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Japanese versus European colonialism

Comparing with sub-Saharan Africa

Compare this with any country in Sub Sahara Africa, and the differences would be humongous. Take the example of Uganda, among the most educated nations in the region.

A survey was done in 1963 on Uganda’s stock of “high level manpower.” It set out to cover all people in Uganda who had a minimum of 12 years of formal education or who were in posts that, for replacement purposes, would be filled by someone with 12 years of formal education. Note: 12 years corresponded with 6 years primary, 2 years junior secondary and 4 years senior secondary schooling. The survey covered all sectors of the economy except the army i.e. it included central and local government, parastatal bodies, the private sector, the self-employed and churches and missions. The total came to 20,440 people; most of who were non-Ugandan and left the country after independence. In other words, Uganda was without skilled manpower.

In 1960, Uganda’s entire public service; excluding nurses, police and all but a few hundred teachers was a little more than 5,000 strong in a country of more than six million people. Out of the top 10% of the civil service jobs categorised as “professional”, Ugandans occupied only 10% i.e. 90% were non-nationals – Europeans and Asians. Then out of the next tier 30% categorised as “technical” jobs, only 40% were Ugandans; and out of third tier 30% categorised as “sub-technical”, 65% were Ugandans. The rest of the jobs categorised as clerical were largely occupied by Ugandans; showing limited managerial skills.

On Taiwan, studies show the welfare of the Taiwanese peasant under Japanese colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century may have exceeded that of the Japanese peasants. This was largely because, as part of the agricultural development effort, the Japanese instituted agriculturally oriented two-year secondary schools in the more populous parts of the country – one in each township.

Nor were Taiwanese excluded from modern professions as was happening in European colonies in Africa. By 1940, there were five times as many Taiwanese managers as there were Japanese, three times as many agricultural technicians and medical technicians and the same number of professional workers. By 1945, Taiwan was probably the most agriculturally, commercially and industrially advanced of all the provinces of China.

For Korea, the level of participation in the management of the country and ownership of the economy under Japanese colonialism was very high. For example, at the end of World War Two, Korea had nine (9) generals in the Japanese army; the man who later became president (1961-79) and presided over its rapid transformation, Park Chung Hee, was a colonel in the Japanese army in 1945. Compare this with the British in Uganda. At independence, the highest-ranking Ugandan officer in the army was Idi Amin; an illiterate soldier, at the rank of sergeant.

Indeed, in practically every field – manufacturing, banking, insurance, trade, mining, transportation – although the Japanese dominated, there was substantial Korean participation and ownership. For instance the number of Korean owned transport companies increased from two in 1913 to 18 on 1923 to 258 in 1938. In 1906, Koreans owned six commercial banks. This increased to nine in 1921, and 12 in 1923 – double that of the Japanese. And there were four banks jointly owned by the Koreans and Japanese.

In industry, Japanese invested in joint venture companies most of which were owned and operated with Koreans. Koreans established their own industrial firms. There were only eight Korean industrial companies in 1913, which grew to 202 in 1923, 445 in 1931 and 740 in 1938. Korean owned and operated manufacturing businesses increased from a negligible number in 1905 to 2,652 in 1938, exceeding that of the Japanese, which was 2,144 – even those output from Japanese firms was many times higher.

Many Africans with knowledge of colonial experience would be surprised by how much a colonial power allowed “natives” to own and operate businesses in practically every sector, some as joint ventures with colonial masters. At independence, there is not a single Ugandan who owned a manufacturing firm, a bank, an insurance company, a trading company etc. – anything. Worse than that, there was not a single Ugandan who was even a junior manager in such business – we were only hired as clerks and officer messengers.

More critically, under Japanese colonialism, Taiwan and Korea got even more involved in international trade. By the end of the 1930s, Taiwan was the biggest trader in East Asia even though most of this was with Japan. The annual per capita trade of Taiwan was $39, Korea $26 and Japan $23, Philippines $18 and China $1. For Korea, the proportion of international trade to GNP in 1929 was 69.6%; in 1920s, the proportion of international trade to GNP in UK was 38%, France 51%, Japan 35%, USA 11%, Germany 31%, Denmark 57% and Norway 53%.

I have seen studies (one of them by Dani Rodrick – `How South Korea and Taiwan Grew Rich’), which, relying on economic regressions suggests that 90 of the growth of Taiwan and South Korea after 1960 was a result of these “initial conditions”, many of which were established by Japan. As I have already noted above, many of these achievements are partly a result of the level of the social development of Korean and Taiwanese societies at the time of colonial conquest, and, therefore, may not accurately be said to be a result of Japanese benevolence. However, it is hard to deny that the Japanese, even though brutal, brought with them a more benign colonial attitude to their subjects compared to their European counterparts.



  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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