The Other Modern Empire

guest post by Jordan Sand

read Jordan’s review article

A Japanese Prime Minister visits Yasukuni, the country’s military shrine, and Chinese and Korean leaders express outrage. Korean-Americans build a memorial to the so-called “comfort women,” forced to serve as prostitutes for the Japanese Imperial Army in World War II, and Japanese politicians protest. In an on-line course at MIT, a historian of Japan posts a reproduction of a woodblock print depicting Japanese soldiers beheading POWs in the first Sino-Japanese War and sparks protests from Chinese students that make front-page news. All of these events of recent years show the long shadow of Japanese imperialism falling on events in the present.


The East Asian history wars are widely known. Less noted, however, is that since the late twentieth century, alongside continued examination of modern Japan’s military imperialism, a quiet revolution has taken place in the study of modern Japan’s empire. Whereas previous Anglophone historiography had treated Japanese imperialism primarily in the context of what was called, from a U.S.-centric perspective, the “road to Pearl Harbor,” historians are increasingly delving into the Japanese colonial archive to chart more than militarism. They focused first on the structures of Japanese colonial rule, then on cultures of colonialism in Korea, Taiwan and “Manchukuo,” the short-lived client state under the domination of Japan’s Kwantung Army. New work since the late 1990s in the study of literature and art as well as in history has brought to the fore the politics of colonial subjecthood, including complex positions that defy the binary of colonizer and colonized.


In the process, histories that had been tidily segregated by postcolonial nationalism have begun to re-connect. The process is still fraught. The Second World War looms closer on the horizon of contemporary East Asian politics than it does in Europe. Yet the new Japanese imperial historiography avoids whitewashing at the same time that it avoids the telescoped narrative that tied everything to the context of total war between 1937-45. The aim is not to speak for the empire or the nation of Japan but to uncover the patterns of unequal encounter and the dynamics of hegemony within Japanese imperium.


Historians of East Asia have thus joined in the project of reinterpreting empire represented by the work of Frederick Cooper, Ann Laura Stoler, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and others who have reread the archive of the European colonial empires “against the grain.” Thanks to the work of this generation of historians (and anthropologists), we understand the modern imperial enterprise as shot through with tensions and contradictions. The figure of the ordinary colonist has become at once more vulnerable and less benign. Decolonization has become more than simply the realization of an international order based on the principle of national self-determination.


Japan stood on the margins in the club of imperial powers, much as the history of Japan’s empire until very recently stood on the margins of the history of empire. The reasons then and now are not the same, however. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when white supremacy provided the founding logic for Europe’s civilizing mission, an empire led by Asians fit uneasily into the picture. Victorian-era Japan apologists went through pseudo-ethnological contortions to establish that the Japanese were racially more akin to Europeans than to other Asians. American orientalist William Griffis, for example, drew imaginary lines of descent through Siberia and the Caucuses to assert that Japan’s “basic stock” was white.


Japanese intellectuals, for their part, struggled to situate their own empire in theories of imperialism of their day. In the late 1920s, economist Takahashi Kamekichi, one of many Japanese Marxists who would later become ultranationalists, asserted that Japanese imperialism was qualitatively different from the imperialism of the Western countries because as a late developer, Japan was a mere petit bourgeois to Europe’s grand bourgeois. Japan’s “petty imperialism,” Takahashi claimed, put it in fundamental solidarity with the subaltern nations that were the imperial system’s proletariat. The wars Japan had fought with China and Russia over spheres of influence on the continent, and even the annexation of Korea, were, in this scheme, anti-imperial moves necessary to national survival.


After World War II in the Anglophone academy, particularly in the United States from the 1950s through the 1970s, Japan was treated as anomalous again, as it was placed in the privileged position of model modernizer within the Cold War field of Asian studies. For scholars of the modernization school, Japan’s imperial era was an unfortunate episode, not a fundamental aspect of the modern nation-state’s history. The study of Japanese history in Western universities came into maturity in these years, to a large degree within departments of Asian Studies.


Although the original strategic reasons for this sequestering disappeared with the end of the Cold War, the legacy remained. When I trained as a historian of Japan in the early 1990s, it was still possible to know little about Japan’s former colonies. Today, things are different. When I teach modern Japanese history, the course involves not only the formal colonies and Manchukuo but Japanese diaspora in the Americas as well.


The four books I have reviewed together in Past and Present represent an assortment of some of the most innovative recent work on the Japanese empire, ranging in theme from tourism to military conscription. They all deserve to be read by historians outside Asian area studies. Integrating the history of Japan within the global history of modern empire could also change the way we understand empire generally.

read the review article

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