Introduction: Race and empire in Meiji Japan

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The Meiji era (1868–1912) marks the initial process of Japan’s passage into modernity through Westernization, and its identification as a modern nation-state. As part of the process of identifying with European discourses, of altering its position in Asia, and of adopting Western models and values, Japan changed its political, social and cultural dispositions towards industrialization and capitalism, as well as towards nationalism and colonialism, cultural and artistic creation. Over the course of modernization, and of adapting various Western discourses on science and culture, Japan accepted several new approaches, especially those setting Europe apart and above from the rest of the world. As a result, Japan saw the rise of racial discourses, which eventually contributed to the state’s imperial expansion into Asia. Japan’s path to modernity was a twofold movement: on one hand, it was an internal struggle for association with Western civilizations and adoption of their modernity. On the other hand, Japan sought to conceptually distance itself from Asia, only to return a few decades later as a conquering and imperial power. In the Japanese imagination, European cultures served as a perfect model for its own reformation, yet, at the same time, Japan found itself on a pendulum movement between Europe and Asia. Japan distanced itself from what it perceived as a primitive, underdeveloped region and its cultures, while simultaneously seeking to include China and India in its vision of a unified Orient, a stronghold of Asian cultures positioned against the Occident. Ultimately, Japan’s self-definition came about through the notion of Otherness: the concept of “Japan” was defined primarily against the background of European civilization, but also, against a range of other cultures, including China and the United States, as well as its own immediate past of Tokugawa Japan. In the first stage, the primary task was to set Japanese culture apart, and essentialize “Asia” as its Other. The desire to associate Japan with the West then led to a sense of Japan’s “inferiority” (especially in terms of technological and scientific achievements), at the same time that Japanese leaders adopted a Western position in claiming “superiority” over Asia. The double movement of association (with Europe) and disassociation (from Asia) produced a new subtext to the binary opposition between the advanced and sophisticated, versus the primitive and simple-minded. This double movement, much like the binary logic that drove Western colonialism, laid the foundations for racial ideologies and imperial practices in Hokkaidō and Ryūkyū, Korea and Taiwan, Manchuria and China, as well as the South-Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia. The articles in this issue look at the roots of the discourses on race in the Meiji era, in tandem with the Japanese empire’s development in the latter part of the 19th Century. These concepts of race and empire lay at the center of Japan’s racist ideologies and imperialist fantasies, and now serve as the focus of our discussions.

Original languageEnglish
Article number5496
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalAsia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus
Issue number20
StatePublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Capitalism
  • Colonialism
  • Empire
  • Imperial Japan
  • Industry
  • Meiji Japan
  • Modernity
  • Photography
  • Race

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • Anthropology
  • History
  • Political Science and International Relations
  • Sociology and Political Science


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