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date: 29 February 2024

Japanese Empire in Manchuriafree

Japanese Empire in Manchuriafree

  • Emer O'DwyerEmer O'DwyerDepartment of East Asian Studies, Oberlin College


China’s three northeastern provinces (Fengtian, Heilongjiang, and Jilin) were transfigured by Japanese imperialism in the opening decades of the 20th century. South Manchuria and the Kwantung Leasehold on the Liaodong Peninsula in particular became the site of a railway imperialism that would, beginning in 1905, allow Japan to claim a sphere of influence in the northeast and profit from the export of soybeans, coal, lumber, and other raw materials from the region. The South Manchuria Railway Company (or “Mantetsu”), which held the dual mantle of joint stock-owning company and governmental national-policy company, was the central organ in Japan’s so-called management of Manchuria. The expansion of Mantetsu’s rail network (originally built by Czarist Russia in the late 1890s) in the post–World War I years allowed for greater extraction of resources and greater wealth for company stockholders, while giving rise to an upswell of protest from a burgeoning nationalist movement in mainland China as well as in the northeast itself. Throughout the preconquest period (pre-September 1931), bureaucrats, Mantetsu employees, doctors, teachers, and economic sojourners of every stripe made a home for themselves in Japanese Manchuria, parts of which were transformed to replicate the modern conveniences and amenities of the metropole’s urban centers.

The Manchurian Incident, which began on September 18, 1931, with a plot by renegade officers from the Kwantung Army (a division of the Japanese Imperial Army) to destroy Mantetsu track and blame it on Chinese brigands, led to the military takeover of the three northeastern provinces by January 1932. The establishment of the army-led state of Manchukuo in March 1932 gave way to a new kind of Japanese power and influence on the continent—one that operated independently from Tokyo and at the pleasure of the Kwantung Army. Despite repeated proclamations of pan-Asian unity and the harmony of the five races by the state’s propaganda agents, Manchukuo existed for the purpose of strengthening Japan’s war machine, as well as for planning a total renovation of the domestic Japanese state in line with army objectives.


  • Japan
  • Political

Meiji-era Manchuria

Establishing Japanese Manchuria

In the late 19th century, the far northeastern corner of China’s great land mass was referred to by Westerners as Manchuria and by Japanese as Manshū. To the Qing imperial court in Peking, the region was an ancestral homeland and, accordingly, kept administratively separate from the Chinese mainland west of the Willow Palisade, and deliberately underpopulated by force of a 1653 ban on migration to the region by non-Manchus.1 In the post–Opium War race among the Western powers to carve up China, Manchuria occupied a most desirable location. The powers—as well as Japan, which aspired to join their ranks—were eager to establish footholds in the region and gain access to Manchuria’s rich natural resources while benefiting from its strategic location at the crossroads of Eastern empires.

When the Japanese Imperial Army defeated the Qing Empire in 1895 in the first Sino-Japanese War, Tokyo moved quickly to secure a peace deal that would yield a slice of territory on the continent. The Treaty of Shimonoseki, concluded in mid-April 1895, formalized the Qing’s agreement to cede the Liaodong Peninsula in southern Manchuria to Japanese control. Yet, Russian unease at what was seen as Japan’s burgeoning imperial ambitions in China (as well as Korea) led to the Triple Intervention of April 23, 1895, in which Russia, France, and Germany intervened in the postwar settlement between Peking and Tokyo, recommending that Japan retrocede to the Qing its newly acquired land lease. Japan’s reluctant acquiescence to the “advice” of the powers and acceptance of monetary reparations alone (amounting to 31.5 million taels, or 38 million British pounds) was followed in short order by Russia’s hasty negotiations over the following months to arrange for the construction of a Russian-managed, east–west “Chinese Eastern Railway.” Such a railway would allow for the Trans-Siberian Railway to span the continent from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, where a port for the czar’s navy had been completed in 1871.

However, given the extremity of Vladivostok’s climate during the winter months, there was need for an ice-free port to harbor the imperial fleet. The ports of Dalny and Port Arthur, located at the southern tip of the Liaodong Peninsula, were ideal for this purpose, and so in 1898, representatives of Czar Nicholas’s government signed a treaty with Qing officials granting a twenty-five-year lease to a corridor of land stretching from the northern city of Changchun to Port Arthur, approximately 435 miles distant. Thus, by the turn of the century, China’s three northeastern provinces (Fengtian, Heilongjiang, and Jilin) were transformed by the construction of a T-junction of railways. Small towns were built at the midstations of the main trunk line linking termini at Changchun and Port Arthur.

Located just thirty-seven miles north of Port Arthur was Dalny, a town designed by the czar’s architects and engineers as a representation of imperial opulence in the East. The city was designed and constructed with lavish attention to detail in its grand boulevards and leafy public spaces. City and port facilities prompted enthusiastic reviews in the Western presses in the early 1900s, as well as presumably a series of shocks at the Duma in Petersburg when the final price tag for civic construction (thirty million rubles) was made known.

Yet, Russia had little chance to see a return on its investment. For in early 1904, Dalny passed from Russian to Japanese control following a joint naval and army attack in early February on the czar’s naval installations at Port Arthur. A year and a half later, on September 5, 1905, the Treaty of Portsmouth brought the Russo-Japanese War to an end. Subsequent conclusion of the Treaty of Peking on December 22 effected the transfer to Japan of Russia’s rights to its north–south rail line (with provisions for the stationing of up to fifteen soldiers per 0.62 miles of track), railway zone stations, and all other privileges originally obtained from the Qing in 1898. Japan had reclaimed the very territory it had been made to forfeit a decade earlier, while also inheriting the built environment for railway imperialism.

The first Japanese civilian sojourners were a rough-and-ready assortment of prostitutes and provisioners who had hastily made their way to Manchuria during wartime, well in advance of Tokyo’s lifting of prohibitions on migration to the region. There, they plied their trades, on the edge of army encampments and along the rail lines. The establishment of Japanese banks and trading companies in Japanese-occupied Manchuria similarly preceded war’s end and the conclusion of the peace. The Yokohama Specie bank established a branch in Dairen (the new Japanese name for Dalny) in August 1904, and in Fengtian (also known by its Manchu name, Mukden) in May 1905, just weeks after the cessation of especially brutal fighting in the area, which served as the regional Chinese administrative and commercial center. By December, the Mitsui Bussan trading conglomerate had opened a branch office in Fengtian, a move that replaced British and American goods with Japanese goods in Manchurian markets and led to the first of many charges by the powers alleging Japan’s violation of the Open Door Policy and unfair advantage in the region.2

Managing Manchuria

In October 1905, Japan’s wartime provisional government (Manshū sōshireikan) gave way to the Kwantung Government-General, a formal structure of military rule that took orders from General Ōshima Yoshimasa and was responsible for both the administration of railways and maintenance of public order in the newly acquired territory into which hundreds of Japanese carpet baggers and get-rich-quick types arrived daily. Frictions quickly developed between local Chinese residents and the Japanese newcomers who were driven to unscrupulous lengths by a combination of their quest for fast riches and newly acquired sense of national superiority. Scottish missionary Dugald Christie, who ran a hospital in Fengtian from 1883 to 1913, related the bitter remembrance of a Chinese man subjected to two foreign occupations in the space of a decade. In particular, the man recoiled when recalling the avarice of “low-class [Japanese] civilians”: “The Russians sometimes took our property for nothing, but more often paid four times its worth. The Japanese profess to pay for everything, but never give more than a quarter the real value.”3

Meanwhile in Tokyo in mid-January 1906, a Research Committee on the Management of Manchuria was formed to develop a strategy for governing newly acquired Japanese Manchuria, a designation used here (and after) to refer to the 1,337-square-miles Kwantung Leasehold and accompanying Railway Zone, which measured 2,045 square miles of land stretched in a narrow column over 404 miles. Among the tasks facing the committee was the question of how to respond to foreign criticism alleging Japanese protectionism in Manchurian markets. In December 1905, British silkworm merchants had been barred from travel down the Yalu River by a Japanese Army–imposed ban on foreign boat traffic on this major waterway in Manchuria.4 Two months later, American tobacco merchants filed a petition of grievance with the U.S. State Department, complaining of Japanese prohibition of American entry into Japanese Manchuria from the treaty port of Newchang, located roughly fifteen miles from the Kwantung Leasehold’s western border.5 In London in March, the issue of Japanese protectionism was raised in a parliamentary hearing.6 At the heart of the issue for civilian officials in Tokyo (and especially those in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) was deciding the very nature of Japan’s rule over its lease rights in Manchuria. Should, as the Army Ministry staunchly believed, governance continue to be military led? Or, should Tokyo adopt a more conciliatory approach to the Western powers (and their economic interests)?

A move toward conciliation came in the form of a diplomatic opening. By June 1906, foreign consulates were opened in Fengtian, Andong, and Dairen. A second conciliation took the form of an imperial rescript ordering the implementation of civic governance effective September 1, 1906.7 Similarly, in the Railway Zone, local military government outposts were replaced with rail police and/or governance by local consulates.8 The leasehold’s government-general was divided between civil and military affairs, with a headquarters in Port Arthur, or Ryojun as it became known under Japanese rule, and branch offices in Dairen and Jinzhou. General Ōshima’s continued tenure in the chief leadership position at the government-general suggested that in many ways the change to civil governance was in name only; the military tenor of governance remained unchanged.

Without a doubt the most consequential development of 1906 and the one that effectively provided both a focus to Japan’s presence in Manchuria and, fundamentally, an increase in trust from the powers was the establishment by Imperial Ordinance 142 on June 7, 1906, of the South Manchuria Railway Company (Minami Manshū tetsudō kabushiki gaisha). The particulars of this newly formed company—which would be known throughout its history by the abbreviated title, Mantetsu—would be decided, it was decreed on June 14, by an eighty-member consultative committee in Tokyo led by General Kodama Gentarō and variously composed of government ministry officials, Diet representatives from both the House of Councilors and House of Representatives, scholars, and prominent members of the nation’s business and financial elite, as well as two officials from the Kwantung Government-General. (The untimely death of Kodama on July 22 led to his replacement by Army minister general Terauchi Masatake as committee chief.)

By early August 1906, Mantetsu had been awarded the imprimatur of the nation’s most powerful elite as a joint stock-holding enterprise endowed with a government mandate for the execution of national policy to manage Tokyo’s colonial rule over Japanese Manchuria. On August 14, the Diet approved the establishment of this new “national policy company,” setting its capitalization at 200 million yen, half of which would be raised by the sale of company stock. Release of stock on the Tokyo exchange in early September yielded quick rewards and demonstrated the tremendous appeal of stock backed by a government guarantee of an annual 6 percent on returns. On April 1, 1907, Mantetsu formally began operations.

Mantetsu’s charter named the company’s main enterprises to be operation of railways, mines, river transport, electric works, a hotel-service industry, and warehouses for agricultural surplus throughout Japanese Manchuria. Mantetsu also managed non–profit-making ventures such as schools, libraries, and hospitals. In the Railway Zone, the company’s role as a governmental entity was most pronounced. Mantetsu’s Rural Affairs Department was authorized to levy a public-service fee on Railway Zone residents to cover all matters in the public interest, including (but not limited to) policing, construction, utilities, and sanitation.

Meiji statesman Gotō Shinpei would leave his position in the Taiwan Government General to assume the presidency of the new company, assisted by Nakamura Zekō as vice president. The appointment of Gotō as president was no surprise given his leadership role on the Tokyo-based Research Committee on the Management of Manchuria. It was he who formulated the basic conceptual framework for “managing Manchuria,” encapsulated in a policy he termed “military readiness in civil disguise.” Similarly, it was he who dictated the special privileges to be accorded company leadership: chiefly, the honor of direct imperial appointment and freedom to manage company operations without interference from the army, zaibatsu, senior statesmen (genrō), or heads of the metropolitan political parties. From the start, the connections between Mantetsu and the Kwantung Government-General were intimate. The government-general would provide bureaucratic oversight of Mantetsu, and company president Gotō would sit on the advisory board of the government-general. Nakamura Zekō as Mantetsu vice president would concurrently head the government-general’s civil-affairs bureau. But, it was Gotō, more than anyone, who explicitly defined Mantetsu’s “special mission,” which he regularly reminded employees and stockholders alike must be honored as the special bequest of the Meiji emperor in whose name the war had been fought, the peace won, and the empire attained.

Yet, by the last years of Meiji, popular opinion in Japan had soured against the colony in “far-off Manchuria.” Concerns about the riskiness of major investment in a place considered wild and unsettled spiked after the October 1909 assassination in Harbin of former prime minister Itō Hirobumi by Korean patriot An Chung-gŭn. One year later, an outbreak of pneumonic plague ravaged northern Manchuria before spread of the deadly disease was halted by Dr. Kitazato Shibasaburō and fellow bacteriologists, aided by a 410,000 yen issuance of Mantetsu bonds. Officials despaired at what was seen as a stunning lack of results in encouraging long-term migration to the Kwantung Leasehold and Railway Zone. In 1905, Foreign Minister Komura Jutarō had optimistically anticipated a thriving settler colony of some four million Japanese after two decades of settlement. A more pragmatic Gotō Shinpei downgraded the estimate to a hopeful 500,000. Yet, this too seemed unattainable as soil quality and irrigation problems in southern Manchuria, in particular, were judged as uniquely unsuited to rice-paddy cultivation.

These were difficult years for Mantetsu as the company spent huge amounts of money and manpower upgrading port facilities at Dairen, refitting the main trunk line of the railway to accommodate commercial use, and building a new Andong–Fengtian branch line to connect supply chains among mines, factories, and ports. Resistance from Qing officials was frequent and led to tense relations until the 1911 uprising in Wuhan toppled the Manchu dynasty and gave rise to new uncertainties among Japanese officials and settlers alike over the security of Japan’s treaty rights. Gotō Shinpei had stepped down as Mantetsu president in July 1908, entrusting this most difficult of foundational moments to his second in command, the far less politically skillful Nakamura Zekō.

The eruption of the Taishō Political Crisis in late 1912 and subsequent formation of a new cabinet in Tokyo in early 1913 under Admiral Yamamoto Gonnohyōe led to the political downfall of Nakamura Zekō and his replacement in December by Nomura Ryūtarō and deputy Itō Daihachi. The appointment of these two high-ranking members of the Seiyūkai political party heralded a new era in Mantetsu’s history in which factional politics in Tokyo would increasingly dictate policy for managing Manchuria.

Over the next two decades, the Mantetsu presidency as well as much of its board of directors changed with each cabinet reshuffling in Tokyo. Thus, just as cabinets in Tokyo alternated between leadership by either the Seiyūkai or Minseitō party, so too did Mantetsu’s executive posts alternate between men loyal to these two rival parties. This pattern of patronage politics was met with consternation among Japanese Manchuria’s settlers throughout the preconquest period, that is, pre-September 1931 period.

The Maturation of Continental Empire during the Taishō Period (1912–1926)

Post-WWI Affluence and Intra-Imperial Frictions

The early Taisho years were often described, in later decades, as marking Mantetsu’s adolescence. And, indeed, both the physical shape and character of the company changed substantially during these years. These changes were due to the maturation of the Japanese Empire as a whole during these years and, relatedly, to the changed geopolitical environment occasioned by the Great War of 1914–1918 and its aftermath.

The formal annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910, following a five-year protectorate, coincided with the consolidation of power within the Korean Government-General by General Terauchi Masatake. Terauchi, like other generals belonging to the army’s influential Chōshu clique, believed that a revenge attack by imperial Russia for the losses sustained in 1904 and 1905 was a near certainty. An ambition to forcefully deter such an attack led Terauchi to engineer a creative solution to fortifying commercial trade routes in Korea such that they could be adapted to military purposes at a moment’s notice. Terauchi’s schema was as follows. The Korean Peninsula would become the main pathway for crops (especially soybeans) from northern Manchurian fields to metropolitan markets. By negotiating reduced customs duties, trade tariffs, and freight charges between Korea and China (under a fledgling republican government), the Pusan–Seoul–Andong–Fengtian route would take precedence over the Dairen–Fengtian route managed by Mantetsu. In terms of financing, the overland Korea route would pay for itself in short order (such was the volume of agricultural goods harvested in northern Manchuria and such were the discounts negotiated in 1913 for their transport). With quick passage of a Diet appropriations bill that would allow the government to cover the major costs associated with refitting the track of Korea’s Chōsen Railway (known colloquially as “Sentetsu”), the Korean rails would be capable of accommodating a heavy payload of troops and munitions—and thereby securing Korea as a bulwark in protecting the homeland against a Russian attack.

Naturally, residents of Manchuria (especially those in Dairen) opposed Terauchi’s plan to bypass the policy of Dairen-centrism as established by the Saionji Kinmochi cabinet in 1906 as the basis for Japan’s management of Manchuria. Merchants—both Japanese and Chinese—throughout Japanese Manchuria mobilized against what became known as the Three Rails Affair, vehemently protesting a shifting of the imperial center that would put their livelihoods at risk. At the forefront of civic protest were two of the Kwantung Leasehold’s wealthiest men, Ishimoto Kantarō and Aioi Yoshitarō. Both had come to Manchuria in the immediate wake of the Russo-Japanese War and, in short order, made their fortune: Ishimoto by winning the monopoly for managing the leasehold’s licensed opium trade and Aioi by providing Chinese laborers for Mantetsu’s rail and port operations in Dairen. Viewed from the perspective of the Meiji-era ethic of “rising in the world” (risshin shusse), both were unequivocal success stories. Viewed from the perspective of a persistent metropolitan snobbery directed at anyone who made his fortune in the empire, both men were examples of “colonial gentlemen,” a phrase that inspired scorn among metropolitan commentators, reflecting disdainful suspicion regarding the provenance of the riches in question.

Intra-imperial frictions caused by the warring imperial rails were at their height between 1913 and 1916, years during which Ishimoto and other representatives of the colonial bourgeoisie (of both Japanese Manchuria and Korea) traveled frequently to Tokyo to press their respective cases before officials in the cabinet and Railway Ministry. Ironically, while it was anticipation of one war (a second Russo-Japanese conflict) that began the Three Rails Affair, it was the fortunes of a more wide-ranging conflict that ultimately eased intra-imperial relations and assured that Japanese Manchuria would not be sacrificed for the benefit of a Korea-centered defense policy.

World War I is often described as a godsend for Japan. Certainly, that was the case for Japanese Manchuria. In November 1914, just three months following the outbreak of war, Japanese imperial army troops occupied Jiaozhou Bay in Shandong Prefecture (southwest across the Bohai sea from the Kwantung Leasehold) and seized Qingdao from German control. Excited by the prospect of riches to be had in this latest imperial acquisition, an assortment of carpetbaggers left Dairen for Qingdao in late 1914, prompting fears by officialdom and civic boosters of Dairen’s abandonment.

Yet by 1915, the fortunes of war were abundantly evident in Dairen and throughout Japanese Manchuria. As the European conflict dragged into a second full year, the port of Dairen boasted receipts of 100 million yen in trade and 2.5 million tons of cargo entering and leaving. Wartime affluence fueled the construction of civic amenities throughout the leasehold and Railway Zone as Mantetsu poured money into the construction of residential and shopping areas, schools, and hospitals.

Map 1. South Manchuria Railway, c. 1915.

Map 2. Northeast Asia.

By the end of 1915, Dairen’s total population represented a 40-percent increase over 1910 totals. The continued reliance by the European powers on the import of soybeans from Manchuria guaranteed the profitability of local enterprises and large corporations alike through war’s end. Indeed, profitability only increased in the months after the armistice of November 1918. Between 1918 and 1922, Mantetsu’s rail profits doubled. Metropolitan investors saw new promise in the potential of Manchuria as a true promised land. In 1918, Manchuria attracted 840 million yen from Japan—an amount double that of metropolitan investment in the prewar years. In April 1920, stockholders (who gathered annually in Tokyo from throughout the nation and empire) agreed to a doubling of the company’s capitalization, approving a new total of 440 million yen. In the same year, Dairen’s total population increased over 1915 figures by 48 percent. Fears of Dairen’s abandonment dissolved.

However, just as the affluence of the post-WWI era gave rise to a variety of political patronage scandals throughout Japan in the early 1920s, so too was it discovered that large sums of money made by Mantetsu were regularly funneled into the coffers of the political parties in Tokyo. The company’s vulnerability to Seiyūkai-led corruption in particular was exposed in a twin pair of scandals in 1920 in which Seiyūkai-affiliated members of the Mantetsu directorate (an elite corps comprising some of the company’s largest stockholders) conspired with employees at subsidiary companies to pay inflated prices for infrastructure, goods, and services and then donate the difference between price and value to the Seiyūkai. Official inquiry into one of the scandals, the Tōren Coal Mine Incident, commanded the attention of the National Diet in Tokyo for several months in early 1921 and led to the coining by Minseitō representative Hayami Seiji of one of the era’s most commonly used epithets for Mantetsu: fukumaden, or “den of demons.”

The Kingdom of Mantetsu

The mid-1920s witnessed the continued growth of Mantetsu’s operations. In August 1924, preliminary tests aimed at distilling oil from siltstone led to the May 1925 opening of a pilot plant for oil shale. Extensive research by company engineers at the Fushun Colliery led to the introduction of mechanized extraction techniques aimed at maximizing the amount of coal drawn from the area’s enormous open-cut mines. (By 1925, Fushun’s mines produced 15,000 tons of coal per day for a total of five million tons per year.)

It was during these years that Mantetsu’s mission came to assume the characteristics of a profit-making company over those of a national policy company. Later critics of Mantetsu’s orientation in the post-WWI period as a for-profit company tended to blame the one-sided profile on the foreign policy of Shidehara Kijūrō, who served as foreign minister for most of the 1920s and consistently advocated a policy of non-intervention in China. It should be noted that a heavy emphasis on profit making was in no way a violation of the company’s mission. Rather, profitable management represented a core element of Mantetsu’s mandate.

As Mantetsu’s wealth multiplied, Japanese employees enjoyed a variety of modern amenities in their homes, as well as a taste for the luxury readily available in the major cities of Dairen and Fengtian, to which employees stationed in the Railway Zone regularly flocked for leisure and recreation. (Employees enjoyed free travel on Mantetsu’s rails as one of many company benefits.) Despite the generous salaries awarded to Mantetsu’s white-collar workers, employee debt became a major concern of company management by the late 1920s as a yearning to acquire radios, expensive wristwatches, phonograph players, fur stoles, and off-the-rack fashion-strained pocketbooks and fueled cries that the sacred bequest of the Meiji emperor was being despoiled by excessive consumerism.

Of course, in a company of 20,572 Japanese employees (1927 figures) divided among at least eight major employment categories ranks, not all employees enjoyed the same lifestyle.9 By 1927, salaried workers at Mantetsu made up 24.7 percent of the workforce. In that year, esteemed graduates of the law faculty of Tokyo University could expect a monthly salary of 80 yen, which was competitive with the wages earned by employees of Tokyo’s most prestigious corporations and financial institutions. Nonsalaried Japanese workers, who composed roughly 30 percent of company rolls, occupied blue-collar jobs in Mantetsu’s factories, rail yards, docks, warehouses, hospitals, and schools. Like their salaried compatriots, these workers received free company housing, membership in the company consumer cooperative, health insurance (kyōsai seido), a family allowance, and an overseas hardship allowance.

Chinese laborers occupied the remaining 40 percent or so of Mantetsu’s work force. These men worked the most difficult and dangerous jobs—in the Fushun mines, on the Dairen docks, in the Anshan steel mill, and up and down the length of the rails. Barracked in small, cramped quarters near the docks (where a few hours rest followed long hours of toil) and earning only a small fraction of the wages given to the lowest-ranking of Mantetsu’s Japanese unskilled workers, Mantetsu’s Chinese laboring class lived on the knife edge between exhaustion and starvation. By the mid-1920s, heightened political instability in Shandong prompted a substantial increase in the number of migrant laborers arriving in Dairen either to be dispatched north for the work of harvesting Manchuria’s soy crop between November and February, or staying in Dairen to load the harvest onto boats or into silos. A series of natural disasters in China’s Shandong and Hebei provinces in 1927 swelled the tide of migrants to an estimated one million—an almost tenfold increase in number over six years earlier.

Thus by April 1927, which marked the twentieth anniversary of the start of Mantetsu operations, Manchuria had proven itself as a shining example of a classic colonial marketplace: the export of raw materials yielded great value for metropolitan investors, as exemplified by a 10 percent stock dividend to investors for a tenth consecutive year. Business improved even more in 1928, which marked the busiest year ever at Dairen port, when 8.3 million tons of goods and resources—85 percent of which were destined for export—passed through. The dividend to Mantetsu stockholders rose to 11 percent reflecting a 42.5 million yen annual profit.

Yet, claims to the region’s success as a settler colony were dubious. Commitment to life in the “kingdom,” as Mantetsu’s vast area of influence came to be known, was a rarity, whether by Japanese bureaucrats, merchants, salarymen, or continental adventurers. Many returned to the metropole after short sojourns, having deemed the trade-off between a fat paycheck and the comforts of home weighted in favor of the latter. Others left for other areas of overseas Japanese occupation, whether Korea or as far afield as Brazil. A common factor linking the many who left was insufficient trust in their government to protect them against a rising tide of Chinese nationalism.

“The Manchuria Problem”: Zhang Zuolin as Client Warlord

Among the many virtues of Gotō Shinpei—as noted in latter-day hagiographies of the monocled statesman—was his deft management of relations with Peking. Here was a president who personally enjoined members of his management team to strive for good relations with the Qing monarchy, as well as with all “foreigners” in Manchuria. Thus, every year Gotō hosted a lavish birthday party for her imperial majesty, the Empress Dowager Cixi, in the elegant environs of an 1890s-era mansion in Dairen’s “Russia-town,” where subjects of the czar had once raised toasts of champagne and caviar. (Similarly, Gotō regularly fêted Russian officials of the Chinese Eastern Railway in pre-revolutionary days with sumptuous receptions at the Mantetsu president’s official residence in Tokyo’s Azabu district.)

Yet, the changed geopolitical circumstances of 1915—defined not only by bitter fighting in Europe but also by the surge of Russian emigrants into Siberia and the transformation of the Qing Empire into a modern republic—prompted the Ōkuma Shigenobu cabinet in Tokyo toward aggressive action in maintaining and, indeed, expanding its treaty rights in Manchuria. The signal step in the straining of relations with Peking was the Ōkuma cabinet’s May 1915 imposition of the Twenty-One Demands on Yuan Shikai’s government. Group Two of the Demands epitomized Tokyo’s ambition to expand its economic and political control over the continent: it stipulated that Japan’s lease on the Kwantung Leasehold and Railway Zone would expire in 1997 rather than 1923, as originally agreed upon. The Demands, which Peking’s foreign minister Lou Tseng-Tsiang was obliged to sign, also granted Tokyo preferential rights on railways, mines, and the extension of loans, as well as permission for Japanese nationals to live and buy land anywhere in southern Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia. This last stipulation was of special significance owing to the persistent dissatisfaction expressed by Japanese settlers regarding the space restrictions imposed on their rights of residence under the December 1905 Peking Treaty. The Twenty-One Demands paved the way for unrestricted Japanese habitation throughout the northeast and, in doing so, naturalized Japan’s presence throughout the region. Chinese protests against the Demands were immediate and vitriolic; anti-Japanese boycotts broke out throughout the leasehold and Railway Zone, a harbinger of things to come.

The original twenty-five lease to the Kwantung Leasehold and Rail Zone was due to expire on March 26, 1923. So, beginning in January 1923, protesters in Peking, Shanghai, and Tianjin in particular gathered with hopes of restoring the land in question to Chinese sovereignty. On January 17, the republic’s newly constituted parliament in Peking opened with a bill on the document to abolish the Twenty-One Demands and return Dairen and Ryojun to China. The boycotting of Japanese businesses continued apace along the Chinese seaboard.

Yet, Manchuria was largely spared from the effects of a burgeoning Chinese nationalism. One reason for this was the guarantee issued by Japan’s client warlord in the region, Zhang Zuolin, to deliver severe punishment to those residents of the northeast who engaged in rights-recovery demonstrations. For a moment, Zhang presented himself as the ideal client warlord. Similarly, his promise of swift and forceful retribution against would-be labor organizers (and the effectiveness of this promise overall) in the overheated post-WWI economy also endeared him to officials among Manchuria’s triad of Japanese officialdom: the Kwantung Government-General, Foreign Ministry, and Mantetsu.

On balance, however, Tokyo’s relationship with Zhang Zuolin was characterized by routine tensions, caused in the main by Zhang’s failure to curb his considerable territorial and political ambitions. These ambitions manifested themselves first in the Fengtian-Zhili War of 1921–1922 in which Zhang bested rival warlord Wu Peifu to extend his rule over Jehol, Chahar, and Suiyuan (current Hohhot city in Inner Mongolia). In the years that followed, Zhang’s ambitions grew, causing Japanese officials to question the soundness of the arrangement, established by the Hara Kei cabinet in 1921, by which Zhang was granted a free hand in the governance of the three northeastern provinces in return for his guarantee that the considerable chaos of the Chinese Republic not breach the Willow Palisade and so enter Manchuria. Tokyo’s goodwill was further strained in September 1924 on the occasion of the Second Fengtian-Zhili War, when again Zhang demonstrated his ambition to involve himself in extra-Manchurian affairs. The revolt by Zhang’s own deputy Guo Songling in November 1924 brought the fighting directly to Manchuria, with Mantetsu’s operations in Fengtian caught squarely in the zone of combat between Zhang and Guo’s soldiers. Financial aid issued from Mantetsu’s treasury into Zhang’s coffers saved the warlord from certain defeat but was representative of the increasing tensions in Japan’s alliance with the Old Marshal.

A Time of Crisis: The Preconquest Period (1926–1931)

“The Manchuria Problem”: Rights Infringement and Economic Strain

Rapidly changing geopolitical circumstances further strained the status quo in Manchuria. In July 1926, General Chiang Kai-shek launched his northern expedition from Guangdong province, intent on bringing all of China under Kuomintang rule. In April 1927, Chiang executed a massacre of Communist Party members and sympathizers in Shanghai, revealing the extent of his determination to become the sole ruler of a new era in unified Chinese governance, far removed from the unstable era of warlord politics. Foremost of concern in Tokyo, where General Tanaka Giichi had formed a new government on April 20, 1927, was maintenance of Japan’s special rights on the continent—especially in Manchuria—and assurance from Chiang that Japanese residents and businesses throughout mainland China would be unmolested by fighting. Tanaka’s dispatch of troops on two occasions to Shandong (in May 1927 and again in April 1928) was early proof that his style of foreign policy (Tanaka assumed the portfolio of foreign minister in addition to that of prime minister) departed sharply from the policy of non-interference exemplified by his predecessor, Shidehara Kijūrō.

On the ground in Manchuria, settler frustration grew with what was seen as government unresponsiveness to a newly aggressive Chinese nationalism. Japanese residents complained bitterly about an ever-increasing roster of rights infringements: of being refused permission to rent properties, having shops boycotted, rocks thrown at their children. It was not simply Zhang’s crimes of omission (being remiss in his promise to suppress anti-Japanese boycotting) that drew ire, but also his sins of commission. Zhang’s economic ambitions were seen as particularly objectionable—most especially his launch of a series of railway-construction projects in the mid-1920s that violated an addendum to the 1905 Peking Treaty guaranteeing a competition-free zone around Mantetsu’s main trunk line. Protested too were his plans to make the port of Huludao (west of the leasehold) into a major rival of Japan’s main entrepôt at Dairen.

For many officials in Japanese Manchuria and especially enlisted men in the Kwantung Army (which had undergone a major reorganization in 1919), the belief grew that Japan’s association with Zhang Zuolin had outlived its usefulness. Thus, at 5:30 am on the morning of June 4, 1928, as Zhang returned from Peking to Fengtian by train, he was killed by the explosion of a bomb placed under the track of the Peking–Fengtian Railway at a juncture just west of Fengtian. The attack, though blamed on local Chinese insurgents, was the work of Kwantung Army colonel Kōmoto Daisaku, who was placed on administrative leave in Kyoto in the aftermath of the incident.

Meanwhile, Chiang Kai-shek’s race to consolidate rule over a unified China gathered steam with his troops’ occupation of Peking on June 10, just four days after Zhang Zuolin’s murder. On July 3, Zhang Xueliang, son of the Old Marshal, assumed his father’s post as ruler of the three northeastern provinces. In Tokyo, Prime Minister Tanaka Giichi’s determination to keep Kuomintang troops out of Manchuria assumed new urgency. Yet, the status quo ante was unsustainable—a reality made clear on December 29, 1928, when the “Young Marshal” raised the Kuomintang flag over Fengtian, heralding the unification of Manchuria and nationalist China. It was a gesture that equated with the complete failure of both Tanaka’s China and Manchuria policies. Nonetheless, the Tanaka cabinet managed to keep a hold on power in Tokyo until July 1929, when the loss of imperial confidence occasioned by official cover-up of the June 1928 Kōmoto Affair (i.e., assassination of Zhang Zuolin) resulted at last in cabinet collapse.

As the Hamaguchi Osachi cabinet assumed power in early summer 1929, Japan’s special interests in Manchuria faced several overlapping crises. Chinese nationalism had steadily grown in intensity throughout the mid-1920s as the messages of the Chinese Communist Party (established in Shanghai in 1921) merged with those championing the cause of self-determination (as promoted by President Woodrow Wilson at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference). In spring 1929, Chinese officials throughout Manchuria began to demand that Mantetsu be stripped of responsibility for running schools for Chinese students in the Railway Zone, and that those schools be administered instead by the Fengtian government. In May, Zhang Xueliang issued an edict forbidding Japanese residence in the northern Manchurian province of Jilin—an edict in direct violation of the concessions won by the Twenty-One Demands. The summer return of Belgium’s leasehold in Tianjin as well as of Britain’s leaseholds in Weihaiwai, Zhenjiang (on the southern bank of the Yangtze River near Nanjing), and Amoy provided hope that 1929 marked a turning point in the struggle to end Japanese rule in northeast China.

Without question, the economic crises of the early Shōwa years exacerbated the sense of crisis felt by settlers and officialdom alike over the stability of Japanese rights in Manchuria. A lingering recession in Dairen throughout the early 1920s was made worse by the collapse of the Bank of Taiwan in 1927, and two years later “Black Friday” on Wall Street and subsequent global economic depression. Between 1929 and 1930, Mantetsu’s overall profits dropped from 45.5 million to 21.67 million yen. Profitability declined further in 1931 with year-end totals for rail income registering 10 million yen less in receipts than in 1930, which had itself seen a record low. (By mid-1931, some 3,000 cargo railcars sat idle with no funds available for their repair.) Receipts on Fushun coal—second of the company’s chief money-making operations—similarly recorded astonishing shortfalls in 1930 and 1931. Between 1929 and 1931, some three thousand Mantetsu employees were fired. Those fortunate enough to keep their jobs faced wide-ranging cuts to salary and benefits in August 1931. Japanese Manchuria saw its numbers dwindle as those beset by financial and security concerns retired or resigned and, in many cases, returned to Japan.

Many of the settlers who stayed threw their energies into what may be termed “imperial populism”—a kind of political activism focused on the demand for Tokyo to address the crisis in Manchuria. While former Mantetsu vice president Matsuoka Yōsuke had spoken famously of Manchuria as “Japan’s lifeline” in an address before the 59th Diet in January 1931, other domestic politicians, imperial populists claimed, cared little for what was perceived as the regular infringement of Japan’s special rights on the continent. Thus did groups such as the Manchuria Youth League (Manshū seinen renmei) and the Majestic Peak Society (Dayūhōkai) send their members to Japan in summer 1931 to draw attention to the worsening security situation, demand governmental protection, and make the case to their metropolitan compatriots for a military solution.

The Manchurian Incident

At approximately 10:30 pm on September 18, 1931, first lieutenant Kawamoto Suemori and six subordinates in the second division of the Japanese railway police in Fengtian detonated a bomb on Mantetsu track at Liutiaohu, just three miles from Beidaying, main barracks of Zhang Xueliang’s Fengtian army. The explosion, which was immediately blamed on Chinese soldiers in the area, served as catalyst for Japan’s military takeover of the whole of the three northeastern provinces. In the months that followed, the Kwantung Army reinforced by troops from the Korean Government-General moved with lightning speed through Manchuria, seizing control of the region and installing Japanese-friendly leaders in each newly conquered territory. By February 5, 1932, the northern city of Harbin had fallen to Japanese forces, signaling the Kwantung Army’s complete conquest of the region.

What made this blitzkrieg successful? Certainly, the odds against Kwantung Army success in mid-September 1931 were considerable. First, the Kwantung Army had negligible funds at its disposal at the start of hostilities. What was more, total manpower was a mere fraction of that available to Zhang Xueliang, who could have mustered some 300,000 men from his own armies, with more available from those of his allies. (The Kwantung Army had only 12,000 troops.) Zhang also had access to a formidable array of transportation options thanks to his father’s determined campaign throughout the mid-1920s to build both railways and air fields to hasten the development of his vision of native capitalist development. Finally, in the predawn hours of September 19, the Kwantung Army was issued repeated warnings from Tokyo (both Foreign Ministry and Army Ministry alike) to contain fighting and de-escalate hostilities.

The absence of a documentary trail means that the question of Tokyo’s foreknowledge of the September 18 attack will likely remain unresolved. The better question, nonetheless, asks who in Tokyo was surprised by the attack. Proposals advocating an armed solution to the “Manchuria problem” regularly issued from groups of imperial populists in both Japanese Manchuria and the metropole throughout spring and summer 1931. In June, following the killing of Imperial Army Captain Nakamura Shintarō and three traveling companions on the Manchurian border with Inner Mongolia, top leadership in the Army Ministry and General Staff in Tokyo issued a report detailing measures for the forceful seizure of control over the northeast should the security situation fail to improve. In early August, army minister Minami Jirō made public his address to an internal division and commanders’ conference in which he spoke of the increasing likelihood of imminent war. Rumors of a dispatch of troops to the continent sent the price of Mantetsu stock down sharply in mid-August. On September 14, Kwantung Army supreme commander sent a cable to the Army General Staff in Tokyo, urging that top brass send an emissary to witness the spike of anti-Japanese activity allegedly encouraged by Zhang Xueliang. In private, at Ryojun headquarters, Kwantung Army staff officers Itagaki Seishirō and Ishiwara Kanji put final touches on plans for the military takeover of the northeast that they had been plotting since 1929.

Three factors stand out in explaining the success of the plot conceived by Itagaki and Ishiwara. The first is momentum. Both local and Japanese national media outlets were quick on hand to report the attack at Liutiaohu and pitch it in the highly charged emotional register associated with news coverage of rights trespass. This media coverage prompted an outpouring of popular support for military action in both Japanese Manchuria and the metropole. The sophisticated telecommunications capabilities of Dairen contributed to a tremendous volume of telegraphs and telephone calls between leasehold and metropole in the early-morning hours of September 19. The enthusiastic popular support that issued forth from Japan when the first news bulletins were received proved encouraging for the Kwantung Army, as did—crucially—the absence of a response from the Soviet Union.

There was, nonetheless, a moment in those heady early hours when Itagaki and Ishiwara’s plans faced abandonment. A hastily called meeting at the Ryojun residence of Kwantung Army chief of staff Miyake Mitsuharu to determine next steps concluded with the assembled staff officers agreeing that the renegade actions of the plotters could not be stopped now that the momentum of conquest was underway. Thus, following the capture of Fengtian in the daylight hours of September 19, Kwantung Army troops took Changchun on September 21, and Jilin on September 22. A readiness to ignore commands from Tokyo was a decisive factor in driving the speed of conquest. This was true not only of Kwantung Army commanders who ignored the initial calls from Tokyo to contain fighting, but also of General Hayashi Senjūrō, commander-in-chief of the Korean Government-General troops, who, in a serious breach of protocol, crossed the Yalu River into Manchuria on September 21 prior to receiving cabinet permission.

Assistance from Mantetsu to Kwantung Army operations was the second major factor that contributed forcefully to the military takeover of the northeast. Mantetsu provided both thoroughgoing operational and financial support beginning in the early morning hours of September 19. The Rails Department was ready with the rapid dispatch of trains throughout the northeast to move men and munitions, enabling the Kwantung Army to dramatically expand the geographic scale of the attack. Such immediate support notwithstanding, Mantetsu president Uchida Yasuya and vice president Eguchi Teijō (each appointed in mid-June 1931) acted cautiously in the early days, wary of cooperation with what they judged to be the Kwantung Army’s illegal actions as it became clear that “self-defense” had yielded to aggression and outright defiance of legitimate channels of command. Resistance by Mantetsu’s top executive came to an end, however, in early October when a series of discussions between Kwantung Army supreme commander Honjō Shigeru and president Uchida in Fengtian resulted in a public announcement by Mantetsu that the company would provide total support for army actions. Uchida’s announcement was an important public-relations victory for the Kwantung Army and one that cleared the way for the indefinite continuation of hostilities.

The final factor in understanding the Kwantung Army’s rapid takeover of the northeast can be found in the weakness of organized resistance. Following the early-morning attack on Beidaying on September 19, Zhang Xueliang fled to Jinzhou, in western Liaoning province. (The Kwantung Army’s aerial bombing of Jinzhou on October 8 was referred by China to the League of Nations as indisputable proof that Japanese actions had surpassed any reasonable claims to self-defense.) In addition to the leadership vacuum created by Zhang’s departure from Fengtian, a faith in the intervention of international arbiters to stop the fighting stymied the organization of a unified opposition throughout autumn 1931. To be sure, there were acts of resistance, but, for the most part, these operated on the level of infrastructure sabotage and were largely ineffective.

Manchukuo, 1932–1945

Making the State

Given the enormous challenges of minority rule in a territory in which Chinese residents outnumbered their Japanese neighbors by a ratio of approximately fifty to one, the placement of local governance in Chinese hands was a top priority of Kwantung Army leadership during the conquest of autumn 1931. The naming of Ma Zhanshan—onetime commander in Zhang Zuolin’s Northeastern Army and staunch resistor in the fall of 1931 of the Kwantung Army’s military conquests—to the post of governor of Heilongjiang province on February 24, 1932, marked the final stage in what was commonly pitched as a campaign to free the people of the northeast from the despotism of warlord rule.

The transition from liberation movement to state formation happened in short order. Members of the Kwantung Army General Staff met ten times in February 1932 to determine the shape of the new state and fill the ranks of its leadership. While Itagaki Seishirō took charge of most of the planning, the creation of the Committee for Administrative Affairs in the Northeast (composed of the newly appointed Chinese governors of the three northeastern provinces) revealed the importance placed by Itagaki and others in maintaining the appearance of an indigenous independence movement. On February 25, it was formally announced that Fengtian, Jilin, Heilongjiang, and Rehe provinces as well as Inner Mongolia would henceforth be united in a single state called “Manchukuo” with a capital in Changchun (which would be renamed Xinjing [J: Shinkyō], or “new capital,” on October 1, 1932). On March 1, the Committee for Administrative Affairs in the Northeast issued the “Declaration of Statehood,” rejecting all ties to the Chinese Republic and asserting its own sovereignty.

A significant exception to the totality of the new state’s territory was the maintenance of extraterritoriality in both the Kwantung Leasehold and Railway Zone, both of which maintained the precedent of Japanese governance established in the 1905 Treaty of Peking. The one major change in arrangements resided in the change of lessor from China to Manchukuo. While residents of the Kwantung Leasehold enjoyed the continuation of benefits associated with extraterritoriality throughout war’s end in 1945, the Railway Zone was stripped of its rights of extraterritoriality in December 1937.

Most iconic of all symbols and ceremonies enlisted in construction of the new state was the figure of Pu Yi, last of the Qing emperors and, as of March 9, anointed head of Manchukuo. The use of Pu Yi was of course strategic. Making him the public face of the new state legitimized claims—or so Kwantung Army leaders hoped—that Manchukuo represented a restoration of Manchuria to its non-Han-Chinese past. The appointment to the prime ministership of seventy-three-year-old Zheng Xiaoxu, a Qing loyalist and long-time advisor to Pu Yi, fulfilled a similar function while also raising to prominence the Chinese philosophical tradition of Wangdao, or “the Kingly Way,” which would serve as the ideological backbone to the new state. Also central to the work of legitimating the new state was the ideology of “the harmony of the five races,” which claimed Manchukuo as a utopia for Chinese, Manchu, Korean, Mongolian, and Japanese residents. Participation in the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 and 1934 provided one early occasion for Manchukuo to assert its claims of legitimacy before a wide, international audience.

As important as public ceremony and ritual were to Kwantung Army attempts to legitimize Manchukuo in the court of public opinion, the most important aspects of governance and decision making took place behind closed doors. On March 6, 1932, three days before his public investiture in Changchun as head of state, Pu Yi was forced to sign documents, prepared in advance by the army, that handed over ultimate authority for Manchukuo’s national defense, diplomacy, and transportation networks to Japanese control. This arrangement was kept strictly secret, as was the signing six months later by Kwantung supreme commander Mutō Nobuyoshi and Zheng Xiaoxu of the Japan-Manchukuo Military Affairs Agreement, which granted Kwantung Army officers command over the newly formed Manchukuo Army in the event of a third-party attack. Such secret negotiations were of course hidden from the Lytton Commission, headed by Lord Victor Bulwer-Lytton, who was entrusted by the League of Nations with the task of judging the legitimacy of the new state over the course of a six-week observation tour beginning in early April 1932.

Personnel appointments throughout the Manchukuo bureaucracy were determined by the Kwantung Army command, which relocated to Shinkyō and a grand new headquarters in late October 1932. Though Zheng Xiaoxu held the highest rank in the Shinkyō bureaucracy as prime minister, real power lay with the Office of General Affairs, which was headed by Japanese national, Komai Tokuzō. The same pattern held throughout the bureaucracy with Chinese (or Manchu) officials providing the face of leadership while all decision making was managed by Japanese “subordinates.”

Periodizing Manchukuo

The Building Years, 1932–1936

The thirteen years of Manchukuo’s existence may be divided into four subperiods. The first period corresponds with the years from 1932 to 1936, a five-year span characterized by the expansion of the region’s rail network, suppression of dissident thought and political opposition, and strengthening of colonial rule. As mentioned above, early resistance to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria took the form of sabotage, chiefly of transportation networks. Between April 1933 and December 1936, Mantetsu recorded 522 attacks on its rails.10 (The same period saw only thirty-three attacks on roads.)11 The intensity of new infrastructure building in these years—a total of 665 miles of new rails, all managed by Mantetsu, were laid between 1933 and 1934—provided a prime target for those who sought to obstruct the continued advance of Japanese imperialist aggression. Reflecting the great importance of rails to the enduring project of Manchurian development, rail expansion remained a top priority of the Manchukuo state, as dictated by its Japanese advisors. In March 1935, Mantetsu finalized its purchase of the remaining Soviet-managed rail lines in the northeast, thus adding an additional 1,072 miles of new track to its holdings. By October 1943, Mantetsu boasted a total of 3,176 miles of rails throughout Manchukuo.

The Kwantung Army executed harsh suppression of what it routinely referred to as “bandit activity.” A reprisal for a September 1932 attack on a Mantetsu-managed mine near Pingdingshan (located near the great open-cut mines at Fushun) left three thousand Chinese villagers dead in a massacre that revealed the brutality of the army’s policy of collective responsibility in fighting insurgency. A second front in the campaign to preserve public order was waged in the form of mass roundups of suspected dissidents. Some 1,500 accused Communist sympathizers were arrested in Rehe province in late October 1932, with a second major series of arrests in northern Manchuria in early April 1934. Legal justification for these arrests relied on the authority of Manchukuo’s Public Order Police Law promulgated in September 1932.

It was during these building years too that the large-scale program of state-mobilized immigration from the metropole began. The first trial of “implanting” farmers from famine-ravaged parts of Japan (the northeast region in particular) to northern Manchukuo took place in October 1932, followed by dispatch of the first permanent group to Heilongjiang in April 1933 to establish a settler colony called Yasaka-mura. Resistance to the increasing seizure of land by the Kwantung Army for the establishment of settler colonies resulted in local uprisings, such as the Tulongshan Incident that began near Harbin in March 1934, included over 6,000 Chinese farmers at its height, and continued for half a year before being brutally suppressed. Such violent confrontations notwithstanding, the dispatch of impoverished farmers to Manchukuo picked up pace in 1936 with the Japanese state-sponsored “Millions to Manchuria” movement and the August 1937 establishment of the Manchuria Immigration Company (Manshū takushoku kōsha).

A final defining feature of Manchukuo’s building years was the strengthening of institutions of colonial rule. Central to this ambition was the recalibration of Manchukuo’s system of governance, particularly at the highest levels. While the complex bureaucracy instituted in 1932 survived largely unchanged (save for its expansion over the years), the type of government was changed in March 1934 from that of a republic to one of direct imperial rule with the ordination of Pu Yi as emperor of Manchukuo. In April 1935, Emperor Pu Yi made a state visit to Japan to meet with Emperor Hirohito, a tense occasion ripe with the potential to undermine Japanese attempts to portray a relationship of equality between the two rulers in the face of a reality in which Manchukuo played a subordinate (yet extremely necessary) role in the mobilization of Japan’s war machine.

Toward a State-Controlled Economy, 1936–1939

The second subperiod useful in defining Manchukuo’s short life span begins in 1937 with the April launch of the first Five Year Plan for industrial development. The plan, announced in November 1936, called for the raising of 2.2 billion yen over five years. The creation of the Manchuria-Japan Commerce Company (Nichi-Man shōji kaisha) in autumn 1936 and gradual dissipation of metropolitan investors’ initial fears about the security of their capital in volatile Manchukuo heralded a flurry of economic activity throughout the region and in particular an intense focus on the development of heavy industry. The outbreak of full-scale war with China in July 1937 required a revision to the plan that, when announced in May 1938, called for a new projection of capital investment of 6.6 billion yen by 1942.

Mantetsu was vastly changed after 1937, demonstrating how the Kwantung Army enjoyed new dominance in the planning of all economic and infrastructure planning by the mid-1930s. What was more, Mantetsu was stripped of its governing responsibilities in the Railway Zone in December when Manchukuo abolished extraterritoriality within its borders. The appointment of Baron Hayashi Hirotarō as Mantetsu president in July 1932 had marked the beginning of a trend that would continue through war’s end by which army officers in Shinkyō dictated all major operational and financial decisions at Mantetsu. Thus after a major company code revision in late 1937 did a main function of Mantetsu become the transport of arms and men to the expanding theatre of war in north China as well as, occasionally, to Manchukuo’s northern border with the Soviet Union, scene to a series of border clashes in 1938 and 1939. Personnel ranks swelled in size to accommodate new needs, with a doubling of total employees between 1935 and 1936 when the company counted over 116,000 employees. Matsuoka Yōsuke—vice president of Mantetsu between 1927 and 1929 and diplomat famous for leading the Japanese delegation out of the League of Nations in March 1933—served as Mantetsu president during these years, from August 1935 to March 1939.

Mobilization for Total War, 1940–1941

The third significant subperiod in the history of Manchukuo may be dated to 1940 and another major revision of the Five Year Plan for economic development. Mantetsu’s capital accumulation continued to swell during these years. These years saw the continued suppression of dissident thought. Famous in this regard are both the November 1941 arrest of Satō Daishirō and accomplices who attempted to foment a rebellion among rural Manchukuo residents against the state, and second, the September 1942 arrest of elite members of Mantetsu’s Research Department on suspicion of Communist-inspired activity.

Total War, Total Ruin 1941–1945

The start of the Pacific War in December 1941 marks the beginning of Manchukuo’s fourth and final subperiod. In remarks on December 8 following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Pu Yi affirmed his “spiritual unity” with Emperor Hirohito, the “indissoluble ties” between Japan and Manchukuo, and both nations’ commitment to mutual defense.12 As in the metropole, the early 1940s were marked by tight ideological control and the suppression of free expression. The October 1943 celebration of Manchukuo’s first decade was heavy on spectacle, if short on meaning for many. Just one example of the many ways in which Manchukuo failed to achieve meaningful statehood is the fact that, throughout its history, a citizenship law was never passed. From earliest days, issues of national security and economic development took precedence over any establishment of rights legislation for the area’s thirty million inhabitants.

In July 1944, the cities of Dairen, Anshan, and Fengtian suffered aerial bombing by United States B-29 planes and some damage. (Damage to the Anshan Steel Mill was particularly acute, resulting in a 60 percent drop in plant capacity.)13 Yet, for most Japanese civilians in Manchukuo and the Kwantung Leasehold, the war years caused far less disruption than was the case for their friends and family members in Japan. It was war’s end and the breaching of Manchukuo’s northern border by Soviet troops on August 9, 1945, that marked the beginning of real suffering for Japanese residents of the northeast. Some 200,000 Japanese settlers are estimated to have died in the tumult surrounding the Soviet invasion and exodus south to the ports of Dairen and Huludao in the months following Japan’s August 15 surrender to the Allies. The repatriation process of Japanese residents of the Kwantung Leasehold and Manchukuo would not begin in earnest until May 1946, more than half a year after the formal dismantling of Mantetsu on September 30, 1945, by order of General Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo. Mantetsu had outlasted the other institutions of Japanese governance in the region if only by six weeks—testimony nonetheless to its enduring impact on the region across the conquest divide.

One turbulent stage in the history of the northeast thus came to an end just as another was beginning with the resumption of hostilities (suspended since 1937) between Mao Zedong’s Communist Party and Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government for control over a unified China, now freed from Japanese control.

Discussion of the Literature

Studies of the political and administrative history of Japanese Manchuria during the preconquest period are relatively abundant. Tak Matsusaka’s The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904–32 (2001) is especially valuable for its interweaving of the political, economic, diplomatic, and strategic imperatives that guided decision making in Tokyo following the late Meiji wars. Okamoto Shunpei’s The Japanese Oligarchy and the Russo-Japanese War (1970) similarly describes elite-level politics and the Meiji nation’s approach to empire building. Of especial note in Okamoto’s account are the descriptions of popular dissatisfaction in Tokyo surrounding the terms of the 1905 Portsmouth Peace Treaty, which yielded to Japan the Kwantung Leasehold, Railway Zone, and access to Manchuria’s vast resources, but offered no monetary reparations from Russia.

One of the most characteristic features of preconquest governance of Japanese Manchuria were the jurisdictional rivalries between metropolitan ministries and onsite governmental agencies that were a natural consequence of the system established following the conclusion of peace with Russia. In particular, the Foreign Ministry quarreled frequently with the Kwantung Government-General, as well as with the Kwantung Army and Mantetsu, in the years between 1905 and 1931. Matsusaka covers these quarrels in close detail, as does Eric Esselstrom in his monograph Crossing Empire’s Edge: Foreign Ministry Police and Japanese Expansionism in Northeast Asia (2009), which focuses on the disputes waged between the consular police and their counterparts in the colonial administration. Interministerial tensions get considerable treatment as well in Emer O’Dwyer’s Significant Soil: Settler Colonialism and Japan’s Urban Empire in Manchuria (2015), which charts the development of political activism among Japanese settlers, in Dairen in particular, around the issue of protecting Japan’s special rights in the northeast. Significant Soil also provides close analysis of the inner workings of Mantetsu and how employees at all levels conceived of, and contributed to, the company mission of “managing Manchuria.”

Japanese Manchuria, and later Manchukuo, were of course inhabited by a majority of non-Japanese residents. Recent years have yielded several fine portrayals of the multiple groups that called the northeast home. Early 20th-century migration from China (especially Hebei and Shandong provinces) to Manchuria represented one of the biggest migrations of its time, a phenomenon described in Thomas R. Gottschang and Diana Lary’s study, Swallows and Settlers: The Great Migration from North China to Manchuria (2000). How the Qing government adapted to the tremendous influx of Han Chinese into what had been the Manchu homeland is a question examined by Dan Shao in part one of her book, Remote Homeland, Recovered Borderland: Manchus, Manchukuo and Manchuria (1907–1985) (2011). Shao continues her analysis of Manchu identity through the republican/warlord era and the Manchukuo period, focusing on the tensions wrought in the latter period by the state’s official rhetoric of ethnic harmony. A focus on the relationship between ethnic groups in Manchuria is similarly the concern of Hyun Ok Park’s Two Dreams in One Bed: Empire, Social Life, and the Origins of the North Korean Revolution in Manchuria (2005). Park takes as her subject the Korean peasantry in Manchuria between the 1920s and 1940s revealing the many tensions that beset ethnic harmony of any sort between Koreans and their Chinese neighbors. The Russian émigré community in northern Manchuria is the focus of David Wolff’s To the Harbin Station: The Liberal Alternative in Russian Manchuria, 1898–1914 (1999). A side-by-side reading of Wolff’s account of the northern Manchurian city that served as headquarters for Russia’s Chinese Eastern Railway in the pre-WWI period and the account of Dairen (site of Mantetsu headquarters) in early chapters of O’Dwyer’s Significant Soil illuminates the differences and similarities between Russia and Japan’s empire-building projects in East Asia at a comparative stage in development.

The colorful histories of father and son warlords Zhang Zuolin and Zhang Xueliang have provided two excellent books for understanding the unusually fraught relationship forged throughout the 1920s between the Japanese state and local power holders in Manchuria. First is Gavan McCormack’s Chang Tso-Lin in Northeast China, 1911–28: China, Japan, and The Manchurian Idea (1977), and second is Rana Mitter’s The Manchurian Myth: Nationalism, Resistance, and Collaboration in Modern China (2000). John Dower’s Empire and Aftermath: Yoshida Shigeru and the Japanese Experience, 1878–1954 (1979) provides a good companion to McCormack’s and Mitter’s accounts in its focus on postwar prime minister Yoshida Shigeru’s prewar diplomatic career, and especially his time as consul-general in Fengtian (Mukden) between 1927 and 1928.

The Manchurian Incident has been widely covered in the English-language historiography. Two of the best accounts of army actions in the weeks and months leading up to and following the September 1931 start of hostilities are Sadako Ogata’s Defiance in Manchuria: The Making of Japanese Foreign Policy, 1931–1932 (1964) and the chapters by Seki Hiroharu and Shimada Toshihiko from the Japanese-language volume, Taiheiyō sensō e no michi: kaisen gaikō shi, which have been translated into English in James Morley’s edited volume, Japan Erupts: The London Naval Conference and the Manchurian Incident, 1928–1932 (1984).

Historiography on Manchukuo has flourished over the last two decades, reflecting new dedication by scholars to understanding the complexity of the state’s polity, economy, society, and arts that earlier generations were more willing to dismiss in light of Manchukuo’s role as a puppet state of the Japanese army. The pioneer work is Louise Young’s Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (1998), which takes as its focus the ways in which metropolitan Japan (both state and society) shaped and was reshaped by the imperial project. In a broad-ranging study, Young investigates the ways in which the media was mobilized to provide popular support for the new military imperialism of the 1930s, how the metropolitan elite provided the capital (both intellectual and financial) for army plans for Manchukuo’s colonial development, and how emigration to the new state was branded as the solution to the crises of industrial capitalism that ravaged the Japanese countryside throughout the late 1920s.

A second pioneering work on Manchukuo is Kyoto University professor Yamamuro Shin’ichi’s classic study Kimera: Manshūkoku no shōzō (1993), which, though appearing six years prior to Louise Young’s monograph, only became available to English-language readers in 2006 with Joshua Fogel’s translation, Manchuria under Japanese Dominion. Yamamuro provides a detailed description of the state-building process in Manchukuo with plenty of attention to the many false starts and logical inconsistencies that characterized the process. He also provides a thorough cataloguing of the ways in which ideology—especially that of Wangdao, or “the Kingly Way”—was harnessed to support state-building efforts.

The topic of state-managed economic development for wartime mobilization has, in recent works, highlighted the contributions of the so-called reform bureaucrats who staffed the Manchukuo administration, often in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Among these works are Janis Mimura’s Planning for Empire: Reform Bureaucrats and the Japanese Wartime State (2011) and Aaron Moore’s Constructing East Asia: Technology, Ideology, and Empire in Japan’s Wartime Era, 1931–1945 (2013). Haruo Iguchi also examines industrial development in Manchukuo in Unfinished Business: Ayukawa Yoshisuke and US-Japan Relations, 1937–1953 (2003), though his focus on businessman Ayukawa reveals how not all elites viewed state control as the most effective way of promoting economic development.

Questions of sovereignty and statehood in Manchukuo provide the animating impulse for a variety of works from authors working in intellectual and legal history. Among them are Prasenjit Duara’s Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern (2004), Thomas Dubois’s “Inauthentic Sovereignty: Law and Legal Institutions in Manchukuo” (2010), and Suk-Jung Han’s “The Problem of Sovereignty: Manchukuo, 1932–1937” (2004). How a group of Japanese educators in Manchukuo sought to reconcile the tensions inherent in a state-sponsored ideology that spoke of the harmony of the five races while privileging only one group (the Japanese) is the subject of Andrew Hall’s “The Word Is Mightier than the Throne: Bucking Colonial Education Trends in Manchukuo” (2009).

Manchukuo’s association with high modernism and innovation in the arts has attracted the attention of scholars of film and photography in recent years, and much of the resulting scholarship reveals the imbrication of art and politics in the era’s cultural production. Peter High describes the 1937 founding of the Manchuria Motion Picture Corporation, or “Man-Ei,” and surveys its major films in his study of wartime Japanese cinema, The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931–1945 (2003), while Sookyeoung Hong questions the success of Man-Ei’s films as effective agents for promoting state-sponsored ideology in her article, “Between Ideology and Spectatorship: The ‘Ethnic Harmony’ of the Manchuria Motion Picture Corporation, 1937–1945” (2013). Jie Li similarly underscores the need for an appreciation of the complexity of the visual record of modern Manchukuo in her article, “Phantasmagoric Manchukuo: Documentaries Produced by the South Manchurian Railway Company, 1932–1940” (2014). From the vantage point of photography studies, Phillip Charrier affirms the positive role that photographer Fuchikami Hakuyō’s work played in the process of Manchukuo state formation.

Military histories of Manchukuo remain few. Alvin Coox’s Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939 (1985) is the definitive account of the skirmishes on the Manchukuo-Soviet border that led to a major battle in Mongolia on the very eve of Adolph Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Yukiko Koshiro discusses Tokyo’s anticipation throughout the early 1940s of a Soviet attack on Manchukuo as well the government’s failure to plan for the evacuation of settlers in the event of such an attack in “Eurasian Eclipse: Japan’s End Game in World War II” (2004). Koshiro’s book-length study, Imperial Eclipse: Japan’s Strategic Thinking About Continental Asia Before August 1945 (2013), covers events on and after August 9, 1945, when Soviet troops made the anticipated crossing and military takeover of Manchukuo. The long process of repatriation of Japanese settlers scattered throughout the wartime empire is the subject of Lori Watt’s When Empire Comes Home: Repatriation in Postwar Japan, 1945–1958.

Primary Sources

A useful compendium of primary-source documents in English relating to a century of foreign incursions in Manchuria is the second volume of Ian Nish’s The History of Manchuria, 1840–1948 (2016). On the whole, the documents are extracts from international treaties; eyewitness accounts of major battles during the Russo-Japanese war; intra-governmental correspondence by Russian, Chinese, and Japanese officials regarding their respective interests in the region; and minutes of public speeches by major players in what Nish terms “the Sino-Russo-Japanese triangle.” Included too are important documents from the Manchukuo period, including the Lytton Commission Report of 1932 and a Mantetsu-sponsored account from 1939 of the “achievements” of Manchukuo.

The South Manchuria Railway Company produced a variety of informational materials in English relating to Manchuria. Examples include “Manchuria Land of Opportunities” (1922), “Brief History of Japan’s Rights and Interests in Manchuria” (1932), and “Guide to Manchukuo” (1934). Used with care, these sources provide a thorough cataloguing of company operations.

Western newspapers represent another good English-language primary source for studying Manchuria and Manchukuo. By the early 1930s, The New York Times, Times of London, and The Washington Post each provided regular coverage of the northeast, often reporting on events that would face heavy censorship (or no mention at all) in metropolitan or local Japanese-language newspapers.

A sizable archive of Manchukuo-era books, magazines, posters, postcards, photographs, maps, and brochures is held at the Harvard-Yenching Library. In addition to Japanese- and Chinese-language items, the collection contains many English-language items, intended for an international audience.

A large collection of military and imperial maps created by the Japanese Imperial Army are housed at the Stanford University Libraries, with increasing numbers of the maps available online. Maps of Manchuria and Mongolia feature prominently among the holdings. Papers from a symposium at Stanford in October 2011 dedicated to study of the maps are collected in the March 2012 issue of Cross-currents E-Journal: East Asian History and Culture Review.

Despite the robustness of the genre, very few memoirs of life in Manchuria/Manchukuo have been translated into English. Among those that have are Life Along the South Manchurian Railway: The Memoirs of Itō Takeo, ME Sharpe (1988, trans. Joshua A. Fogel), and Kuramoto Kazuko, Manchurian Legacy: Memoirs of a Japanese Colonist (1999).

Further Reading

  • Coox, Alvin D. Nomonhan; Japan Against Russia, 1939. 2 vols. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985.
  • Duara, Prasenjit. Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004.
  • Esselstrom, Erik. Crossing Empire’s Edge: Foreign Ministry Police and Japanese Expansionism in Northeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2009.
  • Gottschang, Thomas R., and Diana Lary. Swallows and Settlers: The Great Migration from North China to Manchuria. Vol. 87. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 2000.
  • Hall, Andrew. “The Word Is Mightier than the Throne: Bucking Colonial Education Trends in Manchukuo.” The Journal of Asian Studies 68.3 (2009): 895–925.
  • High, Peter B. The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931–1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.
  • Hong, Sookyeoung. “Between Ideology and Spectatorship: The ‘Ethnic Harmony’ of the Manchuria Motion Picture Corporation, 1937–1945.” Cross-currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 2.1 (2013): 116–138.
  • Koshiro, Yukiko. Imperial eclipse: Japan’s Strategic Thinking about Continental Asia before August 1945. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.
  • Koshiro, Yukiko. “Eurasian Eclipse: Japan’s End Game in World War II.” The American Historical Review 109.2 (2004): 417–444.
  • Li, Jie. “Phantasmagoric Manchukuo: Documentaries Produced by the South Manchurian Railway Company, 1932–1940.” positions 22.2 (2014): 329–369.
  • Matsusaka, Yoshihisa Tak. The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904–1932. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
  • McCormack, Gavan. Chang Tso-Lin in Northeast China, 1911–28: China, Japan, and the Manchurian Idea. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1977.
  • Mimura, Janis. Planning for Empire: Reform Bureaucrats and the Japanese Wartime State. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.
  • Moore, Aaron. Constructing East Asia: Technology, Ideology, and Empire in Japan’s Wartime Era, 1931–1945. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.
  • Morley, James William, editor. Japan Erupts: The London Naval Conference and the Manchurian Incident, 1928–1932: Selected Translations from Taiheiyō Sensō E No Michi, Kaisen Gaikō Shi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
  • O’Dwyer, Emer. Significant Soil: Settler Colonialism and Japan’s Urban Empire in Manchuria. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2015.
  • Ogata, Sadako N. Defiance in Manchuria: The Making of Japanese Foreign Policy, 1931–1932. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964.
  • Okamoto Shumpei. The Japanese Oligarchy and the Russo-Japanese War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.
  • Park, Hyun Ok. Two Dreams in One Bed: Empire, Social Life, and the Origins of the North Korean Revolution in Manchuria. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.
  • Peattie, Mark R. Ishiwara Kanji and Japan’s Confrontation with the West. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.
  • Shao, Dan. Remote Homeland, Recovered Borderland: Manchus, Manchoukuo, and Manchuria, 1907–1985. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2011.
  • Tucker, David. “Labor Policy and the Construction Industry in Manchukuo: Systems of Recruitment, Management, and Control.” In Asian Labor in the Wartime Japanese Empire, Unknown Histories, 25–57. Armonk: ME Sharpe, 2005.
  • Watt, Lori. When Empire Comes Home: Repatriation in Postwar Japan, 1945–1958. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
  • Wolff, David. To the Harbin Station: The Liberal Alternative in Russian Manchuria, 1898–1914. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.
  • Yamamuro Shin’ichi. Manchuria under Japanese Dominion. Translated by Joshua A. Fogel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
  • Young, Louise. Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.


  • 1. Belated recognition, in the final Qing years, of the security sacrificed by the underpopulation of the region prompted a series of measures aimed at both integrating the region’s bountiful plains securely within the borders of the imperial realm and populating its vast spaces. The three northeastern provinces were thus enveloped in 1907 into the mainland’s formal governing structure by way of a major administrative reform, and in 1909, the ban on Han-Chinese in-migration was lifted.

  • 2. Suzuki Takashi, Nihon teikoku-shugi to Manshū, 1900–1945, vol. 1. (Tokyo: Hanawa shobō, 1992), 94.

  • 3. Christie, Dugald, Thirty Years in Moukden (London: Constable, 1914), 195.

  • 4. Suzuki, Nihon teikoku-shugi to Manshū, vol. 1, 99.

  • 5. Suzuki, Nihon teikoku-shugi to Manshū, vol. 1, 99.

  • 6. Suzuki, Nihon teikoku-shugi to Manshū, vol. 1, 100.

  • 7. For the sake of simplicity, the various changes in nomenclature of the leasehold’s governing authority—an evolution that began with the office of sōtokufu in 1905, was replaced by a totokufu in 1906, and changed name again to Kantōchō in 1919—will be elided throughout this essay and covered by the generic name Kwantung Government-General.

  • 8. Suzuki, Nihon teikoku-shugi to Manshū, vol. 1, 106.

  • 9. See O’Dwyer, Significant Soil, 348, appendix A, table 2: “Mantetsu Personnel Ranks” for a list of main categories of employment for Japanese workers.

  • 10. Su Chong-min, Mantetsu-shi, trans. Yamashita Mutsuo, Wada Masahiro, and Wang Yong (Tokyo: Ashi shobō, 1999), 410.

  • 11. Su, Mantetsu-shi, 410.

  • 12. Quoted in Suzuki, Nihon teikoku-shugi to Manshū, vol. 2, 367.

  • 13. Suzuki, Nihon teikoku-shugi to Manshū, vol. 2, 392.