ordered its dismantling in 1946. Its assets were transferred to the newly formed Bank of Tokyo.
Although it is still heavily understudied in both Japanese and Western languages, it is key to understanding in the vanguard of Tokyo’s expansionist economic project(s)