Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Borders and the Liminality of the Japanese Empire

This module elucidates the construction of the borders/boundaries that demarcated and connected the “metropole”and the “colony” of the Japanese colonial empire. This module focuses in particular on the border/boundary between Okinawa/the Ryūkyū Islands and Taiwan. It pays particular attention to individuals who traveled around the Yaeyama Islands.

It is widely known that people of Okinawa/Ryūkyū suffered as an “internal colony” of Japan since Japan forcefully annexed the Ryūkyū Kingdom. Existing studies in English and Japanese have uncovered how islanders suffered political discrimination, cultural marginalization, and poverty under Japanese rule. However, they pay little attention to the fact that the Ryūkyū Islands are a border zone, adjacent to China, Taiwan, and the Philippines across the sea. This module illuminates the history of Okinawa/Ryūkyū as an East Asian border zone, and uncovers how people experienced the construction of the border/boundary, which both demarcated and connected Okinawa/Ryūkyū with Taiwan.

Taking border/boundary as fundamentally spatial concepts, Henri Lefebvre's Production of Space (1991) demonstrates the dynamic nature of border/boundary. Reconsidering the conventional understanding of space that is divided into “physical space”and “mental space,” Lefebvre argues that space is “social space.” Social space differs from both physical space, which is defined by practico-sensory activity, and mental space, which defined by abstractions about space. In re-theorizing the concept of space as a social product, Lefebvre explores the history of space, and points out the dominance of nation-states in producing space in the contemporary age. He maintains that neither a substantive “legal person” nor an ideological fiction can define a nation state. Rather, the combined forces of the market, which is a complex ensemble of commercial relations and communication networks, and military violence produce the space of a nation-state (Lefebvre, 1991, 112).

This module explores how the border between Japan (the metropole) and Taiwan (the colony) was not instantly determined by governmental treaty, but constantly negotiated by people who travelled across the border zone. I focus in particular on the border islands of Yaeyama. I use the concept of “liminality” to demonstrate the malleable and changeable nature of the Yaeyama Islands as a border/boundary. The concept of liminality was first theorized by French anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, but the concept has been creatively broadened and applied to various contexts by contemporary scholars. In fact, today, the concept of liminality is employed almost as much as “in-between,” “ambiguity,” or “marginality.” This module employs the notion of liminality by highlighting the transitionality of in-between subjects.

The following sections demonstrate how Japanese imperial nationalism made the Yaeyama Islands a liminal zone and how this liminality defined Yaeyama people's migration to colonial Taiwan. In addition, this module shows how people of Japan and Okinawa were active agents in the Japanese colonial empire, and their discourse and practices of nationalism were incorporated into Japanese colonialism.

Some of the text in this module is based on Liminality of the Japanese Empire: Border Crossings from Okinawa to Colonial Taiwan (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2019). This text cannot be reproduced, shared, altered, or exploited commercially in any way without the permission of University of Hawai'i Press.

Click here for a list of references for this module, which is also available from the module's Conclusion page.

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