I disagree the statement. The Japanese colonial rule of Korea did indeed unambiguously exploit and racially discriminate against Koreans. However, Japan also expanded political rights and social welfare for Koreans as well – especially at the end of its rule. The Allied colonial powers of World War II (WWII) treated the colonized in a similar manner. Although the British are often credited for Hong Kong’s economic prosperity and democratic institutions, the British also pushed for anti-Chinese laws and sentiments. And, held on to the port island far after WWII until the 1997 Handover. British Malaya also had a similar experience: The Malayans were only offered their independence a decade after WWII in 1957. The British in fact helped the Dutch and French to hold on to their Southeast Asian colonies as well as to prevent de-legitimization of its colonial rule in Malaya. And, also after WWII, South Korea and Okinawa, Japan entered the U.S.’ informal empire in the Asia-Pacific. The latter was only returned to Japan in 1972. This paper argues that the colonizers racially discriminated, informally colonized, and held on to their colonies or helped other states to do so out of their economic or strategic interests. It should be noted that informal colonialism refers to a state that exerts de facto economic and geopolitical domination over another state or non-state actor – without the establishment of a new government or transfer of sovereignty.

Japan softened its anti-Korean sentiment and elevated the welfare of Koreans after its decision to conscript Koreans into the Japanese Army. Otherwise, Koreans would be disinclined to fight for Japan’s interests. Therefore, this was a strategic decision. It should be first noted that Japan legitimized its colonization of Korea (1911) by emphasizing on the racial and cultural affinities shared by the two ethnicities.[1] Notwithstanding, Koreans were still considered as inferior. And, this invalidated the needed legitimization. As a solution, the “Koreans as inferior” narrative was reinterpreted: Koreans were not inherently inferior, but it was rather the exterior environmental forces that made them so.[2] This legitimized the colonization as a Mission Civilisatrice. Japan had a duty to offer salvation to its backwards Korean brothers. This offers an insight to the view the Japanese administration had of Koreans. And, indeed Koreans were treated as the inferior “Other” and exploited and discriminated against.

However, Japan’s pursuit of its colonial ambitions in the Asia-Pacific led the administrators to reconsider their treatment of Koreans. At this time, Japan was short on human resources. All able-bodied Japanese men had been conscripted into the Japanese Army. To satisfy the shortage, Koreans were conscripted as well.[3] And, a new commitment to help Koreans prosper as part of Japan surfaced. The exclusionary “vulgar racism” against Koreans was abandoned, and replaced with a more inclusionary “polite racism”.[4] And, the colonial rule also now found it difficult to ignore the welfare the Koreans sought for. These developments occurred because, for the mobilization of Koreans to be effective, the treatment of Koreans had to be uniform and equal to that of metropolitan Japanese.[5] And, significant laws promulgated as a result. Specifically, the Bureau of Health and Welfare (1941) was set up to administer all health- and labor-related affairs. And, the Korea Relief and Protection Law (1944) aimed to aid Korea’s most vulnerable demographic – the children and the mentally and physically ill or handicapped.[6] Further, all tax-paying Koreans aged twenty-five received the right to vote in the Lower House elections. Because Korea was allotted twenty-three representatives, Koreans now had moderate power in the Lower House. And, up to ten Korean males aged thirty could now serve in the House of Peers as well.[7]

Critically, the series of rights offered aimed to integrate Koreans as part of the Japanese population, and to foster a pro-Japanese and -colonial sentiment. This was pushed to strengthen the loyalty and a sense of duty Korean men would have for Japan. It could not risk its soldiers deserting their posts or conspiring against the Japanese Army. And, although the mobilization of Koreans was purely utilitarian, it should not discredit Japan’s commitment to increase Koreans’ autonomy and prosperity. However, this commitment should be understood in the context of the war effort: Japan’s commitment was essentially a strategic decision.

Japan was not unique in terms of its discriminatory laws and sentiments. Although the British are often praised for its push for democratic rights in Hong Kong, this development occurred only a few decades before the 1997 Handover. For most of its century and a half rule, British Hong Kong was analogues to South Africa’s apartheid. All dissent or demonstrations that expressed “inflammatory” anti-British or -colonialism notion were outlawed under the Inflammatory Speeches Ordinance (1930). And, instead of police officers, it was the British troops that often dealt with unrests. Bayonets and submachine guns were employed to reinforce the use of tear gas or batons. At times, universities supportive of anti-government protests were raided, and participants were punished up to ten years of imprisonment. Or, whenever a conviction failed due to insufficient evidence, the Emergency Deportation and Detention Regulations (1962) authorized the British to imprison the individual in question up to a year. And, the Expulsion of Undesirables Ordinance (1930) authorized the British to remove individuals merely suspected as a “threat” to the public.[8] Only in the last few decades of its rule did the British institute democratic rights and freedoms to Hong Kongers. As demonstrated, Britain’s form of colonial governance was no better or worse than that of Japan. However, this apartheid-reminiscent rule of Hong Kong should not discredit Britain of its economic and democratic contributions to the port island.

However, most importantly, Britain held on to Hong Kong until 1997. And, in fact the British also kept its rule in Malay until 1957, and helped the Dutch and French to maintain their Southeast Asian colonies as well. To explain, note that immediately after WWII, Britain prioritized the restoration of its prewar empire to stimulate its postwar economic stagnation. Considering the prospect of trade with China, the British had to hold on to the port island. Further, Malaya’s rubber and tin exports to the U.S. increased Britain’s reserve for the scarce U.S. dollar.[9] And, Britain had investments worth over 100 million pounds and a 40 percent stake in Royal Dutch Shell, an oil producer that operated in Southeast Asia.[10] For these reasons, the continuation of British rule in Malaya was inevitable. However, the decision to assist the Dutch and French to hold on to their Southeast Asian colonies was made as to prevent the de-legitimization of its rule in Malaya. Critically, Britain’s economic interests triumphed the sovereignty the colonized sought for. Colonialism continued insofar as the metropole had an economic or strategic return from its colonies. To the British, WWII was not a catalyst for decolonization, but rather a deterrence to its colonial ambitions. Notwithstanding, the British also had a strategic interest in holding on to Malaya: It did not want to create a power vacuum for the local communists or the U.S.S.R. to fill in.[11]

The U.S.’ decision to fill in the power vacuum left by Japan in South Korea and Okinawa, Japan was made out of strategic interests – to resist and contain communism. This effectively placed the two polities under the U.S.’ informal empire. The U.S. policies in Korea aimed to foster an anti-communist sentiment as to resist a communist spillover from North Korea. This was accomplished by a U.S.-led and -supported capitalist-driven economic growth and military security. The U.S. had essentially removed Koreans of their sovereignty, and continued to do so as to prevent a Soviet encroachment of the South.[12] Further, after WWII, the U.S. occupied Okinawa (1945) and utilized it as a site for its military bases and other military-related activities. At the time, Okinawans did not identify themselves as Japanese. Their culture and dialect is similar, but not identical to that of Japan. And, in fact Okinawa (or Ryukyu Kingdom) remained as an independent state until it was annexed to Japan in 1879. [13] Therefore, for the Okinawans, the U.S. occupation opened up a new possibility for an independent Okinawa – along with the prospect of economic self-subsistence from the U.S.[14] Nevertheless, under the 1971 Okinawa Reversion Agreement, Okinawa was returned to Japan.

Critically, despite the wave of decolonization after WWII, the U.S. expanded its sphere of influence via its informal colonization of South Korea and Okinawa. The U.S. essentially replaced the former Japanese rule. However, in the Korean case, Korea theoretically had full sovereignty. Nevertheless, the U.S. utilized Korea as part of its global fight against terrorism without the permission nor consent from the Korean state. This effectively rendered Korea as a semi-sovereign state. And, the U.S. also self-determined the fate of the Okinawans after WWII, and in 1971 as well. There was no consideration of the fact that Okinawa was once an independent state free from Japan. By this premise, de-occupation of Okinawa should merit Okinawans of their independence – rather than an absorption to Japan as it was the case in 1875. As demonstrated, the U.S.’ strategically driven informal colonization of Korea and Okinawa shows the U.S.’ disinterest in the liberalization of former colonies.

In retrospect, Japan’s governance of Korea consisted of anti-Korean sentiments and discriminatory laws, but also an effort to elevate the welfare of Koreans as well. To an extent, the British Hong Kong shared a similar experience. Although the British indeed helped the port island to prosper economically and democratically, for the most of its century and a half rule, its rule was reminiscent of apartheid. And, the British held on to Hong Kong and Malaya to rescue its economy out of stagnation. Decolonization was not a British priority. Similarly, the U.S., despite the wave of decolonization, informally colonized South Korea and Okinawa as to contain communism in the Asia-Pacific. The Allied powers of WWII were disinterested in the liberalization of former colonies, and their actions were driven by their economic or strategic interests.


[1] Duus, P. (1995). Chapter 11 – Defining the Koreans, Images of Domination. In The Abacus and the Sword: The Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895-1910 (p. 397). Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

[2] Ibid. 407-408.

[3] Fujitani, T. (2012). Right to Kill, Right to Make Live. In Race for Empire: Koreans as Japanese and Japanese as Americans during World War II (p. 17). California: California Scholarship Online.

[4] Fujitani, T. (2015, October 29). Racism. Lecture presented at CAS310H1 Colonialism in Asia in Sidney Smith Hall, University of Toronto, Toronto.

[5] Fujitani, T. 19.

[6] Ibid. 21.

[7] Fujitani, T. (2015, October 29).

[8] Klein, R. (1997). The Tragedy of Hong Kong. The Humanist, 57(22), 24.

[9] Lee, S. (1996). Introduction: The New Empire. In Outposts of Empire Korea, Vietnam, and the Origins of the Cold War in Asia, 1949-1954. (p. 17-18). McGill-Queen’s University Press.

[10] Roadnight, A. (2002). Sleeping with the Enemy: Britain, Japanese Troops and the Netherlands East Indies, 1945-1946. History, 87(286), 247.

[11] Ibid. 247.

[12] Lee, S. 12-13.

[13] Tobe, H. (2006). Military Bases and Modernity: An Aspect of Americanization in Okinawa. Transforming Anthropology, 14(1), 90.

[14] Ibid. 90.