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Korean Manchuria: The Racial Politics of Territorial Osmosis
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The South Atlantic Quarterly 99.1 (2000) 193-215


Is “a grammar of difference” a most basic tension of empire? According to Ann Stoler and Frederick Cooper in their thought-provoking essay on colonialism, a central point of the recent colonial scholarship is that “the otherness of colonized persons were neither inherent nor stable; his or her difference had to be defined and maintained.” Their assessment comes from an examination of the European metropole, Africa, and Asia. Noting that their discussions therefore do not address the empires that occupied contiguous territories (notably those conquered and/or occupied by Napoleon, the Habsburgs, or the czars), Stoler and Cooper call for more studies on these different kinds of empires and their implications for the colonial pattern of reproducing difference. I take on this task, proposing here that colonialism need not be driven by the desire to distance and thus control the colonized by creating categories of otherness. In the Japanese empire the move to Asia was expressed as a reunion with the Asian kin, however fictive that was. Japan exhausted its efforts on the cultivation of “natural” unity in its Asian community through imagined blood and organic ties between the metropole and the colonies. The relationship of the colonizer and the colonized in the Japanese empire, therefore, escaped the simple binary opposition of the self and the Other, as evoked in European empires. Instead of otherness, sameness was the mode of rule in the Japanese empire.

The difference in the mode of rule between European and Japanese empires is symptomatic of larger disparities in modes of colonization. Despite obvious overwhelming variations within European and Japanese empires, one primary distinction features that Japanese colonizers ruled other Asians in Asia, while European colonizers ruled different races on different continents. To be specific, geographic and racial contiguity characterized the Japanese mode of colonization, in which the colonization of a country was seen to lead to another colonization of a contiguous region, making a chain of steps that would disseminate Japan’s sovereignty across the borders in Asia. For instance, Japan considered the occupation of Korea to be a first step to the colonizing of Manchuria, China proper, India, and ultimately all the other parts of Asia. I term this cascading image of building empire by sequences of conquests territorial osmosis. In territorial osmosis, the vision of the Japanese empire hinged not merely on the dependent relationship between the metropole and each colony, with the latter serving the former as a provider of resources or as a market. Rather, the vision rested on an intricate unity between the colonizer and the colonized, acting as a series of vessels, that would allow Japan’s sovereign power to flow outward in succession, from one to the next, forming a large Asian community. This territorial osmotic process invokes a “natural” progression in which the colonization of one proceeds to the next scene, just as the meaning of the first act operates in the second scene. The pious fiction of racial unity turned Japan and its colonies into an organic body called Asian community, rendering the colonized into not just colonial agents but organic parts that constituted one Asian communal body. Under these circumstances Japan envisaged the imaginary of sameness through racial and bodily unity rather than the conception of difference between the colonizer and colonized, between self and other.

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Japanese colonialism, often thought to mirror European colonialism, was driven by Japan’s impetus to modernize itself and become like the West and its productive forces, to achieve material wealth and access to world power. Drawing on the trial and error of the European experience, Japan planned its colonial projects ahead and tied them more centrally to the metropole’s interests. Like its European counterparts, Japan wielded military violence over the colonized subjects and then enshrouded these proceedings in terms of its enlightenment project for, and moral superiority over, the colonized. I argue that these conventional views that regarded Japanese colonialism as mirroring European colonialism elide the significance of their crucially distinct geographic and racial politics. European colonialism tended to colonize countries one by one and rule each as a separate entity. In Africa...

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