Empire and Communication: Harold Innis Meets Japan


One of Japan’s blueprints for a regional telecommunications network

by Daqing Yang

Shortly after 12:00 o’clock Tokyo Time on August 15, 1945, the prerecorded voice of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito was broadcast from a studio in downtown Tokyo. “After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in Our Empire today,” the emperor declared solemnly, “We have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.” Observing that “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interests,” the 44-year old monarch called on his “100 million subjects” to “bear the unbearable.” The war had finally come to an end, in Japan’s defeat.

Though lasting a mere four minutes thirty-seven seconds, this unprecedented radio broadcast of emperor’s own speech was one of the defining moments in Japan’s modern history. Without this broadcast, Japan’s surrender would almost certainly have been much more chaotic and bloody. Even though many Japanese people could not clearly hear the Emperor’s voice or fully understand his archaic language, nearly all listeners were overcome with profound emotions as they accepted defeat.

Understandably, much has been written about the political significance of the broadcast as well as its profound psychological impact on the Japanese people. Few, however, have considered the unprecedented geographical scale of the broadcast and the vital role of modern communications technology. The emperor’s speech was not only heard on the four main Japanese home islands but also relayed and broadcast simultaneously in nearly the entire Pacific Asia region. From tropical jungles in Southeast Asia to rural settlements in Manchuria, from the colonies of Korea and Taiwan to occupied Chinese metropolises, hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians and troops, like their compatriots on the war-ravaged home islands, heard the voice of their divine ruler at precisely the same moment.

That tens of millions of Japanese scattered over such a vast area were able to experience those intense feelings simultaneously can only be considered a communication spectacle, made possible by Japan’s vast communications network at home and throughout Asia. Japan’s regular radio programs early that morning had announced the upcoming important speech at noon. Notifications were also sent by telegraph or telephone to far-flung locations in advance to ensure that the broadcast reached its maximum audience. It is one of history’s greatest ironies that the most impressive display of Japan’s imperial nerve system ushered in its own collapse as well as that of the Japanese Empire.

A few years later, in 1948, Canadian economist Harold A. Innis delivered a series of lectures at Oxford University that came to be published as Empire and Communications. They marked the beginning of a brief period of “intensity and energy” in his scholarly life, as evidenced in a number of seminal works that established him as a major theorist and historian of communications in North America. Innis’ thesis can be summarized as follows:

(1) The medium of communication greatly affects the forms of organization in all societies; (2) communications are biased, in the sense that certain mediums of communication favors preservation over time while others favor dissemination over space; (3) Change in the principle medium of communication in a society upsets the equilibrium between those two tendencies until it finally brings about the collapse of the empire. Innis proposed these ideas in the manner of macro-history before he could develop them fully due to his death at the age of 58, almost exactly 54 years ago. Since then, except for a few fellow Canadians, most notably his colleague Marshall McLuhan, Innis has largely been forgotten in the study of economic history or empire.

For Innis, empires are mediating presences between civilizations and individual nation-states. As such, they are made up of a core area and peripheral territories linked to it. The capacity of empires to expand over large spaces and to sustain that influence over time, it seemed to him, that each empire depended on a particular combination of technologies and administrative techniques. Innis never visited Japan, nor did he discuss Japan and its modern empire. (He mentioned in passing China’s invention of paper). By evoking Harold Innis, I am calling for a communicational approach in studying Japan’s empire.

Japanese poster promoting overseas telegrams over wireless

To appreciate the importance of telecommunications to Japan’s modern empire, it is helpful first to pause and consider how extensive Japan’s imperial space was. At the zenith of Japan’s overseas expansion, Japan’s imperium—a shorthand here referring to its formal and informal empires—encompassed nearly all of Pacific Asia. In 1942, the so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere combined home islands, colonies, client states, and occupied territories of immense proportions. Just as important, the tempo of imperial Japan’s spatial expansion since the early 1930s had been spectacular by any standard. As the semi-official Japan Year Book proudly declared in that same year, “the territories that have been occupied by the Imperial forces of Nippon, plus occupied areas on the Chinese continent, are about 10 times the size of Nippon Proper.” In other words, the decade after Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria saw the landmass under Japan’s domination increasing tenfold.

The spatial implication of Japan’s expansion was not lost on many contemporary Japanese. Nakayama Ryūji, president of Japan’s Telecommunications Association during the war, made his own calculation and concluded that the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere actually encompassed some 44.4 million sq km, or 10.7 percent of the Earth’s land surface, a staggering forty times the size of Japan’s home islands. As Nakayama was quick to emphasize, this was not empty space, but with a combined population of 674.6 million, or roughly one third of the population of the entire world. As he saw it, such a vast imperial space as well as the size and ethnic complexity of its population was particularly challenging to an insular nation such as Japan.

Japanese magazine cover advertising long distance phone calls between Japan proper and Manchuria (northeastern China)

As a technology of empire, telecommunications facilitated Japan’s empire-building strategically in a number of ways. In times of military engagements, telecommunications facilities—whether in the form of a crucial submarine telegraph link or a wireless network—played a decisive role in gaining victory. Equally important, and often overlooked, telecommunications infrastructure such as a local telegraph office advanced Japan’s overseas commercial interests and strengthened its ability to gather and disseminate news and information in Asia in times of peace. In territories that came under Japanese control, communications technology was both a crucial tool of administration and suppression and also a harbinger of colonial modernity. As Japan embarked on its quest for an autarkic imperium in Asia in the 1930s, innovations in telecommunications technology promised to create an integrated imperial space through an imperial telecommunications network. Japan not only envisioned, but also embarked on constructing an ambitious regional telecommunications network spanning entire Asia Pacific. By then, communications and empire had already become so closely intertwined that the period can be appropriately considered as the golden age of Japan’s communication imperialism.

Besides documenting the roles of communications technology in Japan’s empire-building, Empire and Communication sheds light on the ideology and grand strategy, its political economy and organizational structure, as well as its human agents of imperial expansion. This is because technology involves not only artifacts but also the body of skills, knowledge, and practice that make them work.

First, as a cutting-edge technology of its time, telecommunications is a perfect subject for studying changing Japanese attitudes toward modernity. Examining technology in Japan’s overseas expansion allows us to probe Japan’s discourse of technological leadership in Asia. Moreover, as bureaucratic institutions, financial structures and modes of ownership have an enormous impact on operations of telecommunications, a study of telecommunications and overseas expansion reopens the question about the role of the state in Japan’s economic development. A study of technology of empire reveals as human the agency of Japanese engineers, technicians, and others who championed the cause of technology for empire. After all, it was their vision and action that shaped the contours of Japan’s technological development and, to a significant extent, its imperial expansion. Telecommunications also provide an interface to explore the complex relationships between the Japanese and other peoples in the empire. As customers, employees, and sometimes technical assistants involved in Japan’s empire-wide telecommunications operations, the experience of Japan’s subalterns open up new venues to examine issues of colonial modernity, collaboration, as well as technological transfer in the age of imperialism.

Finally, there is an important lesson to be learned from this study of Japan’s imperial telecommunications network: Japan’s quest for telecommunications hegemony in Asia was also full of conflicts and contradictions. Although the telecommunications network was supposed to foster integration and unity within the imperium, telecommunications policies often turned out to heighten rivalries among different Japanese bureaucracies and exacerbate tensions between the Japanese and non-Japanese. Empire and Communication thus reveals that control is always contested, not just between the controlling and the controlled, but among all those who seek to wield that control. Ultimately, Japan’s experience with telecommunications as its technology of empire confirms the paradoxical fact, namely, that communications technologies simultaneously bring enormous enhancements of control to governments, corporations, consumers, and voters, and a quite new order of chaos and uncontrollability—which brings, in turn, a sense that control is unachievable. Japan’s experience with imperial telecommunications provides a timely reminder today that technology can produce unintended consequences, and communications technology is no exception.

About the Author:

Daqing Yang is an Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at the George Washington University, and will be teaching at Waseda University in Japan in 2011-2012. His research areas include the Japanese empire, World War II, historical memory, and the history of technology. A native of Nanjing, China, he graduated from Nanjing University and received his PhD from Harvard University. He is also a co-editor (with Bernard Finn) of Communication under the Seas: The Evolving Cable Network and Its Implications (MIT Press, 2009).