Thornton on Azuma, 'In Search of Our Frontier: Japanese America and Settler Colonialism in the Construction of Japan's Borderless Empire'

Eiichiro Azuma
Michael Thornton

Eiichiro Azuma. In Search of Our Frontier: Japanese America and Settler Colonialism in the Construction of Japan's Borderless Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019. xii + 353 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-30438-3.

Reviewed by Michael Thornton (Yale University) Published on H-Diplo (May, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

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In In Search of Our Frontier, Eiichiro Azuma argues that Japanese imperialism, and particularly the ideology of Japanese settler colonialism, developed in dialogue with the experiences of Japanese Americans. State actors and colonial boosters within Japan, its empire, and overseas Japanese communities considered these Japanese Americans as both victims of white racism and potential agents of a more benevolent form of settler colonialism. Their experience of racism in Hawai‘i and California, coupled with practical skills in agriculture, colonial development, and ethnic conflict on the US frontier, gave Japanese Americans a privileged position in Japan’s formal empire, as well as in informal colonial ventures elsewhere. Through these roles, they contributed to an ethic of borderless expansion, tied to a strong sense of racial destiny, that characterized Japanese imperialism in the first half of the twentieth century.

In Search of Our Frontier is divided chronologically and geographically into four parts, each with two chapters. In part 1, which spans 1884 to 1907, Azuma explores the first wave of Japanese overseas migration, its effects on Japanese expansionist thinking, and its adaptation to white racism. Focusing on early Japanese communities in California and Hawai‘i, Azuma introduces several “frontier trotters” (p. 54) who moved back and forth across the Pacific to illustrate the establishment of these communities, the racist backlash against them, and the effects of that racist backlash on Japanese imperialist thinking. Azuma argues that early Japanese settlers in the American West and Hawai‘i adopted the prevalent US frontier ethic as their own, and shared it with their colleagues and compatriots in Japan’s domestic political organizations and parties, inspiring influential intellectuals such as Fukuzawa Yukichi to advocate for Japanese settler colonialism throughout the Pacific. Together, these frontier trotters and homeland intellectuals forged a vision of borderless colonialism and put it into practice through the Colonization Society of Japan and various emigration companies, which gradually systematized the migration of Japanese people across the Pacific in search of places where they could avoid the racism they experienced in Hawai‘i and California.

Part 2, spanning 1908 to 1928, focuses on the second phase of Japanese expansionism. In this period, we see a recurrence of the earlier pattern of Japanese settlement, white racist backlash, and the subsequent reorientation of settler migration to destinations deemed friendlier to Japanese. This era also overlapped with the expansion of Japan’s formal empire in the Asia-Pacific. The interaction of these two phenomena—informal migration to the Americas and formal conquest in Asia—led to a gradual erasure of the line between private and state-led settler colonialism. A turning point came in 1924, when new US immigration laws prompted the Japanese state to take a much more active role in managing emigration in order to avoid diplomatic tensions. By the 1920s, state actors worked with private settlers, many of whom were from California, to promote mass migration to Brazil and Korea.

Part 3 takes us to the final two decades of Japan’s formal empire, and shifts focus away from discourse within Japan toward translocal experiences of settler colonialism across the (informal and formal) Japanese empire. This fascinating pair of chapters traces several figures from the Japanese communities in California and Hawai‘i who migrated to Manchuria and Taiwan, respectively. With them they carried advanced, mechanized farming techniques and new crops, such as pineapples and coffee. These people occupied an ambivalent place, though, in the formal colonies: on the one hand, they were held up as veteran settler colonists, able to teach their more inexperienced compatriots from the home islands of Japan. On the other hand, their “foreign” techniques and experiences rankled the nationalistic militarists coordinating colonization in Manchuria, and their industrial farms competed against Japanese companies in Taiwan. The stories of individual figures, migrating across the informal and formal empire, nicely capture the broader themes of the book: the wide-ranging transplantation of colonial techniques and ideologies, the twin forces of American and Japanese racism, and the tensions between Japanese and Japanese American ideologues. These two chapters were the most rewarding for this reviewer, and may lend themselves best to undergraduate teaching.

Part 4 further explores the ambivalent place of Japanese Americans in the Japanese empire by considering the ways in which they were put to use by imperial ideologues. The 1940 Tokyo Conference of Overseas Japanese and the establishment of schools in Japan designed explicitly to educate second-generation Japanese Americans in the language and culture of the Japanese race were important sites for this ideological work. Militarists tried to inculcate Nisei Japanese with the “Japanese spirit” (p. 249), although many Japanese Americans resisted this blatant attempt to minimize or disregard their bicultural identities. The late 1930s and early 1940s marked the high point of Japanese ideologues’ attempt to marshal Japanese Americans for their imperial cause, and also revealed the limits of their vision of a unified, racially based, borderless empire.

An epilogue briefly introduces a postwar guest worker program whereby California welcomed a small group of rural Japanese youths. Azuma uses this episode to reinforce an overarching theme of the book: that Japanese imperialism was highly adaptable, reacting to changing political and geopolitical circumstances and unfolding in both formal and informal contexts. This adaptability further blurs the line between Japanese and Japanese American histories.

Azuma’s book is an important and provocative contribution. By illustrating the connections between Japanese America and the Japanese empire, Azuma seeks to bridge two distinct historiographical traditions: that of domestic US ethnic studies, which divorces Japanese Americans from the history of Japan, and that of the Japanese empire (and modern Japanese history more generally), which tends to disregard Japanese communities elsewhere in the world. In so doing, he makes a case for interpreting the Japanese empire as a much larger entity than just its formal territories: rather, to many contemporary Japanese, it was a borderless empire, defined by the settlement of a global Japanese diaspora.

In addition to illuminating the borderless geographical imaginary of the Japanese empire, Azuma also demonstrates the role of the twin racisms that characterized Japanese settler colonialism: the racism experienced by Japanese Americans, and by extension Japan more generally in a world dominated by white powers, and then the racism which underpinned Japan’s colonial ventures in Brazil, the South Pacific, and northeast Asia. He is not the first historian to draw these connections—he cites Takashi Fujitani’s Race for Empire (2011), although curiously not John Dower’s War Without Mercy (1986)—but he goes beyond these primarily comparative studies by showing us how the individuals who moved back and forth between Japanese America and its colonies transferred the ideas and ideologies of racism and settler colonialism throughout imperial Japan.

Azuma joins a recent trend in the English-language historiography of Japan’s empire by using the term “settler colonialism” to frame Japanese expansionism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He develops this theoretical model further than recent work by arguing that Japanese settler colonialism differed from its Anglophone counterparts by combining both the outright domination of land (the dominant feature of Anglophone settler colonialism) and the exploitation of indigenous labor (usually attributed to non-settler colonialism). This “idiosyncratic settler colonialism” stemmed from the relative “lateness” of Japanese imperialism, and requires looking across borders to understand fully (pp. 6-7). Azuma does not explicitly compare Japan to other empires, but by taking a transborder perspective, he has made an important contribution in putting Japan more fully into the global study of settler colonialism.

Azuma’s transborder perspective also shifts our understanding of the domestic Japanese debates about empire and expansion. Often, scholars of modern Japan have focused on the differences between various political and parapolitical factions within Japan: far-right pan-Asianist groups, liberal and conservative political parties, the feuding branches of the armed forces, and the various wings of the press and civil society. These differences recede into the background in Azuma’s book, which instead illustrates a broader ideological consensus around expansionism, racial identity, and imperial competition. This is another good reminder that the Japanese empire was not just the work of a cabal of militarists; rather, it had widespread (if contested) support and significance throughout Japanese society, both within the home islands and in the Japanese diaspora. Historians both within and outside Japan have made this point repeatedly in the last two or three decades, but this view has yet to be popularly accepted either in Japan or among Japanese Americans. I hope that this book will spur further awareness of the everyday nature of Japanese expansionism and racial thinking.

By introducing a cohort of individual “frontier trotters” and colonial boosters, Azuma puts flesh on these theoretical bones. Some of these are well-known characters, such as Fukuzawa, while others have been largely forgotten by historians. These forgotten stories are captivating, and the transborder perspective puts even the better-known characters into a refreshing new light. At times, though, I struggled to see the bigger picture: how significant were these frontier trotters and their experiments with founding new colonies? Again and again, settlements failed, and Japanese migrants moved home. The schools and conferences hosted in Tokyo for Japanese Americans attracted only a few people, and many of them came away unimpressed or unconvinced. Japanese emigrant companies went bankrupt. In the end, much of Japan’s settler-colonial ideology and practice felt ephemeral, more real in the minds of its boosters than in the social experience on the ground. To understand the significance of these ventures, I would have appreciated a bit more data: how many colonists or colonial enterprises in the formal empire came from Japanese America? How many politicians and pro-imperial civil society groups sought out these Japanese Americans for their ideological work? And, on the other side, how many members of Japanese American communities participated in this transborder project of colonization? I’m still not sure whether Azuma’s protagonists are representative or rare.

Despite these concerns, this is an important and provocative contribution to the fields of Japanese and Japanese American history, as well as the global history of modern imperialism. Azuma has offered a new way to think about Japan’s empire, showing us how many of the institutions and societies of the formal empire had deep ties to the informal empire of Japanese America. In Search of Our Frontier is also useful for thinking about Japan’s expansionism comparatively, alongside (for instance) the migration of Chinese huaqiao or Anglophone settlers throughout the world. Scholars and graduate students will find much to think about in this book, and the rich stories of the frontier trotters will make for good undergraduate teaching material.



Citation: Michael Thornton. Review of Azuma, Eiichiro, In Search of Our Frontier: Japanese America and Settler Colonialism in the Construction of Japan's Borderless Empire. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. May, 2020. URL:

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