Crossing Empire's Edge: Foreign Ministry Police and Japanese Expansionism in Northeast Asia
248pp. October 2008
Crossing Empire's Edge: Foreign Ministry Police and Japanese Expansionism in Northeast Asia
Author: Esselstrom, Erik;
For more than half a century, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Gaimusho) possessed an independent police force that operated within the space of Japan’s informal empire on the Asian continent. Charged with "protecting and controlling" local Japanese communities first in Korea and later in China, these consular police played a critical role in facilitating Japanese imperial expansion during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Remarkably, however, this police force remains largely unknown. Crossing Empire’s Edge is the first book in English to reveal its complex history.

Based on extensive analysis of both archival and recently published Japanese sources, Erik Esselstrom describes how the Gaimusho police became deeply involved in the surveillance and suppression of the Korean independence movement in exile throughout Chinese treaty ports and the Manchurian frontier during the 1920s and 1930s. It had in fact evolved over the years from a relatively benign public security organization into a full-fledged political intelligence apparatus devoted to apprehending purveyors of "dangerous thought" throughout the empire. Furthermore, the history of consular police operations indicates that ideological crime was a borderless security problem; Gaimusho police worked closely with colonial and metropolitan Japanese police forces to target Chinese, Korean, and Japanese suspects alike from Shanghai to Seoul to Tokyo. Esselstrom thus offers a nuanced interpretation of Japanese expansionism by highlighting the transnational links between consular, colonial, and metropolitan policing of subversive political movements during the prewar and wartime eras. In addition, by illuminating the fervor with which consular police often pressed for unilateral solutions to Japan’s political security crises on the continent, he challenges orthodox understandings of the relationship between civil and military institutions within the imperial Japanese state.

While historians often still depict the Gaimusho as an inhibitor of unilateral military expansionism during the first half of the twentieth century, Esselstrom’s exposé on the activities and ideology of the consular police dramatically challenges this narrative. Revealing a far greater complexity of motivation behind the Japanese colonial mission, Crossing Empire’s Edge boldly illustrates how the imperial Japanese state viewed political security at home as inextricably connected to political security abroad from as early as 1919—nearly a decade before overt military aggression began—and approaches northeast Asia as a region of intricate and dynamic social, economic, and political forces. In doing so, Crossing Empire’s Edge inspires new ways of thinking about both modern Japanese history and the modern history of Japan in East Asia.

9 illus.

The World of East Asia Series
“Esselstrom’s careful and well-written study of the history of the Foreign Ministry Police casts fresh light on Japan’s imperial history. . . . [It] is a very welcome and illuminating addition to the growing trans-border literature on the modern history of Northeast Asia.” —Japanese Studies (31:3, December 2011)

"Packing significant interpretive punch, Erik Esselstrom’s tightly focused book zeroes in on the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s consular police during the period of Japanese imperialism. . . . It is an important and overdue addition to our understanding of the Foreign Ministry and builds on earlier scholarship that highlighted the diversity of opinion within the multilevel and multifaceted institution." —Journal of Asian Studies (January 2010)

"This excellent study goes far beyond the boundaries of institutional history and makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the complex vistas of the history of Japanese imperialism in the twentieth century and the role of the Foreign Ministry in that venture." —Monumenta Nipponica (64:2, 2009)

"Students of modern Japan, Northeast Asia, and comparative imperialism will welcome this in-depth exploration of the police forces administered by Japan’s Foreign Ministry in Korea and China from 1880 to 1945. The author treats the Foreign Ministry not simply as an institution of diplomacy but, as importantly, as part of the Japanese imperial state’s apparatus of agencies for disciplining and ‘protecting’ national subjects (which included colonized Koreans and Taiwanese) and suppressing ‘anti-Japanese’ ideas and actors abroad and at home. He shows the Foreign Ministry police to have been active participants in often violent expansionist endeavors throughout their history, and not just after 1931, when the army's occupation of Manchuria ushered in a new phase of Sino-Japanese conflict. Throughout, Esselstrom demonstrates how colonialist projects, as well as networks of collaboration and resistance, could traverse territorial boundaries, destabilize notions of sovereignty, and complicate our understanding of formal and informal empire in a region where historically fraught debates on these subjects have lost none of their potency." —David R. Ambaras, North Carolina State University

"This absorbing, richly archival study highlights the enormous complexity of late nineteenth, early twentieth-century empire building and demolishes persistent tropes regarding Japanese expansion. It features not the Imperial Army but the Foreign Ministry as principal agent of empire and locates antecedents to formal control in China in consular police activity long before 1931. In the mounting scholarly campaign to integrate events in the empire with developments in metropolitan Japan, Esselstrom sets a dramatic new standard." —Frederick R. Dickinson, University of Pennsylvania

Author: Esselstrom, Erik;
Erik Esselstrom is assistant professor of East Asian history at the University of Vermont.
Read the introduction (PDF).

1 Patterns of Police Work in Late Choson Korea
2 A Disputed Presence in Late Qing and Early Republican China
3 Policing Resistance to the Imperial State
4 O pposition, Escalation, and Integration
5 The Struggle for Security in Occupied China