Japan’s Urban Colonial Past and the Problem of Commemoration

Emer O’Dwyer, Oberlin College

In January of this year, Miura Hideyuki, a journalist for the Asahi shinbun, was awarded the Kaikō Ken Memorial Nonfiction Prize for his work of reportage, Five-Colored Rainbow (Goshiki no niji, Shūeisha, 2015). In it, Miura traces the postwar lives of graduates of Manchukuo’s Kenkoku Daigaku, a university established in 1938 to train future generations of leaders capable of providing a front of sovereignty and authenticity to the Japanese Imperial Army’s bold new project of state-building. The five colors of the rainbow refer to the nationalities of Japan, China, Korea, Mongolia, and Manchuria, representatives of which comprised the university’s first cohort of 141 students. The students’ collective union in classrooms and on training fields at the university in the capital city of Shinkyō (now, Changchun in the People’s Republic of China) was intended as a microcosm of the harmony trumpeted by the new state’s many propaganda outlets.

Square Dairen

Central Circular, Dairen, ca. 1940

The five-member Kaikō Ken prize jury roundly praised Miura for compiling brief life histories of some 1,500 of the “super elite” who had graduated from the university in the seven years of its existence, as well as for his doggedness in tracking down several dozen of them—scattered across the Asian continent as far as Kazhakstan—for interviews. It was “most fitting” in the seventieth year after war’s end, jurors agreed, that Miura’s “masterpiece” be recognized for its contribution to salvaging the graduates’ stories from the dustbin of history.

For it is a truth now widely acknowledged among historians that postwar Japanese society took shape around the negation of memory relating to the nation’s prewar and wartime empire. One striking example of this tendency has been pointed out by Katō Kiyofumi and his observations on the paucity of memorials in Japan to mark the experiences of Japanese repatriates from the continent who made long and difficult journeys home from across the empire after 1945. To the extent that a movement existed at all to commemorate these experiences, it did not begin until the late 1950s, and was marked from its inception by strong opinions regarding the need to differentiate—in the case of Manchuria in particular—between those who had moved to the empire before the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937 and those who came after. The “latecomers” —comprised in the main by a more impoverished population, many hailing from Japan’s famine-ravaged northeast—were believed to have had a far worse experience, mobilized as many of them were to the Soviet frontier as an armed agrarian-militia.

If life on the northern edge of Manchukuo was the most rugged and dangerous of locations, settlement in the port city of Dairen was among the most desirable for Japanese overseas settlers. Located at the southern-tip of South Manchuria’s Kwantung Leasehold (transferred by Peking from St. Petersburg to Tokyo in 1905), Dairen provided its Japanese residents with a distinctly fortunate lifestyle in a distinctly atypical colonial setting. Since its first days, Dairen defied easy characterization within the sphere of Japanese influence in east Asia. A 1934 observation by a Japanese journalist encapsulated Dairen’s abiding difference, calling it “a city like no other.” Dairen, he continued, “is neither an extension of Japan, nor of China, nor even of Manchukuo. No matter how you look at it—from a cultural, political, or economic perspective—it stands apart.”

Map Dairen

Northeast Asia, ca. 1932

In brief, the reasons for political difference centered around the city’s location in a leasehold—a unique status among Japanese overseas cities and one which distinguished it in legal terms from both Japanese concessions in treaty ports such as Fuzhou or Tianjin as well as from urban centers of robust colonial control such as Seoul or Taipei. Extraterritoriality meant that civil and criminal law in Dairen adhered to metropolitan precedent, postal services were familiar and streamlined within a solid metropolitan bureaucracy, and residents were free from the imposition of taxes by Peking. In 1915, Dairen was endowed by Tokyo with a municipal code, thus marking its equivalence with metropolitan cities while providing the illusion that Dairen was actually Japanese soil. Economic difference from other places in the empire was best represented by the dominating presence of the huge and powerful South Manchuria Railway Company (hereafter, “Mantetsu”) which was headquartered in Dairen and, to this day, claims title to the biggest company in Japanese history. The company was semi-public and thus played a role in the governance of Japan’s special rights in South Manchuria while, as a for-profit entity, provided salaries and generous benefits for a significant proportion of Dairen’s Japanese settler population. Mantetsu’s largesse contributed as well to the cultural vitality of early twentieth-century Dairen, endowing local arts organizations and commercial enterprises of every sort with a steady supply of revenue, whether issued from company ledgers or employee wallets.

Like many other (colonial) cities, Dairen was often likened to Paris. Vladimir Sakharov, the chief engineer entrusted by Czar Nicholas II in 1898 with the city’s construction would have been pleased by the comparison, intent as he had been to reproduce Eugène Haussmann’s Place de l’Étoile and large leafy boulevards in an eastern setting.

Yet, abundant as analogies were to this “Paris of the East,” Dairen’s Japanese settler population ultimately preferred comparison to Japan’s metropolitan cities. Indeed, it was not enough to be considered merely equivalent to metropolitan cities of comparable size (Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or Fukuoka), Dairen aspired to be treated as a major city of the empire: on the same level as not only Seoul and Taipei, but also Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe.

The accumulation of great wealth in Dairen during World War One—when demand for Manchuria’s signature commodity (soybeans) spiked worldwide—was one reason for this rise in self-regard. In political terms, the rise could be attributed to the outsized number of parliamentarians associated with Dairen, and South Manchuria more broadly. Japan’s Meiji Constitution did not allow residents abroad to vote, much less did it provide for candidates to the National Diet to run as representatives of colonies—to say nothing of leaseholds. Yet, voting was open to anyone (within a limited franchise) with the resources for passage back to the mainland for completion of the civic act. Over time, there developed the extra-constitutional phenomenon of “absentee parliamentarianism”—by which wealthy colonists returned to their hometowns to campaign for Diet seats from their home districts and, once elected, return again to their comfortable overseas lifestyles and “absentee constituencies” among settler communities. By 1930, South Manchuria’s 228,736 Japanese settlers (about 44% of whom lived in Dairen) enjoyed representation from 19 Diet members! Tokyo, with its population of 2.07 million in the same year, got only 31 representatives, Osaka (population: 2.45 million), only 21. Here, then, was a city that punched well above its weight in political, economic, and cultural terms.

Art 1934

Kyowa, May 1934. Artwork: Kitao Katsuro. Reproduced courtesy of Ryukei Shosha.

But, one thing that made Dairen completely different than its metropolitan counterparts was the way in which the Pacific War passed it by. As one local adage put it in late 1941, “the battlefield is the front line, the metropole the second line, and Dairen the third line.” Certainly, there was rationing and conscription of able-bodied young men, but these came much later to Dairen than to cities in Japan and were for the most part of lesser intensity. Most significantly, Dairen was never bombed. Though American B-29 bombers flew sorties over the city in both July and December 1944, no bombs (incendiary or otherwise) were dropped. And, it is this significant omission that marks the sharpest of dividing lines between urbanites in Japan (over 202,000 of whom died in cities large and small in every prefecture in the last months of the war) and those in South Manchuria.

The experiences of Dairen residents at war’s end also fundamentally differed from those of rural Manchukuo’s Japanese settlers, from whom Dairen’s urban elite wished always to be differentiated. Just as the memory of incineration of Japan’s cities is a dominant motif in postwar reminiscences among metropolites, so too is the Soviet entry into Manchukuo on August 9, 1945 the ultimate symbol of both the collapse of Manchukuo’s mechanisms of colonial control and the trauma of dislocation and death that defined war’s end for its settlers.

In the main, the experiences of Dairen’s Japanese settlers fit comfortably into neither of these narratives of the endgame of war. In Dairen, the emperor’s address announcing the end of hostilities was received on August 15, 1945 from within intact homes, many equipped with expensive radio receivers. In Tokyo, some one million people were entering a fifth month of homelessness while foraging for food in a burnt-out cityscape. In Dairen, residents organized their repatriation to the homeland in as comfortable a fashion as can be imagined amidst a Soviet military occupation. They were not required to trek hundreds of miles south under threat of violence, as were the former inhabitants of vanquished Manchukuo. In Dairen, urban settlers had a short distance to travel to the docks, and for the most part, departed after a few months’ wait, not years like those less fortunate. (The number of casualties among Japanese seeking repatriation has been estimated at 245,000.) Many Japanese residents of Manchukuo would not return to Japan until 1947 or 1948 (or indeed, later.) Awaiting repatriation, they endured violence and malnutrition as the Chinese civil war raged around them. Privation in postwar Dairen, while not non-existent, was of a far lesser order.

Of course, Dairen has not been white-washed from narratives of Japan’s imperial past. But, the narrative frame within which it has been fitted by memory-makers is largely of a celebratory cast. Dalian, as it is now called in accordance with Chinese pronunciation, remains a destination for Japanese intent on witnessing early twentieth-century hyper-modernity as well as spent imperial grandeur. However, it is difficult to imagine, on the 70th anniversary of war’s end, a collective biography of Mantetsu employees, colonial bureaucrats, bourgeois shopkeepers, and avant-garde poets earning commendation by a non-fiction prize jury as “a most appropriate winner.” While there is pride among many Japanese at the prewar modernity achieved in South Manchuria, a major anniversary of war’s end allows little room for remembering the lucky few who enjoyed affluence and comfort while so many millions of others (Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Mongolians, Manchurians, and Russians alike) experienced terrible hardship and brutality in the last months of the war.

Miura Hideyuki’s commemoration of the friendships that formed between the multi-ethnic elite of Kenkoku Daigaku holds out hope for healing the still raw wounds of recent history and building a true harmony between Japan and its East Asian neighbors. Perhaps, for the next major anniversary of war’s end, a similar narrative aimed at healing could be written using the colonial experience in Dairen as centerpiece. Such a narrative would require reduced emphasis on the great accomplishments of Japanese modernity and humble recognition of the burdens imposed on non-Japanese residents in constructing this city like no other.


Emer O’Dwyer is the author of Significant Soil: Settler Colonialism and Japan’s Urban Empire in Manchuria which was published in 2015 by Harvard Asia Center Press. She is an associate professor at Oberlin College.

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2 Responses to Japan’s Urban Colonial Past and the Problem of Commemoration

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History – Imperial & Global Forum

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