ASPAC Blogging: Colonialism and Imperialism

Soka - Night Ikeda LibraryThere were quite a few papers at ASPAC this year which addressed Japan’s colonial and imperial relationships: my own discussion of migration as an aspect of modernity notes that imperialism — which is clearly a component of modernity, one way or the other — depends heavily on migration for its success.1 The ones I want to highlight were about Korea, Okinawa and Hokkaido.

Samuel Lederer’s paper on the construction of legitimacy in the English-language Governor-General reports from Japanese occupied Korea from 1907 to 1917 made interesting use of the visual materials as well as texts.2 Lederer noted that the reports began after the 1907 incident at The Hague, when Japan was concerned that Korean intransigience could lead to another Triple Intervention-like incident and were not only published in English, but sent to major universities overseas. The reports were modeled on French Algerian and British Indian reports and took a very conventional “modernizing backward colonials” position, while downplaying Korean concerns. Interestingly, I thought, the reports portrayed the assassination of Ito Hirobumi as the work of a madman, rather than admit that it came out of a nationalist sentiment which might be shared more broadly. The use of visual images, especially contrasts between ‘traditional’ Korean practices and ‘modern’ Japanese reforms, was striking: everything from classrooms to graveyards to casual workers to fingerprints were used to demonstrate the helplessness, laziness (and criminality) of Koreans in their “natural” state. As Lederer put it, they replaced the cyclic, unchanging history of Korea with a linear progressive history: a quintessentially modernist project.

Linda Isako Angst of Lewis & Clark presented a paper on the early years of US occupation in Okinawa, especially the post-’52 period when Okinawans and Americans were adjusting to the new situation. She cited Teahouse of the August Moon as a central text: a satire on both Japanese and American behavior it also served as a didactic, if orientalist, discourse on hegemony and culture.3 “Okinawans bought into ideas of democracy and progress,” she said, and actually held American occupiers to account during Senate hearings in 1955: the hearings had scheduled 2.5 hours for Okinawan testimony, but it went on for two days, during which detailed and sophisticated arguments regarding Okinawan autonomy and American reponsibility were addressed, as well as the idea that Okinawa was a “sacrifice” for Japanese autonomy.

Finally, Jin Makabe of Hokkaido University presented an interesting intellectual genealogy of colonial theorists, starting with a cadre of Hokkaido University students who were also Christians. Starting with the New Englanders who were the first generation of teachers at Sapporo Agricultural College, both Christianity and liberal ideas of colonial development became part of the Japanese landscape. The chief influence of Christianity in this context seems to be the fantasy that universal brotherhood could come though imperialism, as it overwhelmed borders and brought disparate peoples together. The collection of writers and scholars who shared this connection is pretty substantial: Sato Shosuke, Nitobe Inazo, Takaoka Kumao, Yanaihara Tadao, even Yoshino Sakuzo. I was particularly struck by an oddity: though these men shared some ideas and experiences in common, they all chose different sects of Christianity, ranging from the Japanese non-church Protestantism to Episcopalian to Methodism to Quaker. I’m not convinced by the genealogy argument: there are too many other sources of colonial theory and imperialistic justifications, and the Japanese involved have too many disparate ideas about it to be easily classifed as intellectual descendants. Still, a reminder of the extent of Christian thought among modernizing social reformers is good, and Hokkaido’s role as the first frontier of the modern Japanese state is important.

The degree to which Japanese history has become transnational history really is striking.

  1. I’ll talk more about my own paper at some point, perhaps. For now I’ll just say that one of the great things about a generalist conference like ASPAC is that, even though my paper was the misfit on a panel of post-cold-war political science projects, the audience was diverse enough in interests and specialities that I got some nice comments anyway, especially after.  

  2. Lederer also won the ASPAC Esterline Prize for Best Graduate Student Paper, so I’m not the only one who thought it was good.  

  3. Note: I’ve never seen it, so I’m going by what she said; nobody there who had seen it seemed to be concerned about her characterization of it, though.  


  1. I’m glad to see more attention paid to Hokkaido’s place in Japanese imperialism and colonialism. Too many of the central English-language texts on Japanese colonialism slight the northern frontier. What might be more important about Makabe’s work both that these intellectuals subscribed to a universalizing philosophy wrapped in imperialism, and that they all lived in Hokkaido during its formative colonial period.

  2. I definitely see Hokkaido as one of the first frontiers in Japan’s imperialistic expansion (the other, of course, is Okinawa). There’s a fair bit of scholarship now which puts it in that context, especially the work of David Howell and Brett Walker.

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