Japan at Nature’s Edge 1: “The Pelagic Empire”

by tigermanifesto


Print commemorating the Japanese naval victories over the Russians in their war.

Environmental history is a concerted attempt to add critical bite to the common sense assertion that the development of a country cannot be separated from its physical geography. Japan at Nature’s Edge, a bound collection of articles edited by Ian Jared Miller, Julia Adeney Thomas, and Brett L. Walker, contains a number of entries that have inspired me to write about them. Situating modern and premodern Japanese history within an oceanic, terrestrial, ecological, and health context, the collection’s authors all explore the relationship between the human and the non-human in Japan’s history. For each article, I will briefly summarize the contents before offering a brief word of criticism, praise, or insight inspired by the article.

Our first entry, and the opener of the book, is William M. Tsutsui’s “The Pelagic Empire,” which attempts to reframe modern Japanese imperialism and expansion in oceanic terms, correcting what he sees as a “terrestrial bias” in the work of historians to date. When considering imperialism theoretically and empirically, historians attend most closely to its earthbound elements: factories, workforces, military campaigns, financial institutions, colonies, neo-colonies, etc. Oceans, meanwhile, are considered, if at all, as “negative spaces” just serving as barriers/avenues for transportation between landmasses. Tsutsui’s goal is to see the sea itself as a zone of exploitation and expansion, as a live and human territory deeply marked by imperialism. An unusual goal, to be sure.

In order to realign his readers, Tsutsui chooses to focus on Japan’s exploitation of fishing resources in the Pacific Ocean. In the short history he produces, Japan’s late 19th century imperial expansion is identified with, though obviously not exhausted by, the growth of a modern fishing industry in the deep Pacific. What had been a traditionally subsistence or lower-scale mercantile economic activity largely confined to coastal fisheries ballooned, by the 1940s, into a complex, state-sponsored sector of imperial Japan’s economy. As Tsutsui notes, the Japanese state mobilized scientific resources to rationalize fishing:

“A number of prefectures opened their own fisheries experiment stations, the central government operated numerous oceanographic research vessels, and marine science degree programs were offered at imperial universities in Tokyo and Hokkaido.”¹

In other words, the creation of a vast industrial fishing army required not only immense capital investments in fuel, steel, proletarian workers, etc., but also the organization and regulation of knowledge. The empire Tsutsui discusses imposed its borders and logics––in other words, its sovereignty––over a vast area of the ocean from the Antarctic to the Arctic Circle.

In the second half of the short article, the author discusses what might be called the ideology or subjectivity of the Pelagic Empire. He asks how the material reality of Japan’s oceanic dominance reflected in the minds of its ruling class, citizens, and international observers. In Japan, academics and elites identified the Japanese as “children of the water,” or as native island people, seafarers who possessed a natural mastery of the ocean. In 1941, the country even proclaimed a Marine Memorial Day (海の記念日)dedicated to the “blessings of the sea and…the prosperity of maritime Japan.”²

Tsutsui’s argument is essentially that Japanese Empire of the early 20th century and late 19th was primarily a maritime one, and that it envisioned itself as such. These are two separate arguments but they are both fairly well supported despite the brevity of the piece. At the same time, a few of his historiographical claims and comments about prevailing theories of imperialism are more questionable. For instance, he argues that Lenin and Hobson, early theorists of imperialism, “were clearly not thinking oceanically when they proclaimed the motor of imperialism to be the capitalistic hunger for for new outlets of surplus capital and new markets for surplus production, neither of which could apparently be satisfied at sea.”³

Obviously, most Marxist theorizing on imperialism is not focused on the ocean because it is primarily focused on understanding not the territorial expansion of empires over the sea but rather its parasitic domination of dependent nations and peoples. It only takes a slight geographical adjustment to make Lenin’s theory of finance-driven imperialism apply equally to competition over oceanic resources, understanding the sea, too, as a site of imperialist exploitation of workers, nations, and natural resources. At the same time, the fact that people do not generally live out in the open ocean where Tsutsui focuses makes the impact of imperialism on its more muted from a human vantage point.

Still, it seems valuable to me to include the ocean in considerations of Japanese imperialism, at least. Its territories and ambitions clearly included marine conquests as well as land-bound ones, so I would consider Tsutsui’s intervention to be quite positive overall, even if it doesn’t present its case with much theoretical elaboration.


  1. William Tsutsui, “The Pelagic Empire: Reconsidering Japanese Expansion,” in Japan at Nature’s Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power, ed. Ian J. Miller, Julia A. Thomas, and Brett L. Walker (University of Hawai’i Press, 2013), 28.
  2. Ibid, 29.
  3. Ibid, 22.