During the Ryūkyū Kingdom period, Yaeyama was treated as a peripheral region by the government, and vast amounts of land were left undeveloped. Despite the Japanese government's eagerness to clarify the national border by fully integrating Yaeyama into Japan, it was reluctant to antagonize Qing China with a radical change in national policy. In the meantime, pioneer civilians such as Nakagawa Toranosuke proactively exploited the Yaeyama Islands and integrated them into the emerging Japanese national economy. In short, Yaeyama's political status was left in limbo between Japan and China when the former transitioned from the Sino-centric order to the modern nation-state system. However, once Taiwan was ceded to Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War, Yaeyama became the borderland between Japan's inner and outer territories.
Meanwhile, a significant number of new immigrants from the main island of Okinawa and Mainland Japan settled in Yaeyama. They dominated modern industries and commercial businesses in the region. The lives of Yaeyama Islanders were further integrated in the Japanese Empire's commercial, social, and cultural networks when the Osaka Mercantile Shipping Company (Ōsaka shôsen kabushiki kaisha) established passage between Mainland Japan and colonial Taiwan.
While new immigrants from the main island of Okinawa and Mainland Japan achieved economic dominance in the region by means of the colonial seaway, a significant number of Yaeyama farmers also migrated to colonial Taiwan by sea. It could be said that Yaeyama's socioeconomic transformation as well as its liminal state between the Japanese nation and the empire affected migration from Yaeyama to colonial Taiwan.
As Edward Said points out, discourses of modern imperialism divide “us” from “them” (Said 1978). Contemporary historians of the empires of Western Europe have examined the borders of these empires by distinguishing them from the national borders of the metropoles.
In East Asia, however, the borders between the metropolitan nation and the colony were intertwined with the everyday lives of people who lived in the frontier zone. While social practices were constrained by the border, people also produced and reproduced the border with their own social practices. The borderland paradoxically created distinctions between the nation and the colony while simultaneously generating interactions between them. This module has explored the paradox by uncovering the distinctions and interactions created by Japanese pioneers and the islanders living on the borderland.
In other words, the Ryūkyū Islands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries should be identified neither as a periphery nor an internal colony but as a liminal zone of the Japanese empire. The concept of liminality illustrates the dynamic process in which the boundaries of the Japanese Empire were drawn and redrawn through negotiations between multiple agencies.