Settler colonialism, by Lachlan McNamee – 5 October 2023

From Aeon, by Lachlan McNamee

In 1931, Japan invaded northeast China and established a client state called Manchukuo (Manchuria). To secure control over Manchuria, over the next 14 years, the Japanese government lured 270,000 settlers there by offering free land to ordinary Japanese households. Japanese propaganda stressed, importantly, that this colonisation scheme was not inconsistent with Japan’s commitment to racial equality. Japanese farmers would bring new agricultural techniques to Manchuria and ‘improve’ the lives of native Manchus, Mongols and Chinese by way of example.

Japan’s settlement of Manchuria represents a case of settler colonialism, a concept that was initially developed in the humanities to explain the violent history of nation-building in North America and Australasia. Unlike traditional colonies such as India or Nigeria, as Patrick Wolfe explained, settler colonies do not exploit native populations but instead seek to replace them. The key resource in settler colonies is land. Where Indigenous land is more valuable than Indigenous labour – often because Indigenous peoples are mobile and cannot be easily taxed – native peoples are killed, displaced or forcibly assimilated by settlers who want their land for farming. Settlers and their descendants then justify these land grabs through discourses that both naturalise the disappearance of Indigenous peoples (it was disease!) and stress the benefits of the civilisation the settlers brought with them.

Although settler colonialism has become a valuable framework for explaining the history of Western countries like the United States and Australia, the dynamics that it describes are clearly quite general. Japan’s leaders in the 1930s, for instance, similarly salivated at the seemingly empty plains of Manchuria that could be a solution for all the food needs of Japan’s rapidly growing empire. And just like policymakers in the US, Japan had a variety of self-serving justifications for settling this new frontier. Its claim that Japanese farmers would contribute to ‘co-prosperity’ and ‘racial harmony’ in Manchuria and Korea bore little resemblance to the forced assimilation, discrimination and dispossession experienced by subject peoples there. As such, in popular and academic writing today, there is no resistance to naming Japanese colonialism and imperialism in East Asia or to placing Japanese settler colonialism in conversation with Western settler colonial projects.

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Lachlan McNamee is a lecturer of politics at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of Settling for Less: Why States Colonize and Why They Stop (2023).