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Memories of Manchuria

by Jeff Kingston

Reviewed by Jeff Kingston There is a powerful fascination in Japan about the lives and fates of the Japanese who migrated to Manchuria 1932-45. Some 320,000 rural Japanese were mobilized in this scheme to lessen population pressures in Japan, project Japanese power and promote food production in this utopian corner of the empire, but these dreams came crashing down with Japan’s surrender in 1945. Many of the repatriates have bitter memories of the Japanese army abandoning them, commandeering transport solely for military personnel while leaving civilians exposed to the invading Soviet troops and a hostile local population.

MEMORY MAPS: The State and Manchuria in Postwar Japan, by Mariko Asano Tamanoi. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009, 211 pp., $49 (cloth)

Ironically, the mass mobilization of Japanese men for the war effort sparked a labor shortage in prefectures such as Nagano where many of the emigrants hailed from, causing mine operators and factory owners to rely increasingly on forced Chinese labor. Moreover, many of the agrarian colonists sent to Manchuria were also mobilized, causing the government to maintain the emigration program until the waning months of the war so that the Japanese farms could be maintained. Such was the logic of war.

In 1945 it was not a good time to be a Japanese in Manchuria, and the Japanese farmers, many of whom had abused hired coolies and were tilling land taken from local farmers, bore the brunt of reprisals. The rhetoric of Pan Asian brotherhood featured in government propaganda proved a poor match for the stark reality of Japanese arrogance and exploitation.

Incredibly, given how much they had suffered under Japanese rule, many local Chinese took pity on the abject Japanese refugees as they fled from the Soviet onslaught and local bandits, feeding and sheltering them. In some cases, they also took care of Japanese children left behind by parents who could not bring them home, raising them as their own.

From the late 1980s, the media turned up the wattage on these war orphans, pressuring the government to address this lingering and inconvenient legacy. There was little public reflection on why these children had been abandoned as attention focused instead on their miserable fates. Tearful scenes of these improbable reunions more than 40 years after World War II stirred a national nostalgia for the grand experiment in Manchuria, at least the good bits, and led to a cascade of memoirs and television specials.

Mariko Tamanoi, relying on written and oral histories, explores the ambiguities and incongruities of memory among the repatriates, the abandoned and those who cared for them. She succeeds in conveying the complexity of these overlapping memories and experiences, refuting simplistic stereotypes of victims and victimizers while helping readers understand how individuals navigated the riptide that engulfed them.

It is a shame that Tamanoi did not map the memories of Korean migrants to Manchuria as they constituted a much larger group of migrants who lived there longer. Ousted from Korea by the Japanese, resettled among often hostile indigenous communities in Manchuria and treated with contempt by Japan’s agrarian colonists, one suspects that their experience of Japanese imperial expansion might help place the other maps in better perspective.

Daily life for the Japanese migrants was harsher than they had been led to expect and heavy labor was the norm for everyone. Young men and women were often married off at the discretion of team leaders and scraped to make a subsistence living. Although the Japanese were at the top of the racial hierarchy and expressed disdain for those below, they had to rely extensively on the knowledge, skills and labor of local farmers to survive. Locals recall their resentment, but also responded to the vulnerable refugees at a time when the Japanese state failed to do so.

“Memory Maps,” despite some turgid analysis, helps readers gain an understanding of the relationship between what is remembered and forgotten about a past reconstructed by those who lived it. The author critically assesses the meanings and memories they ascribe to their experiences, but reminds us that they constitute a valuable subjective narrative.

Most Japanese repatriates focus on their own suffering as farmers and as fleeing refugees, averting their gaze from their complicity in dispossessing local farmers. They blame the state for what they suffered and now call on it to make restitution, while in some circles, both in Japan and China, they are criticized for being agents of oppression and imperial expansion. After Japan’s defeat they returned only to be “greeted with pity, suspicion and callousness by their compatriots.”

For many of the orphans, the family reunions proved difficult, and those who relocated to Japan often live on the margins, unwelcome and in many cases unable to adapt. However, some have turned the situation to their advantage, drawing on their mixed identities and navigating cross-national entrepreneurial opportunities.

“Memory Maps” conveys richly textured perspectives on the imperial past and, in doing so, urges us to reconsider the nature of historical narratives and how they are constructed.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.