‘Everything old is new again’: Contrasting discourses on modernity in Western and Japanese Colonial Enterprises

Much has been written on the benevolent, patriarchal language and discourses of empire that surrounded the Western colonial projects of SE Asia. These models sought to justify European imperial expansion on the grounds of restoring the material, artistic and myriad other cultural glories of SE Asian states and kingdoms. In doing so, colonial powers became guardians, or stewards, of subject peoples waylaid and fallen into depravity and decadence, who required educating on their own historical achievements to attain a higher level of civilisation.[1]

Evidence of this is abundant within both the French and British contexts. Within the former, French colonisation of Cambodia included initiatives to promote traditional arts, the restoration of a national museum, as well as crucially the restoration of monuments from the Angkorean period, including the site at Angkor Wat. As Andaya notes, ‘by resurrecting the glories of Angkor, the French provided the Khmer people with a permanent reminder of their former greatness and a powerful symbol of Cambodia as a nation’.[2] This both allowed the French to frame themselves as a benevolent force undertaking a mission civilatrice, as well as cementing the symbolic connection between the Khmer and the French.

This framework is also shown in Sir Stamford Raffles plan for a college of Native Learning in Singapore. As justification, he points for example to Great Britain’s long history in ‘promoting the truth and diffusion of knowledge’, and ‘to the improvement of the condition of her new subjects’.[3] On the grounds therefore of ‘exciting the intellectual energies and increasing the individual happiness of the people’, he therefore proposed the establishment of an Institution of Higher Learning in Singapore, ‘having for its object the cultivation of the languages of China, Siam and the Malayan Archipelago; and the improvement of the moral and intellectual condition of the inhabitants of those countries’.[4] This moreover had the additional advantage of training a new class of bureaucrats, skilled in local languages, to cement Imperial control.

These cases form a marked contrast however to the Japanese form of Imperialism, which eschewed the improvement of indigenous peoples. Instead, upon the annexation of Manchuria in the 1930s, the seemingly open, barren landscape was perceived as an opportunity to liberate the colonising Japanese themselves, through new infrastructures of urban modernity. The civilising mission in this case hence was directed inwards, with Meiji conceptions of Korean and Chinese cultural and economic backwardness providing the justification for Imperial expansion.[5]

This ideal was illustrated by large-scale and ground-breaking urban projects. The trading town of Changchun was transformed into the new Imperial capital of Xinjing, with wide open green spaces, and axial formations of boulevards radiating outwards from key monuments to Japanese modernity (for example a War Memorial , the Puppet Emperor’s Palace, a train station etc). Under the urban planner Sano Toshikata, it moreover became the first Asian city where all buildings were equipped with water closets. This hence paved the way for large scale immigration, with the civilian population of Manchuria being swelled by 800,000 mainly middle-class Japanese immigrants from 1930-41. .[6] Japanese colonial discourse therefore helped to disseminate of a new, urban utopia, with the idea that this would inform and inspire similar improvement schemes back in Japan, though such grand schemes were ultimately abandoned due to financial constraints.[7] Nevertheless, such a case study is instructive in illustrating the marked ideological contrast between European and Japanese discourses on colonisation and modernity. Whilst the former purportedly looked to the past to find inspiration for modernising its indigenous subjects, the latter kept its gaze firmly fixed on the future, for the supposed betterment of its own population.

[1] Edward Said, Orientalism (Penguin, 2003), Introduction

[2] Leonard Andaya, ‘Ethnicity in Pre-colonial and Colonial South East Asia’, in Norman Owen (ed.), Handbook of Southeast Asian History, (Routledge, 2014), p.273

[3] Sir Stamford Raffles, Formation of the Singapore Institution: A.D. 1823, (Mission Press, 1823), p.5

[4] Ibid, pp.3-6

[5] Louise Young, Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism, (University of California, 1999), pp.255-258

[6] Ibid., pp.262-263

[7] Ibid., p.281