Episode 100 – Dr. Takahiro Yamamoto (Heidelberg)

Originally published on March 26, 2019

[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. On this episode, I’m talking with Dr. Takahiro Yamamoto, Assistant Professor of Cultural Economic History at Heidelberg University. Dr. Yamamoto is the author of “Recording Violence as Crime in Karafuto, 1867-1875,” published in volume 30 of Japan Forum in 2018. Dr. Yamamoto, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Takahiro Yamamoto: Well, thanks very much for having me.

TG: Your research has looked mainly at Japan’s international relations in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially looking at relations with the northern territories, places like Sakhalin (or Karafuto, as it’s known in Japan). And in fact, you recently just published this article about crime in Karafuto. So, could you tell us a little bit about this article and lay out for us what the diplomatic situation was like for Japan during the early Meiji period?

TY: Sure. So, this is going to be a two-part answer. I think it’s best if I first explain the diplomatic situation in general in the northern part of Japan, and then I’ll talk about the article. The central question of Japan’s north for Bakumatsu and probably Meiji is its boundary negotiations with Russia. Scholars have written about it essentially as a bilateral affair, where the Russians pushed and the Japanese reacted, resulting in the Treaty of St. Petersburg in 1875. In Japanese, it’s known as Karafuto Chishima kōkan jōyaku, under which Russia took the entire island of Karafuto/Sakhalin, and the Japanese took the Kuril Islands that run between the Kamchatka Peninsula and Hokkaidō.

One thing we need to understand is the larger picture of Northeast Asia and the North Pacific at the time. Russia had just sold what became Alaska to the United States in 1867, retreating from the North Pacific and concentrating itself in the eastern coast of the Eurasian continent, especially the maritime province that they got from the Qing Empire in 1860 and the Amur River region that was thought to be the place where the development should soon follow. In fact, there was a lot of excitement about the economic prospect that the region should bring to them. And Sakhalin comes to their mind in that respect because it sits at the mouth of the Amur River, so geopolitically, they thought that it’s important they have full control of it. So, the negotiation with Japan becomes important to them, and the key thing here, I think, is though they did not consider the Japanese to be the main competitor or the country [they] had to be concerned about the most. Rather, it was the British who could obtain concession or territorial enclave from the Japanese if the Japanese were to stay on the southern part of the island as they had done with several fishing villages, employing the Indigenous Ainu people as labourers.

And the Russians were also concerned about the Americans, especially the merchants who began getting involved in the development of coal mines in Sakhalin. So around 1871, Russia changed its position from favouring foreign capital to pursuing Sakhalin’s development as a national project using convict labour. By 1868, the Tsar decides that the entire Sakhalin should be a penal colony, and the convicts who have been kept in various places of the empire (mainly in Siberia) began to be transported to Sakhalin. So, the only viable industry that they saw there was coal min[ing], and it would have been convenient if the Pacific fleet of Russia could use the coal from Sakhalin.

So, they initially decide to allow an American merchant house in Shanghai called Olyphant and Company. That company had invested in developing coal mining in the northern part of the island, and brought 80 Chinese labourers, but they were eventually expelled because Russia decided that this had to be free from foreign involvement as much as possible. So, if you read the record of Russo-Japanese negotiations in St. Petersburg, Russia takes pains to present itself as a protector for the Japanese, saying things like: “If you go to war with a Western country, you may end up losing part of Sakhalin as concession, and that’s inconvenient for both of us.” They even say things like: “If Hong Kong had mixed inhabitancy with Russians, Britain would not have been able to take it.” So, what I see here is a multilateral balance where the Russian negotiators saw Japan as a weak participant, and if Japan were to hold the southern part of Sakhalin as it wanted, that would invite the other parties to exploit Japanese weakness. I think we need to understand this [as] a little bit more than just a bilateral affair, and that’s the diplomatic situation that I see when I see the northern edge of Japan in the Bakumatsu to early Meiji. Russia is definitely a big concern for the Japanese, but this bilateral tie isn’t the only thing that there is to talk about.

And then about the article, what I attempted to do was to show how the Japanese government used the bureaucratic process of criminal investigation as a way of territorial claim in the early 1870s. At this point, the island was under Russo-Japanese mixed inhabitancy, and a large number of Russian soldiers and convicts began to settle on the southern part of the island, on the southern coast where previously, only the Japanese and the Indigenous people had inhabited. This crowding of the area led to violent incidents, including several homicides.

The two murder cases that I focus on both took place in 1873. In the first case, the victim was a Japanese migrant worker, and the suspect was a Manchu man who was working in Vladivostok on the opposite coast as a Russian subject. Even though the victim was just a commoner, this case received particular attention from the Kaitakushi (the Hokkaidō colonization office), which was responsible for the administration of the Japanese part – that it was claiming – of Sakhalin, and you can find a pile of records on this if you could go to the archive of Hokkaidō, which is the municipal Archive of Hokkaidō in Sapporo. Japanese claimed part of the island then, and they produced a lot of records on this particular case. And through the process, they worked with the Russian military officers stationed on the island to investigate the crime. This gets into [a] really complicated and lengthy process of interrogations by Russian officers summoning the witnesses from Hakodate, Tokyo. And in fact, the suspect once escaped the island, [was] allowed to leave the island and needed to be brought back from Vladivostok upon the Japanese complaint. So, there was a very lengthy process of Russo-Japanese joint interrogation of the people involved in the incident, and the only point in doing so was because the boundary negotiation was still going on.

I mean, this is a murder of a nobody by a nobody, so once the whole island [came in] Russian possession and when the agreement was made, the Japanese lost the interest after the territorial scope is known to them, and we don’t really know what happened to the suspect in the very end. So this goes to show the investigation as a way of exerting its political and administrative power on the island’s population, and the whole reason in doing so was [these] ongoing negotiations happening thousands of kilometers away in St. Petersburg.

As for the second case, both the victim and the suspect were Indigenous people. The Russian and Japanese authorities intervened and used the case to, again, strengthen its legitimacy and undermine the other side. Because only the Japanese record is available – at least as far as I’m concerned – what I read as testimony was for instance, a recount of [a] conversation that took place between an Ainu man and an Evenki man translated by a[n] Ainu-speaking Japanese official.

On the other side, Russians conducted their own investigation of the suspect, and tried to bring a counter-charge against one of the witnesses. So these stories don’t really match completely, and it is practically unknowable what exactly happened, and who was telling the lie, who was telling the truth. But what I can say at least is that through the exercise of these criminal investigations and recording of them, the Kaitakushi officers tried to present itself as a legitimate, civilized ruler of the island even though the central government was already leaning towards giving up the territorial sovereignty of the island.

At the very least, the information they gathered [was] going to be used to pressure the Russian government at the negotiation table in St. Petersburg, where the Japanese could demand compensation for the death of their subjects. So I guess what I’m trying to do with these case studies is to provide some alternative ways to look at the history of Karafuto and Japan’s far north as something other than [a] bilateral Russo-Japanese story. And if you go to local archives in Sapporo, you can find a lot of materials to work with.

TG: You were talking before about these fears of Russian incursion in particular, and there’s even Russian missions to northern areas that date even back to the 1700s. Is that correct?

TY: So, Japan is important for Russians because its empire expanded through the Eurasian continent, covering Siberia, primarily searching for fur-bearing animals. Fur skins were one of the very lucrative products that they could get in many parts of Siberia, but also across the North Pacific. The Russians went after these animals, and the empire, as a result, expanded. Russians thought it would be better if they could trade with Japan and didn’t have to bring all the catch back to the European part of Russia, which is a very lengthy and difficult travel.

So, there’s a very clear trade interest on the Russian side and the Japanese side because they had this what is usually known as sakoku policy, although it has been tested and challenged in many ways (as previous speakers on this podcast have also mentioned). But the first contact happens in the southern Kuril Islands, and already by the early 19th century, there’s a vague sense that the islands up to Etorofu was, in some ways, under Japanese influence, and the islands north of that were the places where the Russians had some control over. That actually becomes the basis of the territorial negotiation/boundary negotiation of the mid-19th century. And in 1855, [the] Shimoda Treaty (that’s the first treaty signed between Russia and Japan) sets the boundary right there, setting Etorofu Island as the northern or northeastern limit of the Japanese territory. And this is significant because up to that point, Japan didn’t really have a clearly bound, clearly defined territory, and this was the first border that was written in the treaty as such.

TG: And then when we get into the Meiji period, we have all sorts of Meiji leaders who, you know, in their own words, would view Russia as a threat, particularly after the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. And we have these quotes: Yamagata Aritomo talking about how this is going to destabilize the entire region because Russia’s going to come in. Nitobe Inazō even talked about this Russian avalanche rolling down the Siberian steppe, and he says this is what led to the Japanese colonization of Hokkaidō starting in 1869. Would you say that these were legitimate fears? Was Russia actually targeting Japan for imperialist expansion? Or was this all just a pretense for Japan’s own imperialist expansion?

TY: So, there are a lot of remarks on both sides about Russia’s intention of expanding towards the Japanese northern edge, and [most of the] people in Japan, around the time of the Meiji Restoration, were convinced that once Sakhalin or Karafuto is taken, then the next thing would be Hokkaidō. The British – whose navy was very active in the region – [were] also concerned about what Russia’s intentions were, and they kept sending reports to London from East Asia that Russia was coming to Hokkaidō, and it’s going to be Japan’s diplomatic priority. Japan should really concentrate on Hokkaidō’s development in order to stop that from happening.

But in fact, by the early 1870s, I think the most informed of the Japanese diplomats begin to see a slightly different picture. Enomoto Takeaki who was the chief negotiator of the territory exchange between Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands observed that Russia was essentially bluffing. It will at least take, you know, a decade or two to develop Siberia, and its domestic finance was in deep trouble. And he wrote to his family from St. Petersburg, and said: “You know, your newspapers would say different things about the threat of Russia, but you don’t have to worry about them.” So, the fear of Russia in the north is really a line or the argument that never goes away from Japanese thinking, wholly embraced by the likes of Yamagata and others, and then the Japanese Army of the Shōwa era, whose main focus was the war with the Soviets that was sure to come.

But in the early Meiji period, especially in the 1870s, there seems to have been a brief window when the most informed among the Japanese leaders understood the limits of Russia’s capability in the short term at least, in spite of all the things that they said about their intention of coming to Hokkaidō. And that was the reason, I think, that Enomoto was feeling okay with giving up Karafuto because even if they do so, the prospect of Hokkaidō being threatened wasn’t really there. This was crucial because it gave Meiji Japan the time to really concentrate on other issues like domestic reforms without having to worry about spending its precious resources on maritime defence like they had to in the Bakumatsu period, for instance.

TG: Right. And as you said, you know, whenever Yamagata was making these statements or his speeches to the Diet where he’s talking about the Russian threat, it’s always as a reason to build up the military within Japan. You know, these were always excuses to really just strengthen the military, which we could say was really his true objective. You mentioned before the island of Etorofu, one of the islands in the Kuril island chain, and these islands came up in the news recently again. These are still being disputed between Japan and Russia. In fact, I think it was the Russian foreign minister who made a headline recently for saying: “Japan’s the only country in the world that can’t learn the lessons of World War II.” And so, how exactly are these islands mixed up with World War II?

TY: It’s very interesting. The island disputes between Russia and Japan, which the current prime minister, Mr. Abe, wants to move forward so badly, is the result of the different interpretations of the post-Second World War settlement. Japan signed the peace treaty, which said that it gives up the southern Kuril Islands, and there are two issues with that at least. One is the question of which islands it referred to, and the other question is the fact that [the] U.S.S.R. didn’t really sign this peace treaty with which Japan regained independence.

The four islands that the Japanese claimed to belong to them are now resided by Russians, and this has been, really, one of the major diplomatic challenges that prime ministers after prime ministers took up, and nobody had really succeeded so far in making any changes. And hence, the Japanese and the Russians [have] yet to sign a peace treaty, and I think what’s interesting here is this concept of inherent territory or koyū no ryōdo in Japanese. This is almost like a mantra that the Japanese government repeats time and again when it refers to a territorial dispute, and this is not just a northern territory, but when it talks about Takeshima/Dokdo or Senkaku/Diaoyu, they use the same phrase.

The genealogy of this phrase, I think, is quite interesting. So in 1947, in the first postwar session of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Lower House, one member elected from Hokkaidō remarks that what we call today the northern territories are indeed inherent territory. Then it came to be applied to other territories, other islands including southern Karafuto, Okinawa, the Ogasawara Islands by at least one Diet member in 1951. Another member called the Amami Islands (north of Okinawa, which was also under U.S. occupation) the inherent territory. So in the Occupation era, the usage of this phrase served as a marker to show the speaker’s assertion that Japan has sovereignty over this place, and it should return under Japanese sovereignty when it regained independence. So, the way in which the phrase was used has a specific context of the post-Second World War occupation and Japan’s recovery of sovereignty.

What’s interesting, also, is the longer version of this phrase, which I don’t think gets talked about as much, but it is to say that such and such islands are in light of history as well as international law, Japan’s inherent territory, or in Japanese, they say: Rekishi teki ni mo kokusai hōjō mo nihon no koyū no ryōdo. This phrase first appears, as far as I can see, in 1978, in a statement made by a senior Japanese diplomat. I don’t have the direct evidence to explain why this new phrase was added and then stuck, but I have a hypothesis, which is to say that this is shortly after Japan’s signing of [the] Peace and Friendship Treaty with the People’s Republic of China. In 1965, Japan also signed the basic treaty with the Republic of Korea, but crucially, these two normalization processes took place without agreeing on the disputed islands. So, the question then got on, although the normalization was completed.

Then Japanese officials could no longer make the old argument that Japan claimed so and so island because we didn’t get it through aggression. That was the original context with which this phrase was being used, but now the situation was different. So, they had to go back to something closer to the principle of territorial rule, and I think this is why this reference to history and international law came to be used. So in answer[ing] your question: the Second World War contributed to the formation of Japanese people’s understanding of its own territorial sovereignty, especially the idea that there’s something inherent about where Japanese territory should be. This has been really deeply entrenched in the Japanese people’s mind until very recently, and in a way, this might have limited the Japanese diploma[tic] options because if something was inherent in their understanding, then it’s not really up for negotiations.

So, I think this has been entrenched very deeply in the Japanese mind, and this may have limited, in fact, the options for the Japanese diplomatic negotiations because you narrow the option of making compromises, and it makes it difficult for these boundary negotiations of territorial disputes to be part of a larger deal that Japan may be trying to negotiate.

TG: Speaking of recent news stories, I saw another story that the Japanese passport for the second year in a row is the strongest passport in the world, meaning that it allows travel to the highest number of countries without a visa. And I understand you’re doing research on the history of Japan’s passport system. So I’m really curious: what is it that attracted you to this topic, first of all? And if you could also give us a little bit of what you found so far?

TY: Sure. The reason why I got into this topic was because my PhD dissertation was on the emergence of territorial boundaries around the Japanese archipelago in the Bakumatsu to early Meiji period. And when I was reading the 1866 Edo Convention, which usually gets referred to as the treaty that reduced the tariff rates and brought Japan closer to the regime of free trade, I got interested in one of the other articles in this convention that said: “Japan [which means the Tokugawa shogunate then] would now issue passports and allow people to go overseas.” Then I was doing research in the diplomatic archive in Tokyo. I noticed that there are piles of microfilm of passport application records that were just sitting on [an] open shelf in the reading room. So, I thought I might do something using that, and I had also read John Torpey’s book called The Invention of the Passport, which talks about the origin of the passport with the European case studies, so that also was part of the inspiration, and that’s how I got into the topic.

What have I found so far: in Japan, the passports were, as I said before, first introduced in 1866, and the first comprehensive Japanese passport law was announced in 1878. When we talk about Japanese going overseas, the narrative usually starts with the 1885 official migration mission to Hawaii, but people have been travelling for around two decades by then, and this is the period when legal institutions for Japanese overseas travel began to develop. So, I think it’s important to look at this particular period before the Japanese story of migrants began to emerge.

The system came into existence to regulate travellers who were mostly small scale merchants and labourers. And when the Meiji government dealt with this recently opened border, it was deeply worried about the possible consequences the Japanese going overseas may bring. And as far as I can see in the sources, they saw at least two big risks. One was this risk of being seen as a coolie exporting – and therefore, not really a first-rate – nation, and the other was they wanted to avoid having to shoulder the cost of repatriating those who went overseas and got into trouble, financial or otherwise.

So, they interviewed the applicants before issuing passports, and the Foreign Ministry sent out only a small batch of blank passports to the municipal offices, so that a large scale hire by foreigners of Japanese labourers wouldn’t occur without the knowledge of the Foreign Ministry. And because the municipal offices in the treaty ports were receiving blank passports from the Foreign Ministry, and then wrote in detail of the applicants there, not sending out blank passports to the municipal offices was the Foreign Ministry’s way of restricting the traffic.

This was not always successful because some of the governors of municipal offices, under the pressure of foreign merchants who wanted to hire Japanese labourers, issued something called provisional passports, which didn’t really follow the format of the Foreign Ministry apparently, and it certainly didn’t have the seal of the ministry, but they issued it anyway. So, there’s a limit to which the Foreign Ministry from the capital could control what was happening in the treaty ports where people were lining up applying for passports.

But at least there was the attempt to really regulate the flow of Japanese people outwards, and I think the other interesting thing I have found so far is the comparison with other states, especially the states in Western Europe. Around the time of the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese had thought that they were introducing the modern way of border control. And many parts of Western Europe such as Britain, France, Germany, Belgium were in fact moving towards the bilateral abolishment of passports among themselves because it was seen as [a] nuisance to free travel and interaction and the conduct of business.

When France briefly reinstated passport requirements for the British, for instance, in the early 1870s, the British were furious. Thomas Cook was the pioneer of international tourism, then called the French act quote “semi-barbarism.” Of course, Europe would go towards harder borders with passport and visa requirements by the time of the First World War. When the Japanese were catching up with a system they thought was modern, they were not completely in sync with the developments in Europe. And in hindsight, what the Japanese were doing in the early Meiji period turned out to be ahead of the Western Europeans, albeit inadvertently.  

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode:

Takahiro Yamamoto, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, March 26, 2019. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-100-dr-takahiro-yamamoto-heidelberg/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.