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Japanese versus European colonialism

How Japanese colonialism in East Asia was transformative compared to its European counterpart in Africa

Kampala, Uganda | ANDREW M. MWENDA | I spent about ten days between late February and early March in Japan; talking to government officials, academics in universities, policy wonks in think tanks, tasting Japanese cuisine, visiting technology museums and art galleries.

I was intrigued that the Japanese do not want to speak about their role as colonisers because many of them think it was their nation at its worst.

Japanese today are polite socially and pacifist politically. They hate war; something taught from nursery school to university. It is what they are taught at home and told in temples and shrines. Of course there is a right wing margin that talks of Japanese rearmament. But overall pacifism is a totem. Yet the Japan of the first half of the 20th century was a war-mongering nation: its people were militant, its generals aggressive, its political leaders belligerent and its diplomats bellicose.

It is this Japan that invaded and colonised Taiwan in 1895 and Korea in 1910. Then it invaded China, occupying Manchuria and annexing it in 1937, marking the beginning of the Second World War – according to the Chinese; the European war that began in 1939 simply joined the Asiatic war to make it a world war.

According to Western reports and Korean and Chinese records, the Japanese were brutal. They conducted their colonisation with unprecedented violence and unmerciful harshness. They killed, pillaged, looted and exploited. They took young Korean and Chinese girls into sex slavery to serve as entertainment for Japanese generals. They grabbed land, extracted forced labour and imposed extortionate taxes.

Most Koreans, Taiwanese and Chinese – and their scholars, poets and politicians – think Japanese colonialism was an evil that only wrecked their lives.

Transformative colonialism

I, however, believe Japanese colonialism in East Asia was transformative compared to its European counterpart in Africa.

I will select a few factors to illustrate my point. But we must recognise that there are many other factors that shaped the development outcomes of Korea and Taiwan than can be compressed in one article.

For instance, by the time of European intrusion into the region, the societies of East Asia (Japan, China, Korea) had enjoyed fairly advanced civilisations for millennia and the process of state formation; complete with meritocratic bureaucracies and the development of common national consciousness, had deep roots.

The East Asian peoples already had widespread formal education and technology was diffuse. Therefore, whatever Japanese colonialism achieved was only possible because of these initial conditions in these societies.

For instance, Taiwan and South Korea were poor in 1960 in terms of per capita income, but many studies show that their social indicators placed them among the ranks of countries at several times their income levels. In 1967, Adelman and Morris did an index of social-economic development for a range of countries as measured in the late 1950s and 60s. The index was derived from factor analysis and was based on a large number of indicators meant to capture characteristics such as social structure and social organisation. They included the level of urbanisation, importance of an indigenous middleclass, social mobility, literacy levels (availability of human capital), mass communications, cultural and ethnic homogeneity, national integration, and a sense of national unity and modernisation outlook.

Aldeman and Morris’ index placed Taiwan and South Korea in the most advanced group of countries even though their per capita income was considerably below average. The study concluded that they had “initial conditions” necessary for rapid development; their governments only needed to remove coordination bottlenecks.

As one can see, cultural and ethnic homogeneity, national integration and a sense of national unity were not a Japanese legacy but the inherited civilisation of these societies. However, factors such as the level of urbanisation, importance of an indigenous middleclass, social mobility, literacy levels (human capital), transport and energy infrastructure plus mass communications were much more developed than other poor countries in large part because of the nature of Japanese colonialism.

All Sub Sahara African countries in the study were at the bottom of the pile in the index. One illustrative factor, which shows the difference between European and Japanese colonialism, was school enrollment and literacy rates (human capital), which we can use as a proxy for availability of technical and managerial skills but also an important basis for sustaining progressive politics.

By 1940, Taiwan had 60% of primary school age going kids (both girls and boys) enrolled in school, similar to South Korea, which also had 43% secondary school enrollment. Uganda (among the best educated in Africa) had 10% primary school enrollment in 1940, 2% in junior secondary and 0.3% in senior secondary and technical education.

In fact, student enrollment as a percentage of overall population in South Korea in 1954 (at the end of the civil war) was 17%; higher than England and Wales (15%), Germany (13%) and only lower than USA (22%) and Japan (23%).


  1. Mwenda is not truly honest in his story. The story of Korea is more about “occupation” than “colonisation.” There were competing forces between Wing China on the one hand who eventually became the “conservatives and Saigon Takamori of the Meiji dynasty on the other who eventually became “far left.” Their differences stemmed (for those in favor), the opportunity to find meaningful employment for the thousands ‘Samurai’ who had lost most of their income and social standing in the new Meiji socioeconomic order. Two opposing and competing forces (China and Japan) were inside Korea. And it was only logical that the one that outperformed the other lasted the day. This factor helped in the fast and competing development of the Korea. Secondly, unlike during colonisation, occupation is temporary and is limited to a specific task. The Japanese engaged Korea specifically for cultural and military interests, therefore, they were unless concerned about what happened with Korea in other facets of life.

    But importantly too, is the Confucian philosophy. The Japanese as well as the Koreans were/are highly indoctrinated in the Confucian philosophy which bases its importance on morality, humanity and individual consideration. The philosophy centers its golden rule on who a “gentleman” is and the principle of “equity.” So, it was unlikely that such a group would treat the other in an undignified manner.

    Lastly, Mwenda talks about the “Korea” as though it were one entity which it is not. The reasons as to why he decides to treat it as a single entity could central and selfishly serve his purpose but they could as well distort history. My thinking is that by avoiding to talk about North Korea, Mwenda helped himself in talking about the “tremendous development of the Korea.” However, had he included it, it would have betrayed his narrative and statistical figures that he has colourfully displayed. Korea did not develop because or during the Japanese “colonisation.” No. Because if it did develop during this period in time, both Koreas would be at per (the same level). At the end of ww2, the Berlin- Rome- Tokyo axis fell to the “Allies.” Korea was divided into two, North Korea went to the Soviet while as South Korea went to the U.S. This fact other than any explains “Korea’s (South) economic meteoric” rise, than any single historical fact.

  2. It is, “Qing China” not “Wing China”

  3. Accidental reader

    “A BENIGN colonial attitude”?! Japanese colonial strategy had to be different because its colonies had different endowments from those of European colonisers. The crops and manufactured goods were sent abroad for the benefit of Japanese, not for colonial subjects in Taiwan and Korea. The author seems to be well-brainwashed during his trip to Japan.

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