men around a cake

Japan as colonial power – marginalised or modern?

In his dissertation, John Hennessey demonstrates that the notion of Japan as a late and marginalised colonial power is not quite true. Japanese colonialism began around 1868 and Japanese methods influenced, among others, American colonialism. John, who originally comes from the US, became increasingly fascinated by the links between Japanese and American colonialism that he found in the source material – and he already knows what he wants to research in his next project.

The general understanding of Japanese colonialism is that it began in 1895 when Taiwan was annexed after the First Sino-Japanese War. During the last ten years, some research has argued that the island of Hokkaido can be seen as a Japanese colony, an interpretation that John Hennessey now supports in his dissertation "Rule by Association: Japan in the Global Trans-Imperial Culture, 1868-1912".

"I have, among other things, studied source material from three American professors who founded an agricultural college in Hokkaido in 1870. They brought American colonial ideas and methods to Japan. However, when they returned to the US they were also supporters of Japanese colonialism. This shows that Japan already was a colonial power", says Hennessey.

American opium delegation on study trip
When the US was to annex the Phillipines in 1898, they saw Japan as a role model following the country's conquest of Taiwan three years earlier. The Americans were interested in how they were to regulate opium use and sent a delegation to Taiwan to study the Japanese system.

"When Japan annexed Taiwan in 1895 it had come at a great cost, but after a relatively short period of time the Japanese managed to get Taiwan to contribute to the empire's economy and seized control of almost the entire island. Many countries admired Japan and saw the country as a role model", explains Hennessey.

A modern colonial power
Historians usually talk about two different colonisation strategies: "assimilation" (teach the local population the culture of the colonial power) and "association" (the colonised country is allowed to maintain their culture, as long as the colonial power gets to exploit its resources). Hennessey has arrived at the conclusion that Japanese leaders adopted association from early on.
"Japan's radical assimilation policy was introduced first in the 1930s. Before World War I, Japan was not very different from other colonial powers. Their assimilation policy was not as widespread during the 19th century as historians have previously thought, but instead they used association to rule their colonised areas", Hennessey continues.

The US invasion of Iraq sparked the interest
John Hennessey grew up in Michigan in the US and became politically aware when the US invaded Iraq during the Bush administration in March 2003. John found it strange that a democratic country would start a war without strong support from the population.

"When I read about colonialism I realised that we do not learn very much about it in school. This made me interested in the history of colonialism and whether colonialism took place with or without public support. I moved to Växjö and Linnaeus University in 2012 to start my doctoral studies at the Linnaeus Universtiy Centre for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies", says Hennessey.

Right now, Hennessey is applying for funding for future projects, for which he has a particular interest in the indigenous population of Hokkaido that was affected by Japanese colonisation. He has discovered a paradoxical understanding of this group by Western scientists, who widely believed that they were Aryan but also that they were "primitive".

"They were removed from their land by Japanese colonisation and there was a contradictory view of them, so I would like to study the discourse surrounding them within scientific racism at the time", Hennessey concludes.


John Hennessey,

Simon Kristoffersson, Communications officer,, +46470708403