1910-1937: Control at Home, Expansion Abroad

Japan and its early 20th century history is a narrative mainly concerned with domestic solidarity and imperial expansionism abroad. The pre-war years saw Japan’s influence in the world as a colonial power steadily increase following the Russo-Japanese war. Colonial enterprises such as expansion into Manchuria and the Pacific came to characterize Japan as an emerging modern nation. On the home front deliberate and forceful action was being taken to promote solidarity in the population in relation to their government.

Like all nations taking strides into this modern and “civilized” world, Japan was not without complications within its own borders. As Japan opened more widely to the rest of the world, Japanese people became more exposed to external influences and some came together in minority groups in opposition to the nation’s regime. Instead of retreating back into themselves, the government cracked down harshly on these dissenters in order to maintain a uniform nation, thus allowing Japan to remain strong in the face of later global conflict.

The decades leading up to World War II was a time of imperial expansion and local restriction. The growth of Japan’s empire allowed for increased wealth for the country, but it also meant a redistribution of the ideology surrounding their social hierarchies. It was a time of advance and success for Japan as it strengthened itself economically, militarily, and ideologically before the trying and ultimately destructive times brought by the war. While Japan would recover after the war ended, it would not rise to the same level of power it had before.


A Year of High Treason, 1910-1911

by Kate Riordon

Introduction and Background

The High Treason Incident was so called because those accused and condemned for it threatened not only the life of the Meiji Emperor, but also the symbol of divinity he embodied and the social order that hinged on that image. It was their belief that the Emperor was not a god, but rather a mortal man like the rest of them. The series of events that then took place from the spring of 1910 to the early months of 1911 were rather small in the grand scheme of national and international affairs, but they none the less resounded around the world as acts of oppression, tyranny, and injustice. Within the borders of the Japanese homeland the ramifications of the assassination plot saw little in the way of advancement for the local leftist movement. While leftist groups overseas were calling for justice, socialists in Japan – as well as the rest of the nation – found themselves further oppressed under the weight of a new police force as well as the ever-strict state. The social order was not going to be taken down by a minority faction under any circumstance.

For as long as there had been a strong centralized government in Japan keen on keeping the country in a state of conformity, there have been minor factions who leaned away from that doctrine towards what is considered the left of the political scale. As Japan emerged from its isolation throughout the 19th century, the Japanese people became more and more connected to the vast array of societal and political norms that existed beyond their borders; one of them of course being the growingly popular leftist end, what would come to be known as Socialism. As early as 1900 the Japanese government passed new laws that made it illegal for worker groups and unions to demonstrate or even form, stating that they were “a disturbance to the public peace” and effectively stripping them of all practical power1(18). Of course, that did little in the way of deterring those who felt strongly about their cause, people like Kōtoku Shūsui, who came to stand “at the forefront of successive waves of radical political philosophies and movements” 2(198). He had been involved with various radical events leading up to the incident of 1910 and was the kind of charismatic man who was capable of drawing like-minded people to him, even in an extremely nationalistic country like Imperial Japan. Because of this – and the fact that the details of the trial were withheld for so long – not much is known about many of the others involved in the incident.

Emperor Meiji c.1890

Emperor Meiji c.18903.

In May of 1910 police raided the home of Kōtoku and, upon finding materials used in the manufacture of explosives, immediately arrested him and his associate, Miyashita Takichi for the crime of plotted assassination, despite the fact that they and a few others only discussed the idea 4(1). Over the next couple of months following the initial arrests police dug into the lives of these men and rounded up as many people as they could link to the socialist/anarchist movement (the two were deeply intertwined in early 20th century Japan). Eventually they were able to round up and arrest twenty-six people, one of them Kōtoku’s lover, for the same crime and for the remainder of the 1910 trials were held in secret by the highest level of the Japanese court system, the Court of Cassation. Finally, on January 18, 1911 twenty-four of the twenty-six accused were handed death sentences, while the other two got life in prison with hard labour. During the trial process, the defendants were denied council with their lawyers as well as any other kind of external contact, which made it easy for the government to keep it out of the press. It was also determined that not all of those arrested were equally guilty in their association with the leftist movement or else had alibis distancing them from the plot. Within the next week, twelve people got their sentences reduced to life with hard labour and those very fortunate two had their sentences lowered as well. Just six days after the initial court ruling, ten men - including both Kōtoku and Miyashita – as well as Kōtoku’s lover and the sole woman, Kanno Suga, were hanged for treason.

Kanno Suga

Kanno Suga, the only woman to be hanged for treason in Japan5.

International Reactions and Contexts

In Umemori Naoyuki’s article on the historical context of the high treason incident he makes a comparison to an event that happened in 1909 during which a Korean independent activist, An Jung-geun, assassinated four-time Prime Minister of Japan and Resident-General of Korea, Itō Hirobumi. Unlike the trial that followed in 1910-1911, An’s trial was held in a public forum in the district court and, more interestingly, he was tried on his ideology rather than his actions. During the interrogation, the prosecutors attempted to convince An of the errors of his ways by legitimizing Japan’s policy of making Korea a protectorate. The protocol also informs us that his effort at persuasion was made, at least partially, by referring to concrete historical examples and contemporary international conditions. For example, the prosecutors attempted to convince An that his attitude toward Japan was mistaken by educating him about Itō Hirobumo’s life story6(56).On the one hand a Korean nationalist who has succeeded in assassinating a Japanese statesman, was tried in a public forum for all the world to see, pitied by many under the misconception that An had been ruled by blind ideology and for not knowing any better, and ultimately hanged for his crime. The punishment was arguably appropriate for the crime of murder. On the other hand a group of Japanese socialists, only six of whom admitted to plots of assassination, were tried in secret by the highest level of the courts, and sentenced to either death or hard labour despite not actually having done anything but talk and protest661). Considering the mindset of the time in Japan, these reactions are not surprising. It is known that the Japanese had a kind of hierarchy in place within their society that dictated a person’s importance based on their socio and economic standings. In this view people from outside the country’s borders were seen as lesser beings, even the people of Korea who were for intents and purposes part of the Japanese Empire by 1909. By that logic, Kōtoku and his people were treated more harshly because they were part of this cultural identity and supposedly knew better, whereas An was outside this ideal and so could not be blamed for knowingly destroying this social order.

When word did finally break about what had happened to the high treason defendants, socialist groups around the world exploded in protest. While there had long been a minority faction of socialists of various forms in Japan, once news of the charges and the subsequent punishments began to spread, the wider population was shocked and came to fear socialism. This public fear backed the Japanese state’s antagonistic view on socialism, which was arguably the whole point of so harshly trying those accused for their political stance, and resulted in a ramping up of the police system and the creation of a specialized police force to combat the issue1(18-19).

Meanwhile overseas socialists, a surprising number of them being Jewish, rallied around the events of Japan’s high treason incident and used it as a lightning rod to draw attention to how current political systems were not working. An anonymous letter published in the London-based Yiddish newspaper, Arbeter Fraint, said that with the execution of these socialists Japan “had joined the club of ‘civilized nations’ in the world. By the term ‘civilized’, the author seems to be highlighting a negative quality of European “civilization’, namely that it suppresses the freedom of its people”7(86). However, these were the voices of people who did not successfully reach the ears of the general public, wherever they were in the world.

Consequences on the Home Front

For some people living in Japan the high treason incident and subsequent reaction of the state did little to affect the lives of those who embraced socialism not so much as an act of opposition to nationalism, but simply as a way of life. Some men, like Dr. Saburō Ōkita, were able to thrive within the confines of imperialist Japan while still maintaining support for and belief in leftist ideologies. In 1939 Saburō joined the Showa Institute, an organization of educated men with leftist ideals who gathered to lecture graduate students about seriously considering the future of Japan8(14-15). Saburō comments that some of the young men he attended the Institute with became politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats, and even members of the official Communist Party. Saburō himself was a specialized engineer who worked in the Research Division within the Ministry of Greater East Asia 820). Even though the Institute disbanded of their own accord in 1941, they never came directly under the threat of the Japanese state or police. They served as a great example of what socialism could be; educated people who took note of what worked and what didn’t within their country and sought to make things better in the future. The men who were involved with this institute very clearly understood what kind of world they were living in and they knew that their political stances would not be tolerated by the state. They knew that theirs was not a perfect situation politically, but they continued to operate within it as they were expected to and kept their beliefs and ideals amongst themselves. While this does not exactly excite the blood the way demonstrations and protests do, but it stems from the same school of thought and, as history has shown, was the less life-threatening of the two options.

Around the same time young Ōkita was coming to terms with his personal ideologies, the state made plans to shape the future generation. On November 3, 1910 the Army Reservists Association was established with the aim of “producing ‘national villagers,’ subjects imbued with the honest virtues of the land and the army camp”9(170). This fit perfectly in with what then-Prime Minister Katsura Tarō believed the people of Japan needed. He was familiar with the writings of Kōtoku Shūsui and believed that in order to stamp out socialist ideals among Japan’s youth, militaristic discipline was required at all levels of society. However, the high treason incident directly threatened his goals of subduing Japan’s socialist population by drawing the attention of his international connections in America and Russia to what was going on in Tokyo. He even offered to resign as Prime Minister after the incident, considering the negative attention it attracted, but since he was still embroiled in treaty revisions with these Western powers the Emperor refused his offer 9(171). He was just going to have to handle it.


After World War II had ended and Japan had surrendered to the Allies, the Japanese Emperor made a public declaration to his people on New Year’s Day 1946; he declared that he was not a divine being, but simply a man of flesh and blood. Quite simply, and without much fuss, the Emperor confirmed what Kōtoku Shusui and his comrades had plotted to prove with drama and violence back in the spring of 1910. The goal behind what prompted the high treason incident was achieved – even if only five of the twenty-six were alive to see it – despite that the country still remained a nationalist-centered one ruled by discipline and order. Japan had succeeded in joining the ranks of Western countries, complete with their fair share of colonialism, international cooperation, and attempted political assassinations.

Featured Image:

Four Japanese radicals: Kōtoku Shūsui, Sakai Toshihika, Ishikawa Sanshirō, and Nishikawa Kōjirō10

Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu (Special Higher Police)

By Birinder Poonian


In May 1910 Miyashita Takichi and three other men were arrested for manufacturing explosives. The following month, Kōtoku Shūsui was arrested and accused of being the lead conspirator in a plot to assassinate the emperor. The police then discovered, upon further questioning, a nationwide conspiracy against the Japanese monarchy. This is now referred to as the High Treason Incident. The incident created a shift in the late Meiji Period towards a more controlled period of elevated repression of ideologies considered potentially subversive. In response to this shift, the Special Higher Police (Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu) was established in 1911. Often shortened to Tokkô, the police force was established specifically to control political groups and repress ideologies that were regarded as a threat to the government and the public order. Roughly equivalent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States of America, in terms of its role in counter-espionage combined with criminal investigation, the Tokkô was a civilian counterpart to the Kempeitai and Tokkeitai, the military and navy police corps of the time. Over the course of the years leading up to and including the Second World War, the Tokkô were also known as the “Peace Police” (Chian Keisatsu), or more commonly known as the “Thought Police” (Shiso Keisatsu). The police force was established in order to serve the government by keeping the population at bay during a time of high crisis, war. In examining the departments and sub-bureaus of Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu, the passing of the Peace Preservation Law of 1925, and the “rule by law” during the 1930’s, the effect of the Tokkô on the people of Japan in the interwar and war period will show how the police used propaganda and laws to control the people of Japan into being submissive to the Japanese Government.

Thought Police

The Special Higher Police was made up of six different departments: Special Police Work, Foreign Surveillance, Koreans in Japan, Labor Relations, Censorship, and Arbitration. However, the most important department was the sub-bureau created in 1927, the Thought Section of the Criminal Affairs Bureau, also known as the “Thought Police.” During the early 1920’s there was concern from both government and intelligence circles “by a certain amount of social and industrial unrest in Japan which was mainly the result of revolutionary propaganda from abroad” (Richard, 1982). Although a significant amount of this propaganda came from China and India, the most significant was that from the Soviet Union, which was gaining a lot of attention after winning the civil war. In July 1922, a band of Japanese people accepted Russian aid and formed the Communist Party. From December 1941 to early 1944, the Thought Police found many anonymous revolutionary Marxist doctrines spread throughout private and public places, such as universities, increasing communist subversion. An example of this is a writing discovered in December 1941:

Kill the emperor
Japan is losing in China
Why does out fatherland dare to commit aggression
Ask the leaders why they’re waging aggressive war against China
Communism. Communism.
Workers of the world
Revolution now
… including the emperor
Look at the pitiful figures of the undernourished people.
Overthrow the government.
Shoot former Prime Minister Konoe, the traitor.1(156)

This resulted in Communism viewed as posing “a far greater danger to Japan than capitulating to the Americans”1, and the party being made illegal. This also led to the creation of the Thought Section. “The purpose of this was twofold: first, to counter the growth of what was regarded as subversive radicalism and communism, and, secondly, to make a serious study of the various new political philosophies and revolutionary sentiments being propagated”2(157). In other words, they were tasked with seeking out and fighting “dangerous thoughts” and in due time prosecutions were made for these “thought offences”. The “Thought Police”, to obtain evidence for these prosecutions, sought the help of general Special Higher Police agents and spies working in systems of espionage in schools and colleges reporting on professors and teachers as well as their fellow students. The effect this had on the everyday lives of Japanese citizens then multiplied when the policy encouraged ordinary people to spy. This made it impossible for people to know who they could trust, denying them of their right to speak or think freely. At the age of three Comrade Ogilvy refused all toys except a drum, a sub-machine-gun and a model helicopter. At six he had joined the Spies…at eleven he denounced this uncle to the Thought Police – George Orwell2(156).

Peace Preservation Law of 1925

Another reason for the expansion of the Tokkô and the creation of the “Thought Police” was the Peace Preservation Law of 1925. Created to act against socialism, communism, and anarchism, it was one of the most significant laws created during pre-war Japan. At this time, Japan was modernizing very quickly which led to social disorganization, leaving much of the population to believe that “stable institutional patterns were crumbling and that their own personal stability was in jeopardy”3(318). However, the law was based on the politics and ethics of an ideology known as Kokutai, a “society for the Maintenance of National Prestige”2(44). An extremely vague, subjective term Kokutai, translates roughly as a “system of government” or “national identity.” This was an emperor system that controlled and maintained the balance of the ruling and working classes. “One could explain…[it] as the ‘magic cloak’ of class oppression donned by the elite” 4(248) . However it is also important to note the “the idea of the Kokutai had long since entered the popular mind, defining the very categories of thought and culture” 4(249) , thus making it a useful aid for the Thought Police and the Tokkô. This resulted in the possibility that any political opposition could be branded as “altering the Kokutai”, thus making it outlawed. The first use of this law was in late 1925 when a group of thirty-eight students “belonging to the Kyoto branch of the radical national student organization Gakuren presaged its use against not only organized and direct revolutionary activities, but also activities including discussions, meetings, and propaganda”5 (23) This showed a significant shift, especially for the lives of students whose radical ideas had previously been scrutinized by the local police but rarely interfered with, even off campus. The emergence of the law, along with the Thought Police, stunted the idea of traditional, radical student life for fear of imprisonment for committing thought crimes, or speaking against the Kokutai.

Japanese Communist Party Logo

Japanese Communist Party Logo6.

That being said, the first large-scale application of the Peace Preservation Law against communism didn’t come until a few years later at the March 15 Incident of 1928. In the time leading up to this incident, the “Thought Police”, as well as the Tokkô on the whole, were investigating all activities that could be related to the rebuilding of the communist party in Japan. In 1927, Inspector Môri Moto of the Keishicho department of Tokkô received an anonymous call concerning rumors of an important meeting that took place in December 1926 at the Goshiki Hot Springs in Yamagata. With a number of other Tokkô officials, Moto began investigating this meeting and was able to confirm the formation of the second Japanese Communist Party and saw March 15, 1928 as the opportunity needed to make the arrests. “References made to the mass arrests in popular songs suggest its widespread impact on the pubic mind”5 (23). Beginning at 5 am, the Tokkô raided over 100 places and made 1,586 arrests. During the raids they also obtained a list of the 406 members of the Second Communist Party; this was over four times the number they had initially predicted.

Rule By Law

The mass raids and arrests of the March 15 Incident of 1928 led to the number of arrests multiplying, as well as the police banning of “the Labour-Farmer Party, the All-Japan Proletarian Youth League and the Council of Japanese Labour Unions” 5(24) . Over the course of the next decade as up to 63,000 people were arrested due the Kokutai system, and general abuse of the law, not solely the Peace Preservation Law. The actions of the police failed to convey to ordinary citizens a perception of the legal justice system working with their interests in mind, particularly in matters pertaining to the state. Various laws were created relating to the censorship and control of public meetings. The Publication and Newspaper Laws included lists of things that were “relatively prohibited” as well as “absolutely prohibited”, which meant that they needed permission to be published. The police also “set up a system of issuing warning notices to newspaper publishers against publication of specific news. This system had no statutory basis, but it worked effectively because the Home Minister would almost automatically ban distribution of any newspaper that disregarded the warning”5 (24). There were three types of warnings issued from the Home Ministry, which differentiated according to whether or not the violation would result necessarily, possibly, or not at all in a ban. However the Tokkô officials justified this wide interpretation by emphasizing that social conditions change, and therefore the interpretations of the law must also change with the times. The Tokkô is not a reactionary police like Bismarck’s… the Tokkô promotes strong points of social movements, corrects weak points and encourages those truly useful to the development of society and the state. In this sense the Tokkô is a guiding police - Aoki Sadao 19375(67).


The Tokkô was abolished in October 1945 by allied occupation authorities after Japan’s surrender. Although it played a significant role in aiding the government and the Kokutai, in it’s thirty-four year history the Special Higher Police also made a significant impact on the people of Japan by widely interpreting laws and repressing many ideologies, they inflicted a lot of fear in the interwar and war period. The Tokkô, in particular the Thought Police section of the Tokkô, were known and remembered for the number of mass arrests made, especially during the time of the Second World War. Although they were successful in protecting the war effort, it was at the cost of the Japanese populations general human rights. Rather than telling people what to think, the Tokkô enforced what people, in particular students, were not able to think or believe. In many ways, the Thought Police effected younger people more, in particular college and university students. University is about thinking and acting radically before going on to “real life”, the Thought Police and Tokkô stole this right and experience. In looking at the Peace Preservation Law of 1925, the “Thought Police”, and the “Rule of Law” in the 1930’s, it is made clear that the Special Higher Police worked with government in mind, not “who they were protecting”, the people of Japan. For “if you say Tokkô, even a crying baby child falls silent” 5(134).

Everyday Life in Manchukuo: Representations and Reality

by Jordan Hilderman


An Introduction:

The existence of the State of Manchukuo has proven to be a contentious area of history with multiplicities of representations and realities. The state’s fourteen-year existence is complex in areas of nationality, politics, economics and the modernization process. Of special interest to this essay is how the state of Manchukuo was represented in East Asia (and to a lesser extent by the Western powers) and the degree to which these representations were indicative of the state’s reality. To assess the question of representation vs. realities a brief history of the lead up to the establishment of Manchukuo is provided as reference to contextualize the material. The following two sections seek to explore how Manchukuo’s representation, both within and without Japan, match up with the realities of the situation. The first argument addresses how Manchukuo was understood by the imperial powers, including Japan. The second argument seeks to understand Manchukuo through the eyes of the local populace and compares how the previous representation matches up with the everyday lives of individuals. The primary goal of this essay is to ascertain how closely nationally accepted narratives of Manchukuo were representative of the reality of everyday life within the state with the conclusion that the two had a large disparity.

A Brief History:

The origin of the territory that would briefly become known as Manchukuo has an extensive history behind it. Manchukuo was a puppet-state of Japan located in Northeast China established in 1931. Many scholars agree that the increased sphere of influence in Manchuria conceded to them following the 1905 Russo-Japanese war marks the beginning steps of what would become Manchukuo 1(pg.14-15).

Following the defeat of the Russians in 1905, the Japanese government gained control of the Russian built South Manchurian Railway (SMR). The SMR would become much more than just a railway company over the next four decades prior to its dismantling in 1945. At the apex of its power, the SMR employed over 200,000 people from five different nationalities3. Itō Takeo, an author and employee of the company, described the SMR as embodying the incarnate form and mechanism of Japanese expansionism in China3 (pg. 5). Such expansion was expedited by the political climate of North Eastern China at the time which made it exceedingly difficult for any kind of united Chinese opposition to Japan’s Imperial expansionist agenda.

After the Boxer Rebellion of 1897-1901, the Chinese government as a whole was unstable. As Manchuria was the seat of power for the Qing dynasty it was an especially contentious area that had a complex relationship with Russia and the other imperial powers. Caught between imperial powers such as Russia, who was insisting on a 12-article treaty that essentially ensured Russian occupation of Manchuria, and a combined British-Japanese front stipulating that any concessions made to Russia would lead to the partition of Chinese provinces, the Chinese government found itself unable to act. Additionally, the resulting Boxer Protocol enforced onto the Chinese government left the Chinese unable to resist foreign powers within its borders4(pg. 404-406). With no formal mechanisms of resistance, Japan procedurally expanded its influence across Manchuria and onwards, eventually culminating into the momentous Manchurian Incident .

Representations of Manchuria: The Imperial Powers

The practice of imperialism and colonization in greater East Asia was rampant and unapologetic prior to the Second World War. Best encapsulated by policies such as the American Open Door Policy or Britain’s and other Imperial power’s numerous unequal treaties, imperialism was often represented in a positive light that encouraged trade, industrialization, and modernization that could only serve to benefit the local population. Terms indicative of this process are still used today. As an example, the Bakumatsu (literally “end of the Shogunate”) is more prominently referred to as the “opening of Japan” in western literature. As such the depictions and representations of the colonization process in Manchukuo from contemporary imperial powers reflect the same rationalization process.

American Perspective of Manchukuo prior to Pearl Harbor5

One such exemplar of this process is an American informative video from 1937 that attempts to explain the machinations of Manchukuo . The narrator begins by claiming that following the Russo-Japanese war and as a result of the concessions made to Japan, a once “barren and desolate land has been transformed into a great commercial center.” This theme persists throughout the videos highlighting areas ranging from agriculture to legislative institutions to education; boasting that all have been modernized and brought forward to the twentieth century. Each scene puts emphasis on how the peoples of Manchuria, both Japanese and Chinese, have benefited from the process of imperialism. Indeed, there is a significant amount of evidence in agreement with the positive economic reforms within Manchuria. Schumpers Industrialization of Japan and Manchukuo provides its readers with hard statistical analysis of contemporary trade in Manchukuo5. In examining just about every industry Japan was invested in including soya production, metallurgy, coal, electricity, cotton/wool, rice and many other areas, Schumper demonstrates that economic production in Manchuria was a boon to the Japanese government and the war effort.

Sentiments that Manchuria was a veritable “promise land” were heavily reinforced within Japan. To establish a new face of the imperial empire, Young identifies three areas of activity and image that Japan attempted to bolster: military conquest, economic development, and mass migration1 (pg. 4). The military conquests that followed the Kwantung army’s expansion into China were heavily glorified in Japan. Over two-years of military campaigning the Kwantung Army’s brought all of Manchuria under Japanese control. Heavy investment in Manchukuo started almost immediately, with lone entrepreneurs and massive Zaibatsu’s alike seeking to expand industry on this new economic frontier. The Japanese government engaged in a bold experiment in planned economic development and state capitalism that intended to integrate the economies into a joint Japan-Manchukuo bloc economy1 . Finally, and most ambitiously, the Japanese government undertook an immense emigration program that endeavored to send five million Japanese farmers and families to Manchukuo with the goal of creating future generations of continental Japanese who could further establish colonial control.

The avenues and mechanisms by which Manchukuo was framed to the Japanese population were diverse and multi-faceted. The traditional historiographical approach attributes most of the initiative in representing Manchuria as utopian to the Japanese government and their policies7. However more recent revisionist historians have taken to analyzing the extent to which the glorification of Manchukuo was perpetuated by individuals and artists8. That instead of understanding colonists and imperialist proponent writers as branches of their governments will, a more valuable understanding of the development of Manchukuo comes from framing the colonists and writers as having their own agency. Culver and Young’s works provide their readers with a convincing argument that deconstructs the tradition top-down approach and offers numerous accounts of leftist artists and writers who became enchanted with the idea of an idyllic progressive society in the form of Manchukuo. While reading the source material it becomes clear that there is certainly argument for the image of a progressive modernized society being as much a construct of the Japanese people as it was their government.

Realities of Manchuria: Media, Workers and the Opium Trade

With regard to its goal of utopic prosperity, it has been clearly demonstrated that economic contributions to Japan and to infrastructure within the quasi-state of Manchukuo were in real-terms significant. However this point may have been the only one substantiated, as the reality of the socio-political situation of Manchukuo and its populace was a far-cry of what was envisioned.

Represented as a free nation-state under the auspicious rule of Emperor Puyi, last of the Qing dynasty, Manchukuo was meant to embody the values of not only the Manchu people but a broader Chinese narrative. In reality the state was anything but free as all facets of government and organization were at the administration of Japanese colonial enterprise. The Kwantung Army was charged with administering and policing the state which they did in a brutal and totalitarian fashion. A crucial element in gaining complete control of a state is the media. Acknowledging this, one of the first measures taken by the Kwantung administration was to create tightly regulated legislation regarding what could be published in news and other media sources. Flath and Smith note that as a result of the censorship there was a large exodus of Chinese and Japanese writers alike9. The repression of independent expression, especially in regards to journalism and political activity, ran directly counter to the image of a progressive Manchukuo that had been prescribed by both the Japanese government and its people.

Unfortunately media censorship was of minor concern to the average working Machu in comparison to the human rights violations occurring in the form of the state-funded opiate program. Opium in China had been an internationally recognized problem dating back to the Opium Wars of 1839-42. Rehabilitation programs and institutions were well established in areas such as Manchuria and dedicated anti-opium campaigns were slowly gaining traction towards the beginning of the twentieth century. The occupation and creation of Manchukuo radically changed that dynamic, making rehabilitation programs (which kept small amounts of opium to wane off addicts) and anti-opium media illegal. Seeing an opportunity to further bolster the war efforts coffers, the Kwantung administration quickly began monopolizing opium and selling it to addicts under the guise of rehabilitation. The act of pacifying the states workforce and effectually indenturing them to you through addiction was as brilliant as it was sinister. In his autobiographical work, Emperor Puyi is quoted as assessing the opium industry as accounting for more than 1/6th of Manchukuo’s state revenue9 (pg. 14). The proliferation of opium among the population grew to such a drastic proportion that Manchukuo has been described by historians as an “Auschwitz state or a concentration-camp state, more than just a puppet state.”11 By the end of 1944 there were an estimated 1.4 million opium addicts in Manchukuo with at least half that many having died of opium related causes over the fourteen years prior . It is obvious that the dream of Manchuria as utopic remained just that; while the reality related much more closely to what Manchu workers described as a truly “terrifying” and “evil” place9 (pg. 26,28).


The project of state building in Manchukuo is a contentious area of historiography. It is relatively easy to read Flath or Smiths works and condemn the actions taken by the Japanese government in its colonial endeavor. Similarly post-war western literature often carries an implicit bias within it. As such, understanding the representations of Manchukuo in terms of then contemporary imperialism is integral to grasping the ethos the Japanese people. Japans representations of Manchukuo as an idyllic and progressive destination for left-wing writers and rural farmers alike are significant when trying to understand what colonialism meant to the individual. The realities of the situation compound the tragedy that was the failed state but altogether give the intrepid reader genuine insight into what the expectation and everyday life were like in Manchukuo.

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The League of Nations and Japanese Politics

By David Somerville


This is a placeholder image

A map showing countries that withdrew from the League of Nations1.

Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933 had many negative repercussions on Japan, with the most influential being diplomatic isolation. Prior to the country’s withdrawal, Japan had been a founding member of the League in 1920 and had benefited from global cooperation. Japan originally joined the League because it had planned to maintain accommodation with the Western powers in an effort to compromise and this became a centerpiece of Japan’s foreign policy up until the 1930’s.2 After a decade of peaceful relations with the Western Imperial powers, Japan started interfering with its Asian neighbours at the expense of the Western Nations. The global economy had been in decline after the 1929 Stock Market Crash and this put tremendous pressure on Japan to obtain resources in order to accommodate a growing population on the Japanese mainland.

Eventually, the Japanese Army, also known as, the Kwantung, was instructed to invade the Chinese region of Manchuria on September 18, 1931. There was an alarming concern from the international community over Japan’s invasion and soon the League of Nations commissioned an investigation into the Chinese-Japanese conflict, called the Lytton Commission. On February 24, 1933 the findings of the Lytton commission were presented to the League and Japan was condemned as the aggressor. Feeling that Japan had been wrongly accused and knowing that the League couldn’t enforce its demands, Japan’s delegation led by Yosuke Matsuoka voiced their disapproval and immediately withdrew from the League of Nations. This was the moment when Japan decided to cut itself from the international community, leading to future hardships for the Japanese people. Although the League of Nations itself was unable to stop Japan directly, the ensuing political division ultimately led to Japan’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, as well as the Pacific War.


When the Kwantung exerted itself into Manchuria in 1931, the military and the government felt confident that the members of the League of Nations would not be able to use military force to stop them, which did appear to be the case at the time. In justification for its military action in Manchuria, Japan believed that Manchuria was rightly theirs to administrate dating back to the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). Japan had made great sacrifices in terms of bloodshed during the Russo-Japanese War and, by reason of sacrifice, Dr. Shūmei Ōkawa (who previously worked for the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff) believed that his country was entitled to have control over Manchuria and its resources.3 (533) Dr. Ōkawa highlighted that Japan had been the ones that defeated the Russian forces so when the stock market caused global economic insecurity, he viewed this as Japan’s opportunity to save its economy by claiming rights to this territory.3 (533) Uchida Yasuya, who was President of the South Manchuria Railway Company in 1931 and Japan’s Foreign Affairs Minister under the Saitō Makoto Government from 1932- 1933, supported the Kwantung Army during the Manchuria Crisis of 1931-1933 with support from other government ministries and the Diet, which was composed of the House of Representatives and the House of Peers.4 (pg.23-24) This calls into the question Tokyo’s support for the Kwantung Army during this time. It was suspected that if a Japanese diplomat or politician disagreed with the military’s actions, they couldn’t afford to show it because doing so would have meant admitting to the civilian population that the government was powerless to curb military adventurism.4 (pg.24) As the economy continued to cause the Japanese government concern, Dr. Ōkawa, along with the aid of the East Asia Research Foundation and the officers of the Army General Staff, believed that Japan was being too passive abroad and argued that seizing Manchuria would provide a lifeline to a struggling industry.3 (pg.533-534) To get his message across that Manchuria was Japan’s lifeline, Dr. Ōkawa issued a propaganda campaign that advocated for a stronger policy when it came to Manchuria. When Lt. Colonel Hashimoto returned to the General Staff Office he made certain that this propaganda was given to all the editorial writers and ultra-nationalistic speakers in hopes of manipulating public opinion to call for more aggressive action in Manchuria.3 (533-534)

Although this would indeed help the struggling economy, it was only a short term solution to a larger problem and the risk entailed with this decision would be the possibility of condemnation from countries across the world. One important reason why this invasion was worth the political risk was the fact that the Chinese Nationalist government (Kuomintang) had been growing stronger in the region. Shifting loyalties and alliances among Chinese warlords, anti-imperialist (especially the anti-Japanese) sentiment among the Chinese populace, and Western Imperial meddling in Chinese politics and the economy all contributed to the fear that China was becoming more powerful.4 (pg.23-24) In the end, pressure from a poor global economy, dissatisfaction from the military over foreign affairs, and growing fear of Chinese power ultimately led to the invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

When Japan decided to invade Manchuria, it accepted that the countries from the League would not approve of Japan’s actions. Despite the probability of being found the aggressor, Japan was able to stay in the League of Nations for the time being as an investigation was being done to see if Japan had a just cause to be in the region. The Japanese argued that their invasion could be attributed to the Mukden Incident, which occurred on September 18, 1931. The Mukden Incident was a dynamite explosion that detonated close to a railway owned by Japan’s South Manchurian Railway, leading to the Japanese army accusing Chinese radicals of the attack. This would have given Japan a cause to retaliate if it had been true. Instead, the incident was actually planned beforehand by officers of the Army General Staff, officers of the Kwantung Army, members of the Cherry Society (“Sakurakai”-under sponsorship of Hashimoto) and others.3 (532,553) There is extensive evidence showing that the Mukden Incident was secretly planned by these groups in an attempt to justify its future invasion and creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo. Colonel Seishirō Itagaki was a senior staff officer and was in active command during the Mukden Incident until he was replaced by General Shigeru Honjō, who arrived a day after the explosion and assumed command of the Japanese forces. He would then vow to wage a punitive war against the Chinese and this conflict would go from being the Mukden Incident into the Manchuria Incident.3 (557) As the international community heard of this event, the accusation of war by Japan was a discussion being taken seriously by the League during the period of 1931-1933, hence the Lytton Report.

Visit Jordan Hilderman's article: "Everyday Life in Manchukuo" for more information about Manchuria.

The Lytton Report and Japan's exit from the League

Members of the League's Commission of Inquiry in the Far East

Members of the League's Commission of Inquiry in the Far East arriving at Hankow, China in 1932.5.

After Japan’s apparent desire for war with China, the League of Nations chose not to jump to conclusions and gave fair consideration that Japan may be telling the truth about the incident in that it wasn’t violating any international treaties. Foreign Affairs Minister Uchida Yasuya maintained that Japan was acting in self-defense and that Japan never violated any peace treaty with China due to Manchuria being an independent state with ties to Japan.4 (pg.36) In July 1932 the League dispatched the Lytton Commission, which was headed by Lord Lytton of Britain who was instructed to investigate and report on the current situation in Manchuria and to come to a conclusion of what really happened. When Lord Lytton arrived in Manchuria he was constantly supervised by the Kwantung Army and the Japanese Gendarmes (armed police officers) for the sake of his “protection”.3 (605) On February 21, 1933 a draft report was submitted to the League based on Lord Lytton’s findings. Much of what was covered in this report was not going to be in favour of the Japanese, leading to Japan’s delegates pleading to the League to think twice before making a final decision.6 (pg.48) Finally, on February 24, 1933 the wait was over and the League acted on the draft’s recommendations, which included Japan having to withdrawal from Manchuria on the grounds that the invasion violated Chinese Sovereignty. This was not the Japanese point of view and the delegates representing Japan in Geneva were infuriated at the result. On March 27, 1933 Japan gave a notice of intention to withdraw from the League. Although Japan’s withdraw from the League presented challenges diplomatically, Yosuke Matsuoka, Chief Japanese Delegate, acknowledged the impact this can have on the Japanese people.

Farewell message given out by Yosuke Matsuoka on the eve of his departure from Geneva on February 25, 1933:

Japan leaves the League of Nations in 19337

"The only good I can think can out of all this will be incidentally to help further to unite Japanese people, making them better realize the magnitude and the difficulties of Japan’s task, and increase their determination to risk all to achieve their end - that is to recover and maintain peace and order throughout the region of Eastern Asia.".6 (pg.64)

In his address, Yosuke Matsuoka tried to convey the message to the Japanese people that Japan’s exit from the League will only make them stronger, but in reality, Japan would be left friendless as future wars destroyed their newly acquired Empire. The move to withdrawal from the League of Nations was the first time a country with a fearful military did this and it did so with no foreseeable action from the League for the short term. The weakness of the League was exposed and other hostile countries such as Germany and Italy would follow in Japan’s example. These events would eventually cause the League of Nations to fail as a model of maintaining world peace, but as the League of Nations failed, so did the Japan’s chance to engage in diplomacy.

Diplomatic Consequences

After Japan’s exit from the League, Japan was virtually friendless and isolated from the international community. Japan did share common imperialistic policies with Italy and Germany, but they were fighting their own wars in Europe and Africa. This meant that they were not reachable for trade deals and this hurt Japan at home in terms of acquiring food and supplies. With a lack of trade partners, the country had no choice but to continue its expansionist’s agenda in hopes of acquiring the necessary resources to keep the military and the Japanese economy moving forward. After Japan’s six and a half years of “peace” after conquering Manchuria, Japan decided it was time to engage in open war with China and this is commonly known as the 1937 Sino-Japanese War. Then as that war started to yield little progress in 1940, Japan shifted its focus to the south and eastern Pacific islands, where many more resources could be found. These southward and eastward regions consisted of Malaya, the Netherland Indies, the Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, the Gilbert Islands, Thailand, and Burma.8 (pg.499) Although no action came from the League of Nations over the Manchuria incident, the Japanese military was concerned that moving into these regions would upset the United States and lead to wider war. To deal with the American influence in the region, Japan determined that a pre-emptive sneak attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor would be sufficient in neutralizing the American Navy, making it a weak force in the Pacific.8 (pg.499) The Japanese military soon discovered that this was a bad plan and that it had failed its objective to contain the U.S Navy. The fall of the Japanese Empire thus started as defeats. Such as those at Midway and the Philippines started to pile up. The Pacific War started on December 7, 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and would end on September 2, 1945 after the detonation of the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was obviously not the outcome Japan had hoped for, but it’s isolation from trade and global relations forced Japan to continue its ambitious expansion of their Empire, regardless of the possibility of failure and defeat.


At the onset of the Twentieth Century, Japan’s involvement in foreign relations was active and constructive. The country was a founding member of the League of Nations in Geneva and was involved with trade with fellow nations. When the global economy collapsed in 1929, Japan felt it had to secure additional resources to offset the negative implications this would have on the Japanese civilian population. These resources were on the Chinese mainland in Manchuria and Dr. Ōkawa and Lt. Colonel Hashimoto were able to manipulate the Japanese population into thinking this was Japan’s lifeline out of the economic depression. They decided to claim Manchuria as Japan’s on the grounds that Japan was the country to push Russia out of the region during the Russo-Japanese War, as well as claiming Manchuria being an independent state with close ties to Japan since then. Secretly, the Kwantung attacked its own railway in hopes of convincing the international community that China was to blame. The Lytton Report refuted these Japanese claims and the League of Nations ordered Japan to get out of Chinese owned Manchuria. Yosuke Matsuoka and other Japanese delegates were appalled at this decision and the Japanese decided to withdrawal from the League, making Japan the first major country to do so. This move undeniably put strains on Japanese trade and potential alliances and as Japan was running out of resources, additional expansion was viewed to be the only option going forward. As the war in Eastern Asia expanded into an Asia-Pacific War with America, the Japanese military started to increasingly feel the negative effects of a prolonged war and this would then be passed onto the Japanese civilians, leading to Japan’s inevitable defeat.