Monday, December 15, 2008

Race and Empire: Japan, The Hague Convention, and the Prewar World

The Common Roots of a Troubled History

Ethan Mark

Copyright Ethan Mark 2008 All Rights Reserved

It has often been observed that the Hague Peace Convention of 1907 reflected the optimism and idealism of its times, however naïve. Its ideals remain a beacon for our times. Then and now, the Convention was cause for pride regarding the progress of human civilization as a whole, and hope for a brighter and more humane future. But a look back at the Hague Convention, and Japan's place within it, also provides a lens onto the contradictions and ambiguities of a modern world founded on the imperialist law of the jungle.

1. A Moment of Optimism

For the nation of Japan, the only non-Western imperial power, participation in the Hague Peace Convention of 1907 had a special symbolic meaning: It was a source of optimism and pride regarding Japan’s acceptance as an equal, autonomous, and civilized nation within the global community of nations. As such it was one of a series of events over the decade preceding it, including the victory over Russia in 1905, that marked Japan’s arrival as one of the world’s Great Powers. Yet for all the optimism, the early 20th century world was also a divided and tough place, a world in which in many ways the law of the jungle applied to the competing Western powers, between the West and the Rest, and between empires and colonies. In this context, as I shall discuss below in more detail, the optimistic promise of the Hague Convention could not in fact be shared equally by all, and as a non-Western empire, Japan’s position was in fact always a rather tenuous and ambiguous one.

While recent history had in fact taught the Japanese to be wary and unsure of how their nation counted among the imperial powers, there was perhaps no moment when Japanese hopes for full inclusion among them burned brighter than in the period of the Hague Convention. How far Japan appeared to have come in the fifty-four years since the first arrival of Perry’s warships in Edo (Tokyo) Bay in 1853. Then, Western force had compelled a weak, vulnerable Japan to open its ports, its economy, and its society to Western trade and Western ways. Forced to acknowledge that it was far behind the Western powers technologically, militarily, economically and institutionally, Japan had been subject to a humiliating series of “unequal treaties” that compromised its sovereignty in areas such as international trade and legal jurisdiction. In the wake of China’s defeat in the Opium Wars in the early 1840s, the Great Powers had earlier imposed similar policies there, including extraterritoriality (the right to trial of foreign nationals by their own courts on foreign soil). Now the Powers also justified these policies in similar terms: Japan, like China, was not civilized or advanced enough to be entrusted with full international legal jurisdiction, and by the same token it had to relinquish its sovereign right to protect its markets from foreign competition.

The forced ending of Japan’s 200-year self-imposed isolation from the West and the imposition of the unequal treaties resulted in both a severe sense of humiliation and, in concrete terms, severe economic instability. Combined with a number of complicated domestic factors, this sense of humiliation and economic disarray contributed to a period of severe unrest that ultimately led to the establishment of a new political regime in Japan in 1868. The primary objective of this new Meiji State was to respond to this crisis and reverse Japan’s downward spiral in a threatening world. For more than 250 years, the decentralized, feudal Tokugawa Order had proven a good system for keeping the domestic peace. But it was clearly entirely inadequate for surviving the rapidly changing and competitive international system of the 19th century. Signaling their openness to a new course, Japan’s new leaders embarked on a tour around the world in the early 1870s to observe the conditions that had made the West so strong, and the rest of the world so weak. Along the way they not only visited the U.S. and Europe, but also journeyed through the Suez Canal and witnessed conditions in the European colonies of North Africa, India, and Southeast Asia.

What the Meiji leaders saw on their travels confirmed what they had already witnessed from afar: To compete successfully in the modern international system, you needed to have a unified and industrialized nation-state such as those that had emerged in Britain, France, the Netherlands, the United States, and, more recently, Germany. Each had a powerful, respected and effective central government, an educated and motivated population, military might, an enterprising industrial elite and a strong sense of national mission. Honing their industrial, economic and military strength in intensive competition with one another, these nation-states had indeed now put such a gap between themselves and the rest of the world that they could increasingly project their power across the entire globe. There was no hiding from this reality any longer: The lesson of the experience of societies such as Egypt, India, the Netherlands Indies, and China were that those who were not quick enough to achieve such central control, national unity, and technological advancement were doomed to colonial domination. To avoid becoming a colony itself, Japan had to mobilize and concentrate the human and material resources needed for industrialization and the building of a strong military—and to do it quickly. Not surprisingly, the new Japanese slogan of the day summarized this overriding priority: “Rich Nation, Strong Army!” (fukoku kyôhei)

The world that the young Meiji leaders witnessed on their observation tour in the early 1870s was thus a tough one, and for the non-Western world at least, as the last decades of the 19th century wore on, this world was only getting tougher. Historians refer to this period as the time of “High Imperialism,” or—in more colloquial terms—the “carving up of the Globe.” Western industrial, military, and economic expansion continued relentlessly into areas so far spared colonization, including the many parts of Africa and the Asian societies of Burma and Indochina. Competition for imperial glory and the world’s resources continued to intensify. Eyeing the worsening situation in neighboring China in the 1880s, the liberal Japanese politician Sugita Tei’ichi famously commented,

"The Western powers in China squabble over their interests, each trying to assert hegemony over the country. As close as we are to this scene, my colleagues and I wonder whether Japan will be served up as the main dish in the coming feast, or whether it should join the guests at the table. Surely it would be better to sit at the table than to be part of the menu."

Following this hard but inevitable logic, and concerned about a lack of local resources that made Japan extra vulnerable, Japan’s Meiji leaders set about building a powerful nation able to defend itself in a competitive world. In the practice of the day, this also meant building an empire that might ensure national security, prosperity and prestige. When Japan thus imposed its own unequal treaties on neighboring Korea as early as 1876, there was remarkably little internal concern about the hypocrisy such a move might suggest. It should be noted that there was little protest from the Europeans or Americans either. After all, in doing so, Japan was in some ways only doing what everyone else was doing—following in the footsteps of the Great Powers.

For Japan, however, there was an added urgency summed up in Sugita’s quotation above. For while the British, the Americans, the Dutch etc. had had centuries in which to develop their economies, overhaul their political systems and build their empires, Japan was a late-comer both to nation-building and the imperial feast. It had to move quickly if it was not to be swallowed up itself. And the Japanese were hardly alone in thinking so; in the mid-1870s, for example, an American foreign policy advisor to the Meiji government characterized Korea as a “dagger pointed at Japan” through which an invasion could easily be mounted. In this context, establishing a “sphere of interest” in Korea, and later in China and Manchuria, was seen as paramount to Japan’s survival.

Japan’s relatively “late arrival” on the international scene, and the resultant urgency of Japan’s modernization and imperial expansion, imparted to Japan’s development a special character that was in some ways similar to that of Germany. The development of local heavy industry, the expansion of state power and influence, the instilling of patriotism and loyalty in the population, and the strengthening of the military were to receive absolute precedence. Existing resources were to be exploited to maximum advantage for these ends, and anything seen to stand in their way was to be consistently and often brutally suppressed. Victims included, for example, fledgling movements for greater popular representation and free speech, movements of farm and factory laborers for improved wages and working conditions, and religious or political beliefs that might be seen to question or second-guess the ultimate political and moral authority of the emperor and the nation. The 1889 promulgation of a constitution modeled on the Prussian one was a reflection of the state’s priorities. Modeled on Europe’s most conservative constitution, it was in fact more conservative still.

The Meiji Regime was not always popular among its citizens as a result, and the repressive trends it set in motion were to ultimately to haunt Japan’s development and its dealings with the rest of the world. In the dog-eat-dog international environment of the late 19th century, however, national loyalty and strength were valued above all else in most of the world’s advanced nation-states. For not only the Japanese state but perhaps even moreso the society at large, the building of empires was a meanwhile seen as a normal and indeed natural consequence of being an advanced nation. Like citizens in Europe and the United States, Japanese people were quick to see themselves in the national reflection, and to glory in the advances of the empire. Like those in the West too, Japanese imperial expansion was accompanied by a belief that Japan, in so doing, was not merely enriching itself, but also bringing the light of modern civilization to the world’s backward” peoples. In this sense, colonization was not only good for national prosperity and security, but a duty to the colonized.

For Japanese however, the building of a modern nation and empire had a special and even deeper significance, precisely for the reason that Japan was not a Western nation. We cannot overlook the fact that the period of high imperialism was one in which European and American racism was at its peak. Just as the Hague Convention was getting underway, anti-Asian legislation was being passed in California amidst press reports of an impending “Yellow Peril.” The experience of humiliation at Western hands with the imposition of unequal treaties, along with Western racial arrogance towards non-whites, awakened in many Japanese a particularly fierce sense of national pride and determination. Reflecting this, the removal of the unequal treaties, and the receipt thereby of a Western acknowledgement that Japan was civilized enough to run its own affairs, was perhaps the single highest political priority of late 19th-century Japan’s state and society alike.

Not surprisingly, then, early government failures in attempting to negotiate an honorable ending to the unequal treaties in the 1880s resulted in an extreme popular political backlash. The state’s promulgation of the Meiji Constitution in 1889, while important as a response to domestic pressures for greater political representation, was perhaps equally or even more important for its symbolic value in heralding Japan’s legal arrival among the community of civilized nations. In 1894, when Japan finally succeeded in gaining a British promise to end the unequal treaties in 1899, the development was greeted with a great outburst of pride and patriotic sentiment. Japan’s subsequent easy victory in its first imperial war against China in 1895 brought a great financial windfall in reparations as well as Japan’s first colonial possession in the form of Taiwan. But most of all it brought a newfound sense of national power and prestige. In 1900, Japan was invited by the Great Powers to contribute substantially in putting down the Boxer Rebellion in China, further signaling to Japanese that it was beginning to be included as a Great Power itself. This sentiment was immensely encouraged with the signing of a treaty of alliance with mighty Britain in 1902, and most of all with the difficult but unexpected victory over Russia in 1905.

The period in the wake of these developments, which included the year of the Hague Convention, might in this sense be seen as a marking peak in Japanese optimism and pride at being included as one of the world’s Great Powers. Accepted as a military and economic equal, Japanese also hoped and assumed that in the long run at least, Japan would also receive acknowledgement as a political, cultural, and racial equal as well. This optimism about Japan’s place in the world coincided with, and lent strength to, a shared faith in the idealism that characterized the Hague Convention. Even as the imperial powers continued to eye one another with suspicion, and even as the world continued to be carved up into empires and colonies, for the West and for Japan at least, the period between the turn of the new century and the start of World One was marked by a shared hope and faith in the inevitable progress not just of science, technology, and material prosperity, but also towards a more just and humane world.

2. A World of Double Standards

In retrospect it is not hard to see the precariousness of this optimism. Well-known is that fact that within seven years of the signing of the Convention, the European powers were engaged in the most brutal and all-encompassing war yet seen in human history. World War One laid bare the degree to which the law of the jungle still prevailed in the modern world, whatever Europe’s pretenses of representing a higher and more humane civilization. In Europe and elsewhere, the experience was to herald a fundamental questioning of the promise of Western modernity itself.
For many observers around the globe, however, the smoldering inter-European rivalry just underneath the Convention’s civilized surface was not the only issue that threatened to undermine its legitimacy. In a number of ways, the aims and achievements of the Hague Conference, while noble and admirable in and of themselves, must also be set against the awkward reality that the Convention’s historical context was a world of double standards with regard to notions of human civilization itself.

The widespread influence of Social Darwinism in the thinking of the day perhaps best highlights the problem I have in mind: the Convention’s noble notions of universal standards of human decency, basic human rights, equality, and dignity meant to apply to friend and foe alike, were in fact drawn up at a time that most people in the world thought in terms of races and nations that were by nature different from one another in their essential character. More ominously still, we must also acknowledge that at the time, most people in the world’s most powerful nations at least also believed that the world was naturally divided into a hierarchy of peoples and races, whereby it was only natural that the world’s “weaker” and “backward,” “uncivilized races” should be perpetually dominated—and spoken for—by the stronger ones.

Indeed reflecting this worldview, only representatives of nations acknowledged by the Great Powers as independent and sovereign were invited to attend the Convention proceedings. In a world of empires and colonies, this meant that the world’s colonized peoples—representing in fact perhaps the majority of the world’s population at the time—were not represented. Secondly, the Convention conceived of war as a form of conflict between sovereign nations, with the definitions of combatants defined accordingly. Signatories were obliged to follow the rules and understandings therein as they applied to conflicts between sovereign states. But what of colonial conquests and suppression, conflicts thus involving peoples not represented by recognized sovereign states? Within the understanding of international intercourse of the day, including that of the Hague Convention, these conflicts would appear to have fallen under the heading of internal or domestic disputes—meaning presumably that the Convention’s signatories would be under little or no legal obligation to enforce its statutes in these cases. In the colonial thinking of the day, meanwhile, there was a common belief that in dealing with resistance from “inferior,” “backward” races, there was little moral obligation to observe the rules of “civilized warfare” either—“different races,” after all, often demanded different treatment.

At the time of the Convention, these sorts of ideas were of course not universal, and they were gradually coming under increasing fire from progressives, religious leaders, and fledgling anti-colonial movements among others. But overall—perhaps in response to trends of unrest among the colonized, and intensified exploitation of the colonies—the period was in fact one in which this sort of racial thinking had recently become stronger, not weaker. Dutch legal statutes in the Netherlands Indies of the day reflected this trend: Systematized in this period, they were essentially divided into three according to race, with entirely separate legal provisions for whites, “foreign Orientals” (mainly those defined as overseas Chinese), and “natives.” Continued belief in the absolute right of colonization was meanwhile reflected, for example, in the final, and I daresay tragic and brutal, Dutch conquest of Bali that ended exactly one hundred years ago this year—and one year after the Convention’s conclusion.

The case of the people of Korea in this period, including their experience of their would-be representatives at the Convention, is another interesting and provocative illustration of the “double standards” of the day. Officially at least, prior to 1910, Korea was a sovereign nation, ruled by a King and his government. But in recognition of Japanese colonial claims upon Korea, Korean representatives were not invited to the Convention. In the years leading up to the Hague Convention, Japan had encroached increasingly upon Korea, and was clearly heading in the direction of annexation. Unlike the period of the 1930s and 40s some years later, the Great Powers of the day accepted this as normal intercourse between a strong and advanced nation and a weak and backward one. With its victory in the Russo-Japanese War, Japanese “rights” of hegemony over Korea were generally recognized by the Europeans and Americans as a spoil of war. Japan was allied with Britain, and it is well-known that both the British and the American governments viewed Japan as a useful and “friendly” ally in countering the threat of Russian regional domination. While some Western missionaries and other progressive were in fact nurturing Korean hopes regarding notions of liberty, equality, and the right of national self-determination, the official line of their governments was something else again: no interference in Japan’s increasingly aggressive dealings with Korea, this being after all an “internal” matter.

Not surprisingly unsatisfied with this situation, and eager to attempt to hold the Great Powers to the ideals of peace and justice they believed the Convention represented, the Korean government devised an elaborate plan to send emissaries to the Convention in secret. After arriving successfully in the Hague, the emissaries managed to make their case known to the Convention. The Great Powers, however, rejected their claim to attend, rejecting their claim to represent an autonomous sovereign nation. Embarrassed and angered by the unexpected appearance of the Koreans at the Convention, the Japanese government soon forced the Korean king to retire. Within three years, Japan was to annex Korea as a colony. In the meantime, and from now on, Koreans who resisted were brutally suppressed in ways that often defied the terms of the Hague and Geneva Conventions. Yet officially, the international community never held Japan to account in this “domestic dispute.”

What does this sad story tell us about Japan and the Hague Convention of 1907? For one thing, the experience of the Koreans at the Hague Convention and afterwards clearly indicate that Japan had taken its place among the world’s great Powers. Yet in light of what might be called the racial double standards of the day, Japan’s own position at the table of world powers also remained tenuous and provisional. Especially illustrative in this regard is the way that Japanese as a “race” were defined in the legal codes of the Netherlands Indies after 1899: As “Honorary Whites.” On the one hand, this status reflected how far Japan had come in the eyes of the Western world. But it also reflected Japan’s contradictory racial position as a nation caught, in some sense, between the Western Imperial Powers and the rest of the world’s “colored races.” In sum, while the West was compelled to acknowledge Japan as an equal in terms of military, economic, and political powerby the time of the Hague Convention , it must be said that Westerners remained much less inclined to recognize Japan as a genuine racial and cultural equal.

As early as 1902, the famous Japanese poet and art conservator Okakura Tenshin observed,

"Do we not all alike enjoy the blessings of consular courts where murder is an accident on the part of the Western, accident an assassination on the part of the Oriental; where the systematic perjury of white witnesses overrules the evidence and testimony of all our kind? Do we not all alike rejoice in extorted concessions, and enforced tariffs, in residents who goad us to impotent rage, in financial advisors who advise us to ruin, in medical counselors who counsel sanitation in measures worse than death? Do we not all alike delight to invest in magnificent harbors where ships may come to drain away our gold; in gigantic railroads which frustrate the water-course, and bring us fever and famine; in splendid churches where they hurl anathemas against the holiest ideals, in expensive hospitals where they only are privileged to recreate, in beautiful parks where we are forbidden to walk? All these bounties we enjoy and what more? —Starvation."

In fact among Japanese of his day, Okakura was quite exceptional both in how much he mistrusted the Western imperialists, and how much he identified with fellow Asians under colonialism. Written in English, these observations were not translated and published in Japan itself until 1939, at which time Okakura was accorded the status of a veritable Asian prophet. In the more optimistic times of the Hague Convention, most Japanese remained patient that Western recognition of Japan’s proper status would eventually come—and that in the meantime, Japan still had much to learn from the West. They saw little alternative to participation and cooperation in a global order dominated by the Western powers.

As the 20th century wore on, however, the problem of global double standards continued to find Japan caught in the middle, both party to and victim of discriminatory racial treatment. As Japan further modernized, the Japanese grew not only increasingly convinced of their superiority over their Asian neighbors, but also of their right to equal status with the West—and they remained highly sensitive on both counts. When relations with the West worsened amidst the subsequent turmoil in the global order in the 1920s and 1930s—fostered by the Great Depression, increased imperial rivalry, and rising anti-colonial movements, particularly in China—it must be acknowledged that the fact that Japanese had never really felt fully accepted within the Western order made it easier for them to attempt to withdraw from it. It also made it easier to come to view the Western order—and the Westerners themselves—as Japan’s natural enemy, indeed even as an enemy of “world peace.”

Belatedly Japan now turned to its Asian neighbors, claiming to act as Asia’s leader and champion in a shared struggle against Western domination. The continued Japanese notion of racial and cultural superiority over its Asian neighbors not only undermined any chance of acceptance in this role, but also made possible atrocities against “brother Asians,” and the Chinese in particular, that violated any notion of civilized conduct in warfare. The subsequent conditions of treatment of Western POWs and prisoners also appear in many cases to have violated the Hague and Geneva protocols; this is a matter that I would prefer to leave to legal experts for further discussion. But it is telling that POW camps themselves, however bad their subsequent conditions, were only formally established by the Japanese state in the weeks following the outbreak of the Pacific War in December 1941—more than four years after Japan had begun a brutal, ruthless war of colonial aggression in China that was to claim, according to some estimates, 9 million Chinese lives. Here was the application of double standards of the most awful variety: As hated as the Western enemy had now become, and as badly as the Japanese treated them, their lives were apparently still valued more highly than those of the lowly Chinese.

In establishing a context to the Hague Convention, and in understanding Japan’s participation and later contravention of its precepts, it is important to reflect that the world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was thus in many ways a world of double standards in which Japan occupied a particularly awkward place. It was a world in which pacifism and universal brotherhood and equality could be sincerely promoted in the name of the advancement of civilization. But at the same time, it was also a highly divided, hierarchical world dominated by the European powers, in which the possession of a superior “civilization” was also used as an excuse to dominate “inferior races,” who were not always seen as deserving of civilized treatment.

In their colonization of neighboring Asia societies such as Korea, the Japanese also proved adept at manipulating these same double standards to their benefit. “Inferior,” “obstinate” Koreans and Chinese who resisted Japanese rule were treated with ruthless brutality that reached a crescendo in the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). At the same time, as a late arrival to the imperial scene of a “different race,” the Japanese also often felt themselves the victim of double standards at Western hands. For all the successes of their modernization, nation- and empire-building, for all their admiration of the West, the Japanese never felt accepted as full members of the imperial club. The result was a fundamental lack of mutual trust and an underlying resentment that expanded greatly in the period between the two World Wars. That it did so was in part a reflection of the decline in the West’s imperial power and stature between the two world wars, prompted by such events as the Global Depression, the rise of communism, and the spread of anti-colonial movements. It was also actively encouraged and inflamed through the military propaganda and crisis atmosphere that penetrated all walks of Japanese life in the 1930s.

By the time of the Second World War, Japan’s longstanding sense of insult and isolation from the Western powers made it easier for Japanese to imagine that they represented an Asian civilization completely different from the West, whose job it was to save Asia from Western imperialism. Thus blinded to their own role as oppressive imperialists, many Japanese even viewed Chinese anti-colonial resistance as simply a Western-sponsored anti-Japanese scheme. Much moreso than at the time of the signing Hague Convention in 1907, the Japanese of the World War Two era felt themselves at a far remove from the West racially, culturally, and morally —almost as a different species of man. This is certainly no excuse for the ferocity of Japan’s wartime behavior, but it does perhaps go some way to illuminating at least part of the story behind it.

Ethan Mark ( is University Lecturer in Modern Japanese History at Leiden University, Netherlands. His works include Appealing to Asia: Nation, Culture, and the Problem of Imperial Modernity in Japanese-occupied Java, 1942-1945 (PhD Thesis, Columbia University 2003) and "Asia's Transwar Lineage: Nationalism, Marxism, and 'Greater Asia' in an Indonesian Inflection," Journal of Asian Studies 65:3 (August 2006), pp. 461-493.

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