About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Japanese versus European colonialism

How Japanese colonialism in East Asia was transformative compared to its European counterpart in Africa
Kampala, Uganda | ANDREW M. MWENDA | I spent about ten days between late February and early March in Japan; talking to government officials, academics in universities, policy wonks in think tanks, tasting Japanese cuisine, visiting technology museums and art galleries.
I was intrigued that the Japanese do not want to speak about their role as colonisers because many of them think it was their nation at its worst.

Japanese today are polite socially and pacifist politically. They hate war; something taught from nursery school to university. It is what they are taught at home and told in temples and shrines. Of course there is a right wing margin that talks of Japanese rearmament. But overall pacifism is a totem. Yet the Japan of the first half of the 20th century was a war-mongering nation: its people were militant, its generals aggressive, its political leaders belligerent and its diplomats bellicose.

It is this Japan that invaded and colonised Taiwan in 1895 and Korea in 1910. Then it invaded China, occupying Manchuria and annexing it in 1937, marking the beginning of the Second World War – according to the Chinese; the European war that began in 1939 simply joined the Asiatic war to make it a world war.

According to Western reports and Korean and Chinese records, the Japanese were brutal. They conducted their colonisation with unprecedented violence and unmerciful harshness. They killed, pillaged, looted and exploited. They took young Korean and Chinese girls into sex slavery to serve as entertainment for Japanese generals. They grabbed land, extracted forced labour and imposed extortionate taxes.

Most Koreans, Taiwanese and Chinese – and their scholars, poets and politicians – think Japanese colonialism was an evil that only wrecked their lives.

Transformative colonialism 

I, however, believe Japanese colonialism in East Asia was transformative compared to its European counterpart in Africa.
I will select a few factors to illustrate my point. But we must recognise that there are many other factors that shaped the development outcomes of Korea and Taiwan than can be compressed in one article.

For instance, by the time of European intrusion into the region, the societies of East Asia (Japan, China, Korea) had enjoyed fairly advanced civilisations for millennia and the process of state formation; complete with meritocratic bureaucracies and the development of common national consciousness, had deep roots.

The East Asian peoples already had widespread formal education and technology was diffuse. Therefore, whatever Japanese colonialism achieved was only possible because of these initial conditions in these societies.

For instance, Taiwan and South Korea were poor in 1960 in terms of per capita income, but many studies show that their social indicators placed them among the ranks of countries at several times their income levels. In 1967, Adelman and Morris did an index of social-economic development for a range of countries as measured in the late 1950s and 60s. The index was derived from factor analysis and was based on a large number of indicators meant to capture characteristics such as social structure and social organisation. They included the level of urbanisation, importance of an indigenous middleclass, social mobility, literacy levels (availability of human capital), mass communications, cultural and ethnic homogeneity, national integration, and a sense of national unity and modernisation outlook.

Aldeman and Morris’ index placed Taiwan and South Korea in the most advanced group of countries even though their per capita income was considerably below average. The study concluded that they had “initial conditions” necessary for rapid development; their governments only needed to remove coordination bottlenecks.

As one can see, cultural and ethnic homogeneity, national integration and a sense of national unity were not a Japanese legacy but the inherited civilisation of these societies. However, factors such as the level of urbanisation, importance of an indigenous middleclass, social mobility, literacy levels (human capital), transport and energy infrastructure plus mass communications were much more developed than other poor countries in large part because of the nature of Japanese colonialism.

All Sub Sahara African countries in the study were at the bottom of the pile in the index. One illustrative factor, which shows the difference between European and Japanese colonialism, was school enrollment and literacy rates (human capital), which we can use as a proxy for availability of technical and managerial skills but also an important basis for sustaining progressive politics.
By 1940, Taiwan had 60% of primary school age going kids (both girls and boys) enrolled in school, similar to South Korea, which also had 43% secondary school enrollment. Uganda (among the best educated in Africa) had 10% primary school enrollment in 1940, 2% in junior secondary and 0.3% in senior secondary and technical education.

In fact, student enrollment as a percentage of overall population in South Korea in 1954 (at the end of the civil war) was 17%; higher than England and Wales (15%), Germany (13%) and only lower than USA (22%) and Japan (23%).

After annexing Korea, Japan expanded the number of public education institutions. By 1939 a total of 2,727 public schools had been built and student enrolment has grown from 110,000 in 1910 to 1.4 million in 1939. The number of students registered in high schools rose from 1,100 in 1910 to 69,200.
The number of students in Korea enrolled in industrial and professional schools rose from 1,100 to 34,100 between 1910 and 1939. Compare this with Uganda, which in 1962 had only 343 students enrolled in high school (S5 and S6).

Secondly Korea and Taiwan under Japanese colonialism went through land reform that swept away the power of absentee landlords while in Uganda, the British created this feudal system. According to Robert Wade, a good communications infrastructure was laid down in Taiwan and Korea during Japanese rule designed not with the narrow purpose of extracting some primary raw materials but with the aim of increasing production of smallholder rice and sugar, that were demanded in Japan.

Wade’s study shows that in Taiwan, the Japanese expanded irrigation and drainage, disseminated improved or better seeds and spread the use of fertilizers and manures energetically, sometimes even with the aid of the police. He also shows that farmers were grouped into farmers’ cooperatives, irrigation associations and landlord-tenant associations, which accelerated the spread of technical knowledge.

Wade also shows that in case of industrial development, Japanese colonialism differed from others by bringing industry to labour and raw materials rather than the other way round. During the 1930s, prompted by raising wages in Japan and by the government’s plan for war, the Japanese in Taiwan developed such industries as fruit processing, textiles, pulp and paper, cement, chemical fertilisers, aluminium and copper smelting, petroleum refining, and ship building.”

Thus, manufacturing grew in real terms at 6% per year during the long period from 1912 to 1940 and by more than 7% per annum in the 1930s. Both Taiwan and Korea had a higher rate of GDP growth than Japan between 1911 and 1938 (Japan 3.4%, Korea 3.6 and Taiwan 3.8%).  Between 1911 and 1940 the share of manufacturing to GDP in Korea rose from 6% (where Uganda and most of Africa is today) to 28% while the share of agriculture fell from 76% to 41%.

On infrastructure, the Japanese invested heavily. It is true that even before 1905 (the year Japan took over management of Korea before annexing it officially in 1910), Korea had a fairly well developed telegraph network. However, the Japanese increased telephone lines from 500km to 13,000km between 1905 and 1943; telegraph lines from 5,500km to 8,800km and railway from 39km to 3,400km and private rail tracts and spur lines grew from zero to 1726km. Utilisation of rail was so high that by 1940 it carried 100 million passengers per year – and 28 million tonnes of freight. Investment in electricity generation in Korea grew to 2,800MW of electricity in 1940; electricity consumption per capita was higher than Italy.

As a result of these Japanese investments in communication, transportation and energy infrastructure, industrial growth in Korea took apace. There was even a noticeable shift from light industry (food processing, textiles, book binding, printing, ceramics etc.) to the heavy and chemical industry (metals, machinery and equipment) during this period between 1910 and 1940. Consequently, the country became more industrialised; with growing steel and iron production, machine and tool manufacturing. In shipping, tonnage bottoms multiplied 14 fold between 1910 and 1937; and tonnage of ships entering Korean ports grew to 15 million.

Thus, the interaction of investment in education; especially technical education, with highly developed transport, energy and communication infrastructure, led to rapid change. Indeed, this is the reason why in South Korea in 1960, there were 51,000 engineers and technicians – in the manufacturing sector alone there were 4,424 engineers, 31,350 managers, 5,025 sales executives, 13,660 white collar workers, 17,330 workers classified as “clerical” and 404,735 workers in industrial plants (blue collar jobs). This only reflects investments in human capital that had been done decades earlier under Japanese colonial rule.

Comparing with sub-Saharan Africa

Compare this with any country in Sub Sahara Africa, and the differences would be humongous. Take the example of Uganda, among the most educated nations in the region.
A survey was done in 1963 on Uganda’s stock of “high level manpower.” It set out to cover all people in Uganda who had a minimum of 12 years of formal education or who were in posts that, for replacement purposes, would be filled by someone with 12 years of formal education. Note: 12 years corresponded with 6 years primary, 2 years junior secondary and 4 years senior secondary schooling. 

The survey covered all sectors of the economy except the army i.e. it included central and local government, parastatal bodies, the private sector, the self-employed and churches and missions. The total came to 20,440 people; most of who were non-Ugandan and left the country after independence. In other words, Uganda was without skilled manpower.

In 1960, Uganda’s entire public service; excluding nurses, police and all but a few hundred teachers was a little more than 5,000 strong in a country of more than six million people. Out of the top 10% of the civil service jobs categorised as “professional”, Ugandans occupied only 10% i.e. 90% were non-nationals – Europeans and Asians. Then out of the next tier 30% categorised as “technical” jobs, only 40% were Ugandans; and out of third tier 30% categorised as “sub-technical”, 65% were Ugandans. The rest of the jobs categorised as clerical were largely occupied by Ugandans; showing limited managerial skills.

On Taiwan, studies show the welfare of the Taiwanese peasant under Japanese colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century may have exceeded that of the Japanese peasants. This was largely because, as part of the agricultural development effort, the Japanese instituted agriculturally oriented two-year secondary schools in the more populous parts of the country – one in each township.

Nor were Taiwanese excluded from modern professions as was happening in European colonies in Africa. By 1940, there were five times as many Taiwanese managers as there were Japanese, three times as many agricultural technicians and medical technicians and the same number of professional workers. By 1945, Taiwan was probably the most agriculturally, commercially and industrially advanced of all the provinces of China.

For Korea, the level of participation in the management of the country and ownership of the economy under Japanese colonialism was very high. For example, at the end of World War Two, Korea had nine (9) generals in the Japanese army; the man who later became president (1961-79) and presided over its rapid transformation, Park Chung Hee, was a colonel in the Japanese army in 1945. Compare this with the British in Uganda. At independence, the highest-ranking Ugandan officer in the army was Idi Amin; an illiterate soldier, at the rank of sergeant.

Indeed, in practically every field – manufacturing, banking, insurance, trade, mining, transportation – although the Japanese dominated, there was substantial Korean participation and ownership. For instance the number of Korean owned transport companies increased from two in 1913 to 18 on 1923 to 258 in 1938. In 1906, Koreans owned six commercial banks. This increased to nine in 1921, and 12 in 1923 – double that of the Japanese. And there were four banks jointly owned by the Koreans and Japanese.

In industry, Japanese invested in joint venture companies most of which were owned and operated with Koreans. Koreans established their own industrial firms. There were only eight Korean industrial companies in 1913, which grew to 202 in 1923, 445 in 1931 and 740 in 1938. Korean owned and operated manufacturing businesses increased from a negligible number in 1905 to 2,652 in 1938, exceeding that of the Japanese, which was 2,144 – even those output from Japanese firms was many times higher.

Many Africans with knowledge of colonial experience would be surprised by how much a colonial power allowed “natives” to own and operate businesses in practically every sector, some as joint ventures with colonial masters. At independence, there is not a single Ugandan who owned a manufacturing firm, a bank, an insurance company, a trading company etc. – anything. Worse than that, there was not a single Ugandan who was even a junior manager in such business – we were only hired as clerks and officer messengers.

More critically, under Japanese colonialism, Taiwan and Korea got even more involved in international trade. By the end of the 1930s, Taiwan was the biggest trader in East Asia even though most of this was with Japan. The annual per capita trade of Taiwan was $39, Korea $26 and Japan $23, Philippines $18 and China $1. For Korea, the proportion of international trade to GNP in 1929 was 69.6%; in 1920s, the proportion of international trade to GNP in UK was 38%, France 51%, Japan 35%, USA 11%, Germany 31%, Denmark 57% and Norway 53%.

I have seen studies (one of them by Dani Rodrick – `How South Korea and Taiwan Grew Rich’), which, relying on economic regressions suggests that 90 of the growth of Taiwan and South Korea after 1960 was a result of these “initial conditions”, many of which were established by Japan. As I have already noted above, many of these achievements are partly a result of the level of the social development of Korean and Taiwanese societies at the time of colonial conquest, and, therefore, may not accurately be said to be a result of Japanese benevolence. However, it is hard to deny that the Japanese, even though brutal, brought with them a more benign colonial attitude to their subjects compared to their European counterparts.


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