Japan During the First Food Regime (1918-1945)

In the East Asian context, the first food regime can be applied to the period of Japanese colonization of East Asia (1895-1945). After the victory against China during the first Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895), Japan obtained control of the island of Formosa (now Taiwan), which became its first colony. The victory against Russia in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) gave Japan control of Korea, which was annexed in 1910, and southern Manchuria, where Japan established a puppet regime, called ‘Manchukuo’, in the 1930s. Like the European colonial powers, Japan likewise exploited its colonies to procure goods and raw materials that were scarce at home. As Japan developed as an industrial and urbanized country, the colonies were exploited particularly for their agricultural products.

But it was only in 1918, the year of the Rice Riots (Kome Sodo), that the Japanese government applied the mechanisms of the first food regime to its colonies. In fact, before the 1920s, Japan used to import food from Thailand, French Indochina, China, and also from the USA.[1]

The restructuring of the empire was intensified when the British and French colonial authorities imposed export restrictions on Southeast Asian rice, after the outbreak of World War I. Thanks to new developments in the agricultural sector in the Meiji period, Japan had been able to transfer labour from agriculture to industry without reducing agricultural output. However, agricultural production had also slowed down since the 1910s, causing a sharp increase in food prices. This led to many protests all over the country against the increase in rice prices, the above-mentioned Rice Riots, in 1918.[2] These protests served as a direct stimulus for the Japanese government to find new sources of cheap food supply in the colonies and to make the empire self-sufficient in food.[3] At the same time, Japanese authorities considered the German defeat in 1918 to be the result of Germany’s high dependency on outside resources required for the war.[4] For this reason, it was clear to them that Japan needed to build an empire that was self-sufficient in raw materials, including food. Thus, in 1918, Japan implemented the ‘Plan for the increase of rice production’ (Sanmai zoshoku keikaku). According to this plan, Japanese authorities would pursue the promotion of rice production through agricultural research and extension systems, as well as irrigation and drainage infrastructure in the colonies. Domestically, the country would protect the internal market from rice imports from the rest of the world.[5] The Japanese strategy significantly altered the agricultural sector of these territories, shifting them towards export- oriented food production. Consequently, in the period between 1918 and 1932, rice imports from Korea and Taiwan rose from 38.8% to 63.2% and from 15.4% to 25.0%, respectively, whereas imports from other areas decreased from 45.8% to 11.8%.[6] As such, Korea and Taiwan were transformed into Japan’s ‘agricultural appendages’.[7]

Unlike Korea and Taiwan, Japanese interests in Manchuria were related more to its commercial and strategic importance. However, Mantetsu (South Manchuria Railway Company), the Japanese railway company that controlled the Southern Manchuria railway zone, promoted agricultural development by expanding soybean production in the region. Soybean production and trade became so important for the Manchurian economy that it was termed daizu keizai, or ‘soybean economy’.[8] The intention of exploiting Manchuria as a land to produce agricultural products for export to Japan was confirmed in the ‘Quinquennial Plan for Industrial Development in Manchuria’ (1937), which established some agricultural production targets, such as soybeans, corn, and millet.[9]

The increased export of rice and other primary commodities meant that Japan’s colonies depended on agriculture economically. On the other hand, this system helped Japan to specialize in labour-intensive manufacturing based on farm-supplied materials such as silk reeling, tea processing, and cotton weaving.[10] In the Japanese case, this system came to an end at the conclusion of the war, when the country’s defeat abruptly stopped access to these resources.

  • [1] Omameuda, Minoru, Kindai Nihon, 89.
  • [2] Ho, ‘Colonialism and Development’, 349.
  • [3] Honma and Hayami, ‘Distortions’, 3.
  • [4] Collingham, The Taste of War, 6.
  • [5] Honma and Hayami, ‘Distortions’, 4.
  • [6] Francks, Rural Economic Development, 170.
  • [7] Ho, ‘Colonialism and Development’, 350.
  • [8] Fumio, Kindai Nihon, 45.
  • [9] Johnston, Japan Food Management, 60.
  • [10] Honma and Hayami, ‘Distortions’, 4.
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