The temporal span of the Japanese Empire is most commonly given as 1895–1945, extending 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 it was considered to be within Japan’s sphere of influence and there was a Japanese zone (Wajinchi) in the southern tip of Ezo from the 16th century, Ezo was considered to be a foreign land inhabited by the Ainu people. Hokkaido was not fully incorporated into the Japanese state until 1869 following the Meiji Restoration, when the island was settled/colonized by Wajin. 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 of the writings on Japan’s 19th- and 20th-century history. It reveals how the legacy of empire affects the Japanese people today in those spaces where the colonizers and colonized continue to coexist. And it provides insights into how official and popular narratives of empire and war have been formulated at local and national levels in the postwar era.