Japanese versus European colonialism

Japanese versus European colonialism

How Japanese colonialism in East Asia was transformative compared to its European counterpart in Africa

Kampala, Uganda | ANDREW M. MWENDA | I spent about ten days between late February and early March in Japan; talking to government officials, academics in universities, policy wonks in think tanks, tasting Japanese cuisine, visiting technology museums and art galleries.

I was intrigued that the Japanese do not want to speak about their role as colonisers because many of them think it was their nation at its worst.

Japanese today are polite socially and pacifist politically. They hate war; something taught from nursery school to university. It is what they are taught at home and told in temples and shrines. Of course there is a right wing margin that talks of Japanese rearmament. But overall pacifism is a totem. Yet the Japan of the first half of the 20th century was a war-mongering nation: its people were militant, its generals aggressive, its political leaders belligerent and its diplomats bellicose.

It is this Japan that invaded and colonised Taiwan in 1895 and Korea in 1910. Then it invaded China, occupying Manchuria and annexing it in 1937, marking the beginning of the Second World War – according to the Chinese; the European war that began in 1939 simply joined the Asiatic war to make it a world war.

According to Western reports and Korean and Chinese records, the Japanese were brutal. They conducted their colonisation with unprecedented violence and unmerciful harshness. They killed, pillaged, looted and exploited. They took young Korean and Chinese girls into sex slavery to serve as entertainment for Japanese generals. They grabbed land, extracted forced labour and imposed extortionate taxes.

Most Koreans, Taiwanese and Chinese – and their scholars, poets and politicians – think Japanese colonialism was an evil that only wrecked their lives.

Transformative colonialism

I, however, believe Japanese colonialism in East Asia was transformative compared to its European counterpart in Africa.

I will select a few factors to illustrate my point. But we must recognise that there are many other factors that shaped the development outcomes of Korea and Taiwan than can be compressed in one article.

For instance, by the time of European intrusion into the region, the societies of East Asia (Japan, China, Korea) had enjoyed fairly advanced civilisations for millennia and the process of state formation; complete with meritocratic bureaucracies and the development of common national consciousness, had deep roots.

The East Asian peoples already had widespread formal education and technology was diffuse. Therefore, whatever Japanese colonialism achieved was only possible because of these initial conditions in these societies.

For instance, Taiwan and South Korea were poor in 1960 in terms of per capita income, but many studies show that their social indicators placed them among the ranks of countries at several times their income levels. In 1967, Adelman and Morris did an index of social-economic development for a range of countries as measured in the late 1950s and 60s. The index was derived from factor analysis and was based on a large number of indicators meant to capture characteristics such as social structure and social organisation. They included the level of urbanisation, importance of an indigenous middleclass, social mobility, literacy levels (availability of human capital), mass communications, cultural and ethnic homogeneity, national integration, and a sense of national unity and modernisation outlook.

Aldeman and Morris’ index placed Taiwan and South Korea in the most advanced group of countries even though their per capita income was considerably below average. The study concluded that they had “initial conditions” necessary for rapid development; their governments only needed to remove coordination bottlenecks.

As one can see, cultural and ethnic homogeneity, national integration and a sense of national unity were not a Japanese legacy but the inherited civilisation of these societies. However, factors such as the level of urbanisation, importance of an indigenous middleclass, social mobility, literacy levels (human capital), transport and energy infrastructure plus mass communications were much more developed than other poor countries in large part because of the nature of Japanese colonialism.

All Sub Sahara African countries in the study were at the bottom of the pile in the index. One illustrative factor, which shows the difference between European and Japanese colonialism, was school enrollment and literacy rates (human capital), which we can use as a proxy for availability of technical and managerial skills but also an important basis for sustaining progressive politics.

By 1940, Taiwan had 60% of primary school age going kids (both girls and boys) enrolled in school, similar to South Korea, which also had 43% secondary school enrollment. Uganda (among the best educated in Africa) had 10% primary school enrollment in 1940, 2% in junior secondary and 0.3% in senior secondary and technical education.

In fact, student enrollment as a percentage of overall population in South Korea in 1954 (at the end of the civil war) was 17%; higher than England and Wales (15%), Germany (13%) and only lower than USA (22%) and Japan (23%).

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