A Retrospective Look at Imperialism
January 27, 2021
The D-hall classroom fills with the chatter of students filing in after lunch. The students noisily begin to take their seats, chatting and preparing for another day’s lecture.
The teacher informs the class that they will be discussing imperialism. After the lecture, the teacher calls on students for a class discussion. A student brings up World War II; someone mentions Japanese imperialism in Korea, to which another promptly responds, “Oh, but that’s not important.”
Although imperialist sentiments had mostly subsided after World War II, these events’ repercussions are still felt globally by nations, communities, and individuals.
Maya Litvak is a former Carlmont student currently studying political science at the University of Pennsylvania.
“As we can see, a wealth inequality gap just between countries that have [a] more third world nature and more developed countries,” Litvak said. “Developed countries, such as the US, want to keep the third world countries under their belt through alliances, like promising to protect them. But in reality, [they are] using resources such as cheap labor in those countries to exploit the citizens who live there.”
According to Merriam-Webster, imperialism is “the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas,” or in other words, when a powerful state seizes control of a weaker state. Imperialism is also usually characterized by the systematic exploitation of the colonized territory.
Modern imperialism began with the “discovery” of the New World and the Age of Exploration during the 15th century.
Imperialism had, of course, existed before this. Ancient empires, such as the Roman Empire and various Chinese and Persian empires, had all spanned large swathes of the known world at the time. However, the Age of Exploration marked the beginning of a new age of global empires.
The 4 types of imperialism by Chelsea Plunkett
Direct vs. indirect rule by Chelsea Plunkett
Fall and Revival
The first places in the New World that were conquered were the nations now collectively known as Latin America. These places include most of South America and the Caribbean, as well as Central America and Mexico. The primary colonial force in the region was Spain. However, even after the Latin American Wars of Independence and Spanish withdrawal, the United States controlled the region through economic imperialism to profit off the land and the people.
The Spanish conquistadores, as the colonizers were known, arrived in the New World, and swiftly overthrew the local empires, and forced the indigenous peoples into the encomienda system. The system was supposed to protect and provide for natives by giving them food and shelter in exchange for free labor. In reality, the brutality of the labor and punishments killed most natives—those who didn’t die from the harsh conditions suffered from various illnesses. Around 90% of natives died from smallpox, measles, or the flu. Pre-Columbian cultures were subsequently destroyed.
The Mayan civilization, which spanned from the Yucatan Peninsula to areas of Central America such as Honduras and El Salvador, had suffered a tremendous cultural decline, and much of their history remains unrecovered. In fact, the Classical Mayan civilization’s collapse remains one of the greatest historical mysteries, even today. The Classical Mayan period began around 250 BC and fell during the 8th and 9th centuries. Although the Mayan civilization fell long before the Spanish arrival, many artifacts and aspects of Mayan culture remained throughout Mesoamerica. However, few of these artifacts remain today.
Diego de Landa, a Spanish historian and bishop, is to blame for this. Landa is mostly known for his book Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán preserving various aspects of Mayan culture, religion, and language. However, Landa was also extremely destructive to the remains of the Mayan civilization. In 1562, he ordered all Mayan books to be burned because they contained “superstition and lies of the devil.” Only about three original Mayan codices, or ancient books, remain. These, along with the remaining ruins of the civilization, have given way to projects. One of these is the Maya Conservation Partnership, a program dedicated to “preserving the heritage and patrimony of the ancient Maya Civilization.” The group is also committed to preserving the natural environment of Guatemala and Mexico.
One of the first European colonies in Asia was British-controlled India. The British used their colonies to obtain abundant amounts of sugar, cotton, opium, tea, and spices to trade with other nations.
During the late 16th century, European powers began to notice the decline of the Mughal Empire. Taking advantage of the weakened state, the British East India Company invaded India. The Company Raj, or company rule in India, began in 1757 with a decisive British victory at Plassey’s Battle. However, their mismanagement of the colony led to the liquidation of the company in 1858. Control of India was then transferred to direct rule under the British crown.
Fabian Johanson*, a Carlmont student of Indian descent, explains that India was stripped of its culture and proud heritage by colonists. Johanson’s name has been changed in compliance with Carlmont Media’s anonymous sourcing policy.
According to Johanson, “They said, ‘Your language, and your culture and everything about your identity is disgusting because you have melanin. And ours is better because we speak English, and we worship a man in the sky whose name is Jesus Christ. And we also have no melanin, so therefore we are better than you.'”
The British’s predominantly fair skin and discrimination against darker skin tones set a stigma against Indians with darker features.
“Bollywood only casts people with lighter skin, and people with darker skin are usually the enemy of the show, or they’re just not cast all,” Johanson said.
Being light-skinned is also the desired beauty standard, with makeup companies exclusively catering towards lighter-skinned people.
“Makeup for lighter shades… offers bigger containers, but for darker shades, they’re smaller containers that are more expensive,” Johanson said.
Johanson has had personal experiences with colorism as well.
“[My mother] grew up in one of those places that were a lot more whitewashed and a lot more racist than in other areas,” Johansen said. “I have darker skin than my mother, and from a young age, she was like, ‘Oh, your skin is wacky, we should make it white.’ That was kind of shoved down my throat.”
In addition to colorism, Johansen has also encountered racism at school.
“There was a kid in my sixth-grade history class who was weirdly racist towards other kids in the class and me,” Johanson said. “They saw a picture of Gandhi in our science classroom and said, ‘hey, you look like Gandhi, because you’re Indian.'”
Culture and Assimilation
Many other Asian countries have also seen the effects of imperialism in their societies. One notable example of this is Korea.
Imperialism in Korea differs from the previous examples of India and Latin America in a few key ways. Firstly, Korea was annexed during WWII, significantly after the Age of Exploration. Secondly, Korea was invaded by imperial Japan, not a European power.
Before the Japanese occupation, Korea was often subject to its neighbors’ influence, notably imperial China. However, Korea maintained a dynamic, independent culture and society until the late nineteenth century. Although Korea was a tributary of the Chinese empire, they managed to remain otherwise isolated from the outside world. However, the turn of the century marked the beginning of Japan’s Colonial period. The decline of the Chinese empire and increasing pressure from Russia and Japan led to an overall decrease in Korean autonomy, with Japan being the primary power on the peninsula.
In 1910, Japan annexed Korea. For 35 years, Japan controlled the Korean peninsula. The Japanese regime in Korea was notoriously oppressive, depriving the Korean people of many fundamental rights. Another notable pillar of Japanese imperialism was its emphasis on assimilation. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, assimilation is “the process whereby individuals or groups of differing ethnic heritage are absorbed into the dominant culture of a society.” During later years of Japanese control, forced cultural assimilation reached its most extreme, resulting in the Korean language, history, and culture’s systematic destruction.
Japanese imperialism in Korea ended in August 1945 with the Japanese surrender. However, the period left many lasting consequences in Korean society.
Michelle Ma describes the profound impact of Japan on post-war Korea.
“When I was in middle and high school…we had maintained a Japanese system,” Ma said. “And many of the vocabulary words we used were Japanese words.”
Ma teaches Korean at the Looking Glass Korean School. She grew up in Korea and studied Korean history, at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, and modern Japanese history, at Kwansei Gakuin University in Nishinomiya, Japan.
“After independence in 1945, the people who got well educated were actually the poor Japanese groups,” Ma said. “The descendants from poor Japanese groups are having a good life. But the descendants from independence movements like [Korean Freedom] fighters don’t have a good life.”
According to Ma, post-war Korea could not rid itself of Japanese influence since the Japanese occupied the ranks of the educated elites.
“The Korean government could not clear that [the Japanese] because well-educated people can be the bureaucracy of the Korean government,” Ma said.
Although it is not as common now, several decades ago, many Japanese used the term zainichi. Zainichi translates to “to stay in Japan,” and it is a term used to describe Korean-born Japanese people. After Japan surrendered in 1945, many Koreans still lived in Japan.
In 1998, while Ma was living in Japan, she knew someone born in Japan but had Korean ancestry. Because of this, the Japanese government refused to grant that person Japanese citizenship.
“She is one example of the modern effects of imperialism,” Ma said. “Up until 2008, they could not get Japanese citizenship… they didn’t have any voting rights, and they didn’t have any Social Security benefits.”
Where do we go from here?
Imperialism is a topic that is heavily discussed in history classes. However, many feel that education on the issue is insufficient.
“Oftentimes, I feel like things are just glossed over,” said Rowan Sato*, a Carlmont student of Japanese descent. Sato’s name has also been changed in compliance with the Carlmont Media Arts anonymous sourcing policy. “All countries do this, where they specifically gloss over things their own country did. I know this is a thing. In Europe, for example, I have an English friend who told me, ‘In England, we do not really get into the things England did [in school.]'”
“[Teachers] should try to bring in resources from authors who are writing from a standpoint that isn’t pro-American. Maybe it’s a foreign author or just someone who has been researching this topic from the perspective of another country, for example,” Litvak said.
Johanson believes that the eurocentrism of the history curriculum impacts the way imperialism is presented.
“I feel like the textbooks we read… [are] very eurocentric,” Johanson said. “Last year, when we were in… World Studies, I had a teacher who… just kind of said, ‘Yeah, British imperialism in India was a thing that kind of happened.’ And then they started talking about how, ‘Yeah, it did really good things for India, like they, it was really good for India!’ And then they finished by saying, ‘Oh yeah, and they also completely destroyed everything, but sanitation was better! Sanitation was really good!’ And I was sitting there like, ‘Oh, oh, okay.'”
“Make it less Eurocentric!” Johanson said. “Talk more about the negative effects that still affect third world countries today because I feel like we just brush over that a lot.”
However, despite the shortcomings of the education system, many students are beginning to contemplate imperialism’s effects.
“Germany… apologized for the Nazi regime and everything that it did. But I don’t think a single other country has… I wish they would because if your country doesn’t stand for that anymore, why don’t you apologize,” Sato said. “As a country, one of the best things to do is to be critical about the country because it’s your own county, and you want it to be good, and you want to be educated and not ignorant.”
Imperialism’s lasting impacts are not only limited to the oppressed.
“The only true thing I’ve experienced I had anything vaguely to do with imperialism was getting personally blamed for the happenings and effects of Japanese imperialism and militarization [in Korea],” Sato said. “An anonymous student took it upon themselves to be casually racist with the reasoning that since they were part Korean, it made sense to them that any sort of hatred they feel towards Japanese people is validated. They said very questionable things that out of context is just blatant racism.”
For Sato, this brought a resurgence of feelings of internalized racism.
“I’ve heard from many people… resenting the fact that they’re not white,” Sato said. “When they said things like ‘All Japanese people should die,’ it made me sort of hate that part of myself… I think that [internalized racism is] really common, and it’s more common than it should be.”