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The History of Japan’s Silk Exports, 1859–1899  

Yasuhiro Makimura

The export of silk products created a regional trade surplus for eastern Japan, centered on Tokyo. In producing raw silk, the people of eastern Japan created factories to lead rural industrialization. This regional trade surplus was used to fuel growth in the consumer economy of Japan, as it pushed western Japan, centered on Osaka, to develop its cotton industry. These two industries and the Yawata Steel Works in northern Kyushu transformed Japan from an agricultural country to an industrial country in the late 19th century. In this story, the role of government is both central and peripheral. Without the decision by the Tokugawa shogun’s government to open Japan to external trade, this development would never have happened. However, once Japan was opened to trade, the Tokugawa government did not do much to help the trade, while the Meiji government, though desirous of fostering trade, did not always succeed in its efforts. Ultimately, it was the producers and merchants, the people, who transformed the rural economy and the country itself.

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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.