Japanese colonial empire

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Japanese Colonial Empire

Flag of Japanese
The Empire of Japan in 1942. *   Japan *   Colonies / Mandates *   Puppet states / Protectorates / Occupied territories
The Empire of Japan in 1942.
StatusColonial empire
Common languagesJapanese
Korean (Korea), Manchu (Manchukou), Taiwanese Hokkien (Taiwan), Formosan languages (Taiwan)
• Established
• Disestablished
CurrencyJapanese yen,
Japanese military yen,
Korean yen,
Taiwanese yen
Today part of

The Japanese colonial empire constituted the overseas colonies established by Imperial Japan in the Western Pacific and East Asia region from 1895.[1] Victories over China and Russia expanded the Japanese sphere of influence, notably in Taiwan and Korea, and South Sakhalin became a colony of Japan as the Karafuto Prefecture in 1905.

Following seizures of German territories in 1914, the League of Nations granted Japan mandates over some former German possessions in the Western Pacific after World War I. With the Japanese expansion into Manchuria in the early 1930s, Japan adopted a policy of setting up and/or supporting puppet states in conquered regions. In this less obviously imperialist form Japan controlled many of the states of the Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere which came under Japanese influence from 1943 to 1945. Colonial control over the far-flung territories from Tokyo ended after the Allies defeated Japan in 1945: the extent of Japanese governance reverted to the four home islands, the Nanpō Islands, and the Ryukyu Islands.


The first overseas territories that Japan acquired were the islands of the surrounding seas. In the 1870s and 1880s, Japan established control over the Nanpō, Ryukyu, and Kurile islands as well as strengthening its hold on the home islands. But this effort was less the initial step toward colonial expansion than it was a reassertion of national authority over territories traditionally within the Japanese cultural sphere.[2] This was similar to nation building in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe.

Acquisition of Colonies[edit]

"The Nation, Volume 74", published in 1902, described the conditions leading to Japanese colonialism : "In all the ameliorating conditions every one must rejoice; but when these are coupled with the old-time lack of self-control leading to universal early marriages, a problem is rolling up before which Japanese statesmen are appalled. At the present rate of increase there will, before the middle of this century, be a hundred million people to provide for. It Is this prospect which is leading Japanese statesmen to make such frantic efforts to secure opportunity for colonization. Being practically shut off from going to other foreign countries, and Formosa being already largely occupied, Japan would naturally look to Korea and Manchuria; but of these places Korea would afford only partial relief, both because of its limited area and of its present population. The northern region of Manchuria, however, is still almost as much in a state of nature as were the prairies of the Mississippi valley when the Indians roamed freely over them."[3]


Between 1895 and 1945, Taiwan (including the Pescadores) was a dependency of the Empire of Japan, after Qing China lost the First Sino-Japanese War to Japan and ceded Taiwan Province in the Treaty of Shimonoseki. The short-lived Republic of Formosa resistance movement ended to no avail when it was suppressed by the Japanese troops. The fall of Tainan ended organized resistance to Japanese occupation, and inaugurated five decades of Japanese rule.

The annexation and incorporation of Taiwan into the Japanese colonial empire can be viewed as first steps in implementing their "Southern Expansion Doctrine" of the late 19th century. As Taiwan was Japan's first overseas colony, Japanese intentions were to turn the island into a showpiece "model colony".[4] As a result, much effort was made to improve the island's economy, industry, public works and to change its culture for much of the necessities of the war machine of Japanese military aggression in the Asia-Pacific until the surrender of Japan.

In 1945, after the defeat of the Empire of Japan in World War II, Taiwan was placed under the control of the Republic of China (ROC) with the signing of the Instrument of Surrender as a part of surrender ceremonies throughout the Asia-Pacific theater.[5] The experience of Japanese rule, ROC rule, and the February 28 Incident (1947) continues to affect issues such as Taiwan Retrocession Day, national identity, ethnic identity and the Taiwan independence movement.


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, various Western countries actively competed for influence, trade, and territory in East Asia, and Japan sought to join these modern colonial powers. The newly modernized Meiji government of Japan turned to Korea, then in the sphere of influence of China's Qing Dynasty. The Japanese government initially sought to separate Korea from Qing and make Korea a Japanese satellite in order to further their security and national interests.[6]

In January 1876, following the Meiji Restoration, Japan employed gunboat diplomacy to pressure Korea, under the Joseon Dynasty, to sign the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876, which granted extraterritorial rights to Japanese citizens and opened three Korean ports to Japanese trade. The rights granted to Japan under this unequal treaty,[7] were similar to those granted western powers in Japan following the visit of Commodore Perry.[7] Japanese involvement in Korea increased during the 1890s, a period of political upheaval.

Korea was occupied and declared a Japanese protectorate following the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1905, and officially annexed in 1910 through the annexation treaty.

In South Korea, the period is usually described as a time of Japanese "forced occupation" (Hangul: 일제 강점기; Ilje gangjeomgi, Hanja: 日帝强占期). Other terms used for it include "Japanese Imperial Period" (Hangul: 일제시대, Ilje sidae, Hanja: 日帝時代) or "Japanese administration" (Hangul: 왜정, Wae jeong, Hanja: 倭政). In Japan, a more common description is "Japanese rule" (日本統治時代の朝鮮, Nippon Tōchi-jidai no Chōsen). Korea was officially part of the Empire of Japan for 35 years, from August 22, 1910, until the formal Japanese rule ended on September 2, 1945, upon the surrender of Japan. The 1905 and 1910 treaties were officially declared "null and void" by both Japan and South Korea in 1965.

South Sakhalin[edit]

During the nineteenth century Russia and Japan vied for control of Sakhalin island. Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868 Japanese settlers were sent to southern Sakhalin to exploit its resources.[8] Japan ceded southern Sakhalin to Russia in 1875 in exchange for the Kiril Islands under the Treaty of Saint Petersburg but following the Russo-Japanese War the Treaty of Portsmouth returned southern Sakhalin to Japan. A colonial government was established in 1907 and South Sakhalin became the Karafuto Prefecture. Japanese and Korean migrants to the colony developed the fishing, forestry and mining industries. Taking advantage of the Russian Civil War, the Japanese army occupied northern Sakhalin between 1920 and 1925[9] and the Japanese retained coal and oil concessions in the north until 1944. In 1942 South Sakhalin ceased to be a colony and was incorporated into Japan. The Soviet Union gained control of the whole island at the end of World War II.[10]

South Pacific Mandate[edit]

Following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Empire of Japan declared war on the German Empire and quickly seized the possessions of the German colonial empire in the Pacific Ocean (the Northern Mariana Islands, the Caroline Islands and the Marshall Islands) with virtually no resistance. After the end of the war the Treaty of Versailles formally recognised the Japanese occupation of former German colonies in Micronesia north of the equator. A League of Nations mandate put them under the Japanese administration known as the Nan'yō Prefecture (南洋庁, Nan'yō Chō) and the post of Governor of the South Pacific Mandate was created.[11]

The main significance of the South Pacific Mandate to Japan was its strategic location, which dominated the sea lanes across the Pacific Ocean and provided convenient provisioning locations for ships. During the 1930s, the Imperial Japanese Navy began construction of airfields, fortifications, ports, and other military projects on the South Pacific Mandate islands, viewing them as "unsinkable aircraft carriers" with a critical role to play in the defense of the Japanese home islands against potential invasion by the United States. The islands became important staging grounds for Japanese air and naval offensives during the Pacific War, but were lost to American military action between 1943 and 1945. The League of Nations mandate was formally revoked by the United Nations on July 18, 1947 pusuant to Security Council Resolution 21, making the United States responsible for administration of the islands under the terms of a United Nations trusteeship agreement which established the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.


Japan briefly occupied the southern part of the Liaodong Peninsula during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). Russia formally leased the area from China in 1898 but under the Portsmouth Treaty (1905) Japan replaced Russia as the leaseholder and the area was renamed the Kwantung Leased Territory. A governor and a garrison were put in place, the latter becoming the Kwantung Army in 1919.

Inner Manchuria had been under Russian influence until the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904/05) which brought the area under Japanese influence. In 1906, Japan laid the South Manchurian Railway to Port Arthur (Japanese: Ryojun). The chaos following the Russian Revolution of 1917 allowed Japan to temporarily extend its control into Outer Manchuria, but the area returned to Soviet control by 1925. Inner Manchuria came under the control of the Chinese warlord Zhang Zuolin during the warlord period in China. He initially had Japanese backing, but the Japanese Kwantung Army found him too independent. He was assassinated in 1928.

The Japanese invasion of Manchuria took place in 1931 following the Mukden Incident, a staged event engineered by Japanese military personnel from the Kwantung Army as a pretext for invasion.[12][13][14] The region was subsequently separated from Chinese control and the Japanese-aligned puppet state of Manchukuo was created.[15] The last Emperor of China, Puyi, was installed as head of state in 1932, and two years later he was declared Emperor of Manchukuo. The city of Changchun was renamed Hsinking and became the capital of Manchukuo. An imperial palace was specially built for the emperor. He was, however, nothing more than a figurehead and real authority rested in the hands of the Japanese military officials. The Manchu ministers all served as front-men for their Japanese vice-ministers, who made all decisions. Anti-Japanese Volunteer Armies were organised by the Chinese in Manchuria and the pacification of Manchukuo required a war lasting several years.

During the 1930s the Japanese colonised Manchukuo. With Japanese investment and rich natural resources, the economy of Manchukuo experienced rapid economic growth. Manchukuo's industrial system became one of the most advanced, making it one of the industrial powerhouses in the region.[16] Manchukuo's steel production exceeded Japan's in the late 1930s. The Japanese Army initially sponsored a policy of forced industrialization modeled after the Five Year Plan in the Soviet Union[17] but subsequently private capital was used in a very strongly state-directed economy. There was progress in the area's social systems and many Manchurian cities were modernised. Manchukuo issued its own notes and postal stamps, and several independent banks were founded. The Chinese Eastern Railway was bought from the Soviet Union In 1935. Traditional lands were taken and redistributed to Japanese farmers with local farmers relocated and forced into collective farming units over smaller areas of land.

During this period Manchukuo was used as a base from which to invade China. In the summer of 1939 a border dispute between Manchukuo and the Mongolian People's Republic resulted in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. During this battle, a combined Soviet Army and Mongolian force defeated the Japanese Kwantung Army (Kantōgun) supported by limited Manchukuoan forces. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan on 8 August 1945 in accordance with the agreement at the Yalta Conference, and invaded Manchukuo from outer Manchuria and Outer Mongolia. This was called Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation. The Army of Manchukuo was defeated and the Emperor was captured by Soviet forces. Most of the 1.5 million Japanese who had been left in Manchukuo at the end of World War II were sent back to their homeland in 1946-1948 by U.S. Navy ships in the operation now known as the Japanese repatriation from Huludao.


Plowman recounts how the lack of skilled personnel led to the establishment of puppet-governments and the promotion of indigenous elites in the administration of territories which came under Japanese control in the 1940s.[18]

Economic development[edit]

According to Atul Kohli, the David K.E. Bruce Professor of International Affairs and Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton, "the Japanese made extensive use of state power for their own economic development and then used the same state power to pry open and transform Korea in a relatively short period of time".[19] Japan was "decisive in altering both the nature of the Korean state and the relationship of this state to various social classes."[20] How the Japanese centralized bureaucratic style of government was transferred to Korea; how they developed Korean human capital by a considerable expansion of education; how the Japanese invested heavily in infrastructure. Kohli's conclusion is that "the highly cohesive and disciplining state that the Japanese helped to construct in colonial Korea turned out to be an efficacious economic actor. The state utilized its bureaucratic capacities to undertake numerous economic tasks: collecting more taxes, building infrastructure, and undertaking production directly. More important, this highly purposive state made increasing production one of its priorities and incorporated property-owning classes into production-oriented alliances".[21] This sprawling bureaucratic state continued post-World War II and after the Korean War. Japan's early colonial industrialisation of Korea also made it easier to rebuild after the Korean War, because there was no need to begin industrialisation ab initio. Examining Korea's policies and achievements in the 1960s and 1970s, Kohli states that during this period the country was firmly heading towards "cohesive-capitalist development, mainly by re-creating an efficacious but brutal state that intervened extensively in the economy".[22] South Korean economic development was not market-driven—rather the "state intervened heavily to promote exports, using both market and non-market tools to achieve its goals".[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Peattie 1988, p. 217.
  2. ^ Peattie 1988, p. 224.
  3. ^ The Nation, Volume 74. VOLUME LXXIV. NEW YORK: NEW YORK EVENING POST COMPANY. 1902. p. 187. Retrieved Dec 20, 2011. In all the ameliorating conditions every one must rejoice; but when these are coupled with the old-time lack of self-control leading to universal early marriages, a problem is rolling up before which Japanese statesmen are appalled. At the present rate of increase there will, before the middle of this century, be a hundred million people to provide for. It Is this prospect which is leading Japanese statesmen to make such frantic efforts to secure opportunity for colonization. Being practically shut off from going to other foreign countries, and Formosa being already largely occupied, Japan would naturally look to Korea and Manchuria; but of these places Korea would afford only partial relief, both because of its limited area and of its present population. The northern region of Manchuria, however, is still almost as much in a state of nature as were the prairies of the Mississippi valley when the Indians roamed freely over them.
  4. ^ Pastreich, Emanuel (July 2003). "Sovereignty, Wealth, Culture, and Technology: Mainland China and Taiwan Grapple with the Parameters of "Nation State" in the 21st Century". Program in Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. OCLC 859917872.
  5. ^ Chen, C. Peter. "Japan's Surrender". World War II Database. Lava Development, LLC. Retrieved 22 December 2014.
  6. ^ Duus, Peter (1995). The Abacus and the Sword: The Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895–1910. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520213616.
  7. ^ a b A reckless adventure in Taiwan amid Meiji Restoration turmoil, THE ASAHI SHIMBUN, Retrieved on July 22, 2007.
  8. ^ Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko (1981). Illness and Healing Among the Sakhalin Ainu: A Symbolic Interpretation. CUP Archive. p. 214. ISBN 9780521236362.
  9. ^ Paichadze, Svetlana; Seaton, Philip A. (2015). Voices from the Shifting Russo-Japanese Border: Karafuto / Sakhalin. Routledge Studies in the Modern History of Asia. Routledge. p. 21. ISBN 9781317618898.
  10. ^ Wurm, Stephen A.; Mühlhäusler, Peter; Tryon, Darrell T. (1996). Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication in the Pacific, Asia, and the Americas. Trends in Linguistics. Documentation. Volume 13. Walter de Gruyter. p. 379. ISBN 9783110819724.
  11. ^ Ponsonby-Fane, Richard (1962). Sovereign and Subject. Ponsonby Memorial Society. pp. 346–353.
  12. ^ The Cambridge History of Japan: The twentieth century, p. 294, Peter Duus, John Whitney Hall, Cambridge University Press: 1989 ISBN 978-0-521-22357-7
  13. ^ An instinct for war: scenes from the battlefields of history, p. 315, Roger J. Spiller, ISBN 978-0-674-01941-6; Harvard University Press
  14. ^ Concise dictionary of modern Japanese history, p. 120, Janet Hunter, University of California Press: 1984, ISBN 978-0-520-04557-6
  15. ^ Yamamuro, Shin·ichi (2006). Manchuria under Japanese domination. Translated by Fogel, Joshua A. Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 116–117. ISBN 9780812239126.
  16. ^ Prasenjit Duara. "The New Imperialism and the Post-Colonial Developmental State: Manchukuo in comparative perspective". Retrieved 25 July 2010.
  17. ^ Maiolo, Joseph Cry Havoc How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931-1941, New York: Basic Books, 2010 page 30
  18. ^ Plowright, John (2007). The causes, course and outcomes of World War Two. Histories and Controversies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 167. ISBN 978-0-333-79345-9. Retrieved 2010-08-29. The success of the Japanese had other consequences for Britain's—and others'—former colonies. Lacking sufficient numbers of skilled personnel to administer their newly conquered lands, they sometimes either set up puppet governments or entrusted relatively high administrative responsibilities to the local native élites whom the former colonial powers had hitherto systematically kept in lower grade jobs[...]
  19. ^ Kohli 2004, p. 27.
  20. ^ Kohli 2004, p. 31.
  21. ^ Kohli 2004, p. 56.
  22. ^ Kohli 2004, p. 84.
  23. ^ Kohli 2004, p. 119.


  • Myers, Ramon Hawley; Peattie, Mark R. (1984). The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-521-22352-0.
  • Peattie, Mark R. (1988). "Chapter 5 - The Japanese Colonial Empire 1895-1945". The Cambridge History of Japan Vol. 6. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22352-0.
  • Peattie, Mark (1992). Nan'Yo: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese in Micronesia, 1885-1945. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1480-0.
  • Kohli, Atul (2004). State-Directed Development: Political Power and Industrialization in the Global Periphery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-54525-9.