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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

Japanese Empire in Taiwan  

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.

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

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 settler colonial 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.