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  • Your Place or My Place?A Question from the Margins of the Japanese Empire
  • Mark Driscoll
Transitions to Modernity in Taiwan: The Spirit of 1895 and the Cession of Formosa to Japan by Niki J. P. Alsford. London: Routledge, 2017. Pp. xi + 230. $150.00 cloth, $54.95 e-book.
Outcasts of Empire: Japan's Rule on Taiwan's "Savage Border," 1874–1945 by Paul Barclay. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017. Pp. 322. $34.95 paper, open-access e-book available at
Placing Empire: Travel and the Social Imagination in Imperial Japan by Kate McDonald. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017. Pp. xviii + 254. $34.95 paper, open-access e-book available at

Whether the centrifugal flows of modernization theory or the dispossessing Godzilla-like stomps of anticapital critique, scholars of Japanese imperialism have assumed a center-to-periphery vector. While liberal and neomodernization scholars generally applaud the steamrolling, civilizing mission of Japanese and Euro-American imperialism, Marxists and world ecologists point to expanding expropriation of labor, land, and life. The major difference is that when resistance emerges—whether taking extrahuman or human form—neomodernizationists point to locals as grudgingly welcoming Japanese or British [End Page 257] forces. On the other hand, Marxists and world ecologists emphasize the ways comprador elites take sides against their brothers and sisters and betray their locality by intensifying contradictions between capital and labor or landlords and peasants. Although postcolonial studies have recommended shifting this entire perspective to focus on the margins of empire, scholars of East Asia have largely not gone in this direction—until now. For in three recent works on Anglo-American and emerging Japanese imperialist dealings with Taiwan, the scholarly tendency has finally homed in on the margins—an approach Paul Barclay calls pericentrism (p. 14).

Of course, Taiwan is an ideal site for this approach. With a contested sovereignty shuttling back and forth between the Netherlands, the Qing dynasty, Japan, and then the Guomindang–US Cold War alliance, it provides no stable epistemic place to establish a definitive center-periphery structure. As the éminence grise of scholarship on Japanese imperialism, Kobayashi Hideo 小林英夫 put it after his first research trip to Taiwan in 1997–1998, he expected to find postcolonial effects solely linked to Japan's colonial endeavor from 1895 to 1945. Instead, he discovered an almost unfathomable palimpsest of imperial pasts, all interlaced and ultimately inextricable.1

Niki J. P. Alsford calls this palimpsest the "1895 spirit." In the most complex analytic so far on the colonial takeover of Taiwan, Alsford promises to "challenge the orthodoxy that modernity in Taiwan was merely a product of the Japanese, to instead argue that the social, political, and economic forces in parts of Taiwan (predominantly urban and maritime) at that time were both vibrant and largely cosmopolitan" (p. 2). Using recent work pioneered by Hamashita Takeshi 濱下武志—who argues that Euro-American treaty-port imperialism merely overlaid itself on a preexisting system of maritime Asian trade2—Alsford makes a convincing case for what he calls "hybrid coloniality" (p. 80), in which Dutch colonialism was merely the first event in a cascading series of colonization, decolonization, and reterritorialization. [End Page 258]

Barclay's sophisticated and innovative work makes a similar intervention when he argues that this palimpsestic structure established the present-day parameters for indigenous identity in Taiwan. While building on the Qing dynasty's consolidation of both a physical and ideological border between "savages" and Han and Hakka Chinese, the Japanese colonial state utilized modern phenotypical classification to fix and essentialize indigenous groups. As Barclay puts it:

As it severed bonds between indigenes and their lands, in addition to prohibiting or reforming folkways it deemed injurious to its civilizing mission, the government-general nonetheless laid the groundwork for the emergence of Taiwan Indigenous Peoples as a conscious and agentive historical formation. By arresting the diffusion of Chinese language and customs into Taiwan's interior, restricting geographic mobility across the so-called "Savage Border," dividing the colony into normally and specially administered zones, and sanctioning a battery of projects in top-down ethnogenesis, the government-general inscribed a nearly...


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