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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Louise Young

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

Why 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.  


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

By Jun Uchida

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

Why 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. 


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Race for Empire: Koreans as Japanese and Japanese as Americans During World War II

By Takashi Fujitani

Race for Empire: Koreans as Japanese and Japanese as Americans During World War II

Why 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. 


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The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932

By Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka

The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932

Why 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.”  


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

By Sayaka Chatani

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

Why 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.  


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