Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945

Book Cover

Book Title

The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984


Myers, Ramon H. and Mark R. Peattie (ed.)


Japan was seen as an anomaly in modern history. It was a nation which had narrowly avoided colonial subjugation during the advance of Western power in East Asia during the nineteenth century and was the only non-Western imperium of the late nineteenth and twentieth century. Thus, Japan's emergence as a colonial power in the 1890s was seen as an attempt to extract itself from a period of diplomatic inferiority imposed three decades earlier under the unequal treaty system.

Yet, she quickly moved from concern with national survival toward a more aggressive policy: that of national assertiveness, especially among her neighbors, since the thrust and the aim of the Japanese empire was both regional and continent-directed. Japan banked on its cultural affinity with the people she was to colonize. In Japan's case, it was possible for Japan to aim towards integration of its colonial economies with that of the metropole as compared to tropical European colonies which could only evolve as an export-oriented enclave.

The book comprises of numerous comparisons with Western colonial powers and captures some of the most important distinctions in terms of motive for establishing a colonial empire, and highlights those differences in management of colonies, which ultimately provides a useful tool to examine the nature of the Japanese government as well.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Essays written by numerous scholars cover the origins, management, and the economic dynamics of the empire. Particularly, the origins and management of the Japanese colonial empire provides an insight into the elements that come to play when Japan builds up her colonial status and management policies.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The book's central argument encompasses the origins and purpose of Japan's colonial empire. Though security was the overarching concern in the acquisition of component territories of the Japanese empire, there were other impulses behind Japan's drive for empire, i.e. idealism. Unlike the missionary spirit of the Western colonial powers, the political and social reformism of the Meiji liberal movement dreamt of transforming "corrupted" and "decaying" Asian civilizations through reform. Unlike their Western counterparts, where individuals took initiative in dominating the trade and economy of the countries they venture in, most significant were the matters of pride and prestige which involved the nation as a whole. It is however, important to note that colonization - the overseas settlement of Japanese - never became the dominant activity of the builders of the Japanese colonial empire.

Japan was unable to sustain their continental imperialism because of the inherent contradiction in their policies and in practice. They had insisted on the homogeneity of races and interests within an empire, which could have tightened the bonds between peoples of the homeland and the colonies. However, the Japanese ultimately exhibited the worse and most contradictory racial assumptions - thus they could not manage a stable coherent colonial doctrine which could serve as a justification for empire.

Annotated by Michelle Djong