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The Historian as Magpie: Searching for Treasures in the Asian Reading Room

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(The following post is an interview conducted by Jonathan Loar and Cameron Penwell, reference specialists in the Asian Division, with Dr. Emer O’Dwyer, associate professor of History and East Asian Studies at Oberlin College).

This year, the annual conference of the Association of Asian Studies (AAS) was held in Washington, D.C. from March 22-25. At the conference, the Asian Division’s reference staff organized a workshop titled “Exploring Possibilities for Research Using the Asian Collections at the Library of Congress,” which highlighted the rich primary sources in the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Tibetan collections. The workshop participants included Professor Emer O’Dwyer, a historian of modern Japan at Oberlin College, who conducted research in the Asian Reading Room as a resident scholar with the Library’s John W. Kluge Center over a period of ten months in 2011-12. Professor O’Dwyer had also spoken about her ongoing research at the Library of Congress in a 2012 public lecture titled “Pivot of Empire: Settler Politics in Japanese Manchuria, 1913-1916.” Results of this research have appeared in her 2015 book, “Significant Soil: Settler Colonialism and Japan’s Urban Empire in Manchuria,” published by Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge, MA).

A map of Manchukuo, or Manchuria, depicted in an English-language publication from Japan, “The Manchuria Yearbook 1932-33,” produced by the SMRC research institute Toa-Keizai Chosakyoku (East Asiatic Economic Investigation Bureau).

The area in northeast China known as Manchuria figures prominently in the history of modern East Asia. Japan gained a major foothold in the region following its victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, with Russia ceding control of the South Manchurian Railway and the Kwantung Leasehold at the southern tip of the Liaodong Peninsula. The South Manchurian Railway Company (SMRC) was established to develop Japanese interests in the area, and in practice it often functioned as a colonial agency. In 1931 the Japanese Imperial Army staged an invasion of Manchuria, which eventually led to the creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932. Following Japan’s defeat in WWII, thousands of publications from the SMRC and an array of government and military institutions were confiscated by Allied forces and eventually stored at the Library of Congress.

Professor Emer O’Dwyer speaks at the workshop “Exploring Possibilities for Research Using the Asian Collections at the Library of Congress,” held on March 24 at the 2018 Association of Asian Studies annual conference in Washington, D.C. Photo by Eiichi Ito.

Professor O’Dwyer highlighted some of these materials in her presentation at the AAS workshop and discussed how they figured in her research. Afterwards, we caught up with Professor O’Dwyer and asked her to talk a little bit more about her work with these and other materials from the Japanese collection in the Asian Reading Room.

What initially brought you to the Library of Congress and the Asian Reading Room? (At what stage in your research/book project were you when you first arrived?)

I arrived in D.C. as a Kluge fellow in September 2011, fresh off a 12-month post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard’s Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies. The good fortune of a two-year research/writing leave was compounded by getting daily access to the Library of Congress’s formidable collection of materials related to the South Manchuria Railway Company (SMRC), a protagonist in my social history of Japan’s prewar and wartime empires in China’s northeast that I had begun writing while at the Reischauer Institute. Over the years, I had accumulated multiple bibliographies and research notes compiled by Japanese historians on the Library’s holdings and thus was aware of the astounding breadth of materials related to SMRC (also known as “Mantetsu” in Japanese). Those early days at the Library, in the autumn of 2011 can best be described as trying to drink from a fire hydrant. Fortunately, the excellent guidance I received from the staff of the Asian Reading Room, especially from Japanese reference specialist Eiichi Ito, enabled me to develop proficiency in finding materials directly related to my book project.

Emer O’Dwyer, “Significant Soil: Settler Colonialism and Japan’s Urban Empire in Manchuria.” Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2015.

What sort of materials did you utilize in the Asian Reading Room? Can you tell us a bit more about how your research, conducted at Library of Congress, contributed to your 2015 book, “Significant Soil”?  

My approach to writing history is one that foregrounds detail. I derived tremendous pleasure while at the Library in “coloring in” the details of my story about settler colonialism in Japanese Manchuria. Whether scanning the region’s local dailies—for example, “Manshu nichi nichi shinbun”(Manchuria daily news) in Japanese or “Sheng jing shi bao” (Shengjing [Mukden] times) in Chinese—on microfilm, reading through the autobiographies and diaries of Japanese settlers, or checking lists of metropolitan election results to determine the success of Manchurian-based settler candidates in securing seats in Japan’s National Diet (parliament), the urge to document was well-satisfied by the Library’s abundant and diverse holdings. I tell my students at Oberlin that historians are like magpies who have to sift through layers and layers of stuff, but keep at it for the promise of finding a bright, shining treasure. Like a magpie, I enjoy the search (and anticipation)—as well as, ultimately, the opportunity to give readers a sense of the texture, stuff, and, indeed, lyrical nature of history.

What was the most unexpected or surprising discovery you made while working with the South Manchurian Railway Company (or another) collection?

The journal “Dairen” was published in Tokyo by a group of Japanese returnees who formerly lived in Japanese-occupied Dalian (Dairen in Japanese). The Library of Congress Asian Division.

I came across a periodical entitled, “Dairen” (after the Japanese name of the main city in South Manchuria) published in Tokyo, between January 1950 and May 1951, by a group of Japanese returnees (hikiagesha). The periodical, slim at about 7-8 pages per issue, provided poems and reminiscences by the returnees, as well as brief reports on the current state of affairs in Soviet Russian-occupied Dairen. (The city and surrounding area would not be returned to Chinese control until early 1951.) The journal—and especially a series of diary entries by one Yoneya Toyomi published within it—provided an excellent source for accessing the last days of Japan’s empire in Manchuria as well as for providing texture to what is otherwise a much-impoverished historical record. My magpie struck pay dirt when I came across reports of a rumor that had circulated near Port Arthur in May 1945 telling how the recent birth of a “cow with the face of a human” presaged an imminent end to the war. Another valuable find was “Manshu taimusu haikan kinen shaonshi” (“A commemorative publication for the discontinued Manchuria Times”), a memory-book of sorts composed by reporters and editors of the “Manshu Taimusu” (“Manchuria Times”) newspaper on the occasion of its last issue in 1941. This volume contained valuable reminiscences (and scuttlebutt!) regarding the various ways in which army-mandated censorship changed the Japanese-language media landscape in Manchuria from the mid-1930s through the end of the war.

Did you make use of the Asia-related collections in the Library’s other reading rooms (Geography & Maps, Prints & Photographs, Law, etc.)?

Unfortunately, I did not make significant use of the materials in other Asia-related collections at the Library. However, the holdings of Japanese films in the Moving Image Research Center, and the legal papers in the Law Library are resources that I am eager to make use of in my current research on Japanese courtroom culture of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

A photo from the first page of “Manshu taimusu haikan kinen shaonshi” Dairen: Manshu Taimususha, 1941.

In terms of themes or topics, what types of research projects do you think would benefit from the use of the SMRC collection, or other materials in the prewar Japanese collection?

The study of Japan’s prewar and wartime empires continues to be robust. What I think we could use more of are histories of specific places in the empire. In addition to Dairen, the Manchurian cities of Fengtian, Changchun (known as Shinkyo while capital of Manchukuo between 1932 and 1945) and Harbin—as well as the coal mining towns of Benxihu and Fushun—have all found their historians. Nonetheless, there remains work to be done on filling out our historical picture of how the very particular configuration of Japanese imperial space in China’s northeast region functioned on a day-to-day basis. The SMRC collection contains abundant material for the researcher interested in smaller towns along the Rail Zone such as Dashiqiao, Liaoyang, Tieling, or Sipingjie. Close-grained studies of these places (and those who inhabited them) would provide much-needed texture to our understanding of the Japanese invasion of China’s northeast in autumn 1931, particularly, with regard to triangular dynamics between Japanese soldiers, settlers, and the Chinese laboring classes.

Do you have any suggestions or advice for researchers thinking about conducting research in the Asian Reading Room at the Library of Congress?

Enjoy the bounty!

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Questions about the Japanese collection, South Manchurian Railway collection, or other Asian collections at the Library of Congress? Contact Asian Division reference staff through the Ask-a-Librarian online inquiry form!

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