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Silent Steamship: Japan and Global History

The transpacific migration of hundreds of thousands of Japanese from the late-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century is, perversely, one of the most overlooked topics of modern Japanese historiography. Historians have struggled to place the stories of Japanese emigrants to Hawai‘i or the Americas within the traditional framework of nation-state history. According to this way of thinking, transpacific migrants were neither clearly part of “Japanese” modernization nor part of overseas colonization: they were metaphorically “between empires”, to paraphrase Eiichiro Azuma. To better understand the significance of overseas migration to Japanese modern history more generally, the first task, which I sketch in this presentation, is to problematize what it meant for a migrant to be in an “in-between” state: between rural Japan and a Hawaiian sugar plantation, between modes of time, between territories, and—crucially for a historian—between national archives. This will be a start to overcoming the silence of Japanese migrant histories.


Martin Dusinberre (DPhil, Oxford, 2008) is professor and chair of global history at the University of Zurich. His first monograph was Hard Times in the Hometown: A History of Community Survival in Modern Japan (Hawaii, 2012). His research interests include Japanese imperialism, East Asian migration across the Pacific, Japanese migrant steamships and the nuclear village in modern Japan.

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