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21 1 The Pelagic Empire Reconsidering Japanese Expansion William M. Tsutsui The Terrestrial Bias This essay is based on the modest proposition that understanding imperialism requires us to consider oceans as well as land masses. Given the ongoing and global “fad in oceanic studies,” encompassing historians, literary scholars, and social scientists, such a contention is hardly revolutionary.1 Nevertheless, as W. Jeffrey Bolster has noted, environmental historians have long shared a common “blind spot” when it comes to “the 70 percent of the globe covered by salt water.”2 Following in the wake of Rachel Carson, who in her 1951 classic The Sea Around Us wrote naively (or perhaps just optimistically) that man “cannot control or change the ocean as, in his brief tenancy on Earth, he has subdued and plundered the continents,” the field of environmental history has demonstrated what J. R. McNeill calls “a terrestrial bias.”3 Departing from such long-standing prejudices, I contend here that imperialism and the patterns of resource exploitation which it has connoted, at least in its twentieth-century incarnations, were not phenomena just of dry-land environments but very much left their marks on the seas as well. Using the case study of the Japanese Empire from the late nineteenth century through World War II, I argue for the importance of a marine perspective on the motivations, methods, and consequences of modern imperialism, as well as for the practice of environmental history. Oceans and Empires Historians have generally conceived Japanese expansionism as a purely terrestrial affair. The narrative of Japan’s imperial ascent is almost invariably traced through chronologies of territorial acquisition, the annexation of islands, archipelagoes, and regions, along with their populations and natural resources. The milestones William M. Tsutsui 22 of Japanese imperialism are rooted, above all, in military exploits and the domination of land: the Ryukyu Islands in 1871, the Bonin Islands in 1875, the Kurils in the same year, Taiwan (booty of the Sino-Japanese War) in 1895, the southern half of Sakhalin Island and the Liaodong Peninsula (trophies of the Russo-Japanese War) in 1905, Korea in 1910, the islands of Micronesia (known to the Japanese as Nan’yō) obtained during World War I, the absorption of Manchuria after 1931, the drive into China after 1937, and the vast, rapid gains in Southeast Asia, the southwestern Pacific, and even the Aleutians after December 7, 1941. In short, the historiography of Japanese imperialism has to date been concerned almost exclusively with terra firma. Such scholarly preoccupation with dry land as the basis of empire building has not been peculiar to the Japanese case. In the broader historical literature on imperialism, oceans are seen as conduits or cordons, avenues to empire rather than the sources of empire, paths along which goods, capital, settlers, and military hardware could flow between metropole and colony but not sites of colonization or imperial ambition per se. Alfred Mahan’s impression of the oceans, first articulated in 1890, has been persistent: “The first and most obvious light in which the sea presents itself from the political and social point of view is that of a great highway; or better, perhaps, of a wide common, over which men may pass in all directions, but on which some well-worn paths show that controlling reasons have led them to choose certain lines of travel rather than others.”4 Even in more recent analyses, oceans figure only as “transnational contact zones” or “border worlds,” liminal spaces never of an empire but eternally amidst them.5 In the voluminous writings on the British Empire—a maritime imperium if there ever was one—the high seas are usually characterized as the stage for British naval power and the global passageway for British commerce, but they are seldom locations in and of themselves of imperial exploitation and dominion.6 Thus, although Thomas Metcalf expansively claims that “the Raj comprehended the sea as well as the land” in his innovative study of Britain’s “Indian Ocean–centered empire,” he ends up falling back on hoary notions of oceanic space connecting the continental outposts of empire but not itself constituting empire.7 Britannia may have ruled the waves, but, so historians tell us, she left little in the way of a mark upon them. Much of the difficulty in trying to conceive empires in marine terms derives from the fundamentally terrestrial nature of most of the time-honored theories of imperialism. Hobson and Lenin were clearly not thinking oceanically when they proclaimed...


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