Demarcating Japan: Imperialism, Islanders, and Mobility, 1855–1884
Histories of remote islands around Japan are usually told through the prism of territorial disputes. In contrast, Takahiro Yamamoto contends that the transformation of the islands from ambiguous border zones to a territorialized space emerged out of multilateral power relations. In the formative years of modern Japan, Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands, Tsushima, the Bonin Islands, and the Ryukyu Islands became the subject of inter-imperial negotiations, where empires nudged each other to secure their status with minimal costs rather than fighting a territorial scramble. Based on multiarchival, multilingual research, Demarcating Japan argues that the transformation of border islands should be understood in as an interconnected process, where inter-local referencing played a key role in the outcome—Japan’s geographical expansion in the face of domineering Extra-Asian empires.
Underneath this multilateral process were the connections forged by individuals. Translators, doctors, traffickers, castaways, and indigenous hunters crisscrossed border regions and exerted violence, exchanged knowledge, forged friendships, and transformed their own lives. Although their motivations were eclectic and their interactions transcended national borders, the linkages they created were essential in driving territorialization forward. Demarcating Japan demonstrates the crucial role of nonstate actors in formulating a territory, usually narrated in the languages of inter-state relations.
Takahiro Yamamoto is Assistant Professor of Cultural Economic History at the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg (Germany).