|Title:||Fueling Imperial Anxieties: Energy and Empire in Interwar and Wartime Japan|
|Speaker:||Dr. Victor Seow (Department of the History of Science, Harvard University)|
|Date/Time:||May 20, 2021, 9:00 am – 10:30 am (HK time)|
Japan’s road to the Pacific War is often portrayed as slicked with oil, a lubricated line from the rise of Japanese militarism and the corresponding increase in the thirst for oil in the early 1930s to American embargo and Pearl Harbor a decade later. Yet Japanese anxieties over access to fuel, oil and otherwise, stretched back further into the nation’s modern past, tethered as they were to the intensive energy consumption that helped propel Japan’s ascendency as an empire in the Meiji era and to Japan’s comparative lack of coal and oil resources vis-à-vis other imperial powers. Articulated most clearly as the post–World War I “fuel question” (nenryō mondai 燃料問題), these anxieties prompted Japanese planners, scientists, and engineers to seek solutions in public education, national policy, and technoscientific fixes like enhanced efficiency or alternative fuels. When those various measures started falling short of expectations, more and more fuel experts came to postulate that the energy crisis they saw themselves facing could only truly be resolved through imperial extraction, whether of coal or oil in the existing colonies or of fuel resources in foreign territories on which Japanese imperialists harbored expansionist designs. But imperial extension, motivated as it was in part by the promise of acquiring more fossil fuel resources, produced what might be called a “warscape of intensification,” an arrangement that ended up requiring escalating amounts of energy to sustain. Under mounting productivist pressures, sites of energy extraction in both metropole and colonies were not able to keep up with these growing demands. Across the empire, this would be evident not only in the failure to meet planned production goals but also by the use of forced labor in a bid to increase output that would be as ineffectual as it was inhumane. In tracing this entangled history of energy and empire in interwar and wartime Japan, this talk offers insights into the broader logics and limits of fossil-fueled imperialism in the carbon age.
About the Speaker
Victor Seow is assistant professor of the history of science at Harvard University. A historian of technology, science, and industry, he specializes in China and Japan and in histories of energy and work. His first book, Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia, is forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press in December 2021.
CRF Project “Making Modernity in East Asia: Technologies of Everyday Life, 19th – 21st Centuries” (RGC CRF HKU C7011-16G), Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of Hong Kong