By the turn of the twentieth century, “rural youth” came to symbolize the spirit of hard work, masculinity, and patriotism. The village youth associations, the seinendan, carried that ideal and spread it all over the Japanese empire. This dissertation examines how the movement to create “rural youth” unfolded in different parts of the empire and how young farmers responded to this mobilization. By examining three rural areas in Miyagi (northern Japan), Xinzhu (Taiwan), and South Ch’ungch’Òng (Korea), I argue that the social tensions and local dynamics, such as the divisions between urban and rural, the educated and the uneducated, and the young and the old, determined the motivations and emotional drives behind youth participation in the mobilization.
To invert the analytical viewpoint from the state to youth themselves, I use the term “Rural Youth Industry.” This indicates the social sphere in which agrarian youth transformed themselves from perpetual farmers to success-oriented modern youth, shared an identity as “rural youth” by incorporating imperial and global youth activism, and developed a sense of moral superiority over the urban, the educated, and the old. The social dynamics of the “Rural Youth Industry” explain why many of these youth so internalized the ideology of Japanese nationalism that they volunteered for military service and fought for the empire.
The spread of the Rural Youth Industry most clearly exemplifies a central characteristic of the Japanese empire, which is summarized as its drive to pursue nation-building across its imperial domains, forming a "nation-empire."
This dissertation offers a new perspective to the study of modern empires in several respects. It provides a new way to dissect the colonial empire, challenging the methodological trap of emphasizing the present-day national boundaries of Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. It highlights rural modernity, often neglected in the urban-centric historiography of colonial modernity. It also brings together global, regional, and local histories. The seinendan were part of the global waves of imperialism, nation-state building, agrarianism, and the rise of youth. I argue that the spread of the “Rural Youth Industry” most clearly exemplifies a central characteristic of the Japanese empire, which is summarized as its drive to pursue nation-building across its imperial domains, forming a “nation-empire.” This dissertation examines the operations of the “nation-empire” at the grassroots level by comparing the social environments of mobilized agrarian youth. Situating the practices of the Japanese empire in these broader contexts as well as the specific local conditions of village societies, it illuminates the nature of mass mobilization and the shifting relationship between the state and society in the first half of the twentieth century.