Competing imperalisms in Northeast Asia, 1894-1953: Interconnections and Resistance

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Hist, Anthrop, Philos & Politics



In recent years, the 'turbulent triangle' between China, Japan, Korea and Russia has been a focus of global attention. This zone of Northeast Asia is a vital geostrategic and economic location, and the legacy of conflict during the period of this project remains keenly felt and continues to influence international relations in Northeast Asia.

The period to be studied by researchers working on this project was one of intense imperial competition in Northeast Asia, involving Britain and the US as well as the Northeast Asian powers, and it had enduring implications. The project runs from the start of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894, through the Russo-Japanese War, the First World War, the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Second World War in the Pacific, the Chinese Civil War, and the Korean War up until the Korean Armistice in 1953.

Japan was the dominant imperial power in the region during this period until 1945. Japan began seizing the Chinese Eastern Railway, a Russian-owned line, during the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Ultimately Japan drove Russia out of Manchuria, and it occupied Korea from 1910. The Russian Revolution in 1917 ended Tsarist imperialism, but the increasing assertiveness of the USSR led to the Soviet reconquest of Sakhalin in 1945, along with the seizure of the Kuril Islands: both remain disputed by Japan seventy years later. Another legacy of the Cold War in Asia, the Korean War, has never formally ended. US troops are also still in Japan more than six decades after the end of the postwar occupation.


This project on the history of Northeast Asia will establish an international and interdisciplinary research network. This will bring together researchers based in Japan and the UK to work collaboratively. We will use innovative methods, including from disciplines outside history such as historical geography and history of art, to identify the transnational, global and local influences which shaped the region in this period. Links between Britain and Japan in this region during the period of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902-1923), will also be a particular focus.

By working collaboratively, researchers on the project will be able to learn from comparisons and connections to adjacent areas of research, and so will build up a more complete picture of the conflicts, connections and resistance which shaped the subjugated territories of Korea and Manchuria, and the adjacent region. The project will consider the impact on communities, daily life, trade, infrastructure and the borders, enabling us to understand the influence of imperial competition, connections and resistance in the region, and so to understand the enduring impact of the conflicts and tensions of this period.

During the 16-month project, researchers will produce scholarly publications including an edited volume and a journal article. We will also publish a paper on the legacies of this region's history of imperialism and subjugation, aimed at policymakers. In addition, researchers will curate public exhibitions on this theme in the UK and Japan, and will establish a website aimed at general readers and students.


The history of this region is of enormous interest to scholars, but the benefits of this research are much broader. A better understanding of the past is essential to make sense of the complex pressures at work in the region today; this is a vital consideration in a region widely perceived as critical to global stability. Through this research project, researchers will gain and share new insights.

Planned Impact

In addition to the academic beneficiaries (see above), the research connections and outputs associated with this project will have significant public value in the UK, Japan and elsewhere.

Historical research into Northeast Asia's 'turbulent triangle' (Cook 2014) is of interest and significance worldwide. The region has 'unparalleled geopolitical and geoeconomic significance', and its traumatic legacy of conflict requires 'historically and culturally informed narratives' (Kim 2004, xiii) to make sense of the region's complex history and the long shadow it casts in contemporary affairs. The project will explore in particular the historical legacies of imperialism, identity, migration, communications, networks and representations. It will have particular relevance to those interested in international relations, borderland economies, minorities, migration, and political legitimacy.

This work will be of interest to public and foreign policy stakeholders in the UK, Japan and elsewhere; government and non-governmental organisations in the region, particularly Japan, Russia, China, and South Korea; the media; and others interested in transnational connections in the region. The project will also benefit the growing numbers of specialists in Japan, the UK and elsewhere working on contemporary Northeast Asia between academia and public policy. We will work with existing contacts and partners to disseminate the research, and will also actively seek out new research links (see Pathways to Impact for details).

The Joint Lead Institution for this project is the Centre for Public History (CPH) at Queen's University Belfast, an emerging international hub for excellence in public engagement, with world-leading expertise in contested histories and post-conflict reconciliation. The CPH will host the second conference and will support the approaches to widening impact outlined in this proposal. Both UK-based and Japan-based researchers on the project have particular interests in public history, especially media and current affairs, public policy, and exhibitions. All these three areas are particularly emphasised in the project detail below. The project will also provide online resources through which educators, students and the general public can learn more about the historical connections in this pivotal region of global interconnection.

Non-academic users are already involved in the project design, and this will be carried through the execution and dissemination stages, when journalists, policy researchers, museum professionals and others will be included in project and network activities, and consulted about proposed project outputs. The project will work with existing contacts and partners in the UK, Japan and elsewhere, and will actively seek out new research links.

In summary, this project will provide: 1) a historical framework through which to consider the legacy of imperialisms, interconnections and conflict which shaped modern Northeast Asia; and 2) materials to inform broad publics in the region and beyond about the history and legacy of imperialism in Northeast Asia.


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