I use the term Sinosphere to designate a system of flows of people and things on which China exercised a gravitational pull, but which were not necessarily controlled by a political entity or sovereign state called China. This approach imbues this spatial conception with a greater longevity than that ascribed to it in many studies of modern Japanese history. Historians of the Sinocentric East Asian regional order have shown how it was constituted through an evolving series of center-periphery relations, in which relationships among the various peripheries also affected the overall dynamics of the system. Tribute trade and diplomacy between the “civilized” center and “barbarian” peripheries served as principal integuments, but as Hamashita Takeshi has shown, changes in economic conditions and state policies during the Qing era (1644-1911) led to the expansion of private trade through overseas Chinese networks that eventually displaced tribute trade as the main form of circulation. As this process unfolded, the introduction of Western imperial power and systems of international law in the nineteenth century permitted states on the Qing periphery, particularly Japan and Vietnam, to challenge Qing suzerainty. Reflecting on the long-span of Sino-Japanese relations, Joshua Fogel suggests that the Sinosphere lost much of its power “as an operative worldview” in the mid-nineteenth century and “became a distant memory at best” after the Japanese victory in the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War radically altered the nature of bilateral relations between China and Japan.
While the rise of Japanese imperialism in the late-nineteenth century certainly broke down any notion of Japan being in China’s political or diplomatic (or, at the popular level, cultural) orbit, the networks of the late-imperial Sinocentric economy had actually extended into Japan after the “opening” of that country in the 1850s. Indeed, the "opening" of Japan was as much a re-opening to the Sinosphere as it was an accommodation to Euro-American imperialism. Overseas Chinese trading networks played crucial roles in the elaboration of European colonial infrastructures in Southeast Asia; similarly, the opening of treaty ports in China following the first and second Opium Wars permitted the extension of these networks, which by the 1860s came to include Chinese traders now based in Japan’s new treaty ports. Economic historians have shown, for example, how Kobe’s economy became linked to a network centered in Shanghai, and have pointed out that Meiji Japan’s trade and industrialization efforts flowed in no small part in directions shaped by Chinese control over much of the circulation of goods in the region. Moreover, until 1894, Japan occupied a relatively weak position vis-à-vis the Qing Empire in the emerging international order.
Meanwhile, some fifteen centuries of encounters with and discourses about China continued to shape Japanese imaginings of the region, including the imperialist drive to replace China as the center of a reconfigured regional system. Stefan Tanaka, Harry Harootunian, and others have elucidated the processes through which intellectuals from the late-Tokugawa to the early twentieth century worked to depose China from its place as Chūgoku, the center of civilization, and re-frame it as Shina, an example of historical decline and ruin that Japan should avoid and against which it could posit its own superior, civilized qualities, thereby justifying Japanese projects for appropriating Chinese space and resources and asserting Japanese primacy in the modern regional order. This discourse traveled easily into the realm of journalism and popular history writing, and by the second decade of the twentieth century had become standard fare in government-edited school textbooks. Kawamura Minato has also identified a “popular Orientalism” that in the early twentieth century enabled Japanese readers to see other Asians as uncivilized “natives” (domin/dojin) or “savages” (banjin) against whom they could differentiate their “civilized” selves. Yet as cases such as that in this module demonstrate, this project of decentering China, not only geopolitically but also in terms of cultural and ethno-racial hierarchies, was always at best incomplete.
For the people who lived it, the Japanese nation-empire was one of several overlapping spatial formations that emerged from modern Japan’s relations with a region in which the historically central Chinese presence continued to loom large. The gravitational fields of the Sinosphere were constituted differently and exercised different strengths and impacts at different scales, attention to each of which helps us to expand our understanding of the history of this era.