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The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus
In-depth critical analysis of the forces shaping the Asia-Pacific...and the world.

The New Imperialism and the Post-Colonial Developmental State: Manchukuo in comparative perspective

By Prasenjit Duara

With recent developments in Iraq and elsewhere, an argument is beginning to appear—or re-appear-- that much of twentieth century imperialism might better be thought of as a kind of federalism. Thus, Anthony Pagden, who provides the most cogent version of this argument, believes that “it would be far wiser to look upon both the United States and the European Union as, in their very different ways, attempts to revive a federalist rather than an imperial object.” Pagden traces his ideas to thinkers like Joseph Schumpeter and Jean Monnet (credited with the idea of a “United States of Europe”). According to Pagden, the ages of conquest and commerce were, by the twentieth century, being replaced by a global order in which the 18th century European idea of sovereignty was transferred from the nation-state to “something more amorphous: a modern, or postmodern, global society.” At the base of this development was the idea of empire, which survived the competitive nationalisms of the 19th century, as an “extended protectorate” and in the words of Edmund Burke, a “sacred trust”.(1)

A closer look at the mid-twentieth century transformations of imperialism suggests that Pagden’s argument has greater credibility than many might want to give it. But I believe Pagden is fundamentally mistaken in his assumption that nationalism has basically been overcome, especially on the part of the imperial or “federating” power. Ironically, one of the earliest and best instances of what Pagden describes is not one that Pagden writes about: the relationship between imperial Japan and Manchukuo, its puppet state in northeast China that existed between 1932 until 1945.

Manchukuo was the first full-blown instance of what I call the “new imperialism”—an imperialism rooted in the historical circumstances of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Japan, rather than in those of the older European colonial powers.(2) The new imperialism reflected a strategic conception of the periphery as part of an organic formation designed to attain global supremacy for the imperial power. The imperialism that evolved through the middle fifty or sixty years of the twentieth century differed especially from earlier European colonial imperialism in several ways. While the new imperialists maintained ultimate control of their dependencies or clients through military subordination, they often created or maintained legally sovereign nation-states with political and economic structures that resembled their own.

The new imperialists espoused anticolonial ideologies and emphasized cultural or ideological similarities; they made considerable economic investments, even while exploiting these regions, and attended to the modernization of institutions and identities. In other words, these imperialist formations were not founded in principle upon the sustained differentiation between rulers and ruled characteristic of most colonial formations.

Moreover, the new imperialism occasionally entailed a separation of its economic and military-political dimensions. Although subordinate states were militarily dependent upon the metropole, it was not necessarily in the latter’s interest to have them economically or institutionally backward. In some situations, as in the Soviet Union-Eastern Europe and the Japan-Manchukuo relationship, massive investments and resources flowed into the client states thus breaching the classical dualism between an industrialized metropole and a colony focused on the primary sector. In this way, too, my conception of the new imperialism differs from theories of neocolonialism, which continue to emphasize underdevelopment and traditional forms of exploitation.(3)

Another aspect of this new kind of imperialism was its tendency to form a regional or (geographically dispersed) bloc formation, promoting economic autarky as a means for the imperial power to gain global supremacy or advantage. In this formation, while benefit to the metropole continues to be the rationale for domination, benefit does not necessarily derive from transferring primary wealth to it but often entails the industrialization of the puppet- or client-state. Thus, the new imperialism depended on a variety of nationalism that extends the benefits and pains of creating an integrated, globally competitive entity, but extends them unevenly over the whole. By the same token, the imperial formation is often ripped apart by enduring nationalist prejudices fostered in earlier and simultaneous processes of nation-building, especially within the imperial metropole.

The Japanese empire, 1942

Anti-imperialism and Imperialism in the Interwar Period

The emergence of anti-imperialist nationalism represented, of course, one of the most important conditions for the transformation of imperialism. Anti-imperialist nationalism attained a new height in East Asia with the March 1919 protest against colonialism in Korea and the May 4th movement in China of the same year. While both movements were directed against Japanese imperialism, ironically the Japanese also began to develop an anti-imperialist discourse—the discourse of anti-Western pan-Asianism. Japanese nationalists tended to represent themselves as victims of Western imperialism and racism while building their own empire and brand of racist nationalism. But they were also bound by a pan-Asian rhetoric of common victimhood as they developed their contiguous empire in a region occupied by people whom the Japanese perceived as culturally or racially continuous with themselves. In other words, while Japanese imperialism targeted East Asian societies, it at the same time sought to incorporate them through ideas of pan-Asian brotherhood. It is, I believe, less fruitful to view this idea of brotherhood as a smoke screen than to understand it as a self-contradictory ideology of the new imperialism, in which domination and exploitation coexisted with development and modernization.

Of course, historically, modern imperialism had always been closely identified with nation-states. From a world-systems perspective, capitalism was a product of competition between states for global resources: the more sophisticated versions of this theory eschew simple economic arguments. According to Giovanni Arrighi, the creation and maintenance of global capitalism was made possible by the fusion of “two logics,” territorial and capitalist. Competition among states in the early modern period entailed the capture of mobile capital for territorial and population control, and the control of territories and people for the purposes of mobile capital. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the territorial state (possessing absolute jurisdiction within its boundaries and growing military and organizational capabilities) became necessary to control the social and political environment of capital accumulation on a world scale. In Arrighi’s scheme, the hegemonic power in the competitive system of European states—Dutch power in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, British power in the nineteenth—was successively challenged by latecomer territorial states that sought, in the drive to become globally competitive, to first mobilize the economic and human resources within their own jurisdictions, thus producing some aspects of nationalism. Immanuel Wallerstein is more explicit, declaring that nationalism became the means whereby a state or social formation sought to leverage itself out of the periphery of the world system and into the core.(4)

By the twentieth century, nationalism had become the driving force behind imperialism, just as imperialism had become an important means in the formation of some nationalisms.(5) Nationalist principles became still more deeply implicated with imperialism in the intensifying competitive environment. Responding to this heightened competition among themselves, including military competition, several imperial formations sought to organize colonies into relatively autarchic regional structures or economic blocs. In Britain and France, the value of empire for military competition was not fully recognized until World War I when colonial troops and resources played a vital role. In Britain, Joseph Chamberlain’s neomercantilist ideas of colonial development (which had been largely ignored before the war) and ideas of “imperial preference” began to be taken more seriously. Even so, only once before 1940 did expenditure on colonial development creep above 0.1% of British Gross National Product.(6) The post-World War I transformation of French attitudes to the colonies is summed up in Albert Lebrun’s words that the goal was now to “unite France to all those distant Frances in order to permit them to combine their efforts to draw from one another reciprocal advantages.”(7) But while the French government extended imperial preference and implemented reforms, particularly with reference to legal and political rights in Africa during the 1930s, investments in economic and social development projects were insignificant until the creation of the Investment Fund for Economic and Social Development in 1946.(8)

In order to compete with Britain and France, Germany had sought to develop a regional bloc in Central and Eastern Europe since the end of the nineteenth century.(9) This trend accelerated during the interwar years, and German commercial influence before the war reached its peak in 1938 when Austria was incorporated into the Reich and Hitler annexed the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia. The German economic New Order in Europe, built upon states that were essentially German puppets or had German military governors, was designed to supply the Nazi war effort. However, there were also plans to build an economic region around a prosperous Germany, linked to new industrial complexes in Central Europe and the captured areas of the western Soviet Union. This unitary European market, however, remained a nationalistic German vision—and we should be wary of seeing it as a predecessor of the European Union. The German plan represented in several ways no more than an aborted version of the new imperialism.(10)

The Japanese economic bloc built throughout the 1930s and intensified during the Pacific war resembled the German New Order in that the entire occupied zone became subordinated to Japanese war needs and Japan’s defeat represented a failure of the new imperialism. Still, Japan’s initial experience with Manchukuo reveals the lineaments of a more functional version of the new imperialism, not entirely driven by wartime needs, though often representing a preparation for war. Moreover, beginning especially in the 1930s after the establishment of Manchukuo, the Japanese exploitation of colonies such as Korea was accompanied by increases in productive capacity. As the Korean economist Sub Park has demonstrated, while Indian growth between 1900 and 1946 was under 1% annually, the yearly mean growth rate of gross domestic production in Korea was 3% during the period from 1915 to 1940.(11) The accumulated per capita British investment in India and Japanese investment in Korea were eight dollars and thirty-eight dollars respectively in 1938.(12) Given the common global climate, how and why did Japanese colonial policy become more oriented toward economic development than European colonial policy did? Pan-Asianism had emerged as an ideology incorporating Japan’s curious role as both victim and victimizer in the imperialist game; and that ideology permitted the Japanese the conceit that it was obliged to lead the Asian nations against the West. Such claims were, however, belied by the vigorous nationalism of Asian peoples against the Japanese. In response to this complicated scenario, Japanese colonial bureaucrats, military officers, and intellectuals began to experiment with modes of association and alliance that would reinvent empire and nation.

Manchuria and Japanese Imperialism

From early in the Meiji period, Japanese imperialism was justified by nationalism, and mainland northeast Asia was characterized as the outer zone of national defense against the advancing EuroAmerican powers. Japanese expansionism in northeast Asia during the first three decades of the twentieth century was accompanied by the rhetoric that Korea, Manchuria, and Mongolia represented the “lifeline” of the Japanese nation. The Treaty of Portsmouth which concluded the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, while acknowledging in theory China’s sovereignty in Manchuria, granted Japan the Russian lease on the Kwantung peninsula and the South Manchurian Railroad. From this time, Japanese interests and influence grew, particularly after the annexation of Korea in 1910 and during the imperialist power vacuum in East Asia during World War I.(13)

The economic and political affairs of the leased territories were managed by the Kwantung government and the South Manchurian Railway Company, a quasi-governmental corporation with many subsidiary enterprises and one of the largest research organizations in the world until 1945. Japanese investment in the South Manchurian Railway Company in 1920 alone was 440 million yen. By 1927, 85% of Japanese foreign investment was in China, and of its Chinese investments, 80% was in Manchuria. In 1932, Japan’s share of the total industrial capital in Manchuria was 64%, while the Chinese share was 28%.(14)
As early as the 1920s, the Japanese controlled Manchuria economically and militarily by means of an unstable alliance with the warlord of the region, Zhang Zuolin. Each party had its own reasons for the alliance and Zhang’s desire to control Beijing increasingly militated against the Japanese interests in Manchuria, whereupon the Japanese murdered Zhang. Zhang’s son and successor, Zhang Xueliang, was, however, even more China-directed and declared his allegiance to the KMT. It was under these circumstances that elements in the Kwantung army overthrew the Zhang regime on September 18, 1931 and established the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932.

Until recently, Manchukuo was thought to represent a break in Japanese imperial policy. In this scenario, the Japanese government in the 1920s sought through diplomacy to secure concessions from imperial powers and subject nations such as China. The 9/18 Manchurian Incident is said to constitute a new turn because army officers took the initiative and presented the Japanese government with a fait accompli. This event may be seen as the first in a sequence of faits accomplis in the 1930s, enabling the military to take over the civilian government in Japan and ultimately lead Japan into the China war (1937), the Pacific war (1941), and ignominious defeat. But recent scholarship has changed this account of events in several ways. First, while military officers, with or without the tacit approval of higher authorities, did present the Japanese government with imperialist faits accomplis, there was enormous popular support mobilized for their actions. After fifty years of steady and forceful nation-building, by the 1920s Japanese nationalism had developed a life of its own not fully within state control. The emergent mass media, the various social and political organizations such as labor unions, political parties, and social associations, were infused with high nationalist—and imperialist—sentiment that military officers could and did easily mobilize. By the late 1920s, with the onset of the depression which affected Japanese farmers acutely, agrarian radicals, together with young disgruntled military officers—the Showa restorationists, who felt that capitalists, politicians, and bureaucrats had abandoned the true bushido spirit of Japan—catalyzed this popular nationalism and laid the conditions for support of imperial expansion.

Second, as Yoshihisa Matsusaka and others have pointed out, new imperialist ideas had been incubating, especially in the military stationed in the colonies and Manchuria since the last years of World War I. The primacy of diplomatic and multilateralist approaches of party governments during the 1920s kept these ideas out of the limelight, but several advocates of the new imperialism were busy experimenting with them in the 1920s, especially in Manchuria. The scale and duration of World War I convinced the Japanese military that the competition for global resources would be a long-drawn-out war for which Japan would need to be economically self-sufficient. Thus was born the idea of “strategic autarky” which entailed an entirely new conception of imperialism: the colony or dominated region was to be made structurally and organizationally amenable to imperialist intent by utilizing the principle of the nation-state and nationalism. Military analysts like Major Koiso Kuniaki, who would later become chief of staff of the Kwantung army, conceived of resource mobilization within a regional rather than merely national framework. For Koiso, the idea of autarky implied an alliance: the Chinese would supply land, resources, and labor, and the Japanese would furnish technology and capital. He was mindful that a genuine autarky would involve some sacrifice of Japanese interests for the sake of the whole.(15)

With the growth of nationalism in these territories and the spread of pan-Asianist ideas among various Japanese groups in the 1920s, the conditions for regional control came to be seen, increasingly, to involve cooperation (or forced cooperation) with potential allies. Matsuoka Yosuke, who argued the Japanese case for the independence of Manchukuo from China at the League of Nations in 1933, best exemplified the strategy of the new imperialism. In the 1920s, when he served on the board of directors of the South Manchurian Railroad Company, he developed the idea of autarky by creating a relationship of dependent alliance with Zhang Zuolin; and Matsuoka’s ideas were embraced at the time by the Kwantung army. Through a series of loans for railroad construction and other projects, Matsuoka sought to transform Zhang’s administration into a client state. At the same time, according to Tak Matsusaka, Matsuoka’s vision transcended the old imperialist game of dealing with native allies merely to gain concessions and privileges. Rather Matsuoka’s goal was first to bring the regional government, principally through financial ties, firmly under Japanese control, and subsequently to pursue economic policies for developing Manchuria as a whole. Development was to take place not by excluding Chinese and others but by encouraging them to contribute to the prosperity of the region. The Japanese (who were presumed to be the principal actors and natural leaders of this effort), could only benefit from this general development.(16)

While the new imperialism was being tested in Manchuria, experimentation with strategies of colonial development also characterized the 1920s in Korea. The shock, to the Japanese, of the March 1919 nationalist uprisings in Korea was processed originally by academics, journalists, and colonial bureaucrats, and emerged as a policy called “Cultural Rule.” Cultural Rule was designed to produce cooperation between colonizer and colonized in economic and political matters. Characterized by slogans of “Japanese Korean joint rule” (Nissen dochi) and doctrines of “coexistence and coprosperity” (kyoson kyoei), Cultural Rule was in many respects a failure: the Japanese would have had to give more autonomy to the Koreans than they were prepared to do. The new thinking in Japanese colonial discourse was driven, according to Michael Schneider, by middle-class professional and managerial classes keen to align Japanese colonialism with the norms of international modernization, respond to the rising nationalism of the colonized, and develop the colony within a wider program of regional integration and management under Japanese leadership. The policy of Cultural Rule was, as Schneider has said, “an attempt to fit Japanese colonialism into the new internationalism of the 1920s.”(17)

In the aftermath of World War I, Japanese imperialism came to be rethought radically in the context of pan-Asianism, the new discourse of civilization that began at the time to burgeon in Japan and many other parts of the continent. Pan-Asianism also had a special meaning for Japanese nationalists and thinkers during the 1920s because of the growing perception that, despite Japan’s effort to become a world-class nation-state (with colonies to boot), the Japanese continued to encounter racism and discrimination. Discrimination was perceived in the international conferences in Washington (1922), the London Naval Conference (1930), and wherever Japan was allotted a lower quota of ships than the British and Americans. But most of all, it was the build-up of exclusionary policies in the United States and the final Exclusion Laws prohibiting Japanese immigration in 1924 that galled Japanese nationalists. In their view, Asian civilization did not exhibit inhuman racist attitudes and policies of this kind, and for militants like Okawa Shumei and his followers in the Kwantung army, these ingrained civilizational differences would have to be fought out in a final, righteous war of East against West.

In providing a moral explanation for wrongs inflicted upon Japan, pan-Asianist discourse also demanded empathy for the other exploited peoples of Asia, including those that Japan itself colonized. The ideas behind the Cultural Policy in Korea reflected, in theory, some of this empathy. During the 1920s, many intellectuals argued that Japanese and Koreans had the same ancestors, and this idea grew together with a theory of the mixed origins of the Japanese. Note that this expression of pan-Asianism led ultimately to the policies of assimilation of the Koreans (and Taiwanese) into the Japanese nation.(18) In Manchuria, pan-Asianism was expressed not in a strategy of assimilation and homogenization but of independence and alliance. Not only would it have stretched the contemporary imagination outrageously to argue that the Chinese and Japanese had the same origins, but the national movement and international opinion regarding the status of China was much too strong for the Japanese to seek to assimilate the Chinese in Manchuria, whom they insisted on calling “Manchurians.” Here pan-Asianism, expressed as shared Asian ideals and common history (especially against Western imperialism), spoke to the new conceptualization of global domination through regional autarky.

In order to achieve an industrial-resource base in Manchuria, the Japanese military had to develop an alliance with key groups in this society, among the Chinese but also among the Japanese settler community in the Kwantung peninsula. Accordingly, the military was compelled to champion the rhetoric of these allies, which included talk of a sovereign state. Ishiwara Kanji and his associates in the Kwantung army, Itagaki Seishiro and Doihara Kenji, recognized that they could ignore the new discourse of rights and autonomy only at their peril.(19) Pan-Asianism thus necessarily served as the basis of this alliance and “economic bloc.” Whereas figures like Ishiwara were motivated primarily by Japanese nationalism, their nationalism was itself framed by a vision of the inevitable confrontation between East and West. The cooperation of China and Manchuria under Japanese leadership was necessary for success in this holy war or righteous duty (zhengyi, seigi).(20) Ishiwara allegedly became a convert to the pan-Asianist idea of the formal equality of Asian nations. He found no contradiction between viewing the alliance as representing the supposed difference between Asian ideals and Western imperialism or viewing it as a means in a final war for global dominance.(21)

The idea of an autarkic Japan-Manchuria bloc was influenced by models of autarky in fascist Europe but was understood within the civilization discourse of pan-Asianism. By the mid-1930s the bloc idea had helped to produce the East Asian League (Toa renmei) and the East Asian Community (Toa kyodotai), and still later the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere (Dai-Toa Kyoeiken). Indeed, figures associated with the propagation of these institutions were critical of Nazi theories of racial superiority and emphasized cooperation with the Chinese in a regional alliance under Japanese leadership.(22) To be sure, commitment to the idea of an alliance—and even to the notion that Japan should renounce extraterritoriality in Asian countries—was premised on the Japanese belief in their intrinsic superiority and the need for these Asian nations to accept Japanese leadership. Yet it is impossible to fully understand why the military encouraged the rapid modernization and industrial build-up in Manchuria without grasping the framework of pan-Asianism.


In an earlier period, Manchukuo might have become a colony. But the new conceptualization of imperialism entailed that the might-have-been colony become more like a subordinate ally or client-state in global competition. The status of the dependent state under the new imperialism was quite fluid, in part because the rapidly changing demands of global competition could, depending upon the circumstances, give it more leverage (as in the case of the relationship between postwar Hong Kong and Britain) or generate more resistance and further subordination. The status of Manchukuo over its fifteen-year history gradually shifted, in official rhetoric, from that of an independent nation-state—with Japan conceived as a friendly country (Ch. youbang, J. yuho) and ally (Ch. mengbang)—to that of a dependent kinsman, even a child or younger brother. In the end, the rhetoric used was Confucian: the language of the “family state” model of imperial Japan. By the time of the Pacific war, Manchukuo had become, in the words of its ambassador to Japan, Li Shaogeng, “the eldest son of the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere.”

Pu Yi, the last Manchu emperor—who became first president and then emperor of Manchukuo—underwent a rebirthing ritual in 1940, from which he emerged, as from the womb of Amaterasu, as the younger half-brother of Hirohito, the Japanese emperor.(23) Ridiculous as this may sound to us (and as it did to the Chinese), it is fruitful to think of this ritual relationship as an innovation made possible by the theory of the mixed origins of the Japanese nation, a theory studied closely by Oguma Eiji. According to Oguma, the imperial “family state” ideology was able to incorporate this theory because it privileged the (modern) Japanese ideal of the ie or household which, unlike the lineage model, could accept outsiders by adoption into the family: “In this system,” Oguma writes, “as long as ancestors of the ie are linked to the current membership, blood is of secondary importance.”(24) Becoming the younger brother of the emperor, entailed, of course, a strictly dependent and subordinate status. Brotherhood in the Confucian understanding reflected a hierarchical relationship. In more modern rhetoric, brotherhood was often invoked instead to characterize egalitarian relationships: Sun Yat-sen used the slippage in this trope to rally secret fraternal societies (of the inegalitarian kind), while entering them in the historical record as at the core of revolutionary brotherhood (of the egalitarian kind).(25) The same slippage in the idea of brotherhood was also very important in pan-Asianism, and we might even say that brotherhood was the pivot that joined the hierarchical “family state” ideology with pan-Asianism.

Pu Yi as emperor of Manchukuo

Brotherhood or, more broadly, the family relationship among East Asian peoples implied sharing a mission regardless of one’s preferences. It was the obligation of the patriarch or the older, dominant brother to create the ethos of the family, its enterprise, and deliver the goods it promised. Japanese rhetoric did not fully develop this metaphor to embrace the relationship between Japan and Manchukuo, and the rhetoric always appeared somewhat contradictory, perhaps because of the continued lip service to the independence of Manchukuo. Nonetheless, by 1940 the “family state” model was utilized to characterize the relationship of citizen to state within Manchukuo: “National citizenship is the expanded version of family membership. Just as the family member has an obligation to obey the family unconditionally, so does the citizen have to obey the state.”(26) Manchukuo was developed as an East Asian brother or son who set up a house modeled closely upon, and subordinate to, that of the Japanese patriarch. Practically, this structure meant using Chinese officials at all levels, including in the top administrative and political positions, but having their activities supervised by Japanese officials responsible ultimately to the Kwantung Army.

Developing the family enterprise and delivering the goods amounted to creating the modern developmental state in Manchukuo, which emerged as the most industrialized part of Asia outside Japan. The Manchukuo banking system was reformed and for the first time the currency of the region was unified. The new currency was made equivalent in value to the Japanese yen, which facilitated its integration into the yen bloc. There was a dramatic rise of Japanese investments which, according to Louise Young, grew to almost six billion yen between 1932 and 1941 (in 1941 exchange rates)—a figure far greater than any other transfer from a metropole to a colony. By 1945, Japanese investment in Manchukuo exceeded the combined total of its investment in Korea, Taiwan, and the rest of China.(27) Industrial production tripled between 1933 and 1942, and producer goods output grew the fastest.(28) Considerable attention was also paid to the social infrastructure, at least in the urban areas: to the system of public health and education.(29) The new regime always touted these achievements as having reversed the decades of warfare and economic chaos perpetuated by the previous warlord government.

Manchukuo's industrial production

The rapid increase in industrial employment meant that immigration from China continued to pour in, although the government sought to limit it for a while. Koreans came into Manchuria in large numbers from the 1920s and their numbers reached almost 800,000 by 1935. The Japanese had a plan to bring in five million Japanese settlers into Manchukuo, but the rural settler population never exceeded 250,000. In the mid-1930s, the total Japanese population was under 600, 000. Demographically, over 90% of the population was Han Chinese. (30)

Manchukuo's future, 1937

The other side of this development state was the brutality of an occupying army. The massacres of the resistance, the notorious human experiments with bacteriological toxins developed by Unit 731 in Harbin, the dispossession of agricultural land from Chinese farmers, and other brutal crimes have been well recorded. Manchukuo presents us, on the one hand, with a record of cruel violence; and, on the other hand, with the record of a developmental state.
There is perhaps no better symbol of the antithetical structure of the modern state in Manchukuo than its police. Manchukuo’s huge police force conducted punctiliously detailed censuses and surveys; made extensive and complex plans for settlements; paid close attention to hygiene and welfare; made available education, drinkable water, and shelters; and mobilized the population for inoculations—sometimes at gunpoint.(31) But there were many modern states characterized by this duality. What made Manchukuo different from Italy, Germany, the Soviet Union, or Japan was that it lacked the legitimacy of a nation. In a time when nation-states allegedly represented the “will of the people,” the Manchukuo regime claimed instead to represent the essence of Asian culture.
The “kingly way” was presented as the ancient Chinese ideal of the just and moral ruler, a trope that Sun Yat-sen extended beyond Chinese civilization in a lecture on pan-Asianism delivered in Kobe. In Manchukuo, the kingly way, related notions, and the example of the Manchu emperor were deployed as symbols of pan-Asian civilization, bringing together diverse groups who, whether by choice, opportunism, or necessity, came to support the new regime. These included many of the warlords and political leaders of the old society, dyed-in-the-wool Confucian monarchists, and, most numerously, the deeply religious and universalist redemptive societies. The followers of the redemptive societies in China and Manchuria included many millions, and, while some were closely associated with sectarian traditions including the worship of Buddhist and folk deities, they mostly represented the late imperial syncretic tradition (sanjiaoheyi), which combined the three religions of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism into a single universal faith. These societies had historically been persecuted by the Chinese state, both imperial and modern; and the Japanese in Manchuria sought to reach out to them. Tachibana Shiraki, architect of Manchukuo ideology, said that the redemptive societies exemplified the essence of Asiatic civilization and were amenable to mobilization as civic organizations.(32) Less easy to manipulate than the Japanese had hoped, these societies seized the opportunity to pursue their own goals: by the late 1930s, the Morality Society of Manchukuo claimed a membership of eight million out of a total population of forty million.(33)

The second legitimacy claim made by the puppet regime was that it represented the “concord of nationalities” (minzoku kyowa) a conceit that was supposed to represent two advances over older colonial ideas. Not only was the concord supposed to reject exploitation and the reproduction of difference between ruler and ruled, but it was also designed to counter the homogenization of differences that nationalism had produced and that had led to nearly insoluble conflicts. By allegedly granting different peoples or nationalities their rights and self-respect under a state structure, Manchukuo presented itself as a nation-state in the mode of the Soviet “union of nationalities”. Among others, Tominaga Tadashi, the author of Manshu no minzoku (Nationalities of Manchuria), wrote copiously about the early Soviet policy towards national self-determination. It was a policy that fulfilled the goals of federalism and protected minority rights, while at the same time it strengthened Soviet state and military power particularly with regards to separatism in the old Tsarist empire. Thus, nationalism ought not to be suppressed, but rather utilized positively for the goals of the state.(34)

The "concord of nationalities"

These sources of support were managed, maintained, and mobilized by the Concordia Association (Ch. xiehehui, J. kyowakai), which was effectively the Manchukuo regime’s party. But whereas in theory the Association was to represent the will of the people and was ultimately destined to replace the Kwantung army, by mid-decade it was purged of its original leadership and made into an instrument of the army and government.(35) Less a means of ethnic, cultural, and occupational representation than of mobilization and surveillance, the Concordia Association closely resembled contemporary “totalitarian parties” in Europe. The leaders refrained from calling it a party precisely because the appellation smacked too much of partisanship. The association enrolled all officials and government functionaries, including teachers, as well as important figures in society. All youth between the ages of sixteen and nineteen were compulsorily enrolled beginning in 1937; and by 1943, the association included about 10% of the population (as compared to 5% for the Chinese Communist Party in the PRC today).

Like its fascist counterparts, the Concordia Association was corporatist, anticommunist, anticapitalist, and sought to overcome class divisions by organizing people through their communities, both occupational and ethnic, while promoting a dirigiste economy. But the association was distinctive in representing Asian communities—Mongols, Manchus, Hui Muslims, Koreans, Japanese and white Russians accounted for about 10% of the population), as well as the majority Chinese—and their traditions. This commitment often meant supporting the religious leadership among these peoples: Mongol lamas, Manchu and Daur shamans, Muslim ahongs, Bud¬dhist monks, and Confucian moralists. The regime’s control of local society was enhanced by the work of association units established within, for example, Manchu villages, Hui mosques, and the Chinese community self-surveillance system (baojia). Thus pan Asianism came to play an important role in maintaining both the corporatist, fascistic character of the regime and its claim to legitimacy based upon adherence to the “kingly way.”
At the same time, the Concordia Association had been founded to realize the modern goals of jianguo (Ch: nation-state building; J: kenkoku). Japanese ideologists like Tachibana saw no contradiction between the goals of republicanism, equality, and modernization, on the one hand, and the “Eastern” values of community, solidarity, and the moral state, on the other. After all, did not Japan exemplify a synthesis of the best of both worlds? In practice, however, the very different programs and interests pursued by modernizers and pan-Asianists led to many tensions and conflicts that leave us with a view of Manchukuo as a polarized rather than harmonious society. Mongol youth demanded modern education and the elimination of the power of the lamas; Chinese supporters were fiercely divided between those who favored the restoration of the emperor and those who opposed it. Propaganda activists were frustrated by their inability to mobilize redemptive societies for wartime work. The contradiction reflected in particular the tensions of an artificial nation-state dominated by an imperial power in an age of nationalism. The inability to construct a truly independent nation-state led Manchukuo to cling to constituencies that would have to be gradually overcome in the process of national modernization. As it was, the wildly ambitious Japanese imperialist military leadership derailed the entire process by plunging this carefully constructed state into a mad and destructive war.

Conclusion: Trajectories and Affinities

The Japanese domination of Manchukuo represented a new form of imperialism. As nationalism, rights consciousness, and social mobilization developed in the colonized and semi-colonial world, the costs of direct colonial rule increased while the conditions for indirect rule were enhanced. With the creation of modern institutions in the military dependencies, it became possible to control them more economically by dominating their institutions of resource and social mobilization (such as the Concordia or redemptive societies). Japan, like the later Soviet Union and the United States, sought to bring its client-states into a structure of governance that not only permitted dominance but integrated them into a regional and ultimately, global, game plan.(36)

We have already alluded to the perception and influence in Manchukuo of the Soviet Union’s internal nationality policy as an instrument of control. During the post-World War II era, the Soviet Union’s creation of a regional system of militarily dependent states in Eastern Europe reflected many features of the new imperialism. A shared anti-imperialist and anticapitalist ideology sanctioned a centralized economic and political system. The Soviet Union combined economic leverage and military threat to integrate what were often states more economically developed than itself into a regional economy. In some ways, the imperialism of the Soviet Union revealed the counter-economic consequences of this logic of empire. Not only were the client-states of the Soviet Union in Europe often more developed, the U. S. S. R. may have been subsidizing their economies by supplying them with cheap oil and raw materials while importing finished products from their economies. This was the price paid by the imperial power to create and maintain dependence upon it and assure its security.(37)

In part because of the consciousness of its own colonial past, and with the exception of a few places (most notably, the Philippines), the U.S. had long practiced imperialism without colonialism. After the Spanish war in 1898, the U.S. created a system of client states around the Caribbean basin in Central America. These nominally independent states became increasingly dependent on the United States, which accounted for more than three fourths of the region’s foreign trade as well as the bulk of foreign investment.(38) During the decade of the 1920s, when Japan was experimenting with indirect imperialism in Manchuria, the US too was seeking to develop and refine informal control over Central American countries especially as it faced anti-Yankee, and frequently revolutionary, nationalism in the region. Officials, diplomats and business groups stressed means such as US control of banking, communication facilities, investments in natural resources, and the development of education—particularly the training of elites in American style constitutions, “free elections” and orthodox business ideas. But the threat and reality of military intervention remained close at hand.(39)

Of course, American imperialism was characterized not only by the Monroe Doctrine but also by the Open Door policy. Although there were contradictions and tensions between the two approaches, there were also continuities, most importantly, in the practice of using sovereign or nominally sovereign polities to advance American interests. In 1917, Woodrow Wilson saw the continuities when he declared that the nations of the world should “with one accord adopt the doctrine of President Monroe as the doctrine of the world… nation should seek to extend its polity over any other nation or people.” But just two weeks before, Wilson had sent troops to the Dominican Republic and committed US military forces in Haiti and Mexico as well.(40) The US sought to foster an ideological and economic hegemony among its client states by creating them as reliable emulators subject to external economic and military constraints. Note, however, that this imperialism did not become developmentally oriented until the 1950s in response to the Cuban revolution.(41)

The tensions between American interests and global enlightenment were to be contained not only by military power, but perhaps more importantly by the notion of a limited self-determination, the idea of tutelage. As Secretary of Interior, Franklin Lane wrote in 1922: “What a people hold they hold as trustees for the world…It is good American practice. The Monroe Doctrine is an expression of it….That is why we are talking of backward peoples and recognizing for them another law than that of self-determination, a limited law of self-determination, a leading-string law.”(42) Little wonder then that the Japanese representative at the League of Nations hearings on Manchukuo repeatedly insisted on the Asiatic Monroe Doctrine as the basis of Japan’s prerogative in Asia.

In the post-WWII period, this combination of interest, enlightenment and military violence has developed into what Carl Parrini has called “ultraimperialism.” The latter refers to U. S. efforts to maintain cooperation and reduce conflict among imperialist nations who were busily scrambling to create monopolistic or exclusive market conditions in various parts of the world during the first half of the century.(43) “Ultraimperialism” is secured by a chain of military bases around the globe—and structures such as the International Monetary Fund, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the World Bank—to enable the conditions of cooperation among advanced capitalist powers and to facilitate the new (developmental or modernizing) imperialism in the decolonized world.(44) Although the U. S. is hardly a regional power any longer, as a global empire it employs, in the words of Arrighi, Hui, Hung and Selden, a vast system of “political and military vassalage” and fosters a “functional specialization between the imperial and vassal (nation) states….” In this respect, the post- war US represents the apogee of the new imperialism.(45)

Looking at Manchukuo comparatively, it is clear that its creators were influenced by both the US and the Soviet Union and by German ideas of the economic bloc. But Manchukuo also synthesized and crystallized these ideas into the prototype of the developmental client state within a new imperialist formation that could be found after World War II in Eastern Europe, French Africa, the British sterling zone and the US empire. The US in particular favored the model of modernizing client nation-states centered on royal identity in Asia, witness Japan, Vietnam, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others.

Despite the differences between this form of imperialism and the “classical” nineteenth-century form, nationalists emphasize the continuities between the “classical” and the clientelistic or dependent forms, and they are right to note the lack of autonomy in both.(46) But does the ability of power-holders to influence and manipulate institutions and rhetoric overwhelm the effects of new institutions and policies in changed domestic and international circumstances?
To be sure, Manchukuo remained a highly exploited society. For instance, rural society remained stagnant largely because the landowning classes represented an important base of support for the regime. Chinese workers received less than a third of wages paid to Japanese workers in state factories. The Manchukuo government and Japanese enterprises, which controlled 72% of total invested capital, made it hard for Chinese capital to penetrate the modern sector.(47) At the same time, the idea of strategic autarky necessitated the development of Manchukuo as a developmental state with advanced technologies of economic growth, generating higher standards of urban life until the Pacific war.

In general, the state in Manchukuo was able to deploy modern technologies of control, surveillance, discipline, and mobilization among the populace. The regime and its affiliated organizations—such as the Concordia Association and the redemptive societies—penetrated the lives of people to keep a stricter watch on them but also to generate new consciousness regarding, for instance, the proper nuclear family, consumer spending, engagement in afforestation programs and other projects prioritized by the mobilizing state. If some of these projects were driven by the immediate needs of the metropole, others were driven by the logic of a modernizing state.

The immediate factors behind the failure of Manchukuo had to do with its growing dependence on Japan and the role that it was forced to fill in the Japanese wartime empire. Indeed, the Manchukuo model of client states was partially extended to regimes in occupied China and in Southeast Asia during the Pacific war. This regional imperial formation bent upon global domination was characterized by a set of interdependencies within an imperially-dictated enterprise. A simple model of economic exploitation, utilizing existing modes of production and colonial difference, was to be supplemented (if not replaced) by high levels of investment, the development of new modes of mobilization and identity production, and a rhetoric of brotherhood and regional federalism. All of this came to nought with defeat.

Ultimately, however, the case of Manchukuo reveals the fault lines of the new imperialism. By pointing to the wartime emphasis on the fact that the Japanese were of mixed origins, Oguma Eiji has stressed the importance of assimilation over nationalist-racist elements within Japanese imperial ideology. Others, such as Komagome Takeshi have persuasively argued that while Japanese imperialism reflected the extension of the principles underlying national integration, Japanese nationalism was a contradictory affair composed not only of the principle of common language and culture (or civilization) but also of “blood descent.” Whereas language and culture created possibilities of integrating the colonized based on assimilation or alliance, historically the exclusionary principle of blood descent invented new ways—institutional, legal, or attitudinal—to circumvent the incorporation of non-Japanese in the empire as equal citizens.(48)

Imperialist competition in the first half of the twentieth century was catalyzed by a particular configuration of capitalism and nationalism. Although novel formations and ideals—then and now—have sought to transcend both capitalism and nationalism, the force of nationalist identity and interests from the earlier period has proved remarkably tenacious, particularly as they develop new linkages with competitive capitalism. The globalization, cooperative economic blocs, and regional formations of our own time are not unprecedented developments—and the precedents are not encouraging.

Prasenjit Duara is professor of History and East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books and essays on East Asian history, nationalism and imperialism, decolonization, and history and theory, including Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern available in paperback. This article was published at Japan Focus on January 30, 2006.


1)Anthony Pagden, “The Empire’s New Clothes: From Empire to Federation, Yesterday and Today” in Common Knowledge 12:1 Winter 2006, (36-46), 13-14. The present essay is a revised and extended version of my response to Pagden in the same volume. Prasenjit Duara, “Nationalism, Imperialism, Federalism and the Example of Manchukuo: A Response to Anthony Pagden” Common Knowledge 12:1 Winter 2006 47-65. For another expansive and revisionist view of empire, see also Frederick Cooper Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History Berkeley, University of California Press, 2005.
2) The German case also exhibited many aspects of this new imperialism (see below). However, Nazi racism and defeat in the war obscure the extent to which Germany would have developed along these lines. Manchukuo, on the other hand, represents a moment of the new imperialism before the wartime drive destroyed it.
3) It is also to be distinguished from the older historiographical term “new imperialism” referring to the late 19th century scramble for Africa and efforts to “slice the Chinese melon” among other developments that destabilized the imperialism of free trade. Creating nominally sovereign modern nation-states was not part of that imperialism.
4) Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times (New York: Verso, 1994), 34–58. Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Construction of Peoplehood: Racism, Nationalism, Ethnicity,” in Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, ed. Etienne Balibar and Wallerstein (London: Verso, 1991), 81-82.
5) See Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Program, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 102; and Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1948; New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973), 152–53.
6) Stephen Constantine, The Making of British Colonial Development Policy, 1914–1940 (London: Frank Cass, 1984), 25, 276. Michael Havinden and David Meredith, Colonialism and Development: Britain and its Tropical Colonies, 1850–1960 (London: Routledge, 1993), 148–59.
7) As quoted in D. Bruce Marshall, The French Colonial Myth and Constitution-making in the Fourth Republic (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973), 44.
8)Marshall, French Colonial Myth, 224-26.
9)Barry Eichengreen and Jeffrey A. Frankel, “Economic Regionalism: Evidence from Two Twentieth-Century Episodes,” North American Journal of Economics and Finance 6.2 (1995): 97.
10)See Richard Overy, “World Trade and World Economy,” in The Oxford Companion to World War II, ed. Ian C. B. Dear and M. R. D. Foot (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
11) Sub Park, “Exploitation and Development in Colony: Korea and India,” Korean Journal of Political Economy 1.1 (2003): 5.
12) Sub Park, “Exploitation and Development,” 19.
13) C. Walter Young, The International Relations of Manchuria: A Digest and Analysis of Treaties, Agreements, and Negotiations Concerning the Three Eastern Provinces of China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929), 136–52.
14) Gavan McCormack, Chang Tso-lin in Northeast China, 1911–1928: China, Japan, and the Manchurian Idea (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1977), 7-8.
15) Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka, Making of Japanese Manchuria, 214–23.
16) Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka, Making of Japanese Manchuria, 285.
17) Michael A. Schneider, “The Limits of Cultural Rule: Internationalism and Identity in Japanese Responses to Korean Rice,” in Colonial Modernity in Korea, ed. Gi-wook Shin and Michael Robinson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 1999), 122.
18) Oguma Eiji, A Genealogy of “Japanese” Self-images, trans. David Askew (Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2002), 125–42.
19) Komagome Takeshi, Shokuminchi Teikoku Nihon no Bunka Togo (The Cultural Integration of the Japanese Colonial Empire) (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1996), 236–37.
20) Yamamuro Shinichi, Kimera: Manshukoku no shozo (Chimera: A Portrait of Manzhouguo)(Tokyo: Chuo koronsha, 1993), 42–48.
21) Mark R. Peattie, Ishiwara Kanji and Japan’s Confrontation with the West (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), 167, 281, 335.
22) Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Reinventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998), 97–101.
23) Yamamuro Shinichi’s Kimera emphasizes the parent-child relationship between the Japanese emperor and Pu Yi, but the image of brotherhood was also current, even in the passages that Yamamuro himself cites (261–64).
24) Oguma Eiji, Genealogy, 337.
25) See Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), chap. 4.
26)Chianbu keisatsushi (Law and Order Ministry, Police Dept), ed. Komin (Citizen) (Xinkyo: Manshukoku tosho kabushiki geisha, 1940), 41.
27) Louise Young, Japan’s Total Empire, 183–84, 213–15. Francis Clifford Jones, Manchuria Since 1931 (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1949), 139.
28) Kungtu C. Sun, The Economic Development of Manchuria in the First Half of the Twentieth Century, ed. Ralph W. Huenemann (Cambridge, MA: East Asian Research Center, Harvard University, 1969), 101-2.
29) Suk-jung Han, “Puppet Sovereignty: The State Effect of Manchukuo, from 1932 to 1936” (PhD diss, University of Chicago, 1995), chaps. 3-4.
30) Han Suk-jung, 1995, 233. Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932. (Cambridge, MA, Harvard Univ Press, 2001), 414.
31) Suk-jung Han, “Puppet Sovereignty,” chaps. 3-4.
32)Komagome Takeshi, Shokuminchi Teikoku no Bunka Togo 265.
33) Shao Yong, Zhongguo huidaomen (China’s Religious Societies) (Shanghai: Renmin chubanse, 1997), 321.
34) Tominaga Tadashi, Manshukoku no minzoku mondai Shinkyo, 1943, 43-45.
35) Peattie, Ishiwara Kanji, 171, 174.
36) Further, creating similar institutions fostered a similarity of interests and goals between elites in the metropolitan and dependent societies. Thus Latin American societies have found it difficult to sustain socialist states or even large-scale public expenditures without incurring the disfavor of the United States; and the Soviet Union would not tolerate “market-happy” bourgeoisies. Manchukuo too began to resemble (and in several instances, led) the military-dominated dirigiste economy and centralized political system that developed in Japan beginning in the 1930s.
37) See Paul Marer and Kazimierz Z. Poznanski, “Costs of Domination, Benefits of Subordination,” in Dominant Powers and Subordinate States: The United States in Latin America and the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, ed. Jan F. Triska (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1986), 371–99.
38) John Coatsworth, Central America and the United States: The Clients and the Colossus (New York: Twayne, 1994), 18–19, 52–53.
39) Robert Freeman Smith “Republican Policy and the Pax Americana, 1921-1932” in William Appleman Williams ed., From Colony to Empire: Essays in the History of American Foreign Relations, John Wiley and Sons, NY, 1972. 273-275.
40) Andrew J Bacevich, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy Harvard U P, Cambridge, MA 2002. 115-116. See also Bacevich for the quotation. 115.
41) Coatsworth 1994, 90–91.
42) Quoted in Robert Freeman Smith 1972, 271.
43) Carl Parrini, “The Age of Ultraimperialism,” Radical History Review 57 (fall 1993):7–9.
44) Parrini, “Age of Ultraimperialism,” 8–11. Bruce Cumings, “Global Realm with No Limit, Global Realm with no Name,” Radical History Review 57 (fall 1993): 53–54.
45) G. Arrighi, P K Hui, H F Hung and M Selden, “Historical capitalism, East and West” in G. Arrighi, T Hamashita, and M. Selden, ed, The Resurgence of East Asia: 500, 150 and 50 year perspectives. Routledge, 2003, 301.
46)To be sure, even within the power structure in Manchukuo there were forces working for autonomy. On several occasions, special Japanese rights were attacked by the Kwantung army, most notably in 1936 when extraterritorial rights for Japanese citizens were abolished and a series of significant privileges began to unravel. The Japanese government also raised tariffs against the overwhelming exports from Manchukuo. In general, more recent research takes seriously the Kwantung army’s autonomy from the despised civilian governments at home—at least until the war in Asia. Suk-jung Han, “Puppet Sovereignty,” 257–58. Young, Japan’s Total Empire, 205, 211.
47)Prasenjit Duara, Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern, 2003, 67-70.
48) Komagome Takeshi, Shokuminchi Teikoku Nippon no Bunka Togo, 356–70.

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Authors: For all articles by the author, click on author's name.   Prasenjit Duara