I think we need a new word for the study of colonialism, imperialism and the post-colonial discourses, pro and con. Pro? Who’s in favor of it? Well, this is what makes it interesting, these days: there are a lot of former colonial powers out there whose citizens and leaders, in their heart of hearts, still believe that they accomplished something that was ultimately positive, who still believe that their developmental initiatives and their anti-communist (or anti-capitalist) positions were justified by subsequent developments. This is usually — explicitly or implicitly — intended to mitigate or cancel out any discussions of political repression, economic exploitation, military atrocities or strategic abandonment. Sometimes it’s just good historical sense, but then it usually comes with very careful caveats about not canceling out the other stuff.

In the former category, we have Japan’s second-best known conservative speaking out

[Japanese Foreign Minister Taro] Aso said that ”thanks to the significant improvement in educational standards and literacy” during Japan’s colonial rule, ”Taiwan is now a country with a very high education level and keeps up with the current era.”

”This is something I was told by an important figure in Taiwan and all the elderly people knew about it,” he said, according to Kyodo News. ”That was a time when I felt that, as expected, our predecessors did a good thing.”

There’s been real research done on things like education and colonial legacies, but Aso is basing his conclusions on “something I was told” and a somewhat panglossian view of early 20th century Japanese leaders. Aso is not trying to present a nuanced historical revision; he’s something of a flamethower, politically speaking. Another in a long line of Japanese politicians who is playing to the home audience; this time, though, unlike some of the ’80s and ’90s gaffes where foreign press turned off-the-cuff statements into scandals, I’m quite sure that he’s counting on foreign reaction to emphasize Japan’s international isolation and historical victimhood.

For a more nuanced discussion, though Prasenjit Duara’s Japan Focus article condenses down some of his recent scholarship and argues that Manchukuo was a “post-colonial” state because it was formally autonomous instead of being a traditional colony. He calls this “New Imperialism” (though I thought the late 19c “scramble for Africa” and Chinese treaty ports was the “new” imperialism; hint: never name something “new” because it won’t be for long), defined as “imperialism without colonialism” practiced by the US and USSR as well as Japan in the early 20th century. Some of the hallmarks of New Imperialism are the lack of colonial integration, the use of anti-imperialist rhetorical justifications, and the use of some kind of theory of solidarity binding formally autonomous states together into a community of strategic interest.

It’s not a bad definition, but Manchukuo, it seems to me, is a weak example and highlights the difficulty of defining “autonomous” and “state” in meaningful ways. But Duara tries to make a case for Manchukuo as a pretty solidly modern (in concept, anyway) nation-state, and as such a sign that Japanese imperialism produced a modernization effect. Duara is not, in any way, whitewashing aspects of imperialism such as political repression or economic exploitation, but rather pointing out that the instrumental nature of imperialism often required that the imperial subject state be developed — institutionally and economically — to the point of being useful to its dominating power. This strikes me as interesting, but not terribly different from World Systems Theory concepts of peripheries and development under dependency.

There’s lots of places where Duara’s argument doesn’t entirely ring true to me. To take one example, he cites Manchukuo’s creation as an independent state instead of a colony as a result of intellectual trends and imperialist theories within Japan and the rhetorical structure (Confucian) of pan-Asianism, and seems to ignore the tactical issue: Japan was trying, initially, to get the world to ignore the fact that Manchukuo was a colony, however formally administered. It’s interesting to see how the rhetoric fits the situation, but I’m not convinced that the rhetoric shaped the situation so much as the reverse.

Duara is also arguing for an historiographical continuity between pre-WWII and post-WWII imperial networks, which certainly rings true, at least to my World Systems Theory influenced view of imperialism. I never thought that the distinction between “colony”, “puppet regime”, “client state”, and “peripheral economy” was clear lines or, for that matter, all that important in tracing influence; it’s the direction and scale of power, which is a continuum, that matters, and the distinction between Imperialism With Colonialism and Imperialism Without Colonialism doesn’t really seem all that important to me if there isn’t a real difference in effect.



  1. This question is particularly interesting for historians of the Qing Empire. In PRC historiography of this period, there is a distinction between what was “done to China” by the European powers and that which was “done unto others” by the Qing in Xinjiang, Tibet and China’s Southwest. Is the Qing’s westward expansion colonialism? Is it imperialism? Is it “Manifest Destiny with Chinese characteristics?” (to borrow a phrase from my Americanist colleagues) Furthemore, Duara’s point about pre- and post-WWII linkages is certainly applicable to this question since today’s PRC, like the heirs of other former imperial and colonial powers, enjoys the present day benefits of a past empire.

  2. I have not read the Duara piece, but my general sense is that you are right: Manchukuo is a weak case for this argument.
    But let’s get back to Aso and Taiwan. On one level, the assertion that Japan invested in Taiwan’s social infrastructure and created some outcomes, in education and public health say, that were better than outcomes in many parts of the mainland is not terribly controversial. It is a commonplace among historians of Taiwan and is something Lee Teng-hui says all the time. The only remarkable thing about the statement, then, is who made it, and that Aso had said, just last week I believe, that the Japanese Emperor should visit the Yasukuni shrine. That is what this is all about. It seems to me, therefore, that China is overreacting by stating that it is shocked that anyone could say such a thing and splashing it all over its newspaper web pages. China’s absolutist nationalist view of the matter (there can be no positive outcome of any aspect of Japanese colonization of Taiwan ever) is certainly untenable, and just as historically problematic as former colonialists looking for absolution.

  3. I don’t disagree: my main point is that Aso’s goal is not balanced history as much as it is political; I don’t particularly think that repeating commonplace tropes qualifies as balance. Duara’s argument, that colonial modernization serves imperialist aims, is more to the point.

  4. Re: Jeremiah’s comment on Qing expansion in Xinjiang, one interpretation could be that the Qing engaged in Imperialism without Colonialism, and the PRC has engaged in Imperialism with Colonialism, since the population was hardly made up of anyone from Inner China until post-1949, when there was organized and not-so-organized migration into the region that heavily changed the demographics. Qing priorities in the region were mainly military, while the PRC has pursued migration, economic integration and the like. One could also say that the PRCs engages in much the emphasis on the positive as former colonial powers in Xinjiang for the same reasons you mention: “to cancel out discussions of political repression, economic exploitation, military atrocities or strategic abandonment”.

  5. It seems none of you know what a colony was. The term colony was an ancient Greek model in which a city state replicated itself somewhere else in the Mediterranean regions. Korea, Manchuria and Taiwan were forcibly annexed by Japan and were as such not true colonies but unwilling subjugated territories.

    As the discussions dragged the ancient Chinese into the discussion, it must be pointed out that ancient Chinese society did not follow the same model as the ancient Greeks. The areas described by the various bloggers here were not Chinese colonies, but were treated as the Chinese hinterland, and as a part of the Chinese state. Where resources allowed, military garrisons were maintained. Indeed Chinese garrisons were established in present day Afghanistan.

    The question has to asked that if there were peoples in these regions what were their political status? As with America and Australia, any people in these regions were not organised into what was recognised as a nation. And as with contemporary European history, the title of state and territory changes with the monarchs. Taking over a monarchy could be achieved by conquest or marriage or inheritance through marriage.

    A model which worked for a few million humans, such as the colonial model of ancient Greece, would not work when human population increased to tens of million of people, and it would certainly not work when the human population reached hundreds of millions of people, or the several billions of people now. Modern state boundaries do not correspond to ancient state boundaries, if indeed there were clear concepts of state boundaries in the various ancient civilisations.

    Before historians begin to discuss a concept, they must ensure that they actually have a definition and good understanding of the concept they want to discuss.

  6. The term “colony” means more now than it did when the Greeks reigned over fragments of the Mediterranean basin. Since Greek city-states did fight over control of colonies — I seem to recall something about a Peloponesian war? — some of them were acquired by conquest (and it’s not like all the territories the Greeks went to were entirely unsettled, either). Sorry, as much as I agree that some terminological consistency is necessary, Grecian originalism is not going to cut it.

  7. In which case, you people will need to state clearly what ‘colony’ and ‘colonialism’ mean to you before proceeding to detailed discussions.

  8. > one interpretation could be that the Qing engaged in Imperialism without Colonialism
    > and the PRC has engaged in Imperialism with Colonialism,

    While you’re debating over niceties like this,
    I recall the comment in Perdue’s paper:

    Peter Perdue
    “Military Mobilization in Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century China,
    Russia, and Mongolia” Modern Asian Studies 30.4 (1996) 757-793.

    that the population of at least one Inner Asian
    was *completely decimated* post-conquest.
    We’re talking complete extinction here, which
    makes settlement vs. no settlement
    a somewhat irrelevant distinction.

    Part of this is probably resettlement of war captives also.

    Jon Fernquest

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