chapter  2
The Imperialism of ‘Free Nations’: Japan, Manchukuo, and the History of the Present
Pages 20

Just as the nationalisms came to be formed by global circulations, we would be hard-pressed to find an imperialism or empire that operated in a historical vacuum without reference to other imperial practices and ideas circulating since at least the early modern era. Meiji (1868-1912) Japanese imperialism was shaped by two historical forces: modern Western imperialist nationalism, and the historical circumstances, models, and ideas of the East Asian region. These two currents produced a schizoid Japanese self-perception. Anxious nationalists eager to gain recognition and respect from the Western powers by creating an empire, the Japanese leadership also felt victimized by these very powers, and identified with their weaker ‘Asiatic brethren’. This generated a highly contradictory imperialism that shaped the East Asian region in the early twentieth century. Interestingly, this contradiction spurred Japanese imperialists to experi-

ment with new forms of empire drawn from diverse global and regional sources; such experimentation crystallized in Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state established in northeast China from 1932 until 1945. I argue that Manchukuo was the first full-blown instance of what I call the ‘new imperialism’ – an imperialism rooted in the historical circumstances of the USA, the Soviet Union and Japan, rather than in those of the older European colonial powers. I have also called this new imperialism the imperialism of ‘free nations’ after the well known ‘imperialism of free trade’ coined by Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher to describe the British Empire over 50 years ago. According to Robinson and Gallagher, while formal colonial empires have

tended to dominate understandings of imperialism since the late nineteenth century, the broader and older tendency was represented by the imperialism of free trade. British policy applied formal controls only when it was not possible to safeguard and extend British interest through informal control. Eventually, it was the foreign challenge to British dominance in tropical Africa in the late nineteenth century, and the inability to create strong and supportive indigenous political organizations there, that made it impossible for the British to conduct ‘imperialism on the cheap’ and led them to switch to modes of direct control and formal rule.1