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Japan: colonization and settlement

Migration A–Z


  1. Kate E. Taylor

Published Online: 4 FEB 2013

DOI: 10.1002/9781444351071.wbeghm319

The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration

The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration

How to Cite

Taylor, K. E. 2013. Japan: colonization and settlement. The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 4 FEB 2013

As a collection of islands close to the regions that would eventually become modern-day China and Korea, Japan in its early form was heavily indebted to the influences of those traveling across Asia. It is generally considered that modern Japanese culture began with the mingling of the Jōmon civilization with the arrival of Korean and Chinese refugees from the aggression taking place during the Qin and Han dynasties (221 bce–9 ce). In 250 bce the Yamato state unified Japan and involved itself extensively in the activities of Korea and China; there was constant cross-immigration and settlement between these areas. This settlement and interaction, however, was drastically reduced around the time of the Tang dynasty in China, which saw Japan retreat from international affairs. After 918 ce the nation had little international contact, concentrating instead on internal civil wars. From very early on Japanese colonization and settlement was thus more internal than external. Various tribes conquered and settled land from their neighbors until the Minamoto dynasty emerged triumphant at the end of the 12th century.

The first people to be effectively colonized and their land settled by the Japanese were the native inhabitants of the northern isles – a group that has come to be known as the Ainu. Located originally in Hokkaido (the Japanese island furthest north), the Kuril Islands, and Sakhalin (the latter two now controlled by Russia), the Ainu had a highly distinctive hunter-gatherer identity that has now been mostly eradicated. During the early development of the Japanese state, northern clans from the main island of Honshu and southern clans in Hokkaido engaged in trade with the Ainu, and by the Tokugawa period (1603–1868) the Ainu were highly dependent on this trade which had also introduced to their community fatal diseases such as smallpox. Hokkaido's proximity to Russia meant that mainland Japan increasingly turned toward the latter as a means to strengthen Japan's position in the wider region. By the Meiji Restoration (1868), mass immigration and settlement of ethnic Japanese had effectively destroyed the Ainu way of life.

The land they had lived on was redistributed by the Meiji government to Japanese citizens to encourage the development of new, Westernized, large-scale industrialized farms. From the Meiji period until the early 20th century, mass railway and road systems, breweries, mines, and factories were introduced; the Ainu were forced to adopt Japanese names and language, and were forbidden to practice many of their cultural traditions. In 1899 the government classed the Ainu as “former aborigines,” to indicate that complete assimilation had taken place, and it was to be over 100 years before the Ainu would receive any recognition from the Japanese state for the events that had taken place in their colonization.

This process of mass settlement and cultural eradication of the indigenous population was a pattern that Japan would follow in all of her colonized states. One of the earliest to fall to Japan, the Ryuku kingdom was once an independent kingdom occupying the island chain from Yonaguni Island in the southwest to Amami Oshima in the north. In 1609 the Satsuma tribe invaded the Ryuku Kingdom and declared sovereignty over the islands, forcing the islanders to pay tribute to both Japan and China. Following the Meiji Restoration, the Meiji Japanese government abolished the Ryuku kingdom and formally annexed the islands to Japan as Okinawa Prefecture on March 11, 1879. The processes though which the Okinawans were made “Japanese” were based on the kōminka (imperialization) ideals which sought to erase native cultures by replacing them with Japanese traditions such as Shinto shrines, the Japanese language, and the use of Japanese names for all colonial subjects (Young 1998).

The fate of the Ainu and the Okinawans was linked to the key themes which would dominate future Japanese colonial expansion: the desire to become a modern state (Barlow 1997); the strongly held ideals of the exclusivity of the Yamamoto (Japanese) race and the inferiority of other Asian races and cultures (Siddle 1996); and the employment of territorial expansion as a method of protection from European and American empire-building in the region (Cullen 2003). The Japanese colonial empire, arguably the only non-Western empire of modern times (Peattie & Myers 1984), began with the cession of Taiwan in 1895 after Japan's success in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95). Later victories in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5) and the second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45) saw the Japanese empire expand dramatically to include Karafuto (the southern half of Sakhalin, colonized 1905), Korea (colonized 1910), German Micronesia (colonized 1914), and Manchuria, also known as Manchukuo (colonized 1931). Japan's initially success in the Pacific War would also see Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, and British Malaya come under Japanese rule.

The Japanese approach to colonialism varied from the initial stages of empire-building to the end of the Pacific War. The initial aim of maintaining an imperial empire arose from a desire to emulate the West as a means of defense (Jansen 1984). The annexation of Korea took place via a Western-style treaty (Kimitada 2007) and until the Pacific War many of Japan's colonial acquisitions were formally recognized by the Western powers. Like many colonial projects, justification was sought and found for Japanese occupation of the respective states. The occupation of Korea and Taiwan was construed as a necessary method to defend the Japanese nation-state from the aggressive actions of China and Russia.

By the 1920s the idea that “China is not a state but merely a civilization,” which meant that “it has no delimited political border,” was seen as a logical argument for territorial expansion in China (Kimitada 2007: 27). With this dismissal of China as a nation, Japan saw China as an ideal location for extra living space for the growing Japanese population (and imperial ambition). Migration to the colonies would be a vital part of the success of the colonial empire and the government duly encouraged people to leave mainland Japan for the colonial territories. In the 1930s Japan focused on the industrial development of the colonies and encouraged businesses in Japan to expand, in partnership with the government, into colonial regions. Mining, metal and chemical plants, and large-scale modern manufacturing companies were introduced to Manchuria, Korea, and Taiwan, which resulted in large-scale Japanese settlement in these areas. Between 1868 and 1941 over 712,583 people migrated to Korea and 397,090 to Taiwan; Manchuria saw over 270,000 Japanese settlers prior to the end of the Pacific War in 1945 (Stanlaw 2006: 48). These citizens came for a variety of reasons. The increasingly totalitarian government in Japan through the 1930s and 1940s led to many political dissidents relocating to the colonial territories. Economic problems in Japan, particularly for those based in agriculture, was another important factor. Natural tragedies such as the 1923 Kanto earthquake left many homeless and in poverty, and the colonies were presented to the population, particularly to many from rural backgrounds, as lands of incredible opportunity.

The Japanese colonial empire was marked by two key (and often conflicting) discourses. The first focused on the cultural and historical “sameness” of the different cultures in Asia and presented the unity of Asia as a positive and necessary means of defense against Western imperialism. The “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” (Dai-tō-a Kyōeiken) would unite all Asians under Japanese leadership (“Eight Corners of the World under One Roof,” or hakkō-Ichiu) in order to participate in the modern global experience. However, this paternalistic vision of Japan leading East Asia to a bright future was in contrast to the strongly held focus on kōminka which held to a strong notion of Japanese superiority and, therefore, difference from the rest of Asia. This conflict between the ideals of a pan-Asia and the focus on Japan as different and superior resulted in continual conflict between the colonizing government and the local population which, especially in Manchuria and Korea, was brutally repressed.

While many Okinawans had happily embraced cultural assimilation (Christy 1997), the rest of the states in the Japanese colonial empire were far more reluctant to become completely subsumed. The Japanese desire to “assimilate” the colonies into the empire saw the banning of native languages and cultures and the systematic destruction of any groups opposed to the colonial administration. The state police entered into all aspects of life in the colonies as a means of social control (Chen 1984) and although the development of bridges and railroads clearly benefited all, the inequalities “that existed not only between Japan's colonials and colonial indigenes, but also between component territories of the empire” (Peattie 1984: 37) resulted in a highly resentful and highly complex colonial empire.

The Japanese focus on the development of a modern empire-state were clearly seen in their actions in the respective colonies. Taxation, a police force, and an organized governmental bureaucracy were established in the respective colonial states and an education system created with kōminka right at its heart. Japanese language and culture lessons were a central element and concerns that an education would encourage anti-Japanese sentiment led to increasing control of the school system. The colonial education system aimed to create “loyalty to the modernizing state and replace old patterns of life and work with new skills, habits and disciplines” (Tsurumi 1984: 309).

Colonial students were encouraged to consider immigration to the mother country, to the intellectual metropolis of Tokyo, or to industrial Osaka, and in theory success for a colonial subject was possible in Japan. However, inequalities between Japanese students and those from the colonial territories, particularly in terms of university places and further career options, resulted in a generation which, although educated in the Japanese language and traditions, rejected most, if not all, ideals and aspects of Japanese imperialism. Those who came to work in Japan (primarily from Korea) faced extreme discrimination and appalling, often deadly, working conditions.

Japan looked to its colonies to provide raw materials, resources, and a market for Japanese goods (Ho 1984), and as Japan became more industrialized and urbanized the colonies became a likely source of agricultural and mineral resources such as metals and other minerals. The desire to develop an agricultural supply that could be easily controlled by the Japanese saw the mass settlement of Japanese farmers in the colonial territories, especially in Manchuria. The decision of many poorer Japanese farmers to move to Manchuria was based on the ideal image of a “new paradise” presented to them by the government propaganda machine.

The reality was that life in Manchuria was very hard indeed: land was given to them that had been seized from Chinese farmers and, as a result, relations between the settlers and the Chinese inhabitants were very poor indeed. These relations were further aggravated by the continual emphasis on the Japanese way of life as superior and the clear trade privileges Japanese citizens enjoyed in the colonial states. Personal safety was an issue and illness and malnutrition were rife in the settlements. Infant mortality rates were twice as high in Japanese settlements in Manchuria as in Japan (Guelcher 2006: 76). Rape and abuse of Chinese citizens were common in these regions and, as the Pacific War developed, the situation went from bad to worse.

From 1930 onward the increasing militarization of Japan led to mass abuse of the colonial subjects, including men forced into military recruitment and women into military prostitution (so-called “comfort women”). Incidents of mass slaughter such as the Rape of Nanking in 1937 demonstrated a clear disregard for the rights of colonial subjects. With later wartime acquisitions such as Hong Kong and Singapore, the focus was on control and containment rather than on any attempts to convert the occupied territories to the Japanese imperialist process.

The Pacific War also had a negative impact on the settlements. Men and materials were forcibly recruited by the Japanese army, and as Japan was forced to retreat many of the settlers in the colonial territories, often women and children, were simply abandoned by the government. Those left behind in countries that hated them for what they represented were highly vulnerable and would struggle to reach Japanese shores; many did not make it home. Manchuria was a particularly tragic instance: by 1945 there were over 223,000 Japanese settlers in Manchuria, only 140,000 of whom made it back to Japan. Approximately 78,500 settlers died of disease and starvation, committed suicide, or were killed by the Chinese and Russians (Young 1998: 411). Settlement in the colonial territories had not proved successful and was the last large-scale migration from Japan.

Outside the colonial narrative, Japanese settlement on a global scale has taken place in often unlikely places. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries the majority of Japanese ventured abroad to work, earn money, and then return to the Japanese homeland. During the colonial period, Japan often spoke of these migrants as “colonizers” and of the need for somewhere to relocate their surplus population. However, this rhetoric of empire and imperial glory rang hollow for many who heeded it, and poor living and working conditions in places such as Mexico and the Philippines saw many of the initial immigrants return home. Despite the many hardships and difficulties, a few notable communities succeeded which remain today. There are long-standing historical Japanese communities in the Philippines as well as across Latin America, especially in Brazil and Peru. Initially a mainly male workforce that had moved to work in the sugar and coffee plantations, the settlers imported brides from Japan and established communities in their new homes. Despite the events of the Pacific War, many of these communities have integrated into the local populations. There are very successful Japanese– Brazilian and Japanese–Peruvian associations located in the respective countries and most, if not all, of the members of these groups have completely assimilated into their Latin American homes while retaining many Japanese cultural traditions (Masterson & Funada-Classen 2005).

References and Further Reading

  1. Top of page
  2. References and Further Reading
  • Adachi, N. (ed.) (2006) Japanese Diasporas: Unsung Pasts, Conflicting Presents and Uncertain Futures. London: Routledge.
  • Barlow, T. (ed.) (1997) Formations of Colonial Modernity in East Asia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Baskett, M. (2008) The Attractive Empire: Transnational Film Culture in Imperial Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Caprio, M. (2009) Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea, 1910–1945. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • Chen, C. (1984) Police and community control systems in the empire. In Myers & Peattie (1984), pp. 213239.
  • Ching, L. T. S. (2001) Becoming “Japanese”: Colonial Taiwan and the Politics of Identity Formation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Christy, A. S. (1997) The making of imperial subjects in Okinawa. In Barlow (1997), pp. 141170.
  • Chui, F. Y. L. (1997) Politics and the body social in colonial Hong Kong. In Barlow (1997), pp. 295322.
  • Cullen, L. M. (2003) A History of Japan, 1582–1941: Internal and External Worlds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Doak, K. M. (2007) The concept of ethnic nationality and its role in pan-Asianism in imperial Japan. In Saaler & Koschmann (2007), pp. 168182.
  • Guelcher, G. P. (2006) Paradise lost: Japan's agricultural colonist in Manchukuo. In Adachi (2006), pp. 7184.
  • Ho, S. O. (1984) Colonialism and development: Korea, Taiwan and Kwantung. In Myers & Peattie (1984), pp. 347398.
  • Kimitada, M. (2007) Pan-Asianism in modern Japan. In Saaler & Koschmann (2007), pp. 2133.
  • Liao, P. H. & Wang, D. (eds.) (2006) Taiwan under Japanese Colonial Rule, 1895–1945: History, Culture, Memory. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Masterson, D. M. & Funada-Classen, S. (2005) The Japanese in Latin America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • Myers, R. H. & Peattie, M. R. (eds.) (1984) The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895–1945. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Peattie, M. R. (1984) Japanese attitudes towards colonialism, 1985–1945. In Myers & Peattie (1984), pp. 80127.
  • Saaler, S. (2007) Pan-Asianism in modern Japanese history: overcoming the nation, creating a region, forging an empire. In Saaler & Koschmann (2007), pp. 118.
  • Saaler, S. & Koschmann, J. V. (eds.) (2007) Pan- Asianism in Modern Japanese History: Colonialism, Regionalism and Borders. London: Routledge.
  • Shin, G. W. & Robinson, M. (eds.) (2001) Colonial Modernity in Korea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Siddle, R. (1996) Race and Resistance: The Ainu of Japan. London: Routledge.
  • Stanlaw, J. (2006) Japanese emigration and immigration: from the Meiji to the modern. In Adachi (2006), pp. 3551.
  • Tamano, M. A. (2006) Overseas Japanese and the challenges of repatriation in post-colonial East Asia. In Adachi (2006), pp. 217235.
  • Tsai, H. C. (2008) Taiwan in Japan's Empire-Building: An Institutional Approach to Colonial Engineering. London: Routledge.
  • Tsurumi, E. P. (1984) Colonial education in Korea and Taiwan. In Myers & Peattie (1984), pp. 275311.
  • Young, L. (1998) Japan's Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism. Berkeley: University of California Press.