The South Manchurian Railway and academia

As a Dutch nationalmansyu-s11 who braved the vagaries of Dutch public transportation daily (not anymore! Now I just cycle to the institute. Life is good, to quote what was once called Lucky Goldstar, yes, Lucky Goldstar – I wonder how many marketing millions went into trying the erase the memory of Lucky Goldstar, btw, but that is an entirely different matter), I probably have a tendency to underestimate (and severely so) the formative influence public transportation can have on societies. Or in this case, not-so-public transportation, because the South Manchurian Railway Company was registered at the stock exchange.

SMR headquarters in Dairen

SMR headquarters in Dairen

But for all purposes, it really was a public transportation company for its all but complete alignment with the imperatives of the imperial Japanese state (and the fact that its founder was a statesman, Cabinet Minister (Home and Foreign Minister), mayor of Tokyo, first director of NHK, first Chief Scout of Japan: you get the picture). The formative influence the SMR exercised on Japan, on Manchuria and on Korea was incredible. Japanese colonization of Korea and Manchuria, and in particular its consolidation, would not have been possible without the SMR. We feel its influence still. Not only in the fact that the old railway roads completed by the SMR are still in use today in parts of North Korea (that’s Juche for you right there), but also because the SMR employed scholars by the dozen to do research on the newly incorporated (or soon to be incorporated) territories.

They employed historians, anthropologists, geographers, linguists, sociologists and established a research institute (aptly and predictably called the South Manchurian Railway Company Research Department; colonial enterprises have rarely shown much creativity in administering colonial territories) where these scholars could do their research, write and have their books published. Field work would have been easy, I surmise, given the perfect overlap of colonial expanisionist desires and the locations of the field work needing to be done by these scholars. I imagine the imperial equivalent of an Oyster card would have been included as a freebie when incorporated into the colonial enterprise (second class and not first class, of course, they’d still be scholars after all). Neat way of doing things, no?

In this way the SMR harnessed the objectivity of science (see here for a bit of shameless self-promotion: I once wrote an article about this very topic), got first and exclusive use of the research outcomes (basically sophisticated ways of understanding how to deal with those pesky natives who seemed somehow to resent colonial/imperial domination; see here for that classified report) and it bought off potentially critical scholars by funding them (still a proven strategem these days, and no, not just in Manchuria, but just about everywhere: did I tell you about my cushy research grant?). Many of the works then written are still in use today. Despite the fact that these works were composed in a colonialist framework (which makes them products of colonialism, no matter how strict ‘objectivity’ was guarded within a particular work – which of couse didn’t exactly always happen), their fact finding has proven to be too tempting to just leave behind. Also because much of the research done then is not possible anymore today. If only because the villages visited by Japanese anthropologists no longer exist (or at least not in the same way; guess who, ironically, is to blame for that in many instances?) or because of the fact that now a factory sits right on top of a 30s archaeological dig (or worse, a prison camp if in North Korea).

Gotō Shinpei dressed as a scout. No, I won't go into that.

Gotō Shinpei dressed as a scout. No, I won’t go into that.

The story of the SMR as colonizing instrument for the Japanese state is known. Its story has been told – and needs to keep being told. The story of its researchers, however, is although much research has been done on it, less known. For the intellectuals working for the SMR were often, as many intellectuals everywhere were/are/will be, leftish, anti-establishment-ish, anarchistic-ish. Not really (because why enter the service of such a colonialist enterprise then?), but more so than most other people. This created friction and in the long run shit would hit the fan. For this, I suggest you either read Life Among The South Manchurian Railway: The Memoirs Of Itō Takeo (translated by Joshua A. Fogel) or else the much harder to find The Battle From The Bottom: My Mantetsu Era by Kanesaburō Gushima (translated by Mikimasa Maruyama). The short story is that the Research Department (which at its height employed 2,354 people!) had started out as an exercise in ‘military preparedness in civilian garb’ 文裝 的 武備. Here is an explanation of this notion in the words of the founder of the SMR himself, Gotō Shinpei 後藤 新平 (from Life Among the South Manchurian Railway):

In short, colonial policy is military preparedness in civil garb; it is carrying out the hegemon’s strategies under the flag of the kingly way. Such a colonial policy is inescapable in our time. What facilities, then, are necessary to see it through?
We have to implement a cultural invasion with a Central Laboratory, popular education for the resident populace, and forge other academic and economic links. Invasion may not be an agreeable expression, but [language] aside we can generally call our policy one of invasion in civil garb…. Certain scholars have said that the secret of administration lies in taking advantage of the people’s weaknesses… Insofar as the secret of administration does hang on the weak points of mankind’s way of life and in fact has throughout history, it is that much more so with colonial policy.

Nuff said (seems to me a certain Kin Nissei 金日成 then active in Manchuria as a guerilla took a good, long look at this statement just in case he could use it in the future; there is a Yankovsky link here, because Valery Yankovksy was once asked by the Japanese to hunt the guerilla Kin Nissei, which he declined to do). Not the kind of person who would take kindly to dissenting scholarly voices. And he didn’t. Neither did the Kwantung Army (which effectively ran Manchuria for the Japanese state), when they rounded up tens of Japanese researchers in 1941 who were suspected of leftish sympathies and put them in jail until the end of the war. The Battle From The Bottom: My Mantetsu Era by Kanesaburō Gushima is in effect a prison memoir. Gushima only left jail after Japan’s defeat, but he made good and became president of Nagasaki University among other things.

The story of the SMR and its Research Department is fascinating. It is also important, because it shows the need for academics to go their own way, to resists incorporation by ajia_04the state or other entities that have different goals, to say no to funding once in a while. It shows the illusionary quality of fighting the system from within if you are a lone academic. For every resistance-minded academic, there were two or more who entertained close ties with the Kwantung Army command. It is a painful and nuanced story o22501f colonialism at its height, which shows how even those critical of the colonial enterprise (and this many of these researchers were) still ended up promoting it. The SMR effectively colonized Manchuria (helped by the Kwangtung Army of course) and set up a state of its own (almost then): Manchukuo.It epitomized modernity (just look at these two pictures: Leny Riefenstahl would have been jealous) and forever tainted the notion of progress with invasion, repression and domination (in this, it wasn’t alone of course, that’s the common denominator of every colonial enterprise in the 19th and 20th centuries). It produced incredible amounts of academic publications and some of the most gorgeous Art Deco posters ever. Most of all, to me it stands as a monument for what happens when academics acquiesce and only speak up when it’s already too late.


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