- Janus and the Japanese Empire
In the warm afterglow of London 2012, it was easy to forget that the Olympic games began with a cock-up. On 25 July, two days before the official opening ceremony, the North Korea vs. Colombia women’s soccer match was delayed for an hour because of the former team’s fury at British officials having confused the North and South Korean national flags. (“It’s just not going to happen,” an official had predicted of such protocol errors in an interview prior to the Games. “It’s not. It’s not.”) 1 East Asian geopolitics made headlines on the penultimate day of the Olympics, too, when South Korean male soccer player Park Jong-woo was barred from participating in his team’s bronze medal ceremony. Following his team’s victory over Japan, Park had held up a banner supporting his country’s disputed claim to a set of islands in the East Sea/Sea of Japan—islands that are also claimed by Japan. Meanwhile, as summer turned into autumn, the status of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, in the East China Sea, became the focus of renewed tensions between China and Japan. Large-scale protests in China against Tokyo’s policies towards the islands book-ended the eighty-first anniversary of the Manchurian Incident, 18 September 1931.
“In the political psychology of the region,” Paul Berman recently wrote in The New Republic, “the era of decolonization has somehow not yet come to an end.”2 Berman was actually referring to the Middle East, but the controversies of the summer of 2012 suggest that his observation is equally applicable to East Asia, with the common denominator in the aforementioned territorial disputes—and in others, such as the contested South Kuril islands—the history of Japanese colonialism and its aftermath. And yet, as recently as 2000, Andre Schmid could claim that the field of English-language scholarship on the Japanese empire was “in its infancy.”3
Schmid’s metaphor was telling, reflecting as it (arguably) did not only the field of Japanese historiographyup to the 1990s but, more generally, an implicit characterization ascribed when historians discussed Japan in comparative overviews of global imperialism and colonialism (that is, when it was discussed at all).4 To wit, Japan was a late-developer in its practice of modernization at home and imperialism abroad, it merely copied established models, and its exploits were plucky and somewhat surprising to Western observers: the clever little lad catching up with the West. The five books under review comprehensively demolish such a characterization. In so doing, they join a growing body of recent scholarship that not only demonstrates the ruddy maturity of the field of Japanese Studies but should also be of interest to historians of imperialism and colonialism more generally.5
Before turning to the books, however, it might be useful to explore some of the ways that problematic characterizations of Japanese imperialism persist. As is well known, the beginning of Japan’s imperial project coincided with the emergence of a new stage of colonial enterprise, “new imperialism,” among European nation-states. That historians indeed talk of “new” and “old” imperialisms underlines the basic fact that European nations boasted a much longer history of colonial interactions by the second half of the nineteenth century than did Japan.6 Equally, early Japanese colonial expansion occurred not after or as a result of many decades of industrialization in the metropole, but rather simultaneously with a programme of heavy industrialization that was...