Anticolonialism, East Asia and the Pacific

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Anticolonialism, East Asia and the Pacific

European colonialism in East Asia developed in a piecemeal fashion, launched as it was against the centralized hereditary dynasties of China, Japan, and Korea. Likewise, there were discontinuities in the West's colonization of the Pacific, where vast stretches of ocean, rather than dense populations and ingrained traditions, complicated the task of projecting and consolidating Western military and administrative authority.

Japan's colonial history is unique in East Asia. Initially an object of Western colonial aspirations, Japan became a major colonial power in its own right. Its strong central government and martial ruling class resisted Western encroachments in the 1860s, and in response to the Western threat undertook a massive program of industrial and scientific modernization. Its key national goal was the creation of a modern military. This project soon sparked Japan's own colonial expansion in both East Asia and the Pacific. Beginning with neighboring islands, including Ryukyu and the Kurile chain in the 1880s, Japan's fledgling empire grew following its naval victories over China in 1895 and Russia in 1905 to 1906. Japan acquired first special rights and then full colonial authority over Taiwan, Korea, and the Pescadore Islands, as well as the profitable trading advantages already enjoyed by the Western Powers at China's "treaty ports." After Germany's defeat in World War I, Japan acquired virtually all German territories in the Far East and the Pacific.

Japan portrayed its expansion as Pan-Asianism, a development that would limit Western imperialism, but anticolonialism developed in all of Japan's possessions. The most extensive opposition developed in Korea, where Japan established a military protectorate in 1905. In the following years urban Korean nationalists organized strikes and street demonstrations, which were forcibly broken up by Japanese police and military forces; some 12,000 Korean were killed. Despite Japan's complete domination of civil affairs and communications, small pockets of resistance persisted. After World War I, continuing Japanese oppression and the influence of Wilsonian ideals of political self-determination provoked the "March First Movement," an explosion of anti-Japanese resentment and Korean nationalism culminating in strikes, protests, and boycotts involving over two million Koreans. Japan's military reacted, crushing its unarmed opponents. Modest reforms were introduced, however, including improved access to education for Koreans, tolerance of moderate Korean newspapers, and the development of a small Korean film industry. In the 1920s Japan intensified its demands on Korean farmers, exporting all rice surpluses to Japan. During the 1930s, Korean industries were reorganized to supply Japan's expanding military. World War II brought continued political oppression and greater deprivation: Grievances over food shortages and inflation were exacerbated by Japan's policy of kidnapping Korean women, sending them overseas with Japanese military forces, and maintaining them as sexual slaves, known as comfort women, for Japan's soldiers. Underground anti-Japanese movements, particularly the Korean Workers' Party, a Communist group, gradually gained adherents during the war, but only Japan's final surrender in September 1945 allowed Korean nationalists, both Communists and democrats, to make plans for postcolonial Korea.

Anticolonialism in Taiwan was less widespread. A rural-based resistance movement briefly developed immediately following Japan's seizure of the island in 1895. During a brutal campaign that cost thousands of lives on both sides, Japanese troops occupied most of the island by the end of the year. A small guerrilla force survived in Taiwan's mountainous interior for another thirty years, occasionally launching harassing attacks on Japanese properties. Most of Taiwan's population passively accepted Tokyo's authority. A short-lived "home rule" movement emerged in 1914, as war broke out in Europe, but colonial officials ignored its demands, focusing instead on manipulating Taiwan's agricultural economy to supply Japan's requirements, especially for sugar. However, during the 1930s a small aboriginal mountain tribe, angered by the seizure of its ancestral lands, launched the "Musha Rebellion," which was quickly overcome when Japanese aircraft and artillery slaughtered the tribe. Taiwan reverted to China after Japan's defeat in World War II, but after the Chinese civil war of the late 1940s it was ruled by a pro-Western government, once again politically isolated from the mainland.

Among Germany's territories lost to Japan in World War I were several possessions in China, including the strategically valuable Liaodong Peninsula on the Yellow Sea. Rich in mineral resources, with China's second-busiest port at Dalian (Dairen), the territory controlled water-borne traffic to northeastern China. Sparked by fury at the Chinese government's capitulation to Japan's demand for the peninsula, a vehement anticolonial protest campaign soon enveloped all of China's major cities and many of its eastern provinces. This "May Fourth movement," which coincided with the 1919 anti-Japanese upheaval in Korea, involved mass demonstrations, strikes, anti-Japanese boycotts, and attacks on Japanese businesses and property. Launched by radical students, it sparked a new awakening of Chinese nationalism, and drew on anticolonial sentiments stoked by decades of foreign intrusion into China. Not only Japanese, but also British, French, and American assets were threatened or attacked. Anti-Japanese agitation was particularly strong, and continued into the early 1930s. The May Fourth movement spawned new political parties that called for China to "stand up" to foreign imperialism, including the Chinese Communist Party, which was founded in 1921 and eventually seized power in China in 1949.

In 1914 to 1915 Japan seized Germany's territorial possessions in the Pacific, meeting little native resistance. A military government was established at Truk for all of Japan's new island territories, and after the war the Japanese language and Japanese education systems were introduced. The docile population of Micronesia, for example, readily accepted Japan's construction of sugar plantations and mining industries. Tokyo initially placated local chieftains and respected traditional landholding patterns, but during the 1930s tens of thousands of Japanese laborers migrated to Micronesia. Native clans' common lands were seized, and anticolonial sentiments intensified. During World War II anti-Japanese natives aided American forces, acting as aircraft spotters and laborers, and building affinities with America that lasted into the postwar era.

In the late nineteenth century the widely scattered archipelagoes of the Pacific had been the objects of intense competition among the Western powers, which needed coaling stations for their Pacific naval fleets. Britain, France, Germany, and the United States all seized islands throughout the Pacific, becoming more aggressive as profitable new industries took shape, including cash crop plantations, commercial fishing, and mining. For example, the United States recognized the commercial and strategic value of the sovereign nation of Hawaii and moved to wrest informal control of the islands from the British. Hawaii's monarchy and its population accepted America's growing influence and then American rule with resentment, but only minimal resistance. Most native populations in the Pacific followed the Hawaiian model of accommodating rather than fighting colonial authority. However, the combination of military occupation, foreign laws, and economic manipulation occasionally provoked resistance. In New Caledonia, for example, France encountered stiff opposition. Armed clashes in 1878 to 1879 between French troops and native Melanesians resulted in hundreds of deaths, as local people disputed the imposition of French law, land seizures, the desecration of sacred sites, and the arrival of thousands of convicts at a newly created penal colony.

In the 1920s a wave of anticolonial resistance developed across the western Pacific. Militant Indian immigrant laborers in Fiji were silenced by Australian naval vessels and troops from New Zealand. In Western Samoa, then administered by New Zealand under a mandate from the League of Nations, local chieftains organized the Ola Mau a Samoa (the Firm Opinion of Samoa) movement, known as Mau, which pressed for Samoan self-determination; its leaders were arrested and interned in prison camps. In December 1929 colonial police fired into a crowd of Samoans, killing Mau leader Tupua Tamasese Lelofi and eleven others. The Mau movement also influenced the population of American Samoa, but violence was forestalled by allowing local chieftains more autonomy over land and property disputes.

Nonviolent anticolonialism characterized most of the Pacific. In British Nauru in the early 1920s, low-wage phosphate miners threatened to strike, citing environmental damage and monopoly prices charged by the company store. Strike leaders were arrested and police were called out. However the British "resident," London's official on the scene, ordered the release of the dissident leader, Timothy Detudamo, and allowed workers to organize their own cooperative store; he also arranged for the mining company to enlarge the trust fund that would pay for land reclamation. A similar strike threatened by agricultural workers on Tonga in 1921 was also resolved without violence when British officials provided slight wage increases. The Americans' "island-hopping" strategy during the Pacific war brought many Pacific islands under United Nations or American authority, allowing paths to peaceful decolonization to develop in many island nations.

see also Decolonization, East Asia and the Pacific; East Asia, American Presence in; East Asia, European Presence in; Empire, British, in Asia and Pacific; Occupations, the Pacific; Pacific, American Presence in; Pacific, European Presence in; Self-Determination, East Asia and the Pacific.


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