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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

Transforming Empire: Japanese technical assistance and education in postwar Asia

 February 2024 - ongoing

Drawing on prewar and wartime colonial engagements, bilateral technical and economic assistance quickly emerged as a key element of Japan's foreign policy towards the fledgling nation-states of Asia in the early postwar period. Gradually integrated into institutionalized frameworks such as Official Development Assistance (ODA), these aid programs have helped to foster industrial and educational development whilst simultaneously advancing economic and diplomatic objectives of the donor nation. According to the OECD, more than 60 percent of Japan's gross bilateral ODA was allocated to countries in Asia in 2021, highlighting the importance of the region for Japan. While political aims and methods of practical implementation have constantly evolved since the inception of technical assistance in the 1950s, reflecting the shifting dynamics of the international landscape, the Japanese discourse on developmental aid has consistently been tied to Japan's self-perception and self-positioning vis-à-vis Asia and the United States during the global Cold War.

This project focuses on the fundamental role of educational programs and infrastructures within the context of Japanese development aid and their broader socio-political implications. In order to elucidate the complex dynamics of knowledge transfer in East and South East Asia, it zeroes in on several core issues: Firstly, it delves into a series of case studies, such as the Kumoh Technical High School in South Korea or the Nonthaburi Telecommunication Training Center in Thailand. Based on these examples the project examines the dissemination, implementation, and adaption of Japanese technical assistance and education by various stakeholders including public and private actors and organizations in both, recipient countries and Japan.

Secondly, the research project seeks to challenge traditional historical narratives that often demarcate prewar colonial endeavors from post-war developmental strategies. Analyzing the transformation, consolidation, and perpetuation of Japanese educational and developmental paradigms from the late colonial period through the postwar era serves to uncover the variegated ways in which Japan's technical assistance has navigated the complex terrains of postcolonial histories, national aspirations, and the ensuing reconfiguration of regional relationships amidst the backdrop of the Cold War.

Thirdly, the investigation furthermore addresses the central question as to how these educational and developmental initiatives could crucially support the economic and social advancement of recipient nations and at the same time serve as a tool for consolidating and perpetuating Japan's influence across the region. In a fourth and last step the project scrutinizes the reciprocal impact of Japan's developmental assistance on its own society and self-perception as a donor country, particularly in light of recent shifts in the balance of global economic power in Asia. Through these multifaceted perspectives, the project seeks to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of Japan's role in shaping the educational and industrial landscapes of Asia and its continuities and ruptures with the prewar and wartime periods as well as to provide insights into the broader domestic political and social implications of its transregional technical assistance initiatives.