Lu, Sidney Xu. The Making of Japanese Settler Colonialism: Malthusianism and Trans-Pacific Migration, 1868-1961. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Online ISBN: 9781108687584. Open access [February 8, 2021].
By Hugues Canuel, PhD
This masterful study by Sydney Xu Lu (associate professor of history at Michigan State University) provides the reader with an eclectic analysis of settler colonialism through the one hundred years that followed the restoration of Emperor Meiji and the opening of Japan to the world. The author succeeds brilliantly in shaping a narrative that fuses the challenging topics of overpopulation, economic growth and state expansion through a century of rapid modernisation, imperial victories and defeats, and national rehabilitation in the wake of the Second World War. Lu proposes to examine “how the discourse of overpopulation emerged in Japanese society and was appropriated to justify Japan’s migration-driven expansion on both sides of the Pacific Ocean from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1960s” (p. 3). Central to his thesis is the innovative concept of “Malthusian expansionism,” which “demanded extra land abroad to accommodate the claimed surplus people in the domestic society on the one hand and emphasized the necessity of the overall population growth of the nation on the other hand” (p.3).
Thomas Malthus posited long ago that population growth in a context of limited resources would inevitably lead to famine and war, a formidable challenge for the Japanese islands where the expanding numbers of inhabitants could only avail themselves of limited arable lands and few natural resources. And yet the book exposes how successive governments, private societies and enterprising individuals repeatedly combined their efforts to turn this potential crisis into an opportunity for growth, hence the reference to Malthusian expansionism. Leveraging a wide-ranging, multi-lingual archival research that makes particularly effective use of Japanese government records, contemporary media publications, and private papers, Lu makes a potent case in showing how successive generations of officials and intellectuals did not fear the islands’ growing population. They actually celebrated it as a source of strength, an inexhaustible resource to populate the empire’s spreading peripheries and beyond, putting as much importance on internal emigration to colonial acquisitions in Asia as to migration to foreign territories around the Pacific Rim. They believed hard-working and disciplined migrants would assist Japan’s growing status among the major powers, in part by embracing “the noble goal to glorify their nation from afar” (p. 239).
Patterns of continuity are obvious throughout this century of Malthusian expansionism, right up to the Cold War when Japanese authorities promoted “a critical opportunity for postwar Japan to reembrace the world with a new identity: a pacifist, altruistic, and loyal member of the Western bloc” (p. 262). The author structures his work around four chronological phases “responding to specific social tensions within domestic Japan and the empire’s interaction with its Western counterparts” (p. 33). There were the early years of emergence (1868-1894), seeking to turn declassed samurai into the empire’s first frontiersmen by facilitating their relocation to the northern island of Hokkaido—Japan’s new frontier at the time—as well as the American West, although strict limitations in California on immigration from Asia forced a change of destination to Hawaii, other Pacific islands and Latin America. Transformation followed in 1894-1924 with the expansion of the empire as Japan successively defeated China and Russia, and then grabbed most of the Pacific territories held by Germany during the First World War. Resentment and bitterness towards the Western powers which refused to incorporate a racial equality clause in the League of Nations mandate, as well as continued harshness in the treatment of Japanese emigrants in the United States, marked the culmination of Malthusian expansionism (1924-1945) as Japanese farmers and laborers sought a new life in territories spread out from Manchuria to Brazil rather than North America. The Second World War defeat reversed the outflow of people as more than six million Japanese troops and civilians returned to the home islands after the capitulation but the end of the American occupation in 1952 quickly gave rise to a resurgence of emigration during this last period (1945-1961). A diminished Japan and moribund economy momentarily encouraged emigration to South America, although this proved short-lived. Rejuvenated industries and improved living conditions resulted in higher demand for manpower at home and lesser incentives to move overseas in the early 1960s.
Lu’s superb work is a major contribution to the field. The author offers a unique approach in fusing different aspects of the migration phenomenon that have been studied separately in the past, as he argues that “we cannot fully grasp the history of Japanese expansion in Asia without an understanding of Japanese migration outside of the empire and vice versa” (p. 273). Within the chronological narrative, the analysis exposes the continuities and connections found in Japanese migration, within Japan’s growing domain and beyond, along “four different but overlapping threads within the big picture of Japanese Malthusian expansion: the intellectual, the social, the institutional, and the international” (p. 11). This is not a work dedicated to the emigrant’s individual experience but rather the “ideas and activities of the Japanese migration promoters” (p. 5) through “four different but interlocked analytical loci” (p. 264): the Malthusian discourse in Japan, human connections and institutional continuities during successive emigration campaigns, ideological interactions on both sides of the Pacific, as well as the “intellectual conflation between migration and expansion in modern Japanese history” (p. 266).
This is a considerable task for a single book but Lu largely succeeds in this endeavor. Helpfully illustrated with contemporary magazine covers and posters promoting national policies and those private enterprises committed to these migration schemes, the manuscript is edited well but for minor spelling errors that should have been caught before publication. This Canadian reviewer would also have appreciated some insight into the first wave of emigration to Canada (10,000 people of Japanese ancestry had settled permanently in British Columbia by 1914) but this dimension is not mentioned in the text. Despite such small issues, Lu’s The Making of Japanese Settler Colonialism remains a considerable accomplishment, written in simple prose, that I recommend without reserve to scholars and students of Japanese imperial expansionism and trans-Pacific migration, as well as any reader interested in the history and policies of modern Japan.
Captain Hugues Canuel, RCN, holds a PhD in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada and currently resides in Tokyo where he serves as the Canadian Defence Attaché to Japan. His research interests include naval strategy and military history, modern Japan and East Asian defence and security issues. A finalist of the 2014 Alan Villiers Memorial Lecture Postgraduate Essay Contest, he has written in numerous professional and academic journals and his book The Fall and Rise of French Sea Power: France’s Quest for an Independent Naval Policy, 1940–1963 is now available for pre-order.