U.S. Extraterritoriality in East Asia

U.S. Extraterritoriality in East Asia

In the 1800s, U.S. citizens – as well as citizens from most Western colonial powers – were granted immunity from domestic laws in China, Japan, and Korea. This was known as extraterritoriality, which protected foreigners from being prosecuted by local authorities for violating domestic laws. Clauses involving extraterritoriality were a part of the unequal treaties that were often forced upon East Asian nations, which they often accepted for fear of military retribution.

Many Westerners at the time argued that extraterritoriality would protect foreigners from being subjected to so-called “savage” local laws in China, Japan, and Korea. Racial and ethnic discrimination played heavily into the assumptions behind this concept: many argued that just as Asians could not comprehend the sophistication of Western laws, Westerners would have difficulty understanding the primitive nature of local laws.

Not all foreigners were in favor of these laws, and not all domestic citizens were against them. In the 1840s, some Chinese people believed that U.S. citizens should be tried in U.S. courts, for fear that they would not be able to comprehend Chinese law. On the other hand, in 1884, every Protestant missionary in Southern Japan signed a petition urging for extraterritoriality to be rewritten. Diversity of thought concerning extraterritoriality was common during this time period. 

Yet, extraterritoriality remained the law of the land. Many citizens in countries where foreigners possessed extraterritorial rights considered it to be an unfair privilege and an infringement of sovereignty. Foreigners who committed crimes were supposed to be tried in a court from their home country, but this inevitably led to few convictions. For all intents and purposes, foreigners were allowed to pay little attention to local laws in these countries with few, if any, repercussions.

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