The Japanese colonial empire existed from 1879 to 1945 with a sphere of influence across much of Asia and Oceania.


See also: Pre-modern Japan

After unifying the country at the end of the Warring States Period (1467-1615), the Tokugawa Shogunate would adopt an isolationist policy, largely shutting off Japan from the outside world. During this period of Tokugawa rule, known as the Edo Period (1603-1868), Japan was stable domestically, but also stagnated while the West raced forward. American commodore Matthew Perry sent four warships to Japan in 1853, forcing the Japan to end its isolationist policy and open up to trade with the West, with the Japanese unable to resist due to the far superior firepower of the American Navy. Meanwhile, neighboring China, which the Japanese had for so long considered to be the world's greatest superpower, was being picked apart by the Western powers, starting with their defeat at the hands of the British in the First Opium War in 1842. These events would eventually culminate in Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last Tokugawa shogun, handing power back to the Emperor Meiji in 1868, in what is dubbed the Meiji Restoration. However, in practice a "Meiji oligarchy" surrounding the Emperor made virtually all important political decisions. Following the Meiji Restoration, Japan would turn away from China and instead look to the West for inspiration, adopting Western models, philosophies and culture in an attempt to modernize.

1868 to 1912 marked the Meiji Era in Japan, when the country transformed itself from an isolated, feudal society to a modern, industrial nation-state and an emerging great power, becoming the first non-Western country to industrialize. In the 1870s, Japan dispatched missions to the United States and Europe to renegotiate the unequal treaties with these countries, and study the political, technological and military structure of Western nations. To this day, some aspects of Japanese law and culture are influenced by this period. Erstwhile libertine opinions on sexuality were influenced by Western prudishness of the 19th century and the Japanese civil law system is to a large extent based on the German BGB. It was also during this period that Western culinary techniques and ingredients entered the Japanese repertoire, leaving an indelible impact on Japanese cuisine. Japan abandoned the traditional Chinese calendar in 1873, and has since celebrated its traditional festivals according to the Gregorian calendar. Colonialism was also introduced to Japan from the West, with Japan successfully building a colonial empire based on Western models, which is what this article will focus on.

Japan's expansion began with the annexation of the Ryukyu Kingdom, then a Chinese protectorate, in 1879, renaming it Okinawa prefecture. By then, the Chinese were powerless to defend their protectorate and were only able to call for mediation by the British, who sided with Japan in the dispute. Japan then defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, resulting Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula being ceded to Japan, and China being forced to give up its influence over its vassal state Korea, which would swiftly fall under the Japanese sphere of influence. However, Japan's colonization of the Liaodong Peninsula would be short-lived, as it would be ceded to the Russians after barely a few days. Japan would subsequently win the Liaodong Peninsula back in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, the first time in centuries that an Asian power defeated a Western one, which also resulted in the southern half of Sakhalin being ceded to Japan as Karafuto prefecture. Japan would then proceed to annex Korea outright in 1910.

After the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912, the Taisho period, sometimes called "Taisho democracy" followed. The old oligarchy lost a lot of power with the Imperial Diet taking over, seemingly transforming Japan into a Western-aligned constitutional monarchy. However, when the sickly emperor died, the Showa period began (the periods are also the posthumous names of emperors; in Japan those are the only names emperors are ever referred to with the reigning tenno being just called "the emperor" — Western usage has diverged from this beginning with Showa/Hirohito). Power shifted to military elites and ultimately culminated in a quasi-fascistic regime. This era of Japanese hypernationalism and militarism often saw various branches of the armed forces vie for power, and sometimes individual commanders even launched unauthorized attacks, forcing higher-ups to react to the "facts on the ground". Ultimately this brought Japan into conflict with the U.S. which turned to open warfare with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Japan was one of the victorious Allies in World War I, thus allowing it to further expand its colonial empire by taking over the colonies of the defeated Germans in Asia and Oceania, resulting in Palau, the Marshall Islands, what are now the Federated States of Micronesia and Northern Mariana Islands becoming Japanese colonies. Japan proposed a "Racial Equality Clause" to be added to the treaties to end World War I, but was rebuffed by the racist U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who manoeuvred for it to require unanimous consent to pass at the Paris Peace Conference (which wasn't achieved). To placate Japan after this insult, the Shandong peninsula, previously German-occupied territory in China, was handed over to Japan despite being inhabited almost exclusively by ethnic Chinese, and despite protests from the Chinese delegation.

Japan would then stage the Mukden Incident in 1931, using it as a pretext to occupy Manchuria, where they set up a puppet state known as Manchukuo, with Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, being installed as emperor. Japan then proceeded to invade the Chinese heartland in 1937, beginning the Second Sino-Japanese War, and were swiftly able to occupy much of eastern China. The Second Sino-Japanese War would merge into World War II following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, with the Japanese beginning their invasion of British Hong Kong and the Western colonial possessions in Southeast Asia shortly after. During the course of the war, Japan managed to occupy virtually all of Southeast Asia except Thailand (which gave the Japanese full access to their country in exchange for nominal control over the northern Malay states of Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu), and parts of Oceania.

The emperor finally asserted himself in 1945 following the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when he overruled a deadlocked cabinet and decided — in an unprecedented move — to give a radio address directly to his people announcing Japan's surrender. Subsequently, the Americans left the empire (and Hirohito as the emperor) in place, albeit with a new constitution that explicitly grants the emperor no powers whatsoever, and forbids Japan from establishing a military (though the modern-day Japan Self-Defense Forces is one of the world's most powerful de facto militaries).

The Japanese colonial empire ended with the unconditional surrender of Japan at the end of World War II, as the Allies forced Japan to give up all its colonies. In some countries, Japanese remains were demolished due to decolonization effort. The Japanese General Government Building in Seoul, for example, was demolished by order of South Korean president Kim Young-sam in 1996. However, in Taiwan, the remaining Japanese colonial buildings are now protected by preservation laws, and the legacy of Japanese colonial rule is seen by most Taiwanese as an important part of their heritage.

Today Japan's relationship with its colonial past and the crimes committed by the Japanese military during the colonial era but especially the Pacific War is a difficult one. Unlike Germany whose officials have engaged in a apologetic stance (perhaps most emblematically symbolized by former exile and anti-Nazi Willy Brandt kneeling in front of the Warsaw ghetto memorial while on a state visit as chancellor), Japan has found it difficult to apologize for the wrongs done and to offer some form of restitution, and this has in turn caused diplomatic tensions between Japan and other Asian countries, in particular its neighbors China and South Korea. The sole exception is Taiwan, in which Japanese colonial rule is generally regarded positively, and most locals are proud of their Japanese colonial heritage. The situation is further complicated by geopolitics as Japan was a strong anti-communist U.S. ally throughout the Cold War and could thus justify its hardline opposition to North Korea and China as "anti-communism" rather than a continuance of pre-1945 political trends. Even today, Japan is seen as a valuable U.S. ally in the ongoing geopolitical contest with China. Japan still does not recognize the de facto border with Russia because the Soviet Union and its successor states never signed an official peace treaty with Japan.



  • 1 Nankin Shrine (南京神社). One of the very few surviving Shinto shrines built under Japanese occupation in mainland China. While the original exterior is largely preserved, the building has since been repurposed, and the interior thoroughly renovated.  

Manchuria/Northeast ChinaEdit

9.18 Memorial Museum
  • 2 Changchun. Formerly capital of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, it has several former government buildings from that period, in Japanese Art Deco style.    
  • 3 Dalian.    
  • 4 Tonghua.    
  • 5 Shenyang. The capital of Liaoning province, also known as Mukden in the Manchu language. It was here that Japan staged the Mukden Incident in 1931, using it as a pretext to occupy Manchuria. The 1 9.18 Memorial Museum commemorates the Mukden Incident, and is located next to the site where it occurred.    


  • 6 Meiji Shrine (明治神宮 Meiji Jingū). Shinto shrine built to house the spirit of Emperor Meiji, who took power back from the Tokugawa Shoguns, and oversaw the industrialization of Japan and its rapid rise to major world power status. The Japanese colonial empire also began under him, with the annexation of Okinawa in 1879, followed by Taiwan in 1895 and Korea in 1910. Also a popular and less controversial alternative to the Yasukuni Shrine for Japanese politicians to offer prayers at. Free.    


  • 7 Taipei. Taiwan's current capital was also the capital during the Japanese colonial period, with many surviving relics from that era. Perhaps the most famous is the Presidential Office Building, which was the office of the Governor-General during the Japanese colonial period.
The right side building is the Tainan branch of Nippon Kangyo Bank. The left side building is the Hayashi Department Store.
  • 8 Tainan. Taiwan's oldest city is also home to a large number of well-preserved buildings from the Japanese colonial era. Perhaps the most famous of them is the Hayashi Department Store, Taiwan's oldest department store that also had its first ever elevator. The Shinto shrine at the top of the building has also been preserved. Just across the street from the Hayashi Department Store is the Land Bank of Taiwan, Tainan Branch, which was originally built by the Japanese as the Tainan branch of Nippon Kangyo Bank.


Although post-independence Korean governments have gradually dismantled Japanese colonial buildings in a effort to have a clean break from what is a very painful period for many, several still survive in various Korean cities.

  • 9 Seoul. Although the Japanese General Government Building was demolished in 1995, several Japanese-era buildings survive around Seoul. Some of the more notable ones include the Seoul Railway Station, the Bank of Korea Money Museum and the Seoul Metropolitan Library'. There is also the Seodaemun Prison, which was built by the Japanese to imprison and torture Korean independence activists, and has today been converted to a museum commemorating the victims of Japanese colonial rule.


Sakhalin Regional Museum
  • 10 Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Known as Toyohara (豊原) under Japanese rule, it was the capital of what was then Karafuto (樺太) prefecture, today known as Sakhalin. Among the few surviving Japanese colonial buildings is the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Museum and the former Hokkaido Takushoku Bank Building.


Marshall IslandsEdit

Federated States of MicronesiaEdit

Northern Mariana IslandsEdit


The Japanese occupation is a sensitive subject in many of its former colonies; tread carefully when discussing it with locals. With the exception of Taiwan, where it is generally regarded positively, attitudes towards Japanese colonial rule tend to be negative in its former colonies, especially in China and South Korea.

See alsoEdit

Other colonial empiresEdit

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