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  • Japanese: 南洋 (nan'you), 南洋群島 (nan'you guntou)

Micronesia, known in Japanese as Nan'yô (lit. "South Seas")[1] or Nan'yô guntô (lit. "South Seas archipelago") was ruled as a Japanese colony from 1914 until 1944. The Japanese first gained control of Micronesia as part of treaty conditions following World War I, taking over colonial control from the Germans; in 1920, Japan was then granted the islands as a "mandate" by the League of Nations in 1920.

The territory included the Marianas, Carolines, and Marshall Islands, with the exception of the island of Guam, which was controlled by the United States since 1898.

Geographically distant from the Japanese mainland, peopled with a population of little ethnic or cultural relation to the Japanese, comprising in total a relatively small land area, and seeing very little active resistance against Japanese rule, Micronesia represents a rather different case within the Japanese Empire from Colonial Korea or Taiwan. It also differs notably from other parts of the empire in that in Micronesia, it was chiefly Japanese immigrants, and not the native locals who performed the vast majority of the labor involved in colonial economic development.

Today, these islands are divided between the sovereign states of Palau, Nauru, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands, with the United States continuing to control Guam and the Northern Marianas.

Early Japanese Activity

In the last decades of the 19th century, Japanese began to venture out into the Pacific in small numbers, most of them acting independently as entrepreneurs, though the Imperial Japanese Navy soon began using the islands and the waters around them for training missions. Journeys to Micronesia by the navy ships Tsukuba in 1875 and Ryûjo in 1884 were among the most significant; in the meantime, some number of Japanese entrepreneurs began sailing to the Ogasawara Islands, Micronesia, and elsewhere, establishing small-scale shops and warehouses, trading in various goods, copra and coconut oil chief among them. Some, such as Mori Koben (1869-1945) established themselves on islands such as Truk, living there for decades, and fathering numerous half-Japanese/half-Micronesian children.

When a number of Japanese fishermen were killed on or near Lae Atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1884, a small official mission led by Suzuki Keikun and Gotô Taketarô traveled there to seek a formal apology from the local chiefs. Once there, they planted a flag and claimed the island for Japan, though the Ministry of Foreign Affairs disavowed it very shortly afterward.

Immigration to Micronesia prior to World War I was quite minimal. As of 1914, there were no more than one hundred Japanese in the islands, and most of them were men on official or commercial business, unaccompanied by their families.

By 1908, a number of small Japanese entrepreneurial ventures in the islands combined their resources to form the Nan'yô bôeki kaisha ("South Seas Trading Company"). The group ran a number of retail storefronts, and passenger, mail, and cargo shipping, as well as copra production operations; World War I and Japanese control of the islands expanded commercial opportunities for this cooperative dramatically, and by 1920, the company was not only strong and wealthy, but had managed to secure for itself a monopoly in trade activities in the islands.

History as Colony

The Japanese government saw Micronesia as desirable chiefly for strategic reasons, and for those reasons took advantage of the opportunity to seize them in 1914, joining World War I on the side of the Allies, by attacking this German territory. After the British requested Japanese aid in finding and destroying the German Asiatic fleet, Tokyo instead, above and beyond British expectations, leaped to declare war on Germany, and to launch attacks on German territory in Micronesia as well as on the Shandong peninsula in China. By October 1914, Japan controlled Pohnpei, Truk, Palau, Kosrae, and Angaur in the Carolines, and Saipan in the Marshalls, but only announced having taken the Jaluit atoll; they then began excluding even the ships of their allies - British and Australians - from the territorial waters, and establishing naval garrisons and a military administration across the islands.

After taking the islands with a minimum of effort, Japan began programs of economic development in the islands, which would grow into the most intensive development of any colonial territories elsewhere in the Pacific Islands. Discussions were had with the British as to the future of Japan retaining the islands, but Japanese activities and intentions in the islands were kept secret from the Americans (also WWI Allies) until as late as September 1917. Meanwhile, public voices and private pressures within Japan called for the islands to be annexed outright, with some speaking of the "natural" "destiny" of Japan as a maritime nation to expand southward, a discourse which came to be known as nanshin ("southern advance"), in contrast to the proponents of hokushin, a "northern advance" deeper into northeast Asia.

Japanese laws and education system (including the teaching of the Japanese language) were put into place almost immediately from 1914 or 1915, and local chieftains and elders were brought on tours of the Home Islands, in order to instill in them awe for Japanese modernity and power. Steamships began to travel to, from, and between the islands, and the Nan'yô bôeki kaisha expanded their business, establishing thirty-two branches across the territory, and introducing many aspects of modern/Japanese material culture and lifestyles into the islands.

The naval/military character of the islands' administration began to be lessened in 1918, and by 1921, civil administration was extended across the entire territory. While military affairs were directed by the South Sea Islands Defense Force (Nan'yô guntô bôbitai) based on Truk, civil affairs were now managed from Koror, an island in the Palau grouping.

In 1920, Japan was then officially granted a "mandate" over the islands by the League of Nations, thus securing some formal international recognition and approval for Japanese control over Micronesia. The Class "C" level of the mandate gave Japan wide freedoms in how to administer the territory, within certain obligations imposed by the League of Nations, but British and American representatives at the Washington Naval Conference in 1921-22 managed to get Japan to agree to a non-fortification clause, an agreement to not turn Micronesia into naval bases, in return for the US and UK agreeing to the same in Southeast Asia and parts of the western Pacific. The navy pulled out from Micronesia almost entirely in 1922, and the territory came to be run by the South Seas Bureau (Nan'yô chô), a purely civilian administration. The heads of this government reported to the Prime Minister's office until 1929, and then from that time until the end of the Pacific War, came under the authority of the Colonial Ministry.

Economic development in the islands had a rocky start, with initial efforts at establishing sugar plantations in the late 1910s ending in failure, and leaving numerous Japanese workers stranded, unable to afford to return to Japan. However, these efforts were restarted in 1921 by Matsue Haruji (Harutsugu), a graduate of LSU with experience working with the Spreckels Company. He founded the Nan'yô kôhatsu kaisha ("South Seas Development Company"), and after further difficulties in 1922-23, with considerable help from the Nan'yô-chô government, he began building up a set of operations which would soon earn him the title of "Sugar King of the South Pacific." By the 1930s, the company accounted for roughly 60% of the total revenues of the Nan'yô-chô government, and had expanded its operations into Melanesia and the Dutch East Indies, and into other fields, such as cultivation of tapioca and coconut, phosphates, marine products, and warehousing.

Historian Mark Peattie identifies the 1920s as marking the shift in Micronesia from an occupation colony - a small number of Japanese ruling over an indigenous majority - to a settlement colony, where Japanese settlers became numerous. The majority of immigrants came from Okinawa prefecture, where people were accustomed to (sub-)tropical climates and sugarcane cultivation, and where for various reasons there was considerable pressure to emigrate elsewhere in search of better fortunes; Japanese came to Micronesia from other regions as well, however, including Fukushima prefecture and Tôhoku. Tenant farmers working on the sugar fields were followed by, or in many cases saved up money and moved out into the other islands, transforming themselves into shopkeepers or the like, or taking up various service jobs. They helped swell the old German settlements into bustling Japanese towns, complete with geisha houses and brothels, and eventually hospitals, factories, government buildings, radio stations, newspapers, postal services and police. Where there had been no more than 100 Japanese in the islands in 1914, by 1935 they numbered more than 50,000. In many of the islands, they outnumbered native peoples by two- or even ten-to-one, and Micronesian language, culture, and identity quickly became imperiled. This could easily be argued to violate the spirit of the League of Nations Mandate, which mandated that Japan be working towards the moral and material well-being of the natives. Yet, no serious investigations took place.

After Japan left the League in 1933, there were questions as to the legality of retaining the islands. The government was clear it had no intentions of relinquishing the islands, but did not go so far as to explicitly say they were to become Japanese territory. League members began to probe more seriously into Japanese activities in Micronesia, but the Japanese maintained their position, insisting on the importance of Micronesia as a lifeline for national security. By this time, too, the discourse of the "East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere" had gained currency, and many civilian and military advocates of such expansion saw Micronesia as an essential part of the advance into Southeast Asia.

Over the course of the 1930s, the Japanese undertook a number of public works projects on the islands, including harbor improvements, airfields, weather stations, and the like. Though it was common among Americans and other Westerners interested in the region to believe that the Japanese were building extensive naval facilities, militarizing the islands, Peattie writes that there is little evidence to support this; what construction was done could easily have been intended as civilian improvements, though admittedly these could inevitably also be used for military purposes. Throughout this period, perhaps fearful of Western criticism of Japanese administration of the islands, the Japanese strictly banned Western observers or investigators from the islands, contributing, inadvertently perhaps, to the misapprehension that they were secretly militarizing. In truth, according to Peattie, militarization efforts did not begin until 1939. By this time, the League of Nations' authority had all but disappeared in the world, and both Tokyo and Washington anticipated that a clash between them was inevitable. Thus, the Japanese worked to shore up their ability to defend their holdings in the South Pacific. The Navy did not return to any significant presence in Micronesia until just months before the Pearl Harbor attack, and construction of military facilities on the island was still incomplete when Allied forces took the islands in 1944, in some of the toughest fighting of the Pacific War.

Despite having never been as fully fortified as the Allies seem to believe they were, however, the Nan'yô islands did play a significant role in supporting Japanese offensive abilities to strike at Hawaii, the Philippines, and Allied positions in the South Pacific. For a time during the war, the islands, Truk in particular, were home to the Navy's greatest battleships, the Yamato and Musashi, which lay there eagerly awaiting a grand decisive naval battle against the Americans which never materialized. After brutal fighting, the Allies took the islands in early 1944, and it was from one of these islands, Tinian, that the Enola Gay and Bockscar bombers took off in August 1945 to drop nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The remaining Japanese authorities on the islands officially surrendered on August 30, and the US Navy repatriated Japanese nationals from the islands to Japan proper over the course of the remainder of that year.


  • Mark Peattie, "The Nan'yô: Japan in the South Pacific, 1885-1945," in Peattie and Ramon Myers (eds.), The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945, Princeton University Press (1984), 172-210.
  1. The term Nan'yô has historically referred ambiguously to a rather large swath of area, from the Ryûkyû Islands and Taiwan to Southeast Asia, to the South Pacific. Even during the 1910s-1940s, when the term could be used to refer specifically and strictly to the colony or mandate of Micronesia, it continued to be commonly used to refer to the South China Sea and South Pacific more generally, and/or to various subsections of that region.