Legislating Japanese Identity between China and the West – Japan’s Nationality Law and Immigration Restrictions of 1899

IAS/SIR Speaker Series: Eric Han, Associate Professor of History at the College of William and Mary


Today, Japan is often seen as a monoethnic state without significant minority groups. While scholars have found this monoethnic self-identity to be more myth than reality, its origins remain debated. This paper will address the historical construction of Japan’s national identity by examining its legal foundations in the late nineteenth century, just as Japan was emerging from a semi-colonial situation. The argument will suggest the complex interplay between law, society, and international politics.

Japan crafted its first nationality law and devised immigration restrictions in the 1890s; these defined who was Japanese, how one could become Japanese, and who could enter Japan. These were essential instruments for modern statehood, as they determined the boundaries of the Japanese community. Examining the process by which they were crafted, however, shows that they were a product of Japan’s modern international relations. These laws were legislative responses to new treaties scheduled to go into effect in the summer of 1899—these would give Japan political equality with the Western powers, but also lead to more expansive foreign intercourse and exchange. Meanwhile, politicians also debated what effect these treaties would have on Japan’s relationship with China. Under these conditions, the nationality law and immigration restrictions were each designed to enact a specific form of exclusion: the former sought to mitigate Western influence, while the latter sought to minimize Chinese immigration. Together, they reflected Japan’s international position between two others: China and the West.
Eric Han is Associate Professor of History at the College of William Mary. He holds a PhD from Columbia University, and is author of Rise of a Japanese Chinatown: Yokohama, 1894–1972 (Harvard Asia Center, 2014). He has also published articles on Japan’s treaty ports, Sino-Japanese political exchanges, and Chinese collaborationism during the Asia-Pacific War (1937–45).
This event is co-sponsored by the Department of History and East Asian Studies.