Jeffrey W. Alexander
Japan has a local, centuries-old tradition of brewing sake from rice and distilling spirits from ingredients such as grain and sweet potatoes, but pioneering entrepreneurs began producing imported “Western liquors” (yōshu) in the late 19th century. This Western liquor marketplace was driven chiefly by beer brewing and whisky distilling. Western liquors were marketed, advertised, and consumed with rising popularity through the early 20th century, as living standards rose and ordinary Japanese came to afford them regularly. Following the Second World War (1939–1945), these Western commodities were no longer viewed as foreign imports, and were instead broadly regarded as domestic, if not indigenous, products. The impact of wartime rationing transformed beer into a lighter-tasting beverage that became very popular with women and young people, and whisky advertising focused closely on professional “salarymen” seeking increased prestige as well as escape from their demanding jobs.
The temporal span of the Japanese Empire is most commonly given as 1895–1945, from the acquisition of Taiwan following Japan’s victory in the First Sino-Japanese War to Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. Within this interpretation, the Japanese Empire was largely a reaction to the advances of the Western colonial powers during the 19th century. This “orthodox” narrative of the empire rests on a key assumption: the current borders of the Japanese state demarcate the inherent territory of Japan. But when viewed from Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, a second story of the Japanese Empire emerges. Before 1869 Hokkaido was known to Wajin (ethnic Japanese) as Ezo. While the Japanese considered Ezo to be within their sphere of influence and there was a Japanese zone (Wajinchi) in the southern tip of Ezo from the 16th century, Ezo was a foreign land inhabited by the Ainu people. Hokkaido was only fully incorporated into the Japanese state in 1869 following the Meiji Restoration (1868), after which Japanese settlers colonized the island beyond Wajinchi. The indigenous Ainu people were dispossessed of their land and forced to assimilate.
Rather than Taiwan, therefore, the story of the Japanese Empire begins with the colonization of the peripheries of the modern state: Hokkaido, and also Okinawa. Seeing imperial history from the vantage point of Hokkaido sheds light on some of the assumptions and oversights of much writing on Japan’s 19th- and 20th-century history. It reveals how the legacies of empire affect Japanese people today in those spaces where the colonizers and colonized continue to coexist. And it gives insights into how official and popular narratives of empire and war have been formulated at local and national levels in the postwar era.
China’s three northeastern provinces (Fengtian, Heilongjiang, and Jilin) were transfigured by Japanese imperialism in the opening decades of the 20th century. South Manchuria and the Kwantung Leasehold on the Liaodong Peninsula in particular became the site of a railway imperialism that would, beginning in 1905, allow Japan to claim a sphere of influence in the northeast and profit from the export of soybeans, coal, lumber, and other raw materials from the region. The South Manchuria Railway Company (or “Mantetsu”), which held the dual mantle of joint stock-owning company and governmental national-policy company, was the central organ in Japan’s so-called management of Manchuria. The expansion of Mantetsu’s rail network (originally built by Czarist Russia in the late 1890s) in the post–World War I years allowed for greater extraction of resources and greater wealth for company stockholders, while giving rise to an upswell of protest from a burgeoning nationalist movement in mainland China as well as in the northeast itself. Throughout the preconquest period (pre-September 1931), bureaucrats, Mantetsu employees, doctors, teachers, and economic sojourners of every stripe made a home for themselves in Japanese Manchuria, parts of which were transformed to replicate the modern conveniences and amenities of the metropole’s urban centers.
The Manchurian Incident, which began on September 18, 1931, with a plot by renegade officers from the Kwantung Army (a division of the Japanese Imperial Army) to destroy Mantetsu track and blame it on Chinese brigands, led to the military takeover of the three northeastern provinces by January 1932. The establishment of the army-led state of Manchukuo in March 1932 gave way to a new kind of Japanese power and influence on the continent—one that operated independently from Tokyo and at the pleasure of the Kwantung Army. Despite repeated proclamations of pan-Asian unity and the harmony of the five races by the state’s propaganda agents, Manchukuo existed for the purpose of strengthening Japan’s war machine, as well as for planning a total renovation of the domestic Japanese state in line with army objectives.
The Meiji Revolution (1853–1890) transformed Japan from a double-headed federation state with hereditary status system into a unitary monarchy that afforded greater rights and freedoms to the Japanese people. After ending the revolution by the establishment of constitutional monarchy, Japan promoted industrialization that would later energetically support its imperial expansion during the first half of the 20th century.
Intellectuals during the late Edo period (1603–1868) became disillusioned with the hereditary system of the Tokugawa regime. Because tradition prohibited them from criticizing any upper authorities directly, the intellectuals capitalized on a threat from outside to advocate for the necessity of political reforms, when Western envoys urged the opening of Japan toward the West after more than 200 years of seclusion. The intellectuals at first appealed to their lords to recreate military powers. Soon, they directed their efforts towards the emperor in Kyoto, and began to criticize the Tokugawa Shogunate openly. After ten years of political negotiations and small civil wars, they finally chose imperial restoration to oust the Tokugawa and set out for a series of radical reforms that would abolish local governments, dismantle samurai status, integrate discriminated people with commoners, and introduce various social institutions from the West.
Interesting characteristics distinguish the Meiji Revolution from other modern revolutions. For one, it fully utilized the authority of monarchy. Second, it appealed to the symbol “return to our ideal past” instead of the symbol “Progress.” Third, the death toll was also quite low: about 30,000, in contrast to 2,000,000 in French Revolution. At first glance, these characteristics would seem to set the Meiji Revolution apart from European movements—nevertheless, the Meiji Revolution inaugurated the beginning of an egalitarian and free society, and careful examination of the Meiji Revolution has the potential to shed new light on hidden aspects of other modern revolutions across the globe.