Recent years have witnessed a new wave of scholarly works in English on Japan’s colonial past. Monographs and edited volumes by Mark Peattie, Peter Duus, Louise Young and Tak Matsusaka, among others, have greatly enriched our understanding of the social economic, political and cultural aspects of Japan’s formal and informal empires. While many of these works tend to focus on specific geographical areas, a number of essays, notably those by Peattie, have probed Japanese attitudes toward colonialism in general.
In this intellectual biography of Tadao Yanaihara, a leading Japanese authority on colonial policy before the Asia Pacific War, Susan Townsend goes a step further. By weaving together Yanaihara’s representative works on colonial administration with salient developments in Japan’s wide-flung overseas colonies as well as in China, she provides a panoramic — if still somewhat selective — survey of Japan’s entire colonial history.
Beginning with Yanaihara’s “encounter with bandits” in Manchuria shortly after the Japanese invasion in 1931, Townsend devotes the first three chapters to tracing his intellectual background and analyzing his basic theory of colonization. In each of five chapters that follow, on Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria, the South Sea Islands and China respectively, she goes into greater depth in examining Yanaihara’s assessment of the specific conditions of these areas and his subsequent recommendations. In the final chapter, after discussing the 1937 “Yanaihara Incident,” which forced him out of Tokyo Imperial University, Townsend summarizes her analysis and offers some general comparisons.
After a brief stint with a Sumitomo company, Yanaihara, a graduate of the elite First Higher School and Tokyo Imperial University, taught colonial policy for well over a decade at his alma mater (and served as its president after the war). In addition to studying in Europe for more than two years, he made several field trips to Japan’s colonies to conduct firsthand investigations.
Yanaihara made no distinctions between immigration, colonization and colonialism, but separated “actual colonies,” formed by settler groups, from “formal colonies,” which were subjugated to the home country. He devoted much of his research to analyzing various aspects of such subjugation — economic, political and cultural — in each of Japan’s colonies and spheres of interest. His works documented the multifaceted economic and social impact of Japan’s colonial rule and called for gradual changes toward autonomy in Taiwan and Korea, as well as Japanese support for China’s national-building efforts.
As Townsend shows, Yanaihara was consistently critical of Japan’s colonial policy and deeply sympathetic to its colonial subjects. Yet he also believed in the redeeming effect of colonialism as a vehicle for capitalist development. In other words, imperialism might be bad, but empires could do good. Townsend traces such an ideological paradox to influences of Mukyokai (No-Church) Christianity through Kanzo Uchimura and Inazo Nitobe on the one hand, and to a wide range of European works on international economics and imperialism on the other.
Yanaihara’s critique of Japanese colonial policy, as Townsend points out, transcended Japan’s narrow interests with appeals to universal idealism and humanism, but at the same time, he remained sympathetic toward Japan’s declared aims of colonial development. Townsend is at her best when she places Yanaihara in the European intellectual context from Adam Smith to Rudolf Hilferding to Lenin; she succeeds in filling a major gap in the existing scholarship on Yanaihara, in Japanese or English.
In examining Yanaihara’s theory on colonialism, Townsend engages in a spirited debate with Yoji Asada, a Japanese Marxist scholar who has written widely on Japanese colonial history. For the most part, Townsend faults Asada’s often-harsh criticism of Yanaihara for overlooking the “complexities of the historical context”; at one point, she characterizes Asada as being “not only anachronistic but also profoundly biased toward (Chinese) Communist historiography.” Yet, in discussing Yanaihara’s response to the Manchurian Incident and taking note of the more critical stance of the liberal journalist Kiyoshi Kiyosawa, she considers Asada as being “too generous with Yanaihara’s support for Manchukuo.”
Apart from her discussion of Asada’s remarks, Townsend does not seem to have tapped into the recent outpouring of Japanese scholarship on the subject of Japanese colonization, in contrast with her apparent familiarity with secondary English-language works. Hence, a chapter on Yanaihara’s colonial scholarship by the economic historian Katsuhiko Murakami in the landmark eight-volume series “Kindai Nihon to shokuminchi” (“Modern Japan and the Colonies”), published in 1993, goes unnoticed, as does an illuminating essay published by Dai Guohui nearly 30 years ago, comparing Yanaihara’s ideas and career with that of Karoku Hosokawa, a classmate and a prolific Marxist writer on Japan’s colonial affairs.
As Townsend puts it, Yanaihara, who occupied the chair in colonial policy at the prestigious Tokyo Imperial University that produced the top tier of Japan’s bureaucracy, “was not in the business of constructing idealist Utopias.” Yet, she admits that he “failed to effect a single change in colonial policy.” Was this true and if so, why? Arguably this question is beyond the scope of an intellectual biography, and Townsend cites Yanaihara’s aloofness from political movements as well as his “total isolation from the ‘official mind’ of colonial practice” before going on to discuss the role of dissident intellectuals and the loss of academic autonomy in prewar Japan. A broader examination of Yanaihara’s teaching career and relations with colonial administrations might help throw light on the otherwise faceless operation of Japanese colonialism.
It would be equally fascinating to examine the intellectual legacy of Japan’s prewar colonial studies through the case study of Yanaihara. Did his views on colonialism change after the war or show fundamental continuities? Having resumed teaching — colonial policy now replaced by international economics — Yanaihara devoted his entire final semester at the University of Tokyo to a systematic survey of Japan’s colonial history. These lectures, not mentioned in Townsend’s study, seem too good to miss for an intellectual biography titled “Yanaihara Tadao and Japanese Colonial Policy.”
First written as a Sheffield University dissertation, the book draws extensively from Yanaihara’s published 29-volume collected works. Townsend also generously cites many secondary works (a word or two about their authors would clarify the historiographic trends they illustrate). Occasionally, her failure to question the validity of their claims leads to problematic statements such as “It is only since 1994, moreover, that Japanese historians have started to approach the question posed by Japan’s imperial domination of Asia and the issue of wartime atrocities.”
But on the whole, Townsend has produced a well-crafted and engaging work, delivering exactly what she promises at the beginning: the “first detailed, book-length analysis of Yanaihara’s colonial writings in either English or Japanese.” Students of Japanese colonialism as well as intellectual history have reason to be thankful.