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Crossing Empire's EdgeForeign Ministry Police and Japanese Expansionism in Northeast Asia$

Erik Esselstrom

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780824832315

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824832315.001.0001

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(p.147) Conclusion
Crossing Empire's Edge

Erik Esselstrom

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This concluding chapter summarizes several themes related to the notion of crossing the boundaries between Japan and its colonial empire, with particular emphasis on how the history of the Japanese consular police in Northeast Asia makes it possible to begin transcending boundaries of both political geography and historical imagination. These themes are concerned with the friction between the Japanese Army and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the consular police's often unilateral war of their own against Korean resistance fighters; the popular conception among historians that the Japanese empire in northeast Asia was divided into formal and informal spheres; the problem of agency; the excessive subjectivity granted to the nation-state; and limited attempts by scholars to cross the border between Japanese colonial history and the experience of other modern Western imperial powers. All of these themes are intertwined with the vexing nationalist dilemmas that complicate representations of East Asian history today.

Keywords:   consular police, political geography, Japanese Army, Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Korean resistance fighters, Japanese empire, agency, nation-state, colonial history, East Asia

Anyone who has spent time in East Asia during the summer months knows that it is a time of both oppressive heat and even more oppressive memories. Every August the citizens of China, Korea, and Japan are reminded of the fateful day in 1945 that signaled hard-fought victory for one society, long-desired freedom for another, and grim apocalyptic defeat for the third. Although the number of people with personal memories of the colonial and wartime eras grows ever smaller each summer, the power that public memories of violence and victimization wield seems to grow ever stronger. As vehement Chinese and Korean protests over both Japanese visits to their war memorial at Yasukuni shrine and the content of Japanese public school textbooks reflect, for the people of East Asia today the meanings of this past are as passionately and politically important as they have ever been.

In Japan, this problem of public memory is particularly complicated because of that society’s past as both an inarguably brutal colonizer of its Asian neighbors and as an undeniably pitiable victim of nuclear annihilation. Whether an individual feels a stronger pull toward one identity or the other depends largely on how that person comes to terms in their own heart and mind with the matter of responsibility. The self-absolving victim places all blame on a devious cabal of right-wing fascists that enslaved common society using ultranationalist jingoism and authoritarian discipline. The guilt-ridden colonizer sees complicity in every facet of the culture and politics of the society that pursued such selfish aims with such ruthless vigor. Of course, most people probably locate themselves at any one of a thousand points in between those two extremes.

The history of Japan’s Foreign Ministry police forces in northeast Asia can help us to negotiate these delicate problems of postwar memory and postcolonial politics by deepening our appreciation of the complexity at work in Japanese foreign policy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, this history also shows that the line between foreign and domestic policy itself was not always as clear as historians today commonly represent it. Indeed, this book has illuminated how it was that activities of the Japanese consular police were able to transcend borders of geography, politics, nation, ideology, and community in Japan and throughout northeast Asia during this era. Thus, by way of conclusion, there are several themes through which this notion (p.148) of crossing the boundaries between Japan and its colonial empire can be summarized.

First, a central contention of this book has been that the jurisdictional boundaries both professional historians and popular historical consciousness commonly draw between institutional actors within the structure of the imperial Japanese state are often analytically problematic. Of particular concern here is the boundary between the Japanese Army and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Much scholarship still contends that a friction existed between the army and the Foreign Ministry that derived from their inherently unilateral versus multilateral ideological, political, and strategic orientations. The activities of the consular police reveal in striking ways the severe limitations embedded within this conceptual binary. At some level, of course, the Foreign Ministry did have a vested interest in promoting “internationalism” and peaceful coexistence between nations under the Washington System of the 1920s because this system is what provided the Gaimushō itself with its raison d’être. After all, if Japan was to pursue a unilateral course of action in East Asia with no regard for the position and policy of other powers, the Foreign Ministry would have no reason to exist. That being the case, the Foreign Ministry, in order to preserve its jurisdictional prerogatives, often did “insist that it could not be transformed into a colonial agency.”1 If what one means, however, by a “colonial agent” is a group or institution that facilitates the efficient execution of the regulatory powers of a strong, centralized authority over a weaker and relatively disorganized polity, what the history of the consular police suggests is that the Foreign Ministry’s consular apparatus in Korea, China, and Manchuria constituted a colonial agency from its very inception.

Furthermore, for at least as long as a decade before the Kwantung Army launched its “unilateral” drive to conquer Manchuria in 1931, the consular police had been engaged in an often unilateral war of their own against Korean resistance fighters. When the army did finally take action to secure its military objectives, those moves were not always met with protest, but sometimes actually with encouragement and cooperation from the local consular police. It was a broadly defined and mutually held fear of threats to the kokutai that crossed the border between civilian and military prerogatives. This is especially important when reflecting on the topic of Japan’s surrender in August 1945. Academic and political debates over the motivations for Japanese surrender have raged for decades, and the body of scholarly literature on the topic is enormous. While its relative weight in influencing the final decision can be debated, one clearly significant factor in the thinking of Emperor Hirohito and his circle of advisers was their fear of a social revolution in Japan that would destroy the emperor system itself. Indeed, recent studies have powerfully argued that in (p.149) making his “sacred decision” to accept the terms of the Potsdam Proclamation, Hirohito’s “primary concern was above all the preservation of the imperial house.”2 In short, what the ruling elite of Japan feared as much as, or perhaps even more than, nuclear annihilation was a popular uprising against the imperial system

Prince Konoe Fumimaro, of course, made a similar argument in his February 1945 plea to the throne pressing for an immediate end to the war. While Konoe contended erroneously that leftists within the military had been scheming since 1931 to carry out “internal reform”3 and destroy the emperor system, the “interpretation that this was merely a calculated evocation of the apocalypse … best relegated to history’s curiosity shop, must be weighed against a number of considerations.”4 The history of the Japanese consular police is one such consideration, because it significantly substantiates the notion that many within the imperial state bureaucracy understood domestic social and political stability to be inextricably connected to colonial security. In Chapters 3, 4, and 5 especially, it became clear that the struggle against Chinese and Korean communist nationalism on the front lines of battle was inseparable from the fight to crush leftist social movements in the homeland. In this light, the notion that the Japanese decision to accept defeat by the Allied Powers was in many ways a matter of domestic policy begins to appear more reasonable.

A related theme concerns the popular conception among historians of Japanese colonialism that the empire in northeast Asia was clearly divided into formal and informal spheres. Orthodox narratives describe the early 1920s as the end of formal empire building in the wake of the First World War, with the decade to follow taking shape as an era of Japanese participation in the multilateral informal imperialism of the treaty port system. The events of September 1931 then come to stand out as a “shift in direction to a new military imperialism” and a new era of formal empire building.5 This boundary between formal and informal empire is in many ways an analytical construct manufactured anachronistically by historians, and furthermore it is a conceptual framework derived largely from the British colonial experience.

For both of these reasons, the formal-informal paradigm is often an inadequate and simplistic formula for understanding the Japanese experience in northeast Asia. The history of the consular police demonstrates especially well why that is so. They were, in everything but name, colonial police that operated beyond the geographical confines of the formal colonies. More so, the consular police also illustrate that the 1920s cannot simply be described as a decade of multilateral economic exploitation in the treaty ports without colonial expansion. To be sure, Japan did not acquire any new territories during this decade, but when viewed in terms of state-led efforts to police subversive thought and (p.150) thereby protect “national interests,” these years can nonetheless be seen as an era of continuity between the two recognized periods of formal colonial conquest in 1895–1922 and 1931–1945.

Third, colonial history almost by definition relies upon a clear delineation between the metropolitan core of a Great Power state and the peripheral regions of its colonial territories. Scholars of European empire, largely in response to the work of Edward Said, have been breaking down this boundary for several decades now. Historians of East Asia, however, have been slow to follow suit. One brilliant exception is the work of Komagome Takeshi. In terms of the cultural dynamics of Japanese imperialism, Komagome argues insightfully that Japanese colonial policies of cultural assimilation must be understood in the context of simultaneous early twentieth-century Japanese efforts to define their own “modern” culture.6 Only by exploring that complexity can one come close to resolving the inconsistencies and contradictions of a cultural policy that on one hand celebrated the common culture (dōbun) shared by colonizer and colonized while on the other often enforced with violence the “nationalization” (kōminka) of subject peoples.

Similarly, the activities of Japanese Foreign Ministry police reflect the larger process through which the ruling elites of East Asia began to build modern national identities during the late nineteenth century. Part of that process included the identification and control of “national” citizens both at home and overseas, and the Japanese Foreign Ministry invented the consular police in order to facilitate that mission.7 Those who threatened the state’s vision of this new national polity were targeted for suppression, and just as the Home Ministry’s metropolitan police served that function on the home islands, so the Foreign Ministry police carried it out overseas. The Foreign Ministry was not simply a diplomatic corps; it was one of many Meiji imperial bureaucracies established as a tool to facilitate state control over its citizen/subjects. Viewed in this way, the problem of Japanese colonial expansion becomes more complex and multifaceted. What investigation of the Foreign Ministry police enables one to understand is that forces driving colonial expansion could transcend the boundaries between the home islands and the continent. It is possible, and perhaps even necessary, to describe Japanese police work at home and abroad as two branches of the same state-driven process of authoritarian consolidation. From such a vantage point, the borders between colonial and metropolitan become less clear, as political crime and the state’s efforts to control it in the empire and the metropole fueled developments on both fronts.

The fourth theme concerns the problem of agency. While the official organs of Japanese state power in continental northeast Asia changed dramatically over the decades through a process of creation, conflict, and (p.151) consolidation, the one constant representative face of Japan in Korea and China was that of the local Japanese resident community. In fact, when we think of the initial wave of merchants, traders, and prostitutes who arrived in Pusan in the late 1870s and the thousands of exhausted repatriates listing across the ocean back to their “homeland” in the autumn of 1945, one could describe this group as both the first to arrive on the scene and the last to leave behind the Japanese colonial project. What is most striking about this community is the fact that they were not merely pawns in the great game of Japanese state-centered policy making, nor were they always the innocent victims of a national policy gone awry. The Japanese resident community possessed considerable agency in the evolution of national policy on the continent.

Again, the history of the consular police is replete with evidence of this fact. It was the demands of local Japanese residents that brought the first Japanese consular police to treaty port Korea in 1880. In almost every case of police expansion in Korea after that point, and in China later on for that matter, one can find petitions from Japanese resident organizations demanding that expansion. Their influence, however, went beyond filing simple pleas for support from their home government. As described in earlier chapters, the entire system of assistant patrolmen, which when factored in to the total equation of consular police manpower estimates increases the number by two- or even threefold, was organized and financed by local Japanese resident associations. The activism of local Japanese residents in facilitating the imperial expansionism of their home government, then, further complicates our perception of the borders between state and societal agency and responsibility.

Fifth, one common criticism of much work on Japanese colonial history is the excessive subjectivity granted to the nation-state. One way to overcome this limitation is to view northeast Asia as a cohesive geographical region, rather than an amalgamation of “nations” with hard borders. A handful of recent studies have done much to breathe fresh air of this type into the field of Japanese imperial history by placing the Jiandao region or the Sea of Japan/East Sea more broadly at the geographical and conceptual center of complex political, economic, and social interactions between the polities of Japan, Korea, and China.8 What these studies achieve is a reimagining of the political map in ways that facilitate non-national approaches to the dynamic interactions of competing societies in northeast Asia. An examination of Japan’s consular police networks also contributes to this project of transcending national boundaries in order to develop a regional perspective on northeast Asian political interactions during the prewar era. The Japanese consular police were simultaneously an extension of metropolitan and colonial sovereignty, and their mission to eliminate ideological threats (p.152) to the imperial state recognized no boundaries of national origin. Suppressing the left from Tokyo to Shanghai, from Seoul to Harbin, was all part of the same process.9

The example of the Manchuria Peoples’ Protection Society from Chapter 3 is perhaps the most suggestive case in point. Collaboration between a Chinese warlord regime, conservative Korean expatriates, and Japanese police forces is not easily explained by way of national identities. Rather, when we view that collaboration as emerging from the convergence of regional and ideological interests among various political forces, it becomes easier to understand. Manshū hominkai ideologues saw the spiritual and cultural bankruptcy of contemporary Korean society as a problem far more severe than having their politically defined “nation-state” under the overlordship of Japanese imperialists. In other words, political ills could not be remedied if underlying social ills were allowed to fester untreated. The greatest of all social ills, in their view, was the infiltration of traditional Korean belief systems by foreign ideologies such as Christianity and Marxism. It was this mind-set that made it possible for these Korean “collaborators” to lend assistance to Japanese and Chinese security forces in their quest to exterminate radical Korean resistance activists in Manchuria, and this Pan-Asian vision reveals the problem of projecting postwar nation-based categories of identity onto prewar social groups that sought self-definition through non-national conceptual frameworks.10

A nuanced interpretation of such complex political behavior, however, is not easy to sell in postwar East Asia. The legacies of collaboration can still sting in contemporary Korean society, for example, as the recent case of lawmaker Representative Kim Hee-sun made clear. In the fall of 2004, a conservative monthly news magazine reported that not only were Kim’s long-claimed ties with the well-known independence activist Kim Hak-kyu unfounded, but her own father had in fact served as a police officer in Manchuria under the supervision of Japanese colonial authorities.11 A greater scandal for an aspiring Korean politician is hard to imagine. The realities of colonial power, however, almost always reveal to some extent the efficacy of networks of local collaboration that defy the historiographic exigencies of postcolonial national identity formation.

Finally, attempts by scholars to cross the border between Japanese colonial history and the experience of other modern Western imperial powers have been few and far between. A recent essay in the American Historical Review is representative of the lack of sincere interest in the Japanese case among historians of European colonialism, where the author explains that he has excluded Japanese imperialism from his discussion, “for reasons of space.”12 Japanese colonial planners, however, certainly looked to models in the wider world of their day, so historians of Japanese expansionism should be able to do the same.13 The problem of colonial security (p.153) in the British and French empires is one possible avenue of comparative analysis, since a substantial body of work exists concerning matters of police work in colonial Africa, India, and the Middle East.14 A particularly provocative example might be the case of the British Foreign Office, which used its facilities in the United States and Canada during the early twentieth century to gather intelligence on the activities of Indian independence activists there.15 Great Britain, of course, did not possess extraterritorial rights in North America, however, so British security agents could not carry out counterinsurgency efforts to the degree of those Japan pursued in treaty port China and Manchuria. This limitation itself, furthermore, raises an important point about the comparative approach. While it can be useful to consider Japanese colonialism as one of many modern “colonialisms” in East Asia, one should not ignore the particularities of Japan’s unique position as an Asian imperialist in Asia itself.

Rather than using the British or French experience as the point of reference, it may be more useful instead to draw comparisons between twentieth-century Japanese policy in continental northeast Asia and United States policy in Central America. While such a comparison has not been developed explicitly here, the history of the Japanese consular police offers some suggestive interpretive possibilities. The United States, for example, regularly infiltrated, disrupted, and even overthrew local governments throughout Latin America during the first half of the century, and on more than one occasion, the United States sent in Marines to quell uprisings and “protect” American citizens and interests.16 How should one appropriately compare, for example, U.S. military intervention in the Sandinista uprising of 1927–1932 in Nicaragua with Japanese military and consular police intervention in radical Korean revolutionary activities during the 1920s? While one might be loath even to ponder it because contemporary Japanese expansionists encouraged the very same comparisons to justify their violations of Chinese and Korean sovereignty, the comparison is not a useless one. While the degree of difference between Japanese expansionism in East Asia and United States “imperialism” in Central America is undoubtedly vast, both nonetheless involved a dynamic of regionalism that cannot be ignored, and thus each might in some ways be more usefully compared with the other than with the management of far-flung overseas holdings by continental European imperial powers.

All of these themes are closely related to the vexing nationalist dilemmas that complicate representations of East Asian history today, over which there are so many battles raging. In China, the CCP encourages anti-Japanese demonstrations over textbook revisions to fuel a new nationalism that has replaced the party’s utterly meaningless communist identity, while simultaneously crushing the demonstrations of peasants fighting state programs of economic “development” that dislocate thousands (p.154) from their ancestral livelihoods. In Korea, too, a new brand of post–Cold War nationalism feeds in large part on official and popular expressions of anti-Japanese sentiment, as evidenced, for example, in the 2002 World Cup soccer tournament where South Korean fans boisterously cheered Japan’s elimination from the contest. In Japan, nationalist historians and conservative politicians lambaste what they term “masochistic” history that depicts modern Japan’s colonial experience too harshly, while leftist teachers who in protest refuse to stand during the national anthem at school ceremonies find their paychecks docked in retaliation by Ministry of Education bureaucrats. As long as the national identities of these three societies continue to depend on negative depictions of one another, the history that so inextricably links them all will continue to be abused and manipulated for domestic political consumption.

These battles over history are, of course, in no way unique to East Asian society. It is an inescapable function of historical knowledge to define and redefine a society’s sense of shared identity, and this process seems inevitably to include the devaluation of other societies in turn. But, this does not have to be the agenda served by historical scholarship and education. Toward a History beyond Borders, a recent book edited jointly by a Sino-Japanese trio of scholars, shows that there are many in East Asia today who understand the absolute necessity of moving beyond the limitations inherent in national historical narratives.17 This is an admirable, and hopefully not futile, mission from which observers within and beyond East Asia should at least try to learn.


(1.) Barbara J. Brooks, Japan’s Imperial Diplomacy: Consuls, Treaty Ports, and War in China (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2000), 116.

(2.) Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman and the Surrender of Japan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 302.

(3.) “Memorial of Prince Konoye Urging Termination of the War,” in David J. Lu, Japan: A Documentary History (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997), 450.

(4.) Dower, Empire and Aftermath: Yoshida Shigeru and the Japanese Experience, 1878–1954 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 278.

(5.) Louise Young, “Japan’s Wartime Empire in China,” in The Shadows of Total War: Europe, East Asia, and the United States, 1919–1939, ed. Roger Chickering and Stig Forster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 328.

(6.) Komagome Takeshi, Shokuminchi teikoku Nihon no bunka tōgō (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 1996).

(7.) Son Ansok, “Nit-Chū sensōki ni okeru Shanhai sōryōjikan keisatsu,” (p.201) in Senji Shanhai 1937–45 nen, ed. Takatsuna Hirofumi (Tokyo: Kenbun shuppan, 2005), 157.

(8.) See Yi Song-hwan, Kindai higashi Ajia no seiji rikigaku: Kantō o meguru Nit-Chū-Chō Kankei no rekishiteki tenkai (Tokyo: Kinoshosha, 1991), and Yoshii Ken’ichi, Kan Nihonkai chiiki shakai no hen’yō: Manmo, Kantō, to Ura Nihon (Tokyo: Aoki shoten, 2000). In English, Michael Lewis has touched on the regional theme as well in his discussion of economic links between Toyama prefecture and the mainland across the sea; see “Chapter Five: Local Imperialism and the Chimera of Progress,” in his Becoming Apart, National Power and Local Politics in Toyama, 1868–1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 188–243. The work of Marjorie Dryburgh also has an insightful focus on regionalism; see her North China and Japanese Expansion, 1933–1937: Regional Power and the National Interest (Richmond, Surrey, UK: Curzon Press, 2000). Another excellent collection of recent essays that explores problematic ambiguities of Manchuria and Manchukuo as transnational space can be found in “Manshū to wa nan datta no ka?” Kan: rekishi, kankyō, bunmei 10 (Summer 2002): 33–337.

(9.) My thinking on the problem of national subjectivity is greatly influenced by my experience as a student of Luke Roberts. While I have often joked with him about his relentless passion for the local history of Tosa, I have also learned so much about the problematic nature of national historical narratives from listening to him talk about and teach “Japanese” history. See his “Cultivating Non-National Historical Understandings in Local History,” in The Teleology of the Modern Nation State: Japan and China, ed. Joshua Fogel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 161–173.

(10.) In many ways, the thinking of MHK leaders reflected the kind of cultural rather than political nationalism at work in what Ken Wells has called “passive collaboration.” See his “Between the Devil and the Deep: Nonpolitical Nationalism and Passive Collaboration in Korea during the 1920s,” Papers on Far Eastern History 37 (March 1988): 125–147. Rebecca Karl has written persuasively on the problems of disentangling conceptions of “nation” and “state” in late Qing China in her Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002). Prasenjit Duara has also argued insightfully that the Japanese colonial construction of Manchukuo must be seen as a manifestation of alternate views of East Asian modernity, not merely as an army-dominated “puppet-state,” in his Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).

(11.) “Rep. Kim’s Father Served for Japan Police,” The Korea Times, September 16, 2004 (on-line edition). The delicate issue of Korean collaborators has also been taken up recently in two popular books by Korean authors published in Japanese: Kim Wan-sŏp, Shin-Nichi ha no tame no benmei (Toyko: (p.202) Sōshisha 2002), and Ch’oe Gi-ho, Nik-Kan heigō no shinjitsu: Kankoku shika no shōgen (Tokyo: Bijinesusha 2003).

(12.) Patrick Wolfe, “History and Imperialism: A Century of Theory, from Marx to Postcolonialism,” American Historical Review 102, no. 2 (April 1997), 388, see footnote 2.

(13.) See for example, Matsuda Toshihiko, who explores how Japanese authorities on the eve of Korea’s annexation looked to British models of policing in Egypt in his “Kankoku heigō zenya no Ejiputo keisatsu seido chōsa—Kankoku naibu keimu kyokuchō Matsui Shigeru no kōsō ni tsuite,” Shirin 83, no. 1 (January 2000): 71–103.

(14.) Two recent articles of particular interest are David Killingray, “Securing the British Empire: Policing and Colonial Order, 1920–1960,” in The Policing of Politics in the Twentieth Century: Historical Perspectives, ed. Mark Mazower (Providence: Berghahn Books, 1997), 167–190; and Martin Thomas, “Bedouin Tribes and the Imperial Intelligence Services in Syria, Iraq and Transjordan in the 1920s,” Journal of Contemporary History 38, no. 4 (October 2003): 539–562. While its release followed my completion of this book, Martin Thomas’ Empires of Intelligence: Security Services and Colonial Control (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) will no doubt also be a useful comparative reference work.

(15.) Richard Popplewell, “The Surveillance of Indian ‘Seditionists’ in North America, 1905–1915,” in Intelligence and International Relations, 1900–1945, ed. Christopher Andrew and Jeremy Noakes (Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1987), 49–76.

(16.) For a broad overview of the American relationship with Mexico, for example, see W. Dirk Raat, “US Intelligence Operations and Covert Action in Mexico, 1900–47,” Journal of Contemporary History 22 (1987): 615–638.

(17.) Liu Jie, Mitani Hiroshi, and Daqing Yang, eds., Kokkyō o koeru rekishi ninshiki: Nit-Chū taiwa no kokoromi (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2006).