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Manchoukuo: Come for the Prosperity, Stay for the Harmony

Map shows the location of railroads and Japanese immigrant colonies in Manchuria in the 1930s.

This map of Manchuria was prepared by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation sometime in the 1930s as part of an atlas depicting the extent of Japanese pre-war colonization. It emphasizes Japanese-controlled railroad lines and immigrant colonies, though it probably underestimates the number of the latter. Japanese pre-war colonization. G1046.E27 U5 1935. Geography and Map Division

A few years ago a colleague of mine in the map division wrote a blog about maps of North Korea’s enigmatic capital of Pyongang. One of the maps, published by the Japanese Tourist Bureau in the 1920s, extols the city, renamed by the Japanese as Heijo, as a model of modernization and economic prosperity.

At the time I never really considered why the Japanese issued a tourist map of Heijo in English. But recently, when looking at maps from the 1920s-30s of Manchuria, essentially the epicenter of Japanese colonial designs in the Far East, my interest was piqued as I noticed how many others also were also published in English.

What reasons, I wondered, could the Japanese have in issuing maps of Manchuria in English? And why do so more or less around the time Japan isolated itself internationally by withdrawing from the League of Nations and set itself on a collision course with the United States?

In examining the maps, two motives seemed apparent. Initially, the maps encourage western investment in a nation that Japan considered to be a prime piece of colonial real estate. One in particular advocates for western — especially American — financial support for Japanese industrial and commercial projects in Manchuria. Secondly, they attempt to persuade western minds as to the beneficial nature of Japanese rule in East Asia, by which they promote a Japanese-centered culture, one that celebrates Japanese rule and modernity. Yet they do both in spite of the unwillingness of the United States to recognize Japan’s occupied territory as a legitimate state during most of the 1930s.

Before I present the maps so that readers can draw their own opinions, I would like to begin with a brief background to the circumstances. We can start with Japan’s national psyche in the early twentieth century. Suffering anxiety over population growth and resource limitations, visions of imperial glory, the hubris that comes with military growth, and a feeling of having failed to compete with western empires in East Asia, Japan set itself on a path of expansion. In short order it conquered or acquired Taiwan, a portion of the Liaotung Peninsula known as the Kwantung Leased Territory, the south half of Sakhalin Island, Korea, a few German islands in the western Pacific, and, finally, Manchuria.

Nominally Chinese, Manchuria became a Japanese colony within three decades. Japan began exercising control over Manchuria in the early twentieth century, eventually overtaking the region in early 1932 and Nipponisizing its name to Manchoukuo. Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-05, endowed it with two prime resources: the Liaotung Peninsula with its strategic naval base of Port Arthur, and the southern section of the Chinese Eastern Railway up to Changchun. Japan re-gauged the tracks, re-named this line the South Manchuria Railway (S.M.R.), and, to run it, established the expediently named South Manchuria Railway Company. Over the next few decades Japan developed the railway as an essential element in establishing its presence in Manchoukuo.

Every new state needs a new capital, and for Manchoukuo, Japan chose the town of Changchun, which in a spurt of inspiration it rechristened Xinjing, or “New Capital.”

Map of Changchun showing zoning districts in various colors.

Map 4 in Shinkyo toshi kensetsu keikaku yoto chiiki haibun narabini jigyo daiichiji shiko kuikizu : shukushaku nimanbun no ichi. G7824.C415G45 s20 .M3. Geography and Map Division

For centuries a small trading post and most recently a Russian railway boom town, Xinjing needed quite a bit of refurbishment to resemble a capital city. Immediately Japanese architects, urban planners, engineers, and draughtsman began devising a vision of what the new capital should look like. A series of seven maps (one of them illustrated at left) from around 1932 illustrate Japanese ideas for their new capital, with streets intersecting at circles, wide boulevards, lots of parks, residential areas with nice villas for collaborators, and, of course, industrial zones with factories producing goods for Japan’s military and economic development.

Yet Japan doesn’t seem to have promoted Xinjing as a destination for western tourists and investment, although it lay on Manchoukuo’s main railway line. This was perhaps for the best, since it also served as the site of the primary Japanese research facility for biological and chemical weapons during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).

Other cities, however, were indeed touted to westerners as centers of tourism and finance, including Harbin, Mukden (Shenyang), and Dairen (Dalian), while the railway connecting each of them received promotional capital.

Even before the conquest of Manchoukuo, the South Manchuria Railway Company had begun issuing travel maps for destinations along the southern line and another connecting it to the Liaotung Peninsula.

This map shows the city of Harbin with illustrations and text.

Harbin / South Manchuria Railway.  Filed at Manchuria – Ha-Erh-Pin (city) – 1926 – 1:23,000 – South Manchuria Railway

Above we see a 1926 map of the Russian-found city of Harbin, an Oriental melting pot. Harbin lay at the junction of the Chinese Eastern Railway and its southern spur to Changchun, where it met with the South Manchuria Railway. Stressing Japan’s key role in governing the S.M.R., the map refers to it as “the last link in the overland route between Europe and the Far East.” Not surprisingly, the map identifies numerous hotels, banks, post offices, and foreign consulates, all vital enhancements to western investment.

From around 1910 to 1930, the South Manchuria Railway Company, which ran virtually every aspect of economic life in the region, had developed into Japan’s primary instrument of colonial growth and control. As seen in the 1928 map below, multiple railway lines connect Manchuria, China, and Korea, while others are under construction or are being projected.

Map of Manchuria.  Filed at Manchuria – 1928 – 1:6,300,000 – South Manchuria Railway Co.

Two other cities enjoying the fruits of Japanese investment were Shenyang and Dalian. Shenyang, renamed Mukden by the Manchus and later Fengtian by the Chinese, was the site of the largest land battle of the Russo-Japanese War, whose victory served as a major source of pride for Japan. In September 1931 the Japanese Kwangtung Army rigged an explosion on the railway line near the city to ignite the Japanese takeover of all of Manchuria.

The illustrations surrounding the 1930 map below indicate that Mukden had become a leading Japanese industrial and commercial center in Manchoukuo, but, in a possible effort to promote a notion of friendly relations between China and Japan, the map also includes a fair number of Chinese Imperial mausoleums and temples, showing that the city has been allowed to retain its original cultural heritage while undergoing modernization.

Map of Mukden with illustrations and text.

Mukden Fengtien / South Manchuria Railway.  Filed at Manchuria – Shen Yang (city) – 1930 –South Manchuria Railway

Dalian, or Dairen in transliterated Japanese, was established in 1898 by Russia as an open port on the Liaotung Peninsula. Wrested by Japan in 1905, it was transformed into a railway headquarters, a major shipbuilding yard, and an industrial center. Indeed, the map below proclaims that “Dairen is the first class modern city planned and created by Japanese.” It further trumpets the railway line between Changchun and Dairen as having transformed Manchuria “into an absolutely peaceful and prosperous land,” and adds that a trip by train to any town along the line has been “enlightened by the civilizations of China and Japan ever harmoniously put together.”

Map of Dairen with illustrations and text.

Dairen and Kwantung and Kwantung Province.  Filed at Manchuria – Lu-ta (city) – (193-) – 1:7,000 – South Manchuria Railway

In the early 1930s the Japanese persisted in promoting the South Manchuria Railway as the engine driving Manchoukuo’s new-found peace and prosperity. In a bold attempt to foster commercial and trade relations with the United States, the South Manchuria Railway Company established an office on East 42nd Street in New York City to encourage American investment and drum up support for Japan’s newest territory.

The Company held a display in the Japanese exhibit that was part of the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition at Chicago, for which it produced an illustrated brochure map. Manchuria’s economic development over the past quarter century is marketed to Americans as “chiefly due to Japanese investments and the enterprise of her industrialists and skilled technicians.”

Brochure map advocating for American investment in Manchuria, with illustrations, graphs, and text.

Manchoukuo / The Progress of Manchuria.  Filed at Manchuria – Railways – 1933 – South Manchuria Railway Co.

At the end of a lengthy discourse, setting forth the potential benefits of American investment in Manchoukuo, we are presented with a striking parallel between the apparently 8,000,000 Chinese who had migrated to the region since the Japanese occupation and the American Revolutionaries, the former declaring their independence from taxation and exploitation of war lords in the manner of their predecessors in 1776. Omitted from the map, however, are many other facts, such as that by 1930 roughly a hundred thousand conscripted Chinese workers had succumbed to hazardous conditions in the Company-operated coal mines, like the ones at Fushun just outside Mukden.

Despite China’s growing demands to free itself from colonial oppression and increasing resistance to imperial oversight, Japanese officials continued to exploit the country as sources of cheap labor and industrial resources. Operating at full throttle, the South Manchuria Railway Company advertised its success in developing Manchoukuo’s transportation infrastructure by issuing this map in 1935. It depicts the nation’s railways, highways, and airline routes, but also identifies the real source of wealth, essentially its gold, coal, shale oil, minerals, livestock, agricultural products, and timber, all materials highly desired by a colonial power starved of resources and afflicted by a lack of imperial respect.

Map shows Manchoukuo's transportation system.

Transportation Map of Manchoukuo.  Filed at Manchuria – 1935 – ca. 1:2,800,000 – South Manchuria Railway Co.

Immediately following the establishment of Machoukuo in 1932, the Japanese Land Survey Department began mapping their new country in earnest, producing general maps of the country and undertaking large-scale surveys in an effort to define the land.

Map shows Manchoukuo and adjoining territories.

Manchoutikuo and Adjoining Territories.  Filed at Manchuria – 1935 – 1:2,500,000 – Japan Land Survey Dept.

Out of those efforts arose this map for American consumption, a lightly-shaded lithograph titled Manchoutikuo and Adjoining Territories, which depicts a well-administered and well-controlled territory, with clearly defined national, provincial, and district boundaries, railroads, roads and highways, harbors, numerous towns and villages, Japanese embassies and consulates, and foreign public offices. An inset emphasizes Manchoukuo’s prominent location in Eastern Asia, while the statuses of Xinjing (Hsinking), Mukden (Fengtian), and Harbin are magnified in enlargements.

This map shows Manchoukuo and adjoining territories.

Map of Japan, Manchoukuo and Adjoining Territories.  Filed at Manchuria – 1936 – 1:3,500,000 – Japan-Manchoukuo Year Book Co.

A year later this map, seen on the left, appeared as a supplement to the 1936 edition of the Manchoukuo Year Book, essentially a directory in English of firms and enterprises conducting business in Manchoukuo and Japan, and published annually by the East Asiatic Economic Investigation Bureau in Tokyo. The map covers Japan, Manchoukuo, and adjoining territories, and includes insets of Taiwan, the Bonin Islands, and the Ryukyu Islands. In one image the Japanese Empire and adjacent territory coveted in East Asia are placed into focus.

Perhaps Japan miscalculated in behaving as though the United States and other nations, too, would come to terms with its inexorable growth in Asia. Had the Japanese actively participated in nation building and followed their own prescriptions for harmony, prosperity, and modernity – all virtues promoted on the maps – then things may have turned out differently, and the wreck and humiliation foisted upon Japan in 1945 could have been one of those “what if?” moments in an alternate history.

2 Comments

  1. Rachel Barker
    June 25, 2021 at 12:56 pm

    Great article and lots of good points. It’s nice to learn the Manchuria map collections in LC. Manchuria is commonly known in China as the “Northeast Region” or “three provinces in the Northeast”. It’s interesting to learn that Japan didn’t promote Xinjing as a destination for western tourists and investment, because it was served as the site of Unit 731, the notorious Japanese research facility for biological and chemical weapons during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Unit 731, aka Detachment 731 was responsible for some of the most notorious war crimes carried out by Imperial Japan.

    • Mike Klein
      June 25, 2021 at 2:11 pm

      Thank you, Rachel. Obviously I couldn’t go into all the details, given the limited space available for a blog. Thank you, nevertheless, for pointing out that Unit 731 was the secret biological and chemical weapon research facility located in Xinjing, which is not represented by an tourist maps in English. Also, the English-language maps of Manchuria are only a small portion of the uncataloged maps. Many were published in Japanese by the South Manchuria Railway Company, essentially the controlling body of Manchoukuo in the years leading up to the war.

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