If I had been a young man in the 1920s and had gotten hold of Manchuria, Land Of Opportunities (1922), I just might have bought myself a one-way ticket on a slow boat to Manchuria. In terms of opportunities, in particular investment opportunities, it doesn’t come much better than as described in painstaking detail in this book. Did you know for example that in 1920 1,955,464 gallons of lubricating oil were imported into Manchuria? Don’t ask me why. No, don’t. And that in the same year 52,508,400 pounds of perilla leaves were exported from Manchuria? For those of you who have not had the gastronomic pleasure of the pickled or raw perilla leave: it’s the leaf of the sesame plant (and it’s good).
These numbers and many more can be found in this well-written, well-designed investment prospectus (because I guess that’s what it is) written by the South Manchurian Railway Company. Aha, I hear you say. And you’re right. The South Manchurian Railway Company was the privately owned, but state-funded strong arm of Japanese colonial endeavours in Manchuria. This book then is propaganda. Sophisticated propaganda (it calls itself a ‘handbook of the resources of Manchuria”), but undiluted, 100% proof , the real McCoy Japanese propaganda from the 1920s. The Japan-led part of the Manchurian economy is described and photographed in detail, but the book also has a number of the kind of omissions one would expect from a propaganda work. There is no mention of bandits, for example, while Manchurian bandits were (in)famous enough to be mentioned frequently by visitors to Manchuria, some of whom ended up as kidnapped-for-ransom victims (see the last picture in this post). Korean groups fighting against the Japanese? Not according to this “the sun always shines in Manchuria” piece of propaganda. It is useful propaganda, chock-full of facts on the Manchurian economy. But it remains a text that is rather economical with the truth (he wrote euphemistically): loads of pictures of the new rail road system, of the new rail road system, of the new rail road system (no, the Ctrl+V key doesn’t self-repeat) and some of investment opportunities and shiny, happy people working in factories. It’s not social realism, but you can see the family resemblance. No pictures, however, of the hundreds of thousands Korean petty farmers, forever on the brink of catastrophic disaster (Japanese repression & violence, taxes, bandits, bad harvests, “voluntary” freedom fighters’ levies). No pictures either of the devastations wrought by the Russo-Japanese War fifteen years earlier (that effectively decided Manchuria’s fate). No mention of what would perhaps be the biggest growth industry and investment opportunity: opium and other drugs. No, only rosy pictures are painted in Manchuria, Land Of Opportunities. Most attention goes to the opening of this previously forbidden country by the South Manchurian Railway, which was a state unto itself: it administered complete rail road towns, possessed its own police, hospitals, schools and could tell citizens what to do. And what not to, I presume. The South Manchurian Railway emerges from this book as the one ingredient that made the colonisation of Manchuria not only possible, but ultimately a fact.
Most noteworthy perhaps is the mention of Zhang Zoulin 張作霖 as Japan’s eternal friend in this guide. A few years after the publication of this book, Zhang would be blown to bits in his railway carriage by a Japanese officer of the Kwantung Army, proving the adagio that Manchuria was colonized by railway. Zhang had been on his way back from Beijing (which he had captured and where he had pronounced himself Grand Marshall of the Republic of China) and his private train (you can’t be too careful) had just entered the concession of the South Manchurian Railway Company near Shenyang where he was promptly blown into the hereafter. Proving that you just can’t be too careful, I guess.