Migratory Labor and the Japanese Empire, 1905-1941


A review of Colonial Settlement and Migratory Labour in Karafuto 1905-1941, by Steven Edward Ivings.

Now a part of Russia, from 1905 to 1945 the southern half of Sakhalin Island was called Karafuto and was a colony of the Japanese empire. Memorably described to the author of this review as “a bit like an Othello game,” possession flipped back and forth between Russia and Japan and during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Each time the ruler changed, most of the residents left and newcomers arrived to take their place. As a destination for migrants, this has been an important site. By 1945, approximately 400,000 Japanese had moved to Karafuto, mainly to work in fishing, farming, forestry, and mining. As well as Japanese, there were several thousand Koreans living and working in the colony and smaller numbers of other nationalities. There were also Nivkh, Ainu, and Oroki people who had inhabited the island long before either Russia or Japan “discovered” it.

Setting out the aims for his dissertation, two struck me as particularly important for the growing research on the Japanese empire. The first is Steven Ivings’ determination to research in depth what so many have only touched on in passing, by uncovering the history of the colony of Karafuto. In the author’s apt phrasing: he brings Karafuto out of “the footnotes of most discussions of the Japanese colonial empire” (p.81). The second is his focus on using sources that take us as close as possible to the men and women who were migrants and settlers. Despite the fact that most surviving written sources come from the elite of colonial society, Ivings manages to turn up a wealth of documents that provide numerous fascinating insights into the daily lives of the farmers and fishers who populated the colony. His thorough grasp of the literature, extensive search of the archives and engaging style of writing mean that his dissertation deserves to be widely read. His fundamental argument is that it was flows of migratory labor that were essential for settling Karafuto and also for connecting the colony into the overall structure of the pre-war Japanese Empire.

The first chapter provides a historical overview of the territory that the Japanese came to call Karafuto, and which is now the southern half of Sakhalin and part of Russia. After summarizing the contest between Japan and Russia to gain control, Ivings describes how the former established Karafuto as a colony after victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. The colony was to last until 1945 when, in the closing days of the Second World War, the Soviet Union invaded and took control. Ivings makes the important point that Karafuto had the second highest number of Japanese settlers out of all the colonies in Japan’s empire (p. 36). It was also unusual because it was the only colony in which Japanese settlers formed the majority of the local population (p.37).

In Chapter 2, Ivings uses this last point to argue that the case of Karafuto can provide important insights into settler colonialism and migratory labor in the Japanese Empire. He summarizes the previous literature in English on Karafuto (by John Stephan, Tessa Morris-Suzuki, David Howell, and Shiode Hiroyuki) as it relates to these two themes, and finds that little research has been done. More has been completed in Japanese, as Ivings explains when he engages with the research of Miki Masafumi and Takeno Manabu. He argues that the applicability of Miki’s valuable findings on Karafuto settlement and migratory labor was limited by his narrow range of sources and also that he did not question the degree to which Karafuto as a “settler colony” could actually be considered “settled” (pp. 78-80). As for Takeno’s detailed work on agricultural settlers, Ivings credits him with showing how the settlers often did not see “eye-to-eye” with the colonial government, but suggests that the argument could be pushed further by discussing “the overall validity of the plans to make Karafuto into an agricultural colony” (p. 77).

The first two chapters provide the necessary historical and theoretical context for the four chapters of original research which follow. Chapter 3 is an in-depth look at which people were moving to Karafuto, where they came from in Japan and how they got to their destination. Ivings frames this chapter with a critique of the prevailing view that Japanese in the north-eastern regions of Japan were relatively passive in comparison to their brethren in the southwest. According to this argument, the latter moved to the colonies and further afield for economic opportunities while the former remained in Tohoku and Hokuriku eking out a precarious existence. He argues that such an analysis ignores migration from the northeast to Hokkaido and Karafuto. To examine this migration he uses “destination-based sources” (p. 120)—two local histories written in 1923 and 1930 from two small settlements in Karafuto. These show that migration to Karafuto should be understood as an extension of the colonization of Hokkaido. They also show that an individual would often migrate first to Hokkaido, and then head further north to Karafuto.

Although Karafuto is often described as a “settlement colony,” Ivings uses Chapter 4 to argue that this is misleading. The policy of the colonial government was to promote agricultural settlement because officials and academics thought this to be the most effective way to create long-lasting communities. He argues that the colonial government’s vision was largely ineffective because agriculture never became the main mechanism for attracting migrants to Karafuto. Agriculture’s contribution to Karafuto’s total economic output did not rise above ten percent (p. 202). More importantly, when considering how “settled” farming communities were, Ivings shows that most farmers only managed to make an adequate living by taking on side work such as fishing and forestry. The occupational category of “agriculture” failed to reflect the reality of the daily livelihood of most farmers.

For a better understanding of the mechanism by which 400,000 people came to be living in Karafuto, Ivings emphasizes the importance of the fishing industry and the flows of migratory labor which it generated. The conventional wisdom at the time was that fishing attracted “get-rich-quick-types” who would up and leave in difficult times. This kind of stereotype sustained officials in their myopic view of the benefits of agriculture. Another assumption, this time prevalent in more recent research, is that fishing was important to Karafuto’s economy in the 1910s and 1920s but its role tailed off by the 1930s. Ivings corrects both of these views by arguing that fishing and its related industries had both direct and indirect economic effects on the colonial economy that remained important up to the end of the 1930s. As well as providing a valuable source of tax revenue, fishing was crucial to Karafuto because of the large numbers of migratory laborers it brought to the colony each year during the fishing season. He argues that migratory laborers gained familiarity with life in Karafuto and it was this that helped some of them to remain on a more long-term basis.

In the sixth chapter, Ivings examines the labor markets for forestry and construction. Both relied on migratory labor. In pre-war society, Karafuto acquired a reputation as a site where workers were likely to be exploited and subjected to coercive working practices. He has painstakingly sifted through twenty-six years’ worth of newspapers to pick out articles in Karafuto’s main newspaper detailing incidents of abuse towards migratory laborers. He argues that exploitation and coercion were far more likely to occur when workers were recruited in relatively far-away places such as Kansai and Kanto. In contrast, when workers came from the Hokkaido, Tohoku, and Hokuriku regions (as the majority did), they were much less likely to experience a “working hell.” The reason was that both workers and their recruiters were more concerned about their reputations when they were part of well-established recruiting networks. What existed in Karafuto was, he concludes, a “dual track recruitment system” (p. 319) and the existence of abusive workplaces is likely to have been overstated.

Ivings’ dissertation is a highly original piece of research. In the English language literature, apart from John Stephan’s book which was published in 1971, there is no monograph on Karafuto (John Stephan, Sakhalin: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971). An edited volume on the subject was published in 2015, but the brief coverage given to the pre-war settlement of Karafuto means that Ivings’ work is far more comprehensive (Svetlana Paichadze and Philip A. Seaton, Voices from the Shifting Russo-Japanese Border: Karafuto/Sakhalin. London: Routledge, 2015). The main reason for this dissertation’s importance is that it tackles the notoriously hard-to-research topic of migratory labor. Chapters 5 and 6 are, therefore, particularly significant. As far as I am aware, even in the Japanese language literature, there has been little attempt to examine the subject as it relates to Karafuto. Miki Masafumi, perhaps the leading researcher in Japan on colonial Karafuto, has published a chapter but this provides us with only a hint of the role of migratory labor in Karafuto’s history (Miki Masafumi, Ijūgata shokuminchi Karafuto no keisei. Tokyo: Hanawa shobō, 2012). Ivings’ greatest contribution is to help us move beyond this fragmentary understanding—whilst at the same time remaining fully aware of the limitations of the currently available sources—to suggest that migratory labor was not only crucial for Karafuto but also for the history of the Japanese Empire as a whole. It seems fair to conclude that, after reading Colonial Settlement and Migratory Labour in Karafuto 1905-1941, one can no longer regard this colony as little more than a historical footnote.

Jonathan Bull
Graduate School of Law
Hokkaido University

Primary Sources

Karafuto Nichi Nichi Shimbun 樺太日日新聞
Nozoe Kenji and Tamura Kenichi, Karafuto no dekasegi: gyogyō-hen. Akita: Akita shobō, 1978. 野添賢治・田村憲一、樺太の出稼ぎ-漁業編、秋田:秋田書房
Hokkaido University Northern Studies Collection 北海道大学 北方関係資料総合目録
All Japan Federation of Karafuto – Tokyo and Sapporo offices (private holdings) 全国樺太連盟

Dissertation Information

The London School of Economics and Political Science. 2014. 380 pp. Primary Advisor: Janet Hunter.

Image: Fishing village, 1930s.

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