The best books on the Japanese Empire

Jeremy A. Yellen Author Of The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: When Total Empire Met Total War
By Jeremy A. Yellen

Who am I?

Jeremy A. Yellen is a historian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on modern Japan’s international, diplomatic, and political history. He maintains a strong interest in the history of international relations and international order.

I wrote...

The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: When Total Empire Met Total War

By Jeremy A. Yellen,

Book cover of The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: When Total Empire Met Total War

What is my book about?

My book traces the rise and fall of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Japan’s empire during World War II, and its vision for a new order in Asia. It tells two connected stories: one of Japanese high policy and the other of its reception in wartime Philippines and Burma. I show that Japan never had any well-defined plan for the Co-Prosperity Sphere. Far from it, ideas were hazy and vague, and Japanese elites remained unable to decide on how to reorder Asia until it was too late to implement effectively.

At the same time, I focus on “patriotic collaborators” in Burma and the Philippines and show how they exploited the political changes to jockey for agency and a say in the future of the region. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Japan's Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism

Why did I love this book?

When people ask for book recommendations on Japan’s empire, Louise Young's Japan’s Total Empire usually tops my list. Young focuses on the empire in Manchuria from 1931 to 1945, and highlights Manchuria as more than a Japanese military conquest—it was also a vast cultural project that mobilized the nation behind state intervention at home and imperial expansion abroad. To tell this story, Young focuses on much more than the army and civilian bureaucracy—she also shows how an ideal Manchukuo was imagined by multiple actors, from the mass media and business groups to intellectuals, settlers, and grassroots associations. Empire in Manchuria mobilized the Japanese state and society to an unprecedented degree, and transformed it in enduring and irrevocable ways.  

By Louise Young,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Japan's Total Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this first social and cultural history of Japan's construction of Manchuria, Louise Young offers an incisive examination of the nature of Japanese imperialism. Focusing on the domestic impact of Japan's activities in Northeast China between 1931 and 1945, Young considers "metropolitan effects" of empire building: how people at home imagined and experienced the empire they called Manchukuo. Contrary to the conventional assumption that a few army officers and bureaucrats were responsible for Japan's overseas expansion, Young finds that a variety of organizations helped to mobilize popular support for Manchukuo--the mass media, the academy, chambers of commerce, women's organizations, youth…

Book cover of Brokers of Empire: Japanese Settler Colonialism in Korea, 1876-1945

Why did I love this book?

This is a masterful study of settler colonialism in Korea. Jun Uchida focuses on ordinary Japanese settlers, from petty merchants and traders to educators, journalists, carpetbaggers, and political adventurers who made a new home in the Korean peninsula between 1876 and 1945. These settlers were Uchida’s “brokers of empire.” The “brokers” cooperated with the state while pursuing colonial projects of their own, and helped shape Japan’s empire in Korea. Uchida has a meticulous eye for detail and highlights evolving dynamics between settlers, Koreans, the colonial government in Korea, and the Japanese metropole. This is a long book, but I simply couldn’t put it down—it left me wanting more. 

By Jun Uchida,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Brokers of Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Between 1876 and 1945, thousands of Japanese civilians-merchants, traders, prostitutes, journalists, teachers, and adventurers-left their homeland for a new life on the Korean peninsula. Although most migrants were guided primarily by personal profit and only secondarily by national interest, their mundane lives and the state's ambitions were inextricably entwined in the rise of imperial Japan. Despite having formed one of the largest colonial communities in the twentieth century, these settlers and their empire-building activities have all but vanished from the public memory of Japan's presence in Korea.

Drawing on previously unused materials in multi-language archives, Jun Uchida looks behind the…

Race for Empire

By Takashi Fujitani,

Book cover of Race for Empire

Why did I love this book?

Takashi Fujitani offers a surprising historical narrative, telling the story of Korean soldiers in the Japanese army alongside that of Japanese-American soldiers in the United States during World War II. What is striking here is how total global war pushed both the United States and Japan to similar policies toward minority populations. Both abandoned more “vulgar” forms of racism (explicit discrimination) for what Fujitani calls a “polite racism,” where minority groups were now deemed as capable of cultural assimilation. But what really is inspiring is that Fujitani juxtaposes two wartime enemies—the United States and Japan—to show just how similar they actually were. 

By Takashi Fujitani,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Race for Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Race for Empire offers a profound and challenging reinterpretation of nationalism, racism, and wartime mobilization during the Asia-Pacific war. In parallel case studies - of Japanese Americans mobilized to serve in the United States Army and of Koreans recruited or drafted into the Japanese military - T. Fujitani examines the U.S. and Japanese empires as they struggled to manage racialized populations while waging total war. Fujitani probes governmental policies and analyzes representations of these soldiers - on film, in literature, and in archival documents - to reveal how characteristics of racism, nationalism, capitalism, gender politics, and the family changed on…

Book cover of The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932

Why did I love this book?

This skillful history links politics, economics, and military concerns to the development of Japan’s empire in Manchuria. Beginning with the end of the Russo-Japanese War and concluding with the takeover of Manchuria from 1931, Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka shows how Manchuria remained a looming presence within Japanese political life. More strikingly, he argues against the idea that Japanese imperialism in the 1930s represented a radical break from the past. Far from it, he shows the construction of Manchukuo and Japanese foreign policy “as the denouement of an older story as much as the beginning of a new.”  

By Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this history of Japanese involvement in northeast China, the author argues that Japan's military seizure of Manchuria in September 1931 was founded on three decades of infiltration of the area. This incremental empire-building and its effect on Japan are the focuses of this book.

The principal agency in the piecemeal growth of Japanese colonization was the South Manchurian Railway Company, and by the mid-1920s Japan had a deeply entrenched presence in Manchuria and exercised a dominant economic and political influence over the area. Japanese colonial expansion in Manchuria also loomed large in Japanese politics, military policy, economic development, and…

Book cover of Nation-Empire: Ideology and Rural Youth Mobilization in Japan and Its Colonies

Why did I love this book?

Sayaka Chatani begins with a simple question. Why did tens of thousands of young men from across the empire in the 1930s and 1940s enthusiastically embrace Japanese nationalism and volunteer for service in the Japanese military? She finds the answer in village youth associations, which served as a vehicle for youth mobilization in rural Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Her most original argument is that ideological campaigns mattered less than the social mobility and the chance for empowerment that youth associations offered. More strikingly, assimilation was not limited to the colonies. Japanese youths in Tohoku, Chatani shows, were “Japanized” in similar ways to those in Korea and Taiwan. This is an innovative and imaginative book. I cannot praise it highly enough.  

By Sayaka Chatani,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nation-Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

By the end of World War II, hundreds of thousands of young men in the Japanese colonies, in particular Taiwan and Korea, had expressed their loyalty to the empire by volunteering to join the army. Why and how did so many colonial youth become passionate supporters of Japanese imperial nationalism? And what happened to these youth after the war? Nation-Empire investigates these questions by examining the long-term mobilization of youth in the rural peripheries of Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. Personal stories and village histories vividly show youth's ambitions, emotions, and identities generated in the shifting conditions in each locality. At…

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