HIEA 3172 Jpn Empire Syllabus

Course Description: This course is an exploration of Japan’s imperial project from roughly 1890-1945 culminating in a close reading of three important, recent works on the empire. We will start by developing a critical theoretical vocabulary with which we will then focus on three recent and important books on Japanese imperialism in East Asia. At the end of the semester we will also look briefly at anti-imperial and decolonization movements as well as the status of the category of “empire” for analyzing the postwar period.

Course Goals: By the end of the course you will not only be familiar with the deep ideological struggles at the heart of Japanese imperialism and colonialism. You will also have a grounding of the Marxian, and to a lesser extent, Foucauldian, literature on empire and be able to situate current debates on capitalism, socialism, fascism, and empire in a more historically and theoretically sophisticated way.

Required Texts:

  1. Mark Driscoll, Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque
  2. Hyun Ok Park, Two Dreams in One Bed
  3. Yokomitsu Riichi, Shanghai
  4. Mason and Lee, Reading Colonial Japan
  5. Harootunian, The Empire’s New Clothes

Recommended Texts:

  1. Karl Marx, Capital vol. 1. Class discussion will refer to page numbers in this translation but there is a slightly different translation available for free here.

Requirements and Grading: There will be a short (1250 words) review paper at the end of the theoretical section of the class, a longer (1500-2000 words) paper on Yokomistu Riichi’s Shanghai, a group, annotated bibliography project, and EITHER a final paper (topic developed and approved in consultation) of about 2500-3500 words OR a final take-home exam based on a essay prompt.

Further, I will not take attendance, but occasionally at the start of class, you will be asked to write a short paragraph or take a quiz on the day’s or week’s readings. These will be graded as either 0-did not respond to the issues, 1-shows knowledge of the text’s issues, or 2-shows knowledge of the text’s issues and relates them to our course’s themes. You get two free misses for any reason whatsoever. But this also means that any misses over two will count regardless of excuses. Keep in mind, any “0” you might get is one you’d probably like to drop as one of your free misses. In other words, don’t do what some have in the past: skip two and then get sick for a third, because that third sick “0” will count. Keeping up with the reading and attendance, even participation, is an important part of this course, because paper and exam topics will build on what happens in class.


  1. In-class writing exercises                                   15%
  2. Review paper                                                        15%
  3. Shanghai paper                                                    15%
  4. Bibliography project                                            15%
  5. Final paper OR Take-Home                              40%

 Tips for Success: When reading primary sources, keep in mind all these authors are writing because they feel some sense of crisis so your first step should be to identify this crisis; second, identify the concepts and categories the argument uses to describe the world. The identify the relation of these terms to each other—often this will be a hierarchy. (In the interpretation of historical sources, it is rare that an opinion depends solely on factual details). Reading for categories is difficult because the author may not always explicitly announce them—or may even consciously hide them.

 Analyze the source on its own terms. This means avoiding anachronism, projecting our present into the past, and teleology, which means seeing the present as the inevitableresult of the past—this slights real historical struggles and reduces past actors to merely “keeping appointments.” Every human society, past and present, has its own values and ways of thinking—often different from our own.

Our case is further complicated by studying non-Western nations, where it is often inappropriate to project our “common sense” onto the motivations of the historical actors. When Oshio Heihachirô rebelled in 1837, his banners did not read “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” but rather, “Sincerity—Truthfulness.” You must learn to read analytically to identify these terms and then determine what those terms meant to him, not you. (This is called a historically specific definition. It is also the reason dictionary definitions will be useless.)

Evaluate the work. Give your thoughts on the pros and cons of the text’s arguments. Does it have any factual errors? False assumptions? Does the conclusion follow from the premises? What issues does it address and what issues does its language ignore?

Exercise critical judgment about what you read and hear. “Critical judgment” does not mean being negative. Rather, it means that you should always force yourself to reflect on the weight and role of history in the present. Without this moment of the present, we’re just telling stories.

Interpret the source as evidence in an argument about what happened in the past. History is imagination disciplined by evidence and cogent explication. Historians want to know not only what happened, but how and, if possible, why.

It is not enough to merely identify bias. You must show how and why the argument itself—the categories or logic—is racist or progressive or fascist or Marxist, etc.

Create “historical knowledge.” Themes and concepts like “modernity,” “nationalism,” and “colonialism” or, as we shall see, even “famine” are developed through historical investigation in a way that they would not be in fields like economics or law.

To reach these goals, you will have to engage in active learning. You will not only be asked to read and understand, but to apply those skills to analyzing, interpreting, and, finally, evaluating both primary and secondary sources. You will have to demonstrate these skills by critiquing primary and secondary sources and expressing your interpretation clearly in writing.

Important: This method requires that you make a temporarily sympathetic reading of the text. Since we are going to be reading texts that are sometimes in favor of war, colonialism, racism, or sexism this temporary moment can be offensive to many readers. In these cases it is important to keep in mind the difference between being descriptive and being prescriptive. We need this temporary sympathy if we wish to offer a more complete and convincing critique of not only the author’s conclusion, but also the categories, structure, and assumptions. If in class discussions or lectures you are ever unclear if we are being descriptive or prescriptive please stop and ask.

We will always use Chicago/Turabian style citations in this class. Guidelines available online. See here to start.