Jo on Kushner and Muminov, 'Overcoming Empire in Post-Imperial East Asia: Repatriation, Redress and Rebuilding'

Barak Kushner, Sherzod Muminov, eds.
Kyu-hyun Jo

Barak Kushner, Sherzod Muminov, eds. Overcoming Empire in Post-Imperial East Asia: Repatriation, Redress and Rebuilding. SOAS Studies in Modern and Contemporary Japan. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. Illustrations, tables. xiii + 246 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-350-12705-0

Reviewed by Kyu-hyun Jo (Northeast Asian History Foundation) Published on H-History-and-Theory (June, 2021) Commissioned by Andrew J. Kettler (University of California, Los Angeles)

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Studies of Japanese imperialism by such historians as Peter H. Duus, Mark Peattie, and Louise Young have addressed the bureaucratic process behind Japan's colonization of Korea; the establishment, expansion, and fall of the Japanese Empire; and Japan's wartime culture in Manchuria.[1] However, in contrast to the richness and variety of historical scholarship concerned with building and making imperialism into a political program and with imperialism at war in modern Japanese history, there has yet to be a comprehensive and multidimensional consideration of the aftermath of empire and the administration of the victor's justice. In Overcoming Empire in Post-Imperial East Asia: Reparation, Redress and Rebuilding, Barak Kushner and Sherzod Muminov have made an effective attempt to highlight the importance of the Japanese Empire as a postwar historical memory. By gathering ten essays from historians, anthropologists, and various scholars of modern Japanese politics and history, the book offers a comprehensive overview of how the Japanese Empire after the end of imperialism continues to shape East Asia's historical consciousness into the twenty-first century, or a "postimperial" age.

The ten essays that comprise this book address topics as diverse as the repatriation of Taiwanese citizens after World War II, the reconstruction of industry in Manchuria, early perceptions of the Korean War in Japan, and the problem of forced labor and its postwar compensation. The essays feature the use of a wide array of primary and secondary sources, ranging from archived government documents, memoranda, personal recollections, and multilingual secondary sources in English, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. The essays examine the international history of repatriation, specifically from the perspective of Taiwanese and Chinese refugees and their treatment by Japanese authorities as they transitioned from imperial subjects to foreigners, along with the disintegration of the Japanese Empire. Another major theme is liberation as a postwar experience, exemplified through a discussion of Japanese perceptions of the Korean War, the legacy of colonialism as seen through colonial architecture in Korea, and Japanese cinema after the end of World War II. Essays examine the Korean War as part of an effort to promote post-World War II cultural reconstruction, Korean efforts to overcome colonial modernity by demolishing or preserving such Japanese colonial institutions as the Government-General Building or Seo-dae-mun Prison, and post-World War II Japanese colonial cinema reflecting Japan's perception of its former colonies as building blocks for the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The final theme of the book is the living traces of the Japanese Empire and includes essays discussing the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, compensation of wartime laborers, and a resort island that is a memento of Japan's dark past as a nation deeply involved in chemical warfare.

Collectively, the ten essays broaden the scholarly landscape by transcending the nation as a traditional unit of analysis through the inclusion of non-state actors. The essays also display various temporal frameworks to examine East Asia in a postimperial age, challenging the idea that the disintegration of the Japanese Empire is synonymous with studying the process behind Japan's defeat in World War II. Finally, through a discussion of Japanese perceptions of the Korean War and Japan's unresolved issue of wartime compensation, the volume also shows that the Cold War must not be the dominant framework with which to try to understand the postcolonial international order in East Asia. Rather, one should try to understand the complexities behind the idea that the death of an empire is not synonymous with the death of imperialism as a historical memory because of the chaos, debates, and competition for reconstructing and reestablishing historical legitimacy, which continue to inform national discourses in East Asia.

The book is an important multidimensional tool with which one can understand the position of empire within a postimperial age and use the Japanese Empire and its afterlife as a comparative means with which to interpret and analyze the afterlives of European counterparts, such as the British, French, and German Empires. Moreover, by presenting the imperial and postimperial experience of empire as a collective enterprise, the ten essays allow readers to fully understand how empire exerts itself as a living historical memory that is constantly contested in the affected regions. The book effectively delivers the truth that the morale of the Japanese Empire and its dissolution is not only in the magnitude of suffering it caused for Korean, Chinese, and Taiwanese citizens but also in efforts to come to terms or even erase its vestiges as decolonization got coupled with the challenge of modernization and nationalism. The volume is laudable for its comprehensive analysis of empire as a multidimensional phenomenon and, in accordance with that idea, for its careful scholarly engagement with rich bases of primary and secondary sources in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and English, with particular emphasis on the use of multilingual primary sources. The volume is also helpful for organizing a list of all primary and secondary sources used, so scholars and students can consult them for their own research and expand on the ideas explored in the volume.

However, as with any other book, the volume is not devoid of imperfect features. One desirable aspect of the book may have been a more detailed analysis or a series of analyses on how Japanese citizens and government officials have made efforts to overcome empire in postimperial Japan. Since imperialism embodies crimes against human rights and national sovereignty and because it is an undeniable historical fact that victims of Japanese imperialism bear the brunt of overcoming the wounds and pains of empire, a more focused analysis about Japan's efforts to help its neighbors overcome such wounds and pains would have balanced the historical narrative and given even further diversity to the postimperial moment as a historical experience. For example, while Yukiko Koga's essay on the Japanese government's financial compensation toward victims of forced labor does address Japan's role in helping its neighbors overcome imperialism as a historical memory, additional essays exploring such topics as Rabinod Pal's dissent during the Tokyo Tribunals, or the bureaucratic origins of the Kono statement, or Japan's description of its imperial past in its white papers or high school textbooks, or Japan's relationship with Korea concerning Dokdo would have added more nuance and complexity to imperialism as a historical phenomenon, or one that continues to be historical by forming a dialogue between the past and present.

Another desirable aspect is that the volume needed a balance between theoretical analysis and historical narratives, for the former is virtually nonexistent. Perhaps it was the editors' intention for the volume to be introductory for students, and the lack of sufficient space for each essay might have made it hard to concentrate much on analysis. However, more sophisticated attention to theoretical analysis would have been ideal, for, in most of the essays, a common problem is a lack of precise explanation about why a particular topic under discussion is important in relation to a specific body of research. Without scholarly context, some essays do not fully address why their topics or approaches are unique. Therefore, while thorough attention to historical details is great, it is not always clear to which specific end the details matter in relation to the task of discovering new facts. For example, Shi-Chi Lan's essay does not address any recent scholarly literature within which to position his arguments, which makes it difficult to know the theoretical significance and purpose behind the importance of examining Taiwanese repatriation within the context of the British and Dutch imperial order in Southeast Asia. A similar problem can be found in Meredith Oyen's discussion of Chinese refugees from the Chinese Civil War. Oyen begins rather too abruptly with an anecdote, and while she quickly transitions to an examination of China's refugees, there is no reference to any secondary literature with which she could have established the scholarly significance of her work.[2]

Finally, some of the book's essays contain misleading facts or do not approach their subject matter as their titles imply. For example, Hyun-kyung Lee's discussion of colonial architecture and its legacy operates under the assumption that the division of the Korean Peninsula was the beginning of a process for nation-building, but that was not exactly the essence of the division. What the world understands as two different states is not identical to what all Koreans understand the division to be. Some Koreans understand North Korea as an enemy state, a different other, while some Koreans understand North Korea as a lingering legacy of the Korean War and a problem for which reunification is the ideal solution. Lee's understanding of Korea's division seems to generally assume that division will be a permanent phenomenon marked by the founding of two distinct nation-states and does not leave much room for the possibility of reunification. If one takes her argument that the postcolonial moment was devoted to "nation-building," what then do previous manifestations of the Korean state, such as the Joseon dynasty or the Goryeo dynasty, become? Are they different, non-Korean entities?

In other words, by casting colonialism as a moment of rupture, Lee not only divorces the long lineage of dynastic continuity that served as the backbone of the Korean state but also does not explain why the postcolonial moment was a distinct phase of "nation-building," unless one should understand that she implicitly believes that the division of the Korean Peninsula automatically translates into a moment of turbula rasa for the Korean nation. Furthermore, while her attempt to understand colonialism's legacy through architecture is original, she discusses three different institutions—a prison, a shrine, and the Government-General Building—that have distinct histories and different controversies and makes the generation of a unified conclusion rather difficult. Consequently, she is only able to generally conclude that there is an ongoing controversy between conservatives and liberals about how one ought to interpret the legacy of colonialism. The real question she ought to have raised is why must this question be explored through the particular lens of colonial architecture? How would pro-Japanese collaboration, for example, not lead to the same conclusion she draws in her essay? In other words, there is no specific explanation about why architecture is unique in relation to other controversial topics about colonial history. As with Koga's essay, a nuanced theoretical analysis in response to recently published scholarship would have been ideal to justify why examining architecture among other topics, such as nationalist historiography, pro-Japanese colonialism, or Korea's economy during the colonial period, is more worthwhile.

Samuel Perry's "Early Narratives of the Korean War" exhibits the problem of not exactly delivering the precise topic that his essay's title implies. Although he does discuss some Japanese feminists and authors in his essay, the brunt of the essay revolves around an examination of a pro-Japanese collaborator who resided in Japan, wrote for Japanese magazines, and considered himself a subject of the Japanese Empire. Perry's choice to focus on one example creates a tradeoff between style and content. With regard to style, Perry is able to meticulously analyze the Korean author's works; however, with regard to the latter, there is a major sacrifice in terms of variety and a lack of justification about the problem of why a Korean author who spent much of his career in Japan ought to qualify as a metonym for Japanese views about the Korean War. A more sustained focus on a variety of writings by Japanese writers during the early 1950s and an introductory paragraph providing a theoretical framework and a discussion of the essay's intended scope would have helped readers easily and clearly find the direction and methodological uniqueness of Perry's approach.

In its entirety, the book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on transnational interpretations of modern East Asian history. The volume displays careful attention to diversity in terms of its scope and topics, and all essays display a thorough grasp of primary and secondary sources. Most important, the volume challenges the idea that the study of modern Japan ought to center on how Japan experienced the Second World War. Rather, the volume presents a convincing case of decentralizing Japan and complementing it with a focus on the aftermath of empire as a concept. Moreover, rather than casting victimized nations of imperialism as passive actors, the volume highlights the agency of China, Taiwan, and Korea, and reinterprets modernization as a process of overcoming empire, a delicate process of preserving the imperial experience as part of national historical consciousness while erasing features of imperialism that may prohibit the growth of that consciousness.

Finally, the collection also demonstrates that the ghost of imperialism will not go away completely as long as Japan and its neighbors have to confront the difficult reality of approximating what constitutes justice in postimperial East Asia. As long as that memory is alive, the challenge of overcoming empire will remain a work in progress until both Japan and victims of imperial aggression work together to smother, if not completely erase, the old yet visible wound of imperialism. The volume is a welcome synthesis of analyses concerning the aftermath of the fall of the Japanese Empire, a sobering reminder that while empires might have disintegrated, memories of living under imperialism continue to inform and shape the present, and integrates diverse national experiences into a global experience of living in a postimperial age.


[1]. Peter H. Duus, The Abacus and the Sword: The Japanese Penetration into Korea, 1895-1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Mark Peattie and Peter H. Duus, eds., The Japanese Wartime Empire, 1931-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996); and Louise Young, Japan's Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

[2]. On British imperialism in Southeast Asia, see Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Wars: Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); and Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005). On Chinese refugees during World War II, see Edvard Hambro, "Chinese Refugees in Hong Kong," Phylon Quarterly 18, no. 1 (October 1957): 69-81; Rana Mitter, "Classifying Citizens in Nationalist China during World War II, 1937-1941," Modern Asian Studies 45, no. 2 (March 2011): 243-57; Hu Yueh, "The Problem of the Hong Kong Refugees," Asian Survey 2, no. 1 (March 1962): 28-37; and Tony Banham, "Hong Kong's Civilian Fatalities of the Second World War," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch 59 (2019): 31-50.

Citation: Kyu-hyun Jo. Review of Kushner, Barak; Muminov, Sherzod, eds., Overcoming Empire in Post-Imperial East Asia: Repatriation, Redress and Rebuilding. H-History-and-Theory, H-Net Reviews. June, 2021. URL:

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