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  • In Search of Our Frontier: Japanese America and Settler Colonialism in the Construction of Japan's Borderless Empire by Eiichiro Azuma
  • David R. Ambaras (bio)
In Search of Our Frontier: Japanese America and Settler Colonialism in the Construction of Japan's Borderless Empire. By Eiichiro Azuma. University of California Press, Oakland, 2019. xii, 353 pages. $75.00, cloth; $75.00, E-book.

Studies of the Japanese empire have experienced an "unbordering" in recent years. Influenced by global history and the "new mobilities paradigm," scholars of Japan and its imperial world have increasingly focused on the movement and connections of people, things, and ideas across established boundaries and the reconfigurations of historical and scholarly spaces that these movements permitted.1 Of particular significance has been the effort to bridge what Martin Dusinberre and Mariko Iijima have called "one of the most problematic epistemological divides in Japanese historiography, namely between scholars who work on Japanese colonialism and those who study Japan's transpacific diaspora."2

Eiichiro Azuma has led this effort. In his 2005 book Between Two Empires: Race, History, and Transnationalism in Japanese America, he argued that "[t]he American West constituted a borderland where America's westward expansion met Japanese imperialism around the question of immigration from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries." In that study, Azuma highlighted the construction of a "collective self as an American minority that was, at the same time, part of the Japanese nation-state" by Issei immigrants "who selectively took in and fused elements of nationalist arguments, modernist assumptions, and racist thinking from both imperial Japan and white America." These historical actors, he argued, endeavored to "transform themselves into quasi whites … [and] present themselves as quintessential Americans."3 [End Page 224]

Now, in In Search of Our Frontier, Azuma looks at those Issei whose realization of the impossibility of inclusion in white America (including Hawai'i) led them to champion the "overseas development" of the "Japanese race" both in the expanding formal empire in Northeast Asia, Taiwan, and Micronesia, and in Latin America. In Azuma's strikingly original argument, the key to understanding Japanese settler colonialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries lies in the "transnational collaboration between advocates of agricultural colonization who shared life experiences as selfstyled frontiersmen and victims of racial discrimination in the US" (p. 149).

At the heart of his study, which is organized chronologically and geographically, are thus the biographies of transpacific remigrants who brought not only their bodies but also "colonialist ideas, agricultural expertise, science and technology, labor management methods, and investment monies" as they worked to build "new Japans" across and beyond the Asia-Pacific (p. 12). Yet Azuma also highlights the role of political and financial elites in enabling their projects and narrates a shift from multiple privately driven colonial ventures to an all-encompassing state-led project of "borderless settler colonialism" (pp. 7–8 and passim).

In the 1880s, champions of Japanese transpacific emigration, both those who moved and metropolitan boosters such as Fukuzawa Yukichi, envisioned a system in which educated, elite colonists (mainly former samurai) would oversee the growth of settlements built on the labor of their lower-class compatriots. They founded associations dedicated to promoting this project along the U.S. West Coast and in the independent kingdom of Hawai'i, and emigration companies (imin gaisha) emerged to provide the labor power. These companies in turn served as financial and political bases for their directors, who forged close ties to prominent politicians and capitalists in Japan.

Despite activists' belief that the Japanese, in contrast to the Chinese, could participate equally with whites in the grand project of taming the frontier, by the early 1890s Japanese settlers and migrants experienced exclusionary racism similar to what the Chinese had encountered a decade earlier. In response, they embraced a discourse of the frontier that accepted the Social Darwinian concept of "racial struggle" but excised its Eurocentric, Orientalist premises and began to explore alternative sites of settlement beyond the U.S. border where Japanese could position themselves as the master race. In Hawai'i, meanwhile, the 1893 coup and 1898 U.S. annexation frustrated Japanese settler advocates' dreams of turning the...