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The Ainu and Japanese Settler Colonialism  

Michael Roellinghoff

The Ainu people are Indigenous to Hokkaido (Japan’s northernmost island in the early 21st century), the Russian-administered island of Sakhalin, and the adjacent Kuril archipelago. The Ainu traditionally refer to these lands as Ainu Mosir (meaning “the land of the people”). In the early 21st century, an increasing number of Ainu refer to Hokkaido itself as Yaun Mosir (roughly “the land of land”). Long neighbors with the Japanese, they historically resided as far south as Honshu and as far north as Kamchatka. As of 2023, most Ainu are concentrated in southern Hokkaido and the Tokyo metropolitan area. During the Tokugawa period (1603–1867), the Matsumae Domain maintained a deeply exploitative, if not outright colonialistic, relationship with Ainu groups across Hokkaido (then known in Japanese as Ezo). Nevertheless, Tokugawa leaders explicitly recognized Ainu territorial sovereignty and political formations. Following the Japanese annexation of Hokkaido in 1869, however, the Westernizing Meiji state (1868–1912) adopted settlercolonial practices in Hokkaido that closely resembled those of the United States, the British Empire, and the Russian Empire. Declaring Ainu territories across Hokkaido terra nullius (empty or ownerless land), the Kaitakushi (the Japanese Colonial Office) and successive Hokkaido-based prefectural governments disregarded Ainu sovereignty entirely and engaged in a zero-sum colonization program, dispossessing the Ainu of their unceded land, waters, and resources. While this led to deadly waves of famine and epidemic disease in Ainu communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many resisted. This ranged from physical confrontations with colonial agents to large-scale peaceful protests. Amid widespread social Darwinist-inflected narratives of the Ainu as a self-destructively inferior race, in 1899, the Meiji government passed the so-called Hokkaido Former Aborigine Protection Act (Hokkaidō kyūdojin hogo-hō), rendering the Ainu wards of the state. In the 21st century, the legacies of the Protection Act and surrounding racist and colonialist discourse continue to impact the Ainu. This most often takes the form of Japanese disavowals of Ainu existence and the state’s rejection of Ainu calls for self-determination. Nevertheless, many Ainu maintain distinct cultural identities, spiritual traditions, and epistemologies and assert sovereignty on their own unceded territories.

Article

Chinese Merchants in Japan and Korea  

Jin-A Kang

In the mid-19th century, Chinese merchants moved to the treaty ports of Japan and Korea to expand the domestic commercial network abroad. They made significant profits by importing and distributing British cotton clothes via Shanghai to Japan and Korea. While Chinese merchants in Japan remained purely economic immigrant groups, those in Korea took an active political role since their advance to Korea on business was part of an effort by the Qing dynasty to strengthen its influence in Korea. Before the Mukden Incident in 1931, Chinese merchants in Kobe, Japan, engaged in trade with China and Southeast Asia and continued to be a powerful commercial group in Asian trade. However, Chinese merchants in Korea suffered from business crisis earlier on. They were hit hard by the sharp decline in import trade from China, which was their primary business, due to Japan’s protective tariff policy introduced in 1924. Until 1930s, both Chinese merchants in Japan and Korea were forced to gradually revise their business strategies to sell Japanese products in Greater China and Korea. The outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 turned out to be a decisive blow to the already struggling businesses of the Chinese merchants in Japan and Korea.

Article

Colonial Korea  

Michael Kim

Japan established a protectorate in 1905 and annexed Korea in 1910. The colonial occupation officially lasted thirty-five years, until the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima precipitated the end of World War II on August 15, 1945. The Government-General of Korea administrated the colony’s affairs and enforced many laws and regulations from Japan. Yet the Japanese also made significant legal modifications that allowed for stricter censorship and control of the colony. In principle, the Government-General had absolute authority over Korea and was only accountable to the Japanese emperor rather than the Imperial Diet under the Meiji Constitution. However, in practice the Government-General was not completely independent because of the need to file reports and receive financial subsidies from the Imperial Diet. The considerable autonomy of the Government-General to enact its own legal provisions may be important to keep in mind to understand how colonial Korea was an authoritarian system that operated separately from the Meiji Constitutional order. Korea underwent a major transition from an agrarian society to the beginnings of an industrial society during the colonial period. Many historical accounts tend to portray the colonial administration as an omnipotent force, but the Japanese faced considerable limitations and challenges in ruling the colony. Korea gradually became integrated into an autarkic economic block along with Manchuria that formed the basis for Japan’s East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. However, political integration remained a controversial topic that was never resolved before 1945. The Japanese enforced numerous policies to mobilize the colonial population for World War II. Yet even as Koreans marched into the battlefront and served labor duty in the factories, basic political rights continued to be denied. Many of today’s tensions between Korea and Japan stem from the unresolved historical controversies from the colonial period.

Article

Feminist Student Movement in Japan 1945–1975  

Anna Vittinghoff

Contrary to the common notion that depicts Japanese postwar student activism, and leftist activism more broadly, as being predominantly male, female activists within these movements played more than just supporting roles. Upon closer inspection of modern Japanese history, it becomes evident that female students were integral to and contributed in multiple ways to campus-based activism across Japan, ultimately pushing the liberatory discourse beyond schools, colleges, and universities into everyday life in the 1970s. During Japan’s nation-building project of the prewar period, sex-segregated education was a direct expression of the binary division of the site of activity between men and women. However, in the postwar period the introduction of coeducation and the subsequent student movement ultimately formed the hotbed for the women’s liberation movement of the early 1970s and the fundamental challenge it posed to the masculine bias of modern Japanese society. The experiences of female student activists across Japan were an important catalyst for feminist movements of the following decades because they not only highlighted the gendered discrimination of postwar Japanese society but also the necessity of an intersectional analysis of the systems of power at play.

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Financial History of Japan in Global Context, 19th and 20th Centuries  

Michael Schiltz

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.”

Article

The History of Motorization in Japan  

Susan Townsend

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.

Article

Japanese Empire and Pan-Asianism  

Sven Saaler

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.

Article

Japanese Empire in Hokkaido  

Philip Seaton

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.

Article

Pre-war Anarchism in Japan  

Nadine Willems

Although anarchist thinking can be detected in long-established East Asian philosophical traditions—notably Buddhism and Taoism—anarchism as a dissenting ideology and lever for social transformation emerged in earnest in Japan in the wake of the encounter with socialist ideas from Europe and North America at the turn of the 20th century. As an intellectual current, Japanese pre-war anarchism shaped debates on the role and means of action of the Japanese Left in the context of the country’s rapid capitalist development and imperialist expansion. Anarchist activism took a variety of forms, from “direct action,” such as labor strikes and terrorism, to social experiments embedded in the fabric of everyday life. The movement had its heyday during the second half of the Taishō era (1912–1926), when anarcho-syndicalism gained some traction among intellectuals and the working class. Anarchists also paid attention to other visions of social organization critical of state authority, such as agrarian communes and self-government schemes. Increasingly defined in tension with communist conceptions of social change after the Bolshevik Revolution, anarchism lost momentum as an instrument of political dissent in the early Showa era (1926–1989). The conversion of anarchists to communist and ultra-nationalist ideologies gradually thinned their ranks. From the start, government censorship and repression targeted leftist political dissenters of all persuasions. Of three leading figures who shaped the anarchist movement, Kōtoku Shūsui (1871–1911), Ōsugi Sakae (1885–1923) and Ishikawa Sanshirō (1876–1956), the first two died at the hands of the state and Ishikawa spent many years in exile. The circulation and persistence of anarchist ideas relied in large part on non-institutional channels, sometimes clandestine, among which transnational exchanges—fueled by travel, correspondence, and translation of foreign texts—were paramount. Japanese pre-war anarchism tends to be read in exclusively political terms, with an emphasis on the theoretical debates that rocked leftist circles during the period. But this perspective ignores the wide range of intellectual and practical aspirations that preoccupied many anarchists and anarchist sympathizers, whose concerns extended into the scientific, geographical, religious, artistic, feminist, agricultural, and environmental spheres. The intersection between pre-war anarchism and ecological concerns is especially noteworthy, and this is where the anarchist influence has remained strongest.

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Surrender of Japan’s Empire: Japanese Historiographical Issue  

Yukiko Koshiro

A process of evolution is apparent in Japanese scholarship on Japan’s respective defeats in the Sino-Japanese War, the Pacific War, and the Soviet-Japanese War in 1945. By tracing scholars’ conflicting interpretations of Japan’s defeat and surrender in these wars, one can demonstrate Japan’s continuing difficulty in achieving an all-inclusive meaning of its unconditional surrender to the Allied powers. Additionally, new areas of study contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the end of Japan’s empire.

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Trade in Gold and Silver: The Yokohama Specie Bank  

Michael Schiltz

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)

Article

Trade in the Japanese Empire  

Timothy Yang

Insecurity and inequality (both real and perceived) have defined the Japanese Empire as an entity of trade. If one the primary goals of Japan’s leaders during the Meiji period (1868–1912) was to revise the so-called unequal treaties, then having an empire was seen as a necessary means towards achieving this end. From the very beginning, strategic concerns proved inseperable from economic considerations. Imperial expansion into neighboring territories occurred simutaneously and worked hand in hand with forging an industrial nation-state. The empire began with the so-called internal colonization of Hokkaidō and then the Ryūkyū Islands (Okinawa), followed by Taiwan and Korea, spoils of victory after the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars, respectively. Taiwan and Korea represented Japan’s formal empire, and Japan developed these territories primarily as agricultural appendages—unequal and exclusive trading partners to provide foodstuffs for a growing, industrializing population in the home islands. As Japan developed its formal colonies toward a goal of agricultural self-sufficiency, it also pursued informal empire in China, which took shape as a competitive yet cooperative effort with other Western imperial powers under the treaty port system. World War I represented a turning point for imperial trade: At this time, Japan took advantage of a Europe preoccupied with internecine battles to ramp up the scope and scale of industrial production, which made Japan increasingly reliant on China—and particularly Manchuria—for raw materials necessary for heavy industry such as coal and iron. Japanese efforts to tighten its grip on China brought it into conflict with the Western imperialist powers and with a strengthening Chinese nation. Another major turning point was Japan’s 1931 takeover of Manchuria and the establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo; these actions ended the treaty port system and sparked conflicts between China and Japan that broke out into full-out war by 1937. Although Japan was largely able to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency by the 1930s, it was unable to be fully self-reliant in essential resources for industry (and war) such as oil, tin, and iron. Resource self-sufficiency was a major goal for the construction of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in the early 1940s. The Japanese Empire officially ended with defeat in 1945.

Article

Transnational Film in East Asia  

William Carroll

To most Western scholars, “East Asian cinema” calls to mind either a small number of globally recognized art house auteurs or specific genres that have found cult audiences in the West. However, this overlooks the enormously complex history of the popular film industries in the region. The tendency to group together films from the region as East Asian cinema can elide some important differences in the film industries and cultures in individual parts of the region, but, at the same time, the “national cinema” framework fails to appreciate the interconnectedness of these cinemas both to each other and beyond the region. The earliest film screenings in China, Japan, and Korea were in the last decade of the 19th century, within a few years of the Lumière Brothers’ first demonstration of their new invention in Paris in 1895. Japan and China both developed robust popular film industries by the mid-1920s. Colonized by Japan in 1910, Korea nevertheless also developed a popular film industry by the mid-1920s, albeit one that was dominated by business interests (if not necessarily talent) from Japan, and subject to the censorship laws of the colonial government. It is impossible to extricate the networks of commodity and artistic exchange from the history of colonialism in the region—both the colonial designs of Western powers on East Asia, and the reach of the Japanese Empire, whose ascendance coincided precisely with the first half-century of film history, and whose shadow has continued to have implications for cultural exchange within the region ever since. Major geopolitical events such as World War II and the Cold War have also played an important role in shaping film production, and its circuits of exchange, in the region.