Turning eyes to the north: a commentary on Japan's engagement with the North American arctic.

Author:Coates, Ken
Position::Essay
 
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Never before has the Arctic attracted such attention. (1) In the distant past, the Arctic was a zone of mystery and intrigue, alternately described as a dangerous and forbidding wasteland, enveloped in cold and ice and inhabited by sea monsters and ferocious tribes or as a pristine resource frontier, filled with untapped potential. But as European explorers struggled, risking and losing many lives in the process, to map and describe the vast northern region, outsiders became progressively less interested in the commercial possibilities of the Arctic and more attracted by the unique Inuit peoples, strange animals, and imposing landscapes of the frozen North.

A portrait of the Arctic as a zone of possibilities has now replaced those early images. The Inuit and the landscape still hold much fascination, and romantic visions of northern peoples sustain a vibrant artistic and cultural industry in the region. A small summer tourism sector draws on southern interest in northern peoples and Arctic landscapes. But it is other forces-the reduction of the icecap and the subsequent opening of the Arctic Ocean for navigation, and the identification of the Far North's immense resource potential--that has sparked renewed international engagement with the region. While some relatively minor questions of territorial boundaries remain unaddressed, to be settled under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the reality is that Arctic sovereignty has largely been settled, although it makes for a contentious debating point in some quarters.

Japan and the Contemplation of the Arctic

Japan has not been a North-facing country. While Hokkaido presents itself as a northern island and has latterly been connected with northern regionalism, the country's interest in northern matters has largely been limited to the long-contentious battle with Russia over the Sakahlin and Kuril islands. Unlike Europe, where Arctic imagery featured prominently in contemplation of northern regions, Japanese artists and writers paid comparatively little attention to the high latitudes. Following the Meiji Restoration (a late nineteenth century time of intense economic, political, and economic transformation in Japan), at a time when North Americans and Europeans were engaged in a scientific and adventuring exploration of the Arctic, Japan stayed on the sidelines. The Arctic was, for Japan and Asia, a distant and largely uninteresting area, devoid of economic opportunities and inhabited by an exotic people who seemed disconnected from the modern industrial age.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Arctic held a tight grip on the Western imagination and only limited interest for the peoples of Asia. Engagement with the Arctic was largely restricted to scientists and ethnographers, with some relatively minor disputes between Canada, Norway, the United States, and Russia over territorial boundaries. Frigid and dangerous weather conditions, vast distances, tiny populations, and extreme difficulties with ocean navigation rendered the Arctic all but uninhabitable to people from temperate zones. The region became a sporting field for Arctic adventurers, who spent long periods exploring, travelling, painting, and writing about an area that held great fascination for thousands of armchair explorers. For much of the world, however, the exoticism of the Arctic was of marginal concern, and certainly not of much interest to the national government.

Antarctic Japan

That Japan was taking minimal interest in exploring Arctic opportunities did not mean that the country was ignoring polar opportunities. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the leading industrial nations treated the polar regions as a personal and national testing ground. Dozens of scientific and exploratory expeditions were launched into the forbidding expanses of the Arctic and Antarctic. In the Far North, most of this effort remained connected to Western Europe and North America, with limited engagement by other nations. Antarctica, the frozen tabula rasa in the Far South, was a different matter--vast, unexplored, and open for territorial claims. Nobu Shirase led the first Japanese Antarctic Expedition, 1910-1912, focusing initially on King Edward VII Land. A small party reached as far at 80[degrees] South and the expedition conducted surveys in the Alexandra Range. Japan maintained its interest in Antarctica, renouncing claims to the southern continent after the Second World War, but reintegrating with the scientific and research community in the 1960s.

Jujiro Wada, Japan's Northern Prospector

There was a small Japanese connection to the early mineral development of the Arctic. A tiny number of Japanese and Chinese immigrants followed Klondike stampeders to the Yukon gold fields in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but they had a shallow-like presence in the mass invasion of the Far North. Wada, born in southern Japan, arrived in North America in 1891. He boarded a whaling ship headed to the Arctic in 1894, discovering an interest in and capacity for living in the Far North. He missed out on the great Klondike strike and played a minor role in the echo boom that broken out in the Fairbanks area in 1902. The persistent prospector continued to search for gold through the far northwest, only to have his efforts run afoul of accusations that he was spying for the Japanese. These false allegations resulted in Wada losing much of his financial backing. He continued to prospect for another twenty years before leaving the North for warmer climates in California. He died in 1937. Wada's story did not get a great deal of coverage during his lifetime, although northerners often spoke of the Japanese prospector at work in Alaska, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories.

Preparing for Japan: Northwest Defence Projects, The Second World War

The Second World War brought about dramatic changes in Japan's relationship with the North, although not in predictable directions. The attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 exposed America's vulnerabilities on its Pacific flank, while at the same time reducing the nation's defensive capacity in the region. The United States, fearful of a direct Japanese invasion, took dramatic steps to protect the continent. Construction began...

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