Imperial Gateway: A Conversation with Seiji Shirane

How does one write the history of an empire? One approach is to focus on plans made in a metropole and carried out by armies and colonial officials in nearby or distant locales. Another highlights struggles in those targeted locales carried out by people threatened by imperial actions. And yet another combines a top-down concern with powerful figures in the metropole and military manoeuvres with a bottom-up interest in rebellions and everyday forms of resistance. All these strategies have been used to good effect in works on the Japanese Empire on which Seiji Shirane builds in Imperial Gateway: Colonial Taiwan and Japan’s Expansion in South China and Southeast China, 1895–1945 (Cornell University Press, 2022). What is most exciting, however, about his exhaustively researched, cogently written, and carefully argued new book is that Shirane treats Taiwan as both a place transformed by plans hatched in and people deployed from Tokyo and a launching pad for other imperial projects. He also offers a sophisticated analysis of the varied roles that different sets of people with ties to Taiwan played in the rise and fall of the Japanese Empire. The result is a work that makes major contributions to not only different fields in East Asian studies but also the literature on modern Southeast Asia.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: The question the late Philip Kuhn used to ask after many Fairbank Center presentations in the early 1980s—the time when I first started attending academic talks—still strikes me as an apt one to open Q&A sessions at events as well as interviews about books. He used to ask speakers what surprised them most about the research they did for the presentation they had just given. What surprised you most as you were carrying out the research that resulted in Imperial Gateway?

Seiji Shirane: At the beginning of my project, I focused on Sino-Japanese relations between colonial Taiwan and South China. However, I soon realised that Japan’s imperial advances in South China and Southeast Asia were intertwined and could be more effectively studied together. In studying colonial Taiwan’s regional ties, my interest in Sino-Japanese relations went beyond the conventional focus on central China (Shanghai, Nanjing) and northern China (Manchuria, Tianjin). The Taiwan Government-General archives located in Taipei, which became publicly available in the 1990s, offered insight into how Japanese colonial leaders promoted Taiwan as a gateway to extend geostrategic, economic, and military interests across the strait into South China. The Taiwan Government-General took advantage of the island’s geographical proximity to and cultural affinities with South China—especially the shared Han Chinese populations—to elevate its strategic importance in Japan’s southern empire. Japanese colonial leaders in Taiwan not only viewed South China and Southeast Asia as geographically connected, but also the Japanese terms Nanshi Nan’yō (南支南洋) and Nanpō (南方) collectively referred to them as one extended unit. I ended up devoting a third of the book (a chapter each on the prewar and wartime periods) to Southeast Asia. I did not really set out to write a transregional and comparative study of Taiwan’s role as an imperial gateway into South China and Southeast Asia, but that is where my sources led me.

JW: Before asking my second question, I will note that your answer to my first might have interested Kuhn because he spent much of his career focusing on events inside China, but then due to an unexpected set of developments wrote a book about the Chinese diaspora, in which he naturally ended up dealing with Southeast Asia. Anyway, on to my next question …

In his very interesting review of Ong Soon Keong’s Coming Home to a Foreign Country: Xiamen and Returned Overseas Chinese, 1843–1938 in the Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, Chien-Wen Kung suggests we see that book as part of a set that also includes Melissa Macauley’s Distant Shores (Princeton University Press, 2021) and Shelley Chan’s Diaspora’s Homelands (Duke University Press, 2018). What links them, he argues, is that each ‘underscores the importance of Chinese migration and diaspora to the emergence of modern China and of viewing the south as part of a larger transnational maritime world’. Just as ‘modern Chinese history, conventionally conceived, has benefited immensely over past decades from the so-called “Inner Asian Turn”’, he muses, the recent ‘turn toward the oceans and overseas Chinese societies’ has had a similarly salutary impact on the field. I initially approached Imperial Gateway as part of a wave of exciting new work by scholars such as Kelly Hammond and historians of Manchukuo that examines the Japanese Empire in novel ways. But as I read it, your book could equally be seen as part of the development Kung has in mind. Of course, books can be part of more than one ‘turn’ or wave, but I wonder how you see Imperial Gateway fitting into these trends or genres.

SS: My book certainly tries to engage with the transregional and ‘oceanic turn’ in modern Chinese history. Over the past few decades, new works on Chinese migration, diaspora, and Sinophone culture have re-examined dynamic networks between South China and Southeast Asia in non-essentialist ways. With some exceptions, however, this new scholarship has yet to capture the attention of historians of Japan, which is surprising given how integral these ties were to Japan’s empire. As early as the 1910s, Japanese colonial leaders in Taiwan sought to mobilise the Han Taiwanese as imperial liaisons for Chinese-speaking populations in Southeast Asia with whom they shared linguistic and native-place ties. During the Asia-Pacific War, tens of thousands of Han Taiwanese served in Japan’s military occupation as interpreters, prison guards, agricultural advisers, and company employees, often in positions of power over resident ethnic Chinese. Incorporating the story of the overseas Taiwanese as ‘second-class imperialists’ thus sheds new light on wartime Southeast Asian hierarchies and the intermediary role that Taiwan played in Japanese–Southeast Asian relations.

As for the field of studies of the Japanese Empire, I am in dialogue with recent works that increasingly highlight intra-imperial competition and interregional networks of personnel and commodities. Until the 2000s, the field focused on bilateral relations between Japan and its colonies. Conventional studies treated each colony as a discrete unit and highlighted vertical relationships between the Japanese metropole and its respective colonies. While much attention has been paid to bureaucratic rivalries in Tokyo, especially regarding Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and the leadup to the Asia-Pacific War in 1941, the role of colonial governments in Korea, Manchuria, and Taiwan and their sub-imperialist aspirations have mainly been ignored. In dialogue with recent books illuminating Japanese bureaucratic competition between Korea and Manchuria, my book examines how the Taiwan Government-General’s objectives for the southern advance were not necessarily aligned with those of the Tokyo central government. I analyse both the synergies and tensions between the Government-General’s expansionist ambitions and Tokyo’s imperial priorities, especially those promoted by the Foreign Ministry, army, and navy.

In addition, over the past decade and a half, historians of Japan’s empire have increasingly studied mobile networks between colonies as well as in regions outside the formal empire. Along with growing scholarship on Korean migration to Manchuria, historians have traced Taiwanese mobility across the East and South China seas. Building on such works that challenge the spatial and analytic boundaries of the empire beyond Japan’s territorial limits, my book seeks to weave together macro-narratives (intragovernmental and imperial rivalries) and micro-perspectives (those of Japanese and colonial subjects on the front lines of southern expansion). Rather than privileging a top-down narrative of state governance or a bottom-up story centred on colonial subjects, I try to illustrate how Japan’s empire-building and on-the-ground activities by local actors were mutually constitutive processes.

JW: How important was oral history to your project, as there are some intriguing references to interviews scattered throughout the book?

SS: Although some Taiwanese subjects—educated elites and anticolonial activists—left written records about Japan’s southern expansion, few Taiwanese in prewar South China and Southeast Asia left contemporary records. To explore the activities of individuals, I turned to reports from Japanese, Chinese, and Anglo-American officials in East and Southeast Asia, as well as local newspaper coverage. Oral histories were critical to the book’s second half on wartime South China and Southeast Asia. I relied heavily on several volumes of oral testimonies by Taiwanese civilian and military personnel transcribed by historians of Academia Sinica’s Institute for Taiwan History in the 1990s and 2000s. Oral histories compiled by the National Archives of Singapore since the 1980s also offered Singaporean perspectives on the wide range of roles played by Taiwanese personnel during the wartime occupation. There are methodological challenges, especially with using postwar Taiwanese oral histories and memoirs, which retrospectively interpret events through the lens of late twentieth-century views toward the Republic of China, People’s Republic of China, and Japan. Still, such sources allowed me to incorporate firsthand experiences of Han and indigenous Taiwanese subjects missing in Japanese official archives.

JW: How do you think about the field of Taiwanese history and its relation to Chinese history, Japanese history, or both these fields? Does it still seem marginalised, increasingly relevant, or perhaps both marginalised and relevant? And how does the answer to these sorts of questions vary if we think about the state of the field in Taiwan itself versus in other settings?

SS: At the crossroads of multiple empires over several centuries, Taiwan is critical to our understanding of East and Southeast Asian history. One can only answer some of the questions I had about the island and its residents by looking at their connections to mainland China, Japan, Southeast Asia, the United States, and beyond. Through the 1990s, Anglophone scholarship framed colonial Taiwan and its residents as peripheral to Japanese history. However, the past few decades have given rise to a new wave of studies that no longer privilege Japanese colonial perspectives but instead place equal, if not more, emphasis on Han and indigenous Taiwanese actors. My book builds on this wave to help decentre the study of Japan’s empire, shifting the focus away from the metropole by taking Taiwan seriously as a multi-ethnic site of political, social, economic, and cultural transformations with amorphous networks extending across East and Southeast Asia.

The research for this book was only possible with access to the collections of primary sources and the thriving field of Taiwanese history within Taiwan. My work is heavily indebted to pioneering scholarship by Chung Shu-ming and others at the flagship Institute of Taiwan History in Academia Sinica. The institute has collected a wealth of Japanese and Taiwanese sources and published oral histories, memoirs, and diaries that have revolutionised the field. Chinese-language sources (primary and secondary) are thus indispensable for Anglophone scholars working on colonial Taiwan.

JW: Now that there is increased interest in exploring the complexities of Hong Kong’s period under British rule, do you see possibilities for new kinds of comparative work that brings together the fields of Hong Kong history and Taiwanese history? That seems an intriguing idea to ponder as discussions of Hong Kong and Taiwan are increasingly entwined in debates about contemporary geopolitics.

SS: Present-day Hong Kong and Taiwan are critical comparative case studies for journalists and political scientists. But as you point out, despite exciting new work on colonial Hong Kong and Taiwan, there needs to be more comparative historical work on the two regions. My book on Taiwan as a gateway for Japanese imperial networks between the island, South China, and Southeast Asia might pair well with recent monographs highlighting colonial Hong Kong as a trans-Pacific node for migration, goods, and capital. In the introduction, I briefly go over the similarities and differences in Taiwan’s role as an imperial gateway compared with Japan’s other colonial territories in Korea, Manchuria, and Micronesia. There is still much work for future historians to analyse the connections and comparisons among colonies across the Japanese and Western empires.


Imperial Gateway: Colonial Taiwan and Japan’s Expansion in South China and Southeast Asia, 1895–1945 is available open access on the Cornell University Press website and on Amazon Kindle. It is also available in paperback (40% discount + free shipping code: 09EXP40).

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Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, where he also holds courtesy appointments in Law, Literary Journalism, and Political Science and directs the Honors Program of the School of Humanities. A frequent contributor to newspapers, magazines, and literary reviews as well as academic journals, his most recent books are, as author, Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020) and, as editor, The Oxford History of Modern China (Oxford University Press, 2022). He will be spending the spring of 2023 at the University of London as a Leverhulme Visiting Professor at Birkbeck College.

Seiji Shirane

Seiji Shirane is an Assistant Professor of History at the City College of New York (CUNY). He received history degrees from Yale University (BA) and Princeton University (PhD) and his work has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright, the Social Science Research Council, and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

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