By Hannah Dowe Standring
Colonial occupation does not equate to rightful ownership; claimed authority is only a truth insofar as it is recognized by indigenous inhabitants to be so. This was never the case regarding Japanese claims over Dokdo, which originated in the 1905 issue of Public Notice No. 40 by the Japanese Shogunate.
To uncover the real nature of this act, one must assess the true inspiration behind it. The Japanese incorporation of Dokdo was an aggressive move that reveals a mimetic imperialism in Japanese foreign policy that was shaped and influenced by Western attempts to dominate Japan.
Japan’s aggression in the Dokdo case can be viewed as part of a larger pattern towards imperialistic ambitions. The 1873 debate among politicians of Japan as to how best punish Korea for the refusal to accept official greetings of the emperor and failure to acknowledge the transition from shogunal to imperial rule established a preset for the aggressive expansionism which became a defining feature of Japanese foreign policy.
Events such as the ambitious declaration of war against Russia in 1904 are testament to this forceful desire to expand. These imperialist policies were particularly directed towards Korea; just two weeks after declaring war with Russia, Japanese officials issued the Japan-Korea Protocol, with Japanese forces bringing the city of Seoul under military command in a move that mirrored the missions of Commodore Matthew Perry in Japan in the 1850s.
Attempts to impose on Korea treaty provisions similar to the “unequal treaties” imposed on Japan by Western countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom offer a clear example of the way in which mimetic imperialism translated into attempts to subjugate its neighbours to Japanese domination. The 1905 annexation of Dokdo was thus not an isolated act of aggression, but one step in a greater development of Japanese nationalist and imperialist discourse.
The Japanese justification of annexation, that a citizen of Japan had “migrated” there, and thus necessitated the taking over of the island by Japanese authorities is also fatally flawed; the fisherman in question set up only a temporary shelter and was resident for only very limited periods of time each year.
Furthermore, while it may be true that after the fifteenth century the Korean government perused a policy banning the settlement of Korean citizens on the island, this does not equate to their giving up sovereignty of Dokdo. Instead, it should be viewed as their reinforcement of their control over it, in that Korea was now controlling the nature of human inhabitation on the island.
The argument that this policy left the door open for, and even invited, Japan’s 1905 incorporation of Dokdo is invalid in the sense that the Korean leaders sought to establish principles of non-settlement on the island, not just for Korean citizens but for humans as a whole.
The continuation of Japanese sailors’ visits to the island gave Japan no more rights to Dokdo than does the breaking in of a burglar into a house. Japan’s actions in 1905 went explicitly against established Korean principles and authority on the island and can thus be seen only as an act with aggressive undertones.
The argument that the Japanese incorporation of Dokdo was in keeping with the principle of terra nullius is furthermore an invalid one. Firstly, Japanese records have shown that an awareness of the territorial status of Dokdo as Korean was present in Japan prior to the annexation ― a volume of a publication by the Shimane Prefecture Public Relations Department states a concern that “taking over such barren islands, which might be territory of Korea, may amplify foreign countries’ mistrust in us.”
This awareness of Dokdo’s status as Korean territory thus leads to the inescapable conclusion that Japanese actions did not stem from a genuine belief of their rightful ownership, but were the result of carefully developed and assessed imperialist plans. And, more explicitly, Korea had established official links with Dokdo five years prior to Japan’s claims, through the 1900 Korean Government Issue Imperial Ordinance No. 41 which appointed a governor for both Ulleungdo and Dokdo.
The 1905 incorporation of the island into Japan could not therefore be legitimate in the eyes of international law under the principle of terra nullius; Japanese officials were well aware that the island was under official Korean jurisdiction.
The invalidity of the terra nullius claim in regard to Dokdo makes it impossible to view Japanese claims towards the island as anything other than ones of colonial occupation, thus in a post-colonial world, these are far from legitimate.
The incorporation of Dokdo into Japan should be viewed as part of a greater pattern of colonization in which Korea was continually subject to Japanese imperialism. The 1905 annexation was neither a legitimate act, nor an isolated one of aggression; it represented the culmination of Japanese imperial ambitions as a mimetic response to Western expeditions into Japan.
The writer is a history student at Edinburgh University in Scotland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.