Analyzing the Historiography of Imperialist Japan : Continuities Within Processes of Modernization
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The discussion of Japanese colonialism is traditionally confined to the period defined as modern in Japanese history. This is largely heralded by the historiography’s embrace of a narrative that attributes the co-opting of western imperialism after the Meiji Restoration by Japanese elites as significant as a symptom of modernity and the various unique contexts that surround Japanese interaction with the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In general, the narrative that sakoku, the system of closed country that prohibited movement into or out of Japan, created a period of isolation for Japan has been rejected. However, there is a larger issue within the historiography that portrays the Meiji Restoration as the defining point in Japan’s modern history. In order to completely address misconceptions about pre-modern Japan’s lack of interaction with the outside world, historians must reassess the bounds of periodization that delineate between modern and pre modern. This is not to raise the argument that histories that define Meiji and Tokugawa as separate and distinct times do not have merit. In fact, there is a huge range of documentation that solidly underlies the research done on modern Japan and gives it a credibility that is difficult to contest. Where the problem lies is not in the evidence of change and continuity between the Tokugawa and Meiji eras, it is the portrayal through the lens of periodization that functions as a deceptively simple heuristic to understand the history of not only Japan but of the many places that Japanese imperialism affected. It is very obvious to the historian that periodization works as an oversimplification of complex structures of change and their opposite, the chaos of contingency. It is then discouraging to see the effects of this simplification take such a great role in the histories of Meiji imperialism. This paper seeks to examine a few works of the historiography of Meiji imperialism in order to pinpoint the places in which the narratives being told about Japan do and do not contribute to a synthesized view of modern Japan. In other words, the transition between periods involved complex and intertwined relationships between changes and continuities that is not totally accurately reflected in the current historiography. Histories concerned with the effects of Meiji imperialism in places like Hokkaido, the Ryukyus, or Taiwan often take for granted the vast history of interaction and violence that occurred between those places prior to their colonization in the early Meiji era. Indeed, most of the descriptions of Japanese contact culminate in a brief explanation about isolated contact during the Tokugawa era in an effort to juxtapose that against the new expansionism of the Meiji state. In an individual history, this seems like a reasonable approach. Nevertheless, it is important to consider that the historiography as a whole needs to take more into account the intricacies of Japanese foreign policy throughout its history. Merely juxtaposing Meiji imperialism against the Tokugawa era or, even compared to the whole history of Japan, underlies a history with the assumption that the Meiji Restoration marked a fundamental change in Japan’s history that skips over continuities and disregards the processes of social change that did not adhere to the abrupt and significant shifts in political and diplomatic institutions. I’m not saying that all individual histories need to provide a detailed explanation and analysis of the entire history of Japanese expansion. I am, however, saying that its place within the historiography of the Meiji period is sorely missed and therefore represents a hole in the research that, if filled, would greatly enhance a number of histories and provide us with a more balanced view of the history of Japan.