Elijah Greenstein

Honorary Research Associate & Lecturer, University of British Columbia
Faculty Adviser: Sheldon Garon

Sailing under a Rising Sun: A Global History of Japanese Shipping in Empire and at War


This dissertation charts Japan’s rise in world shipping from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. At the turn of the century, several companies established the first transoceanic shipping services under the Japanese flag. Japanese ships could soon be found in ports on every continent, and by the end of the First World War (1914–1918) the nation boasted a fleet that was the world’s third largest. In the interwar period, Japanese ships continued to advance into world trade routes, but with the outbreak of the Pacific War (1941–1945), they were mobilized to create an autarkic bloc in Asia. The subsequent destruction of the commercial fleet, however, precipitated the collapse of Japan’s empire. By examining Japanese efforts to develop a national fleet and promote its advance into overseas trade routes, this study argues that Japan’s rise as a modern nation-state and imperial power rested on its ships becoming integral components of systems of global transportation. As military transports and naval auxiliaries, commercial ships contributed to imperial expansion by projecting military power overseas. As commercial transports, they contributed to the consolidation of Japan’s empire by facilitating movements of people, goods, and information between territories. At the same time, Japanese companies, often with state support, developed shipping services in trade routes beyond the empire. By examining these trajectories of oceanic expansion, this study argues that officials, business leaders, and intellectuals sought to secure Japan’s position as a world power by making the nation an agent of global interconnectedness. Efforts to promote Japanese shipping, moreover, were often influenced by the observation of rival maritime powers. The transnational flows of information made possible by shipping and other infrastructure informed approaches to shipping and maritime affairs in Japan and beyond. By examining how Japan’s maritime leaders engaged with and produced ideas about world shipping, this dissertation tells a global story about the ways that imperial competition motivated efforts to create connections across borders and seas.