Though it lasted for only 50 years, the Japanese empire forever changed the geopolitical balance in Asia and left a complex legacy that endures to this day. Historian Justin M. Jacobs takes you on a thematic tour of five fascinating topics in the history of the Japanese empire: politics, tourism, baseball, zoos, and video games. He provides a nuanced overview based on the latest scholarship and shares copious slides.
Jacobs, a professor of history at American University, is the author of several books, including The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures.
February 7 Himeji Castle and the Transformation of Japan
In just a few decades, Japan went from one of the most isolated states in the world to a modern industrial power eager to expand beyond its traditional borders. Jacobs explores this transformation by taking an extended look at the history of Japan’s feudal castles, with a focus on Himeji Castle and how the political system it embodied unexpectedly helped to facilitate Japan’s rise.
February 14 Tourism
After 1895, the Japanese state began to expand beyond its home islands to Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria, and Micronesia—and Japanese tourists followed close behind. Jacobs looks at how these colonies were acquired, the policies adopted to govern them, and how Japanese tourists interacted with lands and people who were at once both familiar and strange. He also explores how such interactions changed over the five decades of empire.
February 21 Baseball
In Japan, baseball is popularly associated with “sayonara home runs” and the “samurai spirit.” Jacobs analyzes the evolution of baseball in Japan and the ways in which the Japanese exported baseball to their colonies in Asia, with a focus on Taiwan. He explains how the history of Japanese baseball provides a lens on the political and cultural history of the Japanese empire.
February 28 The Tokyo Zoo
Jacobs examines the history of the Imperial Ueno Zoo in Tokyo as it expanded to accommodate the priorities of the burgeoning Japanese empire and overtly politicized the public identities of the animals in its charge. He describes the tragic fate of the zoo’s most popular animals during World War II and the zoo’s reinvention in the postwar world.
March 6 Super Mario and Postwar Japan
With its defeat in World War II, Japan became a hollow shell of its former imperial self, with a bleak outlook. Yet its incorporation into the American-led postwar order in Asia helped to facilitate an astonishing transformation into an economic juggernaut at the forefront of technological innovation. Jacobs explores how this transformation came about by highlighting the evolution of the global video games industry, along with the unexpected role of Nintendo, one of Japan’s most famous companies.