Shadows, Illusions, and Realities in the History of Modern Manchuria

By Howe, Christopher | China Perspectives, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Shadows, Illusions, and Realities in the History of Modern Manchuria


Howe, Christopher, China Perspectives


Shadows, Illusions, and Realities in the History of Modern Manchuria

A review of Manchuria under Japanese Dominion by Yamamuro Shin'ichi, translated by Joshua A. Fogel, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006

In the second week of July 1971, Henry Kissinger visited Beijing in the greatest secrecy. So little did Kissinger and his group know of contemporary China that they assumed, quite wrongly, that the anti-American slogans glimpsed as they sped through Beijing had been put up for the express benefit of their visit. This visit, which presaged a tectonic shift in the politics of Asia and the Pacific, was revealed to the world on 15 July. The Japanese Ambassador in Washington was informed barely one hour before the public announcement, and Prime Minister Sato in Tokyo had only minutes of notice.

The following February Nixon signed the Shanghai Communiqué, and within three months Sato was gone and the campaign for presidency of the Liberal Democrat Party was underway. In this election the successful anti-Sato forces were committed to the immediate normalisation of relations with China.

In spite of a lack of formal ties, Japan's trade with China had actually grown with extraordinary speed in the years preceding this breakthrough - rising from 1.6 percent of China's global trade in 1960 to nearly 20 percent by 1970. But this was largely trade with small "friendly firms" and "dummy" corporations. Most large corporations had stuck with the Sato line, through which they enjoyed the benefits of close relations with Taiwan that in many cases went back to the early part of the century.((1)

As normalisation approached in the summer of 1972, the appetite for knowledge about China in those Japanese busi- ness circles was enormous. As a visiting "China specialist" working in Japan that summer on the economic history of pre-war Manchuria, I was called upon to provide some talks. At the end of one of these sessions, a gentleman sitting im- mediately to my right leaned across and said: "You might be interested to know that I was a signa- tory to the surren- der of the Kwan- tung Army in 1945." He added that if I wanted to understand the Manchurian politi- cal legacy I must study the writings of Ishiwara Kenji. Apart from the ad- vice on Ishiwara, I took away from this and subsequent ex- periences two basic impressions: the first was that during those years an ex- traordinarily high percentage of senior Japanese had back- ground in Manchuria. In some cases their background was as officials, in others as businessmen, professional experts of all kinds, military personnel, or as relatives of those who had such connections. These Manchurian personal histories were not prominently discussed, certainly not with foreign- ers, but nonetheless, and notwithstanding the often tragic outcomes, Manchurian days had been for many the most idealistic, fulfilling, and extraordinary times of their lives.

My second impression was that Japanese businessmen con- sidered Japan's occupation of Manchuria and China proper to have done immense economic damage (indeed, they found it difficult to credit Anglo-American estimates of China's economic performance in the 1950s and 1960s),((2) and they therefore felt that Japan owed China a huge but unquantified economic debt. The Chinese leadership played cleverly on this, and it was undoubtedly a factor in the Japanese willingness to sign contracts during the "China boom" of 1972-1978. This early post-war flowering in Sino- Japanese relations, therefore, reflected attitudes towards China based on first-hand experience, frequently in Manchuria. But as Shinichi Yamamuro points out in the major study reviewed here, "The number of people who have no knowledge of Manzhouguo increases with each passing day." For the younger generation, both in Japan and in a long-unified People's Republic of China, Manchuria is both an historical legacy and an experience easily trans- muted into myths - myths that today still give rise to disturb- ing political emotions and have serious consequences for Sino-Japanese relations. …

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