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.
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.
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.