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  • Crossing Empire's Edge: Foreign Ministry Police and Japanese Expansionism in Northeast Asia
  • Selcuk Esenbel
Crossing Empire's Edge: Foreign Ministry Police and Japanese Expansionism in Northeast Asia. By Erik Esselstrom. University of Hawai'i Press, 2008. 248 pages. Hardcover $59.00.

Crossing Empire's Edge, by Erik Esselstrom, is part of the new field of transnational history, which looks at border-crossing issues and experiences that researchers working within the boundaries of the nation-state have frequently neglected. The work sheds critical light on the participation of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Gaimushō) in prewar imperialism and militarism in the context of the political intelligence role the ministry's police force played during the twentieth century. Making rigorous use of both published and unpublished ministry records and the available research on this aspect of Japanese imperialism—little known, especially in English-language scholarship—the book convincingly argues against remnants of the official view that, emerging from the Tokyo War Crimes Trial following World War II, has relegated responsibility for Japanese militarism solely to the army and a few radical Asianist extremists. As he states early in the book, Esselstrom takes issue with the [End Page 408] standard view of postwar scholarship, which has often characterized the Foreign Ministry as a liberal and progressive element that clashed with the Imperial Army, whose unilateral security prerogatives and reckless ideological ambition led to the Manchurian Incident of 1931 and its aftermath. The author challenges the so-called villains-and-victims view of prewar Japanese imperialism and militarism and its vindication of the American destruction of that polity and exoneration of "ordinary" Japanese from responsibility. By showing the involvement of the Foreign Ministry, the book provides insight into that institution's participation at each stage of Japan's colonial and imperialist project.

In five concise chapters rich with solid evidence, Esselstrom discusses the activities, spanning roughly sixty-five years, of the consular police force organized under the Japanese Foreign Ministry and deployed, through a controversial interpretation of extraterritorial privilege, on the Asian continent as part of Japan's informal empire. Originally a small security force, the consular police evolved to become a "full-fledged political intelligence apparatus devoted to apprehending Korean, Chinese, and Japanese purveyors of dangerous thought" (p. 2). Active in China's treaty ports, North China, and Manchuria along the Korean border, at its peak in 1936 the consular police force numbered 1,794, or just over 70 percent, of the Foreign Ministry's 2,557 total personnel overseas.

Beginning with a discussion of patterns of Japanese police work in late Chosŏn Korea, the first chapter recounts the origins of Japan's earliest quasi-colonial organization in northeast Asia as Japanese consular police institutions in Korea. The force stationed in Korea illustrates the part played by the Foreign Ministry in facilitating that country's annexation, a development in which Japanese residents were deeply involved. The second chapter looks at Japanese consular police in late Qing and early Republican China, and in Manchuria. Responsible for the protection of local Japanese civilians and Koreans, who were considered to be Japanese subjects, the consular police stationed in the Jiandao region (on the Manchurian/Korean border) became a source of jurisdictional ambiguity and led to clashes with Chinese police forces throughout this period. Chapter 3 sheds light on the history of Japanese intelligence, tracing the development of Japanese consular activities in this area as a means of guarding against ideological threats to the imperial state, whether posed by nationalists or Communists, by Koreans or Japanese. Here we see the background to Imperial Japan's prewar anti-Communism, which would form the basis for collaboration between the United States and former members of Japanese army intelligence during the Cold War years.1

The discussion of Japan's anti-Communist ideology during the 1920s and 1930s rightfully places Japanese history in the context of twentieth-century imperialism and patterns of global power relations. One interesting example, reminiscent of patterns in modern global power behavior up to the present, is the prewar collaboration between the French and Japanese Foreign Ministry offices, which exchanged information about political opposition groups, including Vietnamese nationalists, in the case...


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