Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Colonial Empire of Japan

It seems strange that the Empire of Japan, despite being only a minor colonial power and that only for a few decades, is often more controversial and generates more bitterness than European colonial empires that spanned the globe and lasted for hundreds of years. Japan only ever had two major holdings that could be regarded as colonies; Formosa (Taiwan) and Korea. Relations today between Taiwan and Japan are not terrible but a great deal of animosity certainly remains on the part of Korea. In fact, setting aside North Korea which is more like a vast slave labor camp than a country, the Republic of Korea has displayed a level of antagonism toward Japan after only a few decades of colonial rule that makes the Republic of Ireland, after centuries of English and British rule, seem positively mature and forgiving. As with all colonial empires or any time a more advanced civilization comes into close contact with a less developed civilization, there will be unfortunate events, sometimes intentional and sometimes not but regrettable in any event. However, a dispassionate look at the rather brief history of Japanese colonialism will show that, for reasons of simple efficiency, being a colony of Japan was quite beneficial when viewed in the long-term. Even today when so much has changed since the fall of the Empire of Japan in 1945, former Japanese colonies tend to be better off than other former colonies in Asia.

Japan-Korea Teamwork
Throughout most of Japanese history there was never any desire for colonial expansion. However, when Japan was last unified, in the campaign started by Oda Nobunaga, the famous warrior did envision Japan conquering on the Asian mainland once his mission of unification was complete. He did not live to see that unification but his work was completed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and consolidated by Tokugawa Ieyasu. It was Toyotomi Hideyoshi who attempted to make good on the aspirations of his late lord and conquer the Ming Empire (and perhaps more while in the neighborhood) and seize control of the lucrative silk road trade route. The Kingdom of Korea refused to let Japan march through to get at China so there was a Japanese invasion of Korea and war between Japan on one side and Korea and Ming China on the other. The Japanese managed to conquer most of Korea, occupying Seoul and Pyongyang but attrition began to take a heavy toll and after the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and some considerable military setbacks the Japanese called off the war and returned home. Not long after Tokugawa Ieyasu formalized the last unification of Japan, became Shogun, establishing the Tokugawa dynasty as the holders of power in the name of the Emperor and in time Japan became isolated.

As most know, that isolation lasted until 1854 when a U.S. fleet under Commodore Matthew Perry sailed to Japan, pointed guns at them and forced them to join the rest of the international community. After some internal turmoil the Emperor was restored to power and Japan began to modernize, industrializing rapidly and learning from the countries of Europe and America. The Japanese method was to identify which country was the best in a particular field, study them and then adapt their methods to Japan, always endeavoring to do things better and more efficiently. So, in naval matters Great Britain was looked to, in army matters Prussia was looked to, for high fashion France was the example and for business it was the United States. Naturally, colonialism was not ignored either. In looking at the rest of the world, Japan saw that there were two kinds of countries; those which had colonies and those which were colonies and, naturally, Japan was determined to be one of the former. There was never any decision to “become” a colonial empire but it grew out of the rapid industrialization of Japan. This brought about a greatly increased need for resources Japan had never needed before and the prosperity that came with modernization also meant a rapidly growing population that had to be fed. One of the primary sources for raw materials and food stuffs for Japan was the Kingdom of Korea, at the time, a vassal of Imperial China.

Japan became increasingly concerned about securing this lifeline (think of the situation between Egypt and Rome in the old days) and so, to make a long story short, Japan fought a war with China to secure the independence of Korea and then, when Russia started stepping into the peninsula, fought the Russo-Japanese War to keep Korea firmly within the Japanese sphere of influence. After the victory over China; France, Germany and Russia stepped in to force Japan to give up some of the concessions won from China (which Japan naturally did not appreciate, especially when Russia subsequently took the territory rather than returning it to China) but one concession Japan did keep was the island of Formosa. That, was not as easy as a simple territorial hand-over though. The Chinese on Taiwan decided that the Qing Emperor could not give up territory he did not possess so they declared themselves an independent republic (the Republic of Formosa) and vowed to maintain Chinese rule over Taiwan in this new way. However, it did not work and Japanese forces soon arrived and conquered Taiwan, annexing it to the Empire of Japan in 1895. Some Chinese and native forces continued to resist and the campaign to suppress them was no different than similar campaigns by other colonial powers, often quite brutal. However, Taiwan also saw immense benefits in the period of Japanese rule.

The Japanese authorities cleaned up Taiwan and modernized it; quite literally. There was a massive sanitation campaign and a rapid development of infrastructure which had previously not existed. Roads and railways were built, ports were constructed, modern farming techniques were introduced and a health system based on widespread rural clinics was established that was so successful it remains in effect even today. Barbaric native practices were suppressed, mandatory universal education was introduced and agricultural production increased dramatically. The island became extremely prosperous and, in time, Taiwan became the seventh largest sugar producer in the world. Some animosity did arise, however, as time went on and Japan took steps to enforce a greater cultural uniformity on Taiwan as part of the effort to maintain the utmost in national social unity across the Empire of Japan. This meant a greater emphasis on the Japanese language and customs as well as a greater promotion of the Shinto religion. In this regard, as it concerns modern-day observers, Japan was in a no-win situation. Colonial powers which excluded subject peoples from their own customs and institutions, which endeavored to keep them strictly separate are condemned for being exclusionists, segregationists and holding themselves aloof from other people not deemed “worthy”. On the other hand, as is seen with Japan, colonial powers which do the opposite are condemned as well for forcing their ways and customs on others, destroying the uniqueness of the natives.

Japanese enter Taipei
That was the situation in Taiwan but, of course, Korea remained an area of concern after removing it from the control of China and preventing it from coming under the control of Russia. Talk turned to uniting the laws and economies of Korea and Japan. Some in Korea wanted to unite with Japan, others wanted no part of it and much the same division existed in Japan itself. Some wanted to annex Korea while others feared Korea would be too big a burden on the still growing Japanese economy. This changed when anti-Japanese forces in Korea started to make trouble and so those opposed to uniting the two countries in Tokyo were sidelined and in 1910 Korea was incorporated into the Empire of Japan. The local monarchy was retained and, along with the aristocracy, granted sufficient funds to maintain the standard of living they had become accustomed to. There was a massive Japanese investment in Korea and, of course, the influx of Japanese nationals and Japanese influence caused a backlash in Korea that was responded to with military force. There were many regrettable episodes but, also as in Taiwan, a massive change in the standard of living for Korea as well. Cities were modernized, hospitals were established, schools were built and illiteracy, which had previously been widespread in the lower classes, was virtually eradicated.

One of the reasons Japanese colonies have tended to do better even after gaining their independence can be traced back to a simple exercise in efficiency on the part of the Empire of Japan. Again, the Japanese saw how other countries ran their colonial empires and sought to improve on their methods. They saw European countries using their colonies as sources of raw materials, shipping those raw materials to the homeland for refinement and then transformation into manufactured goods (providing employment at home) and then shipped back for sale to the colonial populations (providing profit). Japan could also see that transportation costs for raw materials was enormous so Japan decided it would be smarter to establish at least low levels of industry in the colonies themselves so that raw materials could be refined before being shipped to Japan to be finished up and turned into manufactured goods. This step was taken in order to cut down on the cost of shipping but it had the result of giving former Japanese colonies a considerable advantage with a “head start” in industrialization when compared to the colonies of other empires.

A brief mention should be made of Manchuria which was never actually a Japanese colony but which is often classified as one (when not called a “puppet state” rather like the Mexican Empire). Regardless of how or why it came about the simple fact is that the Republic of China had no right whatsoever to Manchuria and the support provided by Japan in Manchuria declaring independence in 1932 and restoring the last Manchu Emperor to the throne was an action which corrected a gross historical injustice. Manchuria too benefited immensely from its restoration aided by Japan. There was rapid industrial growth so that, prior to the outbreak of World War II, the Empire of Manchuria was one of the most advanced and productive regions of Asia, eventually surpassing Japan in steel production. Coal mining, oil drilling and agriculture were major industries, ports and cities were modernized, trade and business boomed but, unfortunately, all of this infrastructure which was built up from 1932 to 1945 was stripped clean by the invading communist forces at the time of Japan’s defeat.

Like most colonial empires (and sometimes to an even greater extent) it is hard to find many today who would speak up in defense of or say anything at all positive about the former Empire of Japan. This is not helped by those in Japan who take a racial view in criticizing the colonial empires of others, accusing European powers of misdeeds while holding themselves blameless. This, combined with bitterness from World War II has made it difficult for many outside Japan to give a fair assessment (at least since the war, prior to which, and when Japan was supportive of other empires, most were positive). However, setting personal feelings aside, the success of former Japanese colonies should speak for itself. Manchuria was absorbed by Red China, Taiwan became the last bastion of the Kuomintang and Korea was split into two diametrically opposed republics, sparking another major war. However, for years both Taiwan and Korea (and more so South Korea naturally) have had far greater economic success than other former colonies because of the huge investments Japan made toward education, infrastructure and building up at least the foundations of industrial development. It may not be popular to point out such positive aspects but, nonetheless, they should not be forgotten.

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