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Technology of Empire: Telecommunications and Japanese Expansion in Asia, 1883–1945 (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 142-147 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0003

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In Technology of Empire: Telecommunications and Japanese Expansion in Asia, 1883–1945, Daqing Yang takes the reader back in time to what was an altogether new space: the pioneering world of cable and wireless communications networks that gradually stitched together the burgeoning Japanese Empire. In four parts totaling ten chapters, Yang delivers a comprehensive analysis of how telecommunications technology evolved and operated throughout Japan’s expanding colonial and wartime territories, and how this “techno-imperialism” aimed to advance Japan’s empire-building goals (p. 8). The simultaneous depth and breadth of his research is impressive, for perhaps the only thing as difficult as building and operating such an enormous, complex communications network would be attempting to retrace its development some 70 and 80 years later. Yet Yang leaves no stone unturned, shedding light on the numerous political, economic, bureaucratic, and technological challenges that beset Japan’s thousands of wireless engineers, operators, and managers as they worked to “annihilate” distance (p. 13) and overcome “the new spatial realities of empire” (p. 281).

Yang’s book both begins and ends with the subject of Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945, for the emperor’s wireless broadcast was, ironically, the first time that Japan’s vast communications network had been used to reach out to every corner of the empire at once. This meant the empire had survived to that point due chiefly to its wireless and telegraphic networks, which enabled far-flung corners of the imperium to continue communicating even after its fleets and transportation networks had been shattered by Allied air power. This discussion transforms the concept of empire from a mere territorial and political consideration into one enhanced by the themes of technology and technocratic control. Still, although it focuses on electronic communications, Yang’s book does not sanitize Japan’s wartime campaigns or necessarily celebrate its technological accomplishments. Yang has already done much work on the subject of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and he does not shy away from the uglier side of imperialism. Still, as his book demonstrates, the vast majority of telegrams sent throughout the Japanese empire were written by and for civilians, mostly business figures, as well as by travelers and family members, not simply by diplomatic and military personnel. Although an agent and a product of military expansion, Japan’s communications networks were used by local peoples throughout the empire, and for all manner of reasons.

In his first chapter, Yang explores the earliest adaptations of overland and submarine telegraphy, which Japan began to employ after Commodore Matthew Perry delivered the necessary equipment in 1854. As the first modern public facility introduced by the Meiji government, the telegraph line set up between Tokyo and Yokohama in January 1870 was a scientific marvel. From there, the author launches into a thoughtful discussion of telecommunications, imperial control, and the rise of modern Japan. Thereafter, chapters 2 and 3 discuss the arrival of wireless telegraphy, the importance and urgency of which was underscored by World War I in Europe and Japan’s Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Yang also explores the founding of the Japan Wireless Telegraph Company in 1925, the first in a series of private, public, and joint-venture wireless firms discussed in great depth as he traces the expansion of Japan’s undersea cable and wireless links throughout Manchuria and China during the 1930s. In chapters 4 and 5, he shares a series of vignettes dealing with themes such as the increasing role of imperial propaganda, the growing reach of broadcast news, the advent of homegrown Japanese technology, the struggles against Chinese and European wireless networks, and the great difficulty of laying submarine cables to Korea, Shanghai, and Taiwan. Yang focuses closely on how communications links were used during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904–5 and during Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931, just two of many illustrations of the growing speed and importance of military and diplomatic traffic in the new twentieth century. Here, his book builds upon the significant work done by Louise Young, whose 1999 book, Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (University of California Press), dealt frequently with the issues of consumer...



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