Imperial gambit, modern game

Japan's Total Empire
May 21, 1999

In recent years a new generation of scholars of Japan have brought the tools of social and cultural studies to bear on the troubled history of that country during the first half of the 20th century. Works by historians such as Andrew Gordon, Sheldon Garon, and Carol Gluck have radically changed our understanding of this period, making it clear that to comprehend the forces operating in interwar Japan we have to go beyond high politics and look at the complex interplay between state and society, and at the problems posed by the state's need to maintain order in the face of rapid industrialisation and an influx of western modes of thought.

Japan's Total Empire by Louise Young is a monograph that both reflects and builds upon this canon of work. It is a self-consciously ambitious book that attempts, by analysing the social, cultural and economic forces that shaped the construction of the puppet state of Manchukuo from 1931 to 1945, to put Manchuria at the centre of Japan's doomed attempt in this period to come to terms with modernity. Young's contention is that Manchuria was a 'total empire' in that all elements within Japanese society helped to influence its development and that, in turn, the significance of Manchukuo was so great that it had a massive impact on the development of Japan in the 1930s.

Young organises her book into three distinct sections in order to illustrate her case. The first section deals with the reaction of Japanese society to the conquest of Manchuria as expressed in its treatment within the mass media and the response of mass organisations. Young's findings are particularly significant. In contrast to the traditional view that the state manipulated Japanese society into supporting aggression in continental Asia, Young contends that military expansion was genuinely popular. This was largely because the Japanese people, faced with the suffering caused by the Depression and believing that Japan was in the midst of a "national crisis", were sympathetic to the idea that Manchuria could be a "lifeline" towards renewed prosperity. The popularity of the cause can be seen in the way that the mass media reacted to the situation in Manchuria. The newspapers reported on events widely and enthusiastically, understanding that a patriotic stance would help to boost circulation. In addition, magazines, books, radio broadcasts by NHK, films and cinema newsreels all lauded the achievements of the Japanese army in Manchuria. Added to this were the protestations of support for expansion that came from business, workers' groups, women's associations and the political parties, including the left-wing Shakai Minshuto (Social Democratic Party).

Young makes clear in the second part that a good deal of this enthusiasm came from the fact that for virtually all sections of society Manchuria became a canvas on which they could project their own visions of the future and their own solutions to Japan's economic and social predicaments. For the private business sector Manchuria appeared to be a vast potential market capable of soaking up Japan's exports. To the army, however, the colony was primarily a vehicle for establishing a heavy industrial base to supplement Japan's present capabilities in order to construct a strong, state-dominated war economy. To left-wing intellectuals, such as the Comintern agent Ozaki Hotsumi, attached to the research department of the South Manchurian Railway Company, Manchukuo was a laboratory in which they could experiment with economic planning and develop a basis for inter-Asian understanding. All of these elements would in turn compete and collaborate in order to construct the Manchuria of their dreams, although the army would emerge as by far the most important player.

In the third part of the book Young develops the idea of the colony as a universal answer to Japan's problems when she describes how Manchuria became a destination for agrarian emigrants. The process of encouraging Japanese farmers to emigrate to Manchuria was, she contends, an example of social imperialism. The motive was to overcome the economic plight in Japan's rural areas by offering the poorest families a chance to relocate to Manchuria, thus reducing land pressure within Japan. This began as the private venture of academic agrarianists and was keenly supported by the rural elites, but from 1935 it won official backing in the Millions to Manchuria programme. The result was that eventually 320,000 emigrants would come from Japan to till Manchurian soil.

This, then is a wide-ranging study of Manchuria's place within the Japanese Empire and it is on the whole a fascinating, penetrating and important study. As with another superior volume on Japanese imperialism, Peter Duus's The Sword and the Abacus, this book makes it clear that Japan's empire building was not just the result of state action, but was also driven by economic and social factors. It also emphasises the fact that there is great danger in imagining that the mass of the population in Japan was merely a quiescent force manipulated into occasional bouts of nationalist hysteria by a cynical state. In reality they too were desperate for solutions to Japan's problems, and thus Manchuria became central to Japanese life and prospects.

There are some areas where the book could have been improved. It would have been useful to have had more coverage of the pre-September 1931 period in order to bring out the continuities and discontinuities more clearly, for example a discussion of public opinion in the summer of 1931 and the reaction to the Wanbaoshan and Nakamura incidents. In addition, an imperial historian might be critical of the relative lack of comparisons with other imperialisms, which make some of the larger claims about "total empire" seem rather contrived. Overall, however, this is an impressive work which adds considerably to our knowledge of an important subject. For scholars of Japan, imperial historians and anyone concerned with understanding the way in which states and societies respond to the pressures of modernisation, Japan's Total Empire is an essential read.

Antony Best is lecturer in international history, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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

Author - Louise Young
ISBN - 0 520 21071 9
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 487

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