Japan's Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism

Japan's Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism

by Louise Young

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In this first social and cultural history of Japan's construction of Manchuria, Louise Young offers an incisive examination of the nature of Japanese imperialism. Focusing on the domestic impact of Japan's activities in Northeast China between 1931 and 1945, Young considers "metropolitan effects" of empire building: how people at home imagined and experienced the empire they called Manchukuo.

Contrary to the conventional assumption that a few army officers and bureaucrats were responsible for Japan's overseas expansion, Young finds that a variety of organizations helped to mobilize popular support for Manchukuo—the mass media, the academy, chambers of commerce, women's organizations, youth groups, and agricultural cooperatives—leading to broad-based support among diverse groups of Japanese. As the empire was being built in China, Young shows, an imagined Manchukuo was emerging at home, constructed of visions of a defensive lifeline, a developing economy, and a settler's paradise.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520923157
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/01/1998
Series: Twentieth Century Japan: The Emergence of a World Power , #8
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 500
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 12 Years

About the Author

Louise Young is Assistant Professor of History at New York University.

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Japan's Total Empire

Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism

By Louise Young


Copyright © 1998 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-92315-7


Manchukuo and Japan

Today the words "Empire of Japan" evoke multiple meanings: one set of images for former colonial subjects, another for former enemies in the Pacific War, and yet another for the Japanese themselves. No epoch did more to inscribe these words with meaning than the period between 1931 and 1945, when Japan moved aggressively to expand its overseas territory, occupying first China and then Southeast Asia, and initiating a series of military conflicts against Nationalist and Communist forces in China, against the Soviet Union, against the United States, and against the British Empire. At the heart of the new empire Japan won and then lost in the military engagements of these years lay the puppet state of Manchukuo in Northeast China.

Although Manchukuo was created in 1932, its roots went back to 1905, when Japan acquired a sphere of influence in the southern half of Manchuria as a result of victory in the Russo-Japanese War. A mix of formal and informal elements, the South Manchurian sphere of influence was anchored by long-term leases on the Liaodong Peninsula and on lands held by Japan's colonial railway company, the South Manchurian Railway, which the Japanese knew as Mantetsu. Over these leased territories, which represented but a small fraction of South Manchuria, Japan ruled directly through a formal colonial apparatus. Over the rest of South Manchuria Japan exerted influence indirectly, through the relationship with local Chinese rulers, through economic dominance of the market, and through the constant threat of force by its garrison army.

The first phase of Japanese involvement situated the sphere of influence in Manchuria within a rapidly expanding empire. By the end of World War I, the empire included Taiwan, Korea, the Pacific island chains the Japanese called Nan'yo, the southern half of Sakhalin, as well as participation in the unequal treaty system in China. Initially, Manchuria occupied a peripheral position within this wider empire: it was neither the strategic focus of foreign policy nor the site where key innovations in imperial management took place. But all this changed after 1931, as Japanese focused their energies on the construction of a new kind of empire in the Northeast.

The new face of empire showed itself in three areas of activity—military conquest, economic development, and mass migration. First, under the guidance of the garrison force known as the Kwantung Army, thousands spilled their blood in a series of military campaigns from 1931 to 1933 collectively designated the Manchurian Incident. In the course of these campaigns, Japan brought all of Manchuria under military occupation, extending formal control to the Amur River and the border of Soviet Siberia in the north, and to the Great Wall, cf China in the south. Second, under a new regime of colonial management known as the controlled economy, the Japanese-run Manchukuo government conducted a bold experiment in planned economic development and state capitalism. The project involved the integration of the two economies, tying Manchurian development to domestic production goals through the creation of the Japan-Manchuria bloc economy. Third, an ambitious plan to send five million Japanese farmers to settle in the Manchurian hinterland was designed to create a new generation of "continental Japanese" who would secure a more thorough domination of colonial society. Linking social policy in the metropolis and the empire, the Japanese government sought to make the Manchurian population 10 percent Japanese through the export of impoverished tenant farmers, who were the most visible manifestation of Japan's rural crisis.

In the service of these three endeavors, over a million Japanese soldiers, entrepreneurs, and agricultural emigrants crossed the waters that separated Japan from the continent. While they invested their futures and sometimes their lives in the building of Manchukuo, at home many times their number labored over the empire in indirect, though no less essential, ways. During the military campaigns of the Manchurian Incident a wave of war hysteria swept Japanese society. War fever generated the domestic political and social support that gave the Kwantung Army freedom of action to engage in aggressive military imperialism, as Japanese fought to defend "the Manchurian lifeline" (Manshu seimeisen). Businessmen and intellectuals, inspired by utopian visions of economic opportunity, used their social standing to sell the idea of staking Japan's future on "Manchurian development" (Manshu kaihatsu). Local elites led rural communities to endorse plans to send as many as half their villagers to colonize Manchuria and build "a new heaven on earth" (shintenchi). Although they never set foot in Manchuria, these different groups of people were empire builders nonetheless.

Together they constructed the metropolitan infrastructure of empire. Japan's empire building in Manchuria thus produced two imperial systems—one in the colony and one in the metropolis. In Manchuria, Japanese established a state apparatus, structures of economic domination, and mechanisms of social control; at home they built a parallel set of political and social structures to mobilize the resources essential to the success of the imperial project. These efforts, and the transformations they wrought, are the subject of this book.


Historians have usually examined Japanese expansion in Manchuria from the top down, studying the formation of empire almost entirely as an activity of state. Consisting of policy studies, analyses of bureaucratic politics, and monographs on key military figures, the historical record presents a portrait of the official mind of empire. Accounts of the military occupation of Manchuria in the early 1930s have focused on the question of who made the decision for war. Was it an act of subimperialism and insubordination on the part of Kwantung Army officers in Manchuria? Or was it directed by responsible government authorities in Tokyo?

Studies of Japan's economic development of Manchuria have also concentrated on state actors. Taking up different components of economic policy, the debate in this case has revolved around the question of assessing the success or failure of the Manchurian experiment. Was the controlled economy in Manchuria a bold innovation in industrial policy that provided the foundation for the postwar "economic miracle"? Or was it a risky experiment with heavy industrialization through economic autarky, doomed to failure because of the dependence of Japan's capital- and resource-poor national economy on Western markets?

While the subject is not much discussed in English, the considerable body of Japanese-language work on the colonization of Manchuria falls into two camps, between which lies an interpretive gap. One camp consists of academic studies of the formation and implementation of settlement policy within the framework of Japanese aggression. These works stress the exploitation of the Chinese and Korean peasants who worked the lands in Northeast China. The other camp is made up of popular accounts by former colonists, which tell the story of their own victimization. These focus on the tragic denouement of Manchurian colonization for the many Japanese colonists who died at the hands of Chinese and Russian soldiers at the end of the war. Whether, as agents of the imperial state, the colonists were victimizers of the people of Northeast China or were themselves victims remains the point of contention between the two camps. Yet despite their differences, both interpretations of colonists-as-victims and colonists-as-victimizers share the assumption that colonists were controlled by the state.

At the root of this historiographical preoccupation with the state is the issue of responsibility: responsibility for empire and responsibility for war. Public memory in Japan avoids the question and adheres to the view, enshrined by the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, that a military cabal seized hold of government and forced the people into a reckless war. Even after fifty years, the pervasiveness of this narrative of victimization—what Carol Gluck has called "history in the passive voice"—is striking. Despite the popular conviction that ordinary people were not the agents but the victims of their imperial past, there is an increasingly vocal call among the community of progressive scholars in Japan to investigate the "people's war responsibility" and "fascism at the grass roots." This challenge suggests the need to revise the historical record on Manchukuo, for missing from the picture are the millions of people who were involved in its construction—through war support associations, business unions, colonization committees, and countless other organizations. It clearly took more than ministers and generals to make an empire, and this book examines how society—both the institutions and the individuals that comprised it—was engaged in the empire-building process. The state is not eclipsed as an object of analysis, but rather the focus is on the roles of both state and society and the ways in which they mobilized each other for the imperial project.

Since the concepts of "state" and "society" are here used to formulate the problem of agency, a brief word is in order about what is meant by these terms, I understand them, first, to signify an expression of power in relationship to one another and to the empire. The state wields power in its ordering of society, while society exercises power in its shaping of the state. As each projects its power overseas, both state and society become agents of empire. Second, such power is deployed through institutions. State power operates through bureaucratic organizations: government ministries, agencies, and committees. Social power is similarly effected through organizations such as chambers of commerce, political parties, and women's groups. In both state and society such institutions provide the vehicles through which individuals effect power by collective action. In other words, institutions mediated the relationship between the individual and the empire, whether that individual was a government official or a private citizen. To ask the question, then, Who were the agents of empire? involves looking at the roles of both private and public institutions in mobilizing support for Manchukuo. It means seeing how Manchukuo looked from the bottom up as well as from the top down, and depicting the popular, as well as the official, mind of empire.

Although the concepts of state and society are here paired as dichotomous categories to make a point about the involvement of non-government actors in the imperial project, a final caveat must be added about the problem with defining them in oppositional terms. In any specific instance the boundary line between state and society is extremely fuzzy, making it difficult to say where state ends and society begins. Are public school teachers, for instance, state actors or social agents? If army officers are part of the state, where do conscript soldiers belong? The arbitrariness of the answers to such questions suggests that rather than posing state and society as a dichotomy, we should conceive them as reflections of one another, or alternate formulations of the same entity. Mobilized for empire all individuals become extensions of the state even as they remain members of society.

Though fundamentally empires are social products, they are not much studied as popular enterprises. Preoccupied with identifying a theoretical model that would explain the causes of imperialism—and particularly the sudden burst of European expansionism in the late nineteenth century—literature on European and American imperialism has tended to focus on the rival merits of economic and political theories of causality. In the former instance, this meant showing how the structures of an expanding industrial capitalism sought to open and control new overseas markets. In the latter, scholars focused on the decision making of both metropolitan leaders and their on-site agents. They identified the motives for the so-called new imperialism in both the rivalrous dynamics of the international system as well as growing political instability on the borders of the European empires in Asia and Africa. For a long time divisions within the Anglo-American academy between Marxist and anti-Marxist scholars fossilized this debate into a series of revisions of the capitalist theory of imperialism on one side and debunking attacks on the other.

In recent years this has changed, as historians of imperialism have taken up the question of culture. Beginning in the early 1980s, books on empire and technology, science, ideology, propaganda, popular culture, and other topics have appeared, shifting the focus away from political and economic structures of empire. Although this conversion to culture reinvigorated the study of imperialism, cultural theories of imperialism have only begun to challenge the monocausal terms of the older debate. In much of this literature culture simply supplanted economy or politics as the sole independent variable. And yet, in the empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is impossible to reduce the roots of expansionism to a single cause. No more than Marxist theories of imperialism, power-politics models, or arguments about subimperialists and turbulent frontiers, can studies of the cultural construction of empire account for the multidimensional nature of experience. In an age of unified markets, globalized mass communications, and the exposure of the individual to multiple systems of meaning, it is impossible to look at the economic without considering the political, to study the cultural without thinking about the social, to discuss the national without reference to the international. Therefore we need to look at ways in which economics, politics, culture, and society work together as a unit and the ways in which national systems are integrated into international systems. We need, in short, a total theory of imperialism.


Like many abstract concepts, imperialism is a term that resists concrete definition. Most historians deploy the term to describe the annexation of territory and imposition of alien rule over the peoples that live there: domination formalized in the creation of institutions of direct colonial administration. More problematic are instances of informal domination—where a country retains nominal independence, but falls within another nation's "sphere of influence." Historians agree that the colonization of Senegal by France or Ceylon by Great Britain were expressions of imperialism. But whether Soviet influence in Eastern Europe or American interventions in Indochina are properly characterized as "imperialism" is a subject of debate. My own definition of imperialism, designed to characterize Japan's relationship to China during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, accommodates both formal or direct, and informal or indirect, mechanisms of domination. Imperial domination implies that the dominated society not only is altered by the interventions of the dominating society, but loses its ability to reject those interventions. The Chinese, for example, were not in a position to tell the Japanese to go home in 1907 or 1932. By contrast the Japanese could and did send their European advisors away in the 1890s. The former was a relationship defined by imperialism, while the latter illustrated Japan's measure of independence from European control. A further characteristic that distinguishes imperialism from other forms of influence is the scale of the disparity of power between the two societies and the one-sided pattern of intervention that emerges. In this way, imperialism is different from interdependence. Japanese influenced basic decisions which structured the economic and political conditions of Northeast China, but Chinese had no such power in Japanese government circles. Such interventions, moreover, may be effected through both formal and informal channels. Hence, the term imperialism is not synonymous with colonialism, but rather subsumes it. Japanese conditioned social life in Northeast China both through formal colonial institutions—the Kwantung governor general and the Manchukuo government—as well as through such informal methods of control as military threat, market dominance, and the cultivation of a collaborative elite.

A final distinction may be added here between imperialism as process and empire as structure. Imperialism is empire building; it represents the process of constructing a relationship of domination. Empire signifies what is built—the structures that produce and reproduce dominance. For Japan and Manchukuo this distinction captures both the mercurial dynamism of the process as well as the ossified weightiness of the structures that together, incongruously, characterized the imperial project.


Excerpted from Japan's Total Empire by Louise Young. Copyright © 1998 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Map and Tables, ix,
Acknowledgments, xi,
Note on Sources, xiii,
1. Manchukuo and Japan, 3,
2. The Jewel in the Crown: The International Context of Manchukuo, 21,
3. War Fever: Imperial Jingoism and the Mass Media, 55,
4. Go-Fast Imperialism: Elite Politics and Mass Mobilization, 115,
5. Uneasy Partnership: Soldiers and Capitalists in the Colonial Economy, 183,
6. Brave New Empire: Utopian Vision and the Intelligentsia, 241,
7. Reinventing Agrarianism: Rural Crisis and the Wedding of Agriculture to Empire, 307,
8. The Migration Machine: Manchurian Colonization and State Growth, 352,
9. Victims of Empire, 399,
10. The Paradox of Total Empire, 415,
Bibliography, 437,
Index, 457,

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