In this presentation, I will discuss a new way of narrating a transpacific history of the Japanese empire through the examination of migration and settler colonialism as important mechanisms of national expansion, colonial domination, and industrial development. Even though imperial Japan was fundamentally a settler colonial empire where the migration of Japanese commoners and their agricultural settlement in new territories served as a basic mode of colonization and empire-building, scant attention has been paid to that dimension of Japan's imperial history in the existing scholarship. Japanese settler colonialism tended to look to Anglo-Saxon precedents for models, where the U.S. popular discourse on “frontier conquest” was most frequently referenced. I would like to use the analytics of migration and settler colonialism to examine how deeply the history of Japan’s state imperialism was intertwined with that of early Japanese America (Hawai‘i included), even though a spatially-organized way of scholarly research has rendered the two histories almost completely separate. Often dubbed a means of “peaceful expansion(ism),” migration-driven national colonialism was presented in Japan as counter to the use of state war powers and military violence for territorial aggrandizement; and yet, “non-violent” settler colonialism actually comprised the inseparable twins relative to the empire’s act of waging wars for the common cause of overseas national expansion. Mass migration and agrarian settler colonialism formed an indispensable component of the complex ways in which Japanese imperialism worked between the mid-1890s and the early 1940s.
Inspired by the success of Anglo-Saxon colonization in their settler societies, many prewar Japanese ideologues and practitioners of national expansion embraced a popular notion of frontier settlement and development with the American West as a key prototype. The first group of self-styled Japanese “frontiersmen” congregated in California and Hawai‘i as founders and leaders of early Japanese America, regarding their own agrarian endeavors and community building in the New World frontier to be an integral part of Japan’s “overseas development” (kaigai hatten). The brunt of white settler racism and exclusion nonetheless propelled many Japanese immigrants to leave North America in search of their own frontier to conquer as colonial masters, not to live as minoritized subjects under the thumb of another race. This forged many points of intersection between Japan’s state endeavors to colonize new territories and the effort of former U.S. immigrants (Issei) to build a “new Japan” on foreign soil. My talk will sketch out the transpacific mobility of those first-generation Japanese American resettlers who refashioned their identity as “pioneers” of Japan’s imperial expansion in various parts of the Asia-Pacific basin. I will offer examples of three Issei, who became trailblazers and teachers of colonial development and settlement-making in Japanese-controlled Korea, Taiwan, and Manchuria on the basis of their U.S. immigrant experiences.