Japanese Empire

Japanese Empire
   Japan was the only non-Western nation to construct an empire in the Age of Imperialism. Modeled in large part upon European empires, the Japanese Empire by 1914 included Taiwan, the adjacent Pescadore Islands, Korea, southern Sakhalin Island, and nearly 1,400 islands in the Marshal, Mariana, and Caroline Island chains in the South Pacific. In China, Japan occupied 1,300 square miles of territory in South Manchuria (Guandong) and 200 square miles of land in Kiaochow Bay, Shandong. The Guandong leasehold included the South Manchuria Railway, a first-class naval base at Port Arthur, and Dairen, one of the best ice-free ports on the coast of Northeast Asia. The Kiaochow lease included another first-class naval base and commercial port, Qingdao, and rights to the Shandong Railway.
   Japan acquired the Guandong lease and Kiaochow Bay from Russia and Germany, respectively. But Japanese empire-builders themselves were responsible for constructing much of the modern infrastructure of Taiwan, Korea, southern Sakhalin, and the South Pacific Islands. A renewed spurt of empire building from 1931 added enormously to the geographic scope of the Japanese empire. But military defeat in 1945 stripped Japan completely of her overseas territories.
   The modern expansion of Japanese borders began during the Tokugawa Shōgunate between 1600 and 1868. The nominal authority of the Japanese archipelago was the shōgun - the strongest warrior in the land - whose government was headquartered in Edo, present-day Tokyo. In 1807, the shōgun assumed administrative control of the northern-most of the four main Japanese islands, Ezo, present-day Hokkaido. The Treaty of Shimoda, concluded in 1855 with Russia, added the southern half of the Kuril Island chain up to Iturup to Japan’s northern border and recognized joint Russo-Japanese occupation of Sakhalin Island in the Sea of Okhotsk. To the southeast, the shōgun dispatched immigrants and established administrative control over the Bonin Islands in 1861.
   The geographic scope of Japanese rule expanded apace with the emergence of modern Japan after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. In 1875, another treaty with Russia traded Japanese interests in Sakhalin Island for ownership of the entire Kuril island chain. To the west, Tsushima Island became part of Nagasaki Prefecture. To the south, the Ryukyus, present-day Okinawa, were incorporated into the new state in 1879. In 1880, the Bonin Islands became part of the Tokyo metropolitan prefecture. Japan acquired her first formal colonies after her successful participation in three modern wars. After the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95), Tokyo received title to Taiwan and the Pescadore Islands; as a result of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), Japan acquired its first foothold in China in the former Russian leasehold in southern Manchuria. By 1913, almost 90,000 Japanese lived in the leasehold, including a division-strength garrison of the Japanese Army at Port Arthur - named in 1919 the Guandong Army -and six battalions of special guard troops in the Railway zone. In 1905, Japan also received full title to the southern Sakhalin Island of Karafuto and preponderant political and economic influence in Korea. More than 42,000 Japanese resided in Korea in 1905, when Japan established a protectorate there, and she annexed the peninsula formally in 1910. In the first month of World War I in 1914, the Japanese navy chased the German East India Squadron out of the Marshal, Mariana, and Caroline Islands, establishing Japan for the first time as a Pacific empire. In November of the same year, Japanese troops ejected German forces from Qingdao, China.
   Although commercial activity between the Matsumae fiefdom in southern Ezo and the Ainu peoples who inhabited the rest of the island steadily expanded Japanese political and economic reach in the eighteenth century, the modern expansion of Japanese borders came overwhelmingly in response to the growing imperial activity of the Western powers in Asia. The shōgun authorized a geographic survey of Ezo and explorations of the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin Island in response to several intrusions by Russian ships in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Administrative control of the Bonin Islands in 1861 followed earlier claims to the islands by Britain in 1827 and the United States in 1853.
   The immediate context for the founding of modern Japan was the renewed Western imperial thrust to the east after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Seeking an expansion of the highly lucrative tea trade, London abolished the British East India Company monopoly of trade with China in 1813 and in 1834 dispatched an official representative of the British crown, a superintendent of trade at Canton, to oversee a liberalization of commerce. When Beijing attempted to eradicate opium, Britain’s principal currency of exchange for tea, a fleet of 16 British warships set sail for China. China’s crushing defeat in the Opium War transformed the balance of power in East Asia. The Chinese had for more than 80 years confined trade with the Western maritime powers to Canton and maintained a tight control on foreign commerce. After 1842, Beijing was forced to conclude a series of “ unequal treaties” with the Western powers that opened several Chinese ports to foreign commerce and residence and deprived China of its ability to set its own tariffs or to try foreign nationals in domestic courts. Just 11 years after China capitulated to British firepower, U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Uraga Bay outside of present-day Tokyo to make similar demands of Japan. Like China, Japanese leaders were compelled to conclude a series of treaties, beginning with the Treaty of Kanagawa with the United States in 1854, which opened Japanese ports to foreign commerce and residence on disadvantageous terms. Yet unlike China, the capitulation incited a civil war that brought down the shōgunate and spurred the founding of modern Japan.
   Modern Japan’s founders understood the projection of power as an integral symbol and prerogative of a modern nation. Just one year after the Meiji Restoration, influential statesmen urged an invasion of Korea in response to Seoul’s refusal to normalize relations. By 1873, a “Conquer Korea” debate among the Japanese ruling circle had rejected invasion in favor of industrial development at home, but in 1874, Japan nonetheless sent 3,600 samurai warriors to Taiwan in retaliation for the massacre of 54 shipwrecked Ryukyuans by Taiwanese aborigines. Originally aimed at colonizing eastern Taiwan, Tokyo soon abandoned the scheme for fear of war with China and possible intervention by the Western powers. In the Peking Treaty of 1874, China instead agreed to pay an indemnity to the Ryukyuans, thereby weakening Chinese claim to suzerainty over the Ryukyus and paving the way for incorporation of the islands into the Japanese empire.
   Although the Korea debate of 1873 had rejected an immediate invasion, Japanese policymakers continued to seek Korean recognition of Japan’s newfound status as a modern nation, and Japanese warships made periodic forays to the Korean coast after 1873. In 1875, Japanese troops seized a Korean fort on Kanghwa Island, south of Seoul, after being fired on by Korean shore batteries. The next year, Tokyo sent an emissary with military support to demand a normalization of relations. On the model of Commodore Perry’s 1854 “opening” of Japan, Kuroda Kiyotaka forced Korea to conclude the Treaty of Kanghwa in 1876, which, like earlier treaties forced on China and Japan by the Western powers, compelled Korea to open its ports to international commerce on disadvantageous terms.
   The Kanghwa treaty marked the beginning of a long-term Japanese interest in Korea that would bring Japan to successive blows against two other regional rivals, China and Russia. First, having upset Korea’s traditional deference to Chinese regional hegemony, the treaty marked the beginning of almost two decades of Sino-Japanese jockeying for position on the peninsula. Although Tokyo had negotiated the Kanghwa treaty directly with Seoul, a new Chinese Imperial Commissioner for Northern Ports concluded the remainder of Korea’s treaties with the Western powers in the early 1880s. From the late 1870s through the early 1890s, Japan and China allied with rival Korean political factions to vie for political, economic, and diplomatic influence in Seoul. By 1882, Japan had 700 and China 1,500 troops stationed permanently in the Korean capital to safeguard their burgeoning interests. Japan’s military defeat of China in 1895 marked the end of Chinese regional hegemony. It also spelled the beginning of a new round of Great Power competition that would noticeably expand the influence of a formidable new Western presence in Asia, that of Russia. After the initial conquest of Siberia in the seventeenth century, Russian pressure in Northeast Asia eased until after the Second Opium War, when St. Petersburg joined the powers in the unequal treaty regime imposed on Beijing. Most conspicuously, the Supplemental Treaty of Peking in 1860 granted the tsar almost 400,000 square miles of territory in the Maritime Provinces northeast of Manchuria and Korea. The start of construction on a Trans-Siberian Railway in 1891 confirmed St. Petersburg’s commitment to colonization of the Russian Far East. By 1895, Vladivostok, the proposed terminus of the railway, had become a substantial port city. Having amassed a fleet of 29 warships there, Russia confidently initiated the Triple Intervention in that year, allying with France and Germany to force Japan to relinquish claims to the Liaodong Peninsula in south Manchuria at the peace conference with China. By the Treaty of Li-Lobanov in1896, China permitted Russian construction of a railway through north Manchuria, the Chinese Eastern Railway, shortening the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok. One year later, using the murder of two German missionaries in Shandong province as a pretext, imperial Germany began a scramble for “spheres of influence” in China, whereby the powers vied for exclusive rights to build railways, mines, and fortified ports in strategic areas throughout the continent. By 1898, Germany had acquired a leasehold in Kiaochow Bay, the British in Weihaiwei and Kowloon near Hong Kong, the French in Kwangchow near the border of French Indochina, and Russia in the Liaodong Peninsula. Japan obtained only a simple pledge from Beijing not to grant special rights to any other power in Fujian province, across the straits from Taiwan.
   The growing Russian presence in Northeast Asia also placed new pressure on Korea. Forever in search of a warm-water port in the Pacific, St. Petersburg had sent a warship to Tsushima Island in 1861 and proceeded to build permanent shore facilities. Although two British men-of-war foiled the mission, Russia began making demands for trade at the Korean border after the 1860 acquisition of the Maritime Provinces. The tsar joined the unequal treaty regime in Seoul with the 1884 Russo-Korean Treaty. Japan therefore moved aggressively after the Sino-Japanese War to consolidate its position in Korea. But in 1895, when the new Japanese minister in Seoul supported a plot to assassinate the Korean queen, the crown prince sought asylum in the Russian legation. During the year that the prince remained with the Russians, he looked to St. Petersburg for substantial political, economic, and military advice. In 1896, Russia received mining and timber rights near the Russo-Korean border, in North Hamgyong province and the Yalu Basin and Ullung Island, respectively. The Li-Lobanov Treaty between Russia and China also outlined mutual military assistance in the event of a Japanese attack on either signatory or Korea. American, French, German, and British concessionaires joined the Russians after the Sino-Japanese War in the rush to construct and finance railway, mining, electricity, and waterworks projects in Korea, just as they proceeded in China. Initially, Russian pressure excluded Japanese interests from this competition. In 1898, how-ever, Russian demands for a coaling station at Deer Island in Pusan Harbor in southern Korea provoked a backlash from the Western powers that spelled opportunity for Tokyo. In the same year, Japanese interests received rights to finance and construct two rail lines in Korea, from the capital to Pusan on the south coast and to Inchon on the west coast. The Nishi-Rosen Agreement concluded with Russia in the same year barred both signatories from direct interference in Korean internal affairs yet recognized Japan’s preferential economic and commercial position in Korea.
   Like the Sino-Japanese War, the Boxer Insurrection (1899–1901) transformed the balance of power in East Asia. Responding to the penetration of Western missionaries into rural China after the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin, the Boxers United in Righteousness arose in northwest Shandong province in 1898 and in 1900 laid siege to the foreign legation quarters in Beijing. The Great Powers dispatched a combined a force of 20,000, 8,000 of whom came from Japan, to liberate their respective countrymen. But like the Sino-Japanese War, the Boxer disturbance sparked a renewed scramble for position among the intervening powers. In the south, the Japanese civilian administrator in Taiwan plotted an expedition to seize the principal port of Fujian province, Amoy, across the straits from the Japanese colony. Tokyo eventually vetoed the scheme for fear of upsetting Great Britain, a potential ally in the accelerating rivalry with Russia. In the north, Russia had used the outbreak of the Boxer uprising to flood Manchuria with 200,000 troops. This dramatic new military presence became the immediate catalyst for the Russo-Japanese War, in which Japan’s spectacular victories on land at Mukden and at sea in the Straits of Tsushima marked its coming-out as a power of the first rank.
   Japan again followed military victory in 1905 with swift efforts to consolidate control in Korea. With no remaining regional rivals after Russia’s defeat, the door now stood open to Japanese hegemony on the peninsula. Even before the Treaty of Portsmouth ended the war, the United States concluded an executive agreement with Tokyo recognizing Japanese “suzerainty over Korea,” the Taft-Katsura Agreement of July 1905. Four months later, Japan compelled Korean officials to sign a Protectorate Treaty, calling for a Japanese resident-general in Seoul. The new executive head possessed sweeping powers to supervise Japanese officials and advisers in Korea, intervene directly in Korean decision making, issue regulations enforceable by imprisonment or fines, and use Japanese troops to maintain law and order. Seoul continued to resist Japanese encroachments, but the assassination of Resident General Hirobumi Itō in 1909 led to formal incorporation of the peninsula via the 1910 Treaty of Annexation.
   One month after the Protectorate Treaty with Korea, China confirmed a new position for Japan in South Manchuria. Japan had been shut out of the scramble for spheres of influence in China after the Sino-Japanese War, but the Sino-Japanese Treaty of December 1905 now recognized the transfer to Japan of Russian rights and leases in Liaodong Peninsula. The South Manchuria Railway, Dairen, Port Arthur, and the Guandong Army would become the backbone of Japanese power and influence in China until the end of World War II.
   In light of the country’s steady expansion through successive wars, Japan’s leadership looked to the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 as another opportunity. By November 1914, Japan had made two notable additions to her burgeoning empire: the Japanese navy occupied German Micronesia - the Marshal, Mariana, and Caroline Islands - while Japanese troops ejected German forces from Kiaochow Bay. Although Tokyo formally returned its Shandong possessions to China in 1922, the islands of German Micronesia remained in Japanese hands as Class C mandates under the League of Nations covenant through 1945.
   If the Japanese Empire grew largely within the context of Western imperialism in Asia, it was also inspired by the same principals that underlay the rapid expansion of Western power in the late nineteenth century. The first full Japanese-language translation of Henry Wheaton’s 1836 classic, Elements of International Law: With a Sketch of the History of the Science, appeared in 1869 and became a critical guide for Japan’s crusade to behave and be treated like a “civilized” nation. Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary theories came to Japan through the University of Tokyo, where Toyama Masakazu, who had become devoted to Spencer after several years of study at the University of Michigan, began lecturing in 1876 on Spencer’s ideas on biology, psychology, and sociology. At the same time, American Ernest Fenellosa taught philosophy at Tokyo University through a distinctly Spencerian lens. Spencer’s Principles of Sociology and Charles Darwin ’ s Origin of Species were both translated into Japanese in the early 1880s.
   Although Japan did not enjoy the racial disparity with its subject peoples typical of Western colonialism, Japanese empire-builders shared with their Western counterparts a faith in human progress and the universality of the principles defined by international law, a belief in the “survival of the fittest” and a conviction that they, as members of a “civilized” race, possessed both the right and responsibility to uplift their less enlightened neighbors. In 1875, Fukuzawa Yukichi, a Japanese man of letters, published the wildly popular Outline of Civilization, which defined civilization as intellectual and moral progress. Just one year earlier, Japanese policymakers had contemplated the colonization of eastern Taiwan to bring civilization to an area where China exercised no legal jurisdiction. Kuroda Kiyotaka was dispatched to Korea in 1876 to negotiate a treaty based on the “law of nations.” And on the eve of the Sino-Japanese War, Japan demanded of Seoul the removal of “old, deep-rooted abuses,” which “endangered peace and order.”
   Taiwan, South Manchuria, southern Sakhalin, Korea, and German Micronesia were eventually incorporated into the Japanese empire in the name of civilizing the “lesser peoples” of Asia. Japanese statesmen meticulously established legal title to all territories through internationally recognized treaties, and they exported to their colonies those institutions that had, by their introduction into Japan in the late nineteenth century, come to define a modern nation: a modern bureaucracy, national education, taxation, policing, and a new industrial infrastructure of railroads, telegraphs, and factories. Even the physical layout of Western capitals and colonial territories that had made their way to Japan in the nineteenth century were reexported to Japanese colonies in the form of large, Western-style stone buildings with imposing columns and arches and wide, tree-lined boulevards. In its initial forays into colonial governance, Japanese imperialism clearly looked West for much of its inspiration. Early efforts to raise Japanese influence in Korea through railway construction and loans identified British Egypt as a suitable model. The first Japanese civilian administrator of Taiwan and later head of the South Manchuria Railway, Goto Shinpei, encouraged his subordinates to read widely about British colonialism and commissioned a Japanese translation of Sir Charles Lucas’ Historical Geography of the British Colonies. Having spent several years of study in Germany in the 1880s, Goto also avidly subscribed to German ideas of “scientific colonialism.”
   If Japanese empire-builders referenced the same literature on international relations and colonial governance as their Western counterparts, they equally received critical direct guidance from leading Western practitioners of empire building. The Japanese policymakers who had advised against the invasion of Korea in 1873 did so after close observation of the West. During a 22-month sojourn to the United States and Europe, these men had surveyed every trapping of modern national power: parliaments, factories, foundries, and shipyards. And they listened intently as the leader of a powerful newcomer to the international stage, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, advised them to build up and rely on Japan’s own strength. When conversely Japan’s young leaders decided in 1874 to send a military expedition to colonize eastern Taiwan, they did so on the advice of former U.S. consul to Amoy Charles LeGendre. A French legal adviser to the Japanese government, Gustave Boissanade, aided the 1874 negotiations with China that recognized de facto Japanese suzerainty over the Ryukyus. And the conversion of Japan’s modern army from small-scale garrisons to a large, mobile force capable of projecting Japanese military strength was facilitated by the Prussian officer, Major Klemens Meckel, who in 1885 began teaching at Japan’s new army staff college that Korea was a “daggar pointed at the heart of Japan.” In 1895, Japanese negotiators at the peace conference with China followed the guidance of veteran American legal adviser to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, Henry W. Denison. Four years later, Denison helped arrange the transfer from American to Japanese interests of a concession to build the Seoul-Inchon rail link in Korea.
   Japanese imperialism also received inspiration and direct guidance from abroad, often relying on Western technical and material support. Through advice and help from the Netherlands, the only Western power with which the Tokugawa regime engaged in active trade, Japan had already constructed Western-style ironworks, steam engines, and dockyards by 1868. In the waning years of the Tokugawa era, Russian interests advised the construction of a series of Western-style sailing vessels, and French technicians helped build the Yokosuka Foundry and Shipyards. Western technical support swelled with the advent of modern Japan and the arrival of more than 6,000 foreign technical experts in the late nineteenth century. In 1876, the Japanese government employed more than 100 British engineers and technicians to advise the construction of a modern rail system. Until 1912, all steam locomotives running on Japanese rails came from foreign factories, and two of the six ships that comprised Kuroda Kiyotaka’s show of strength to Korea in 1876 were piloted by foreign captains. British engineers helped construct the first Japanese integrated ironworks in the late 1870s and, in 1901, German know-how produced Japan’s first modern steelworks. Japanese technicians regularly received training in major Western armaments firms, such as Vickers and Krupp. By the turn of the century, Japanese arsenals and dockyards used sophisticated imported techniques. Nonetheless, all four Japanese battleships in the Japanese armada that decimated the Russian Baltic fleet in the Battle of Tsushima Straits in 1905 came from British shipyards. British diplomatic and financial support, facilitated by the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902, also played a critical role in Japan’s victory over tsarist Russia.
   Although the Japanese empire fit comfortably within the late nineteenth-century scramble for colonies and strategic position initiated in the West, certain factors distinguish Japan from its Western counterparts. Most fundamentally, as a former victim of Great Power imperialism, Japan’s rise in international status lagged behind that of the other industrial nations, and Japanese empire-building through 1914 remained an exercise in catch-up. Heavy reliance on Western models, and technical and material support was an important consequence of the particular timing of Japan’s emergence on the world stage, as was the intensely political and top-down quality of Japanese expansion. Japan remained primarily an agricultural economy until the eve of the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, whereas emigration to subject territories did not lead but rather followed the Japanese flag.
   Another fundamental contrast with Western colonialism, geographic proximity to new territory, facilitated Japanese expansion. Whereas most European powers vied for influence in the far reaches of the globe, Japanese policymakers had the luxury of expanding into contiguous territory. Although Japan lagged behind the other powers in the level of industrial maturity, military capacity, and capitalization, it greatly benefited from lower transportation costs, rapid communications, and familiarity with the climate and cultures of its subject territories. Cultural affinity would become the foundation of an entirely new Japanese imperial enterprise from 1931 to 1945. The architects of empire in 1930s, Japan built on earlier territorial acquisitions. The Manchurian Incident, which inaugurated the new era, sprang from an explosion on the South Manchuria Railway, and during the 14 years of war that followed, Tokyo tightened its control of its original territories in Taiwan, South Manchuria, Korea, Karafuto, and German Micronesia. The new Imperial Japan at its farthest reach dwarfed the scope of the original empire. By 1942, in addition to the original territories, Tokyo controlled all of Manchuria,
   Inner Mongolia, the entire Chinese coast and industrial centers, most of Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific to the Solomon Islands. More important, the new Japanese Empire grew not as an expression of compliance with international legal norms but as an explicit rejection of Western imperialism in Asia. Rather than seek open association with the Western powers and distinct detachment from “lesser” Asian neighbors, Japanese expansion in the 1930s unambiguously played on the historical and cultural affinities enjoyed with many of its subject peoples to call for “Greater East Asian Co-prosperity.”
   See also <>; <>, Emperor; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>.
    Beasley, W. G. Japanese Imperialism, 1894–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987;
    Berger, Gordon, ed. and trans. Kenkenroku: A Diplomatic Record of the Sino-Japanese War, 1894–1895. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982;
    Duus, Peter. The Abacus and the Sword: The Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895–1910. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995;
    Eskildsen, Robert. “Of Civilization and Savages: The Mimetic Imperialism of Japan’s 1874 Expedition to Taiwan.” The American Historical Review 107, 2 (Apr. 2002): 388–418;
    Kim, Key-Hiuk. The Last Phase of the East Asian World Order: Korea, Japan and the Chinese Empire, 1860–1882. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980;
    Matsusaka, Yoshihisa Tak. The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904–1932. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001;
    Myers, Ramon H., and Mark R. Peattie, eds. The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895–1945. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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