Japan History Lab

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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