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Reviewed by:
  • Crossing Empire's Edge: Foreign Ministry Police and Japanese Expansionism in Northeast Asia
  • Emer O'Dwyer
Crossing Empire's Edge: Foreign Ministry Police and Japanese Expansionism in Northeast Asia. By Erik Esselstrom. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008. 248 pp. $59.00 (cloth).

Esselstrom's monograph on the Japanese consular police in Asia is a testament to how the study of Japan's prewar empire is undergoing a renaissance led by younger scholars animated by new approaches and concerns. The importance of transnational history in capturing the flow of ideas and institutions, the interconnectivity of metropole and colony, and the imperative of decentering September 1931 as Stunde null in the transition to "wartime imperialism" are among the most pressing of these new approaches and concerns. [End Page 185]

The protagonists of Esselstrom's study are the Japanese consular police whose presence in Asia dates to the early 1880s, just over a decade after the Meiji Restoration and Japan's transition to modern nationhood. These police emerged first in the treaty ports of late Chosŏn Korea. Maintenance of public order and protection of local Japanese residents who had flocked to the peninsula eager to partake of newfound economic opportunities (following establishment of modern trade relations with the 1876 Treaty of Kanghwa) were, ostensibly, the main concerns of the early police corps. It is Esselstrom's contention, however, that the consular police presence was instrumental in the process by which Korean sovereignty was eroded over the course of the 1880s and 1890s and that eventually led to the establishment of a Japanese protectorate in 1905. The size of the force expanded from 11 personnel in Pusan in 1880 to some 270 twenty-five years later, when the establishment of a new protectorate administration in late 1905 absorbed many of their number into new police units. With annexation in 1910, veteran consular police were among those entrusted with training the new colonial police force. These transfers of personnel and know-how remind us of the continuities behind Japan's Korea policy over the 1910 divide, as well as of the centrality of armed force to Japan's presence on the peninsula throughout. Simply put, the consular police were the vanguard of invasion and colonial control—a process repeated in China and Manchuria in subsequent decades.

Esselstrom's focus in chapter 2 on China's treaty ports at the turn of the century reveals two important truths: first that consular police provide an excellent case study for demonstrating the value of transnational history in discovering new dimensions to familiar stories, and second, that Japan's protection of its interests by force in the treaty ports was unexceptional when compared with similar actions taken by France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other Western powers of the time in Shanghai, Tianjin, Xiamen (Amoy), and elsewhere in China. Though Esselstrom does not explore Chinese reactions to perceived infractions by Western powers of treaty port rules and regulations, such infractions by the Japanese consular police throughout the second decade of the twentieth century reveal an early start to Chinese complaints about the violation of sovereignty that would become endemic in the 1920s and lead to a total breakdown of diplomatic relations by the early 1930s.

Esselstrom's switching of his sights to southern Manchuria (halfway through chapter 2) provides the setting for a range of new interpretative strategies for understanding the connections (and frictions) between metropole and empire, as well as between individual authorities [End Page 186] and actors in Japan's sphere of influence in northeast China: semi-colonial, colonial, and what we might call collaborationist. Japanese consular police stationed in the Kwantung Leasehold and Rail Zone butted heads time and again with their compatriots in the office of the Kwantung Resident-General (renamed the Kwantung Administration in 1919—more on name changes below), which was responsible for administering Japan's "special rights" in South Manchuria and which maintained its own separate police force. Jurisdictional ambiguity also characterized the relationship between Manchuria's consular police and Korea Government-General police in Jiandao, a border region along the northeastern stretch of the Yalu River that separated China's Jilin Province from colonial...