- The Natural History of Japanese Colonialism
A generation ago, around the death of the emperor in whose name the empire had been justified, imperialism and colonialism may still have been slightly marginal to modern Japanese history. The latter was concerned, after all, with the archipelago’s transformation into a modern nation-state and an industrial economy, as well as the identification of those times and places when it had gone wrong. The colonial period occasionally registered as one such time. But inasmuch as historians focused on the nation and its inadequacies, the empire tended to be read as evidence of the original sin of inadequate modernization and its loss the just reward of wartime defeat.
Already things were changing, though. The publication of three volumes on the colonial, informal, and wartime empires by Princeton University Press, beginning in 1984, and the eight volumes of Iwanami kōza kindai Nihon to shokuminchi 岩波講座近代日本と植民地 by Iwanami shoten, beginning in 1992, marked a watershed.1 Two and a half [End Page 161] decades later, after a steady stream of monographs and articles, many of them produced during doctoral research, we know that empire provides a key with which to unlock much of Japan’s late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century history. But understanding the empire is difficult. It was a mimetic product of its time but differed in crucial ways from the Euro-American colonial empires against which it was a counterpoise. It was a differentiated phenomenon, evolving over time, and more often than not configured locally in such a way that the line between colonizer and colonized could be blurred. It is, therefore, familiar as a historical object, a predictable feature of an age of industry and empire, but also the contingent outcome of particular Northeast Asian histories and geographies, motivations and investments.
In this light, these two books are curious. Both are reversions to earlier preoccupations and approaches. Matsumura is determined to find revolutionary subjects in the internal colony of Okinawa, as Marxist theory insists she must. Akita and, perhaps, Palmer, as good imperial historians, believe that the intentions of statesmen and the self-evident truths of primary sources are witness to the comparative moderation of Japanese rule in colonial Korea. They are diametrically opposed, therefore, but converge in that they both seem to naturalize Japanese colonialism as the product of a larger whole: capitalism, for Matsumura; the common sense of a historical era, for Akita and Palmer. Neither helps advance the patient and forensic analysis that has characterized the most useful recent scholarship. But both are reminders of simple truths and useful tools, which should not entirely determine the story, as they do here, but can still help us ask better questions, search more effectively, and provide more compelling answers.
Matsumura is drawing on the deeper, richer well. Her concern is to rescue Okinawa from the condescension to which it has often been consigned, as a backward periphery of mainland and metropolis, to be consoled in terms of cultural distinctiveness. She is determined not to rehearse this narrative of victimization. Rather, she understands the process of marginalization as a consequence of Okinawa’s differential [End Page 162] incorporation within the Japanese political economy between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In sum, she suggests that we need to redescribe the claim of cultural difference as the product of capitalism. And to understand this, she argues convincingly, we need to acknowledge both the unequal, colonial relationship between Japan and its newly acquired dependency, and tensions within Okinawa itself. Central to the latter was the discord between middle-class leaders, eager to find a way to belong to the nation-state, whose opinions frequently found their way into print, and small producers, often indifferent, whose unruly voices are much harder to find. A main contribution is...