Empire of Manchukuo
Part Two, The Fall

By John Walsh
December 2022

Manchukuo rapidly became established in the Japanese consciousness as the centerpiece of the greater Japanese empire. It was based on the metropolis, which the Japanese dominated as a place for entrepreneurs and as a market for Japanese products. In an era of economic depression, what is of greatest need is markets that will buy products and, by cornering the Manchurian market, Japan found ways to keep the wheels of its own industry turning. To do so, it needed to create its own imperial structure along the lines of what it had already put into practice in Korean and Taiwan but with the additional difficulty of ruling through a rogue army bent on its own purposes.

Three forms of domination were put into practice, which was aimed at satisfying all important constituencies. The first was of blood and iron, and license for the Kwantung Army to rule in such a way as to keep the officers and men satisfied. The second was economic: a huge experiment in state-led capitalist economic development was put into place. Manchukuo was designated to become the forge of the Japanese economy, with important roles taken by the one million Japanese who crossed the sea to administer and command the new would-be earthly paradise. At the same time, Japanese intellectuals and media (most if not all of them) created a national vision of the Manchurian lifeline (Manshu seimeisen) which must be defended in order to preserve the concept and reality of Japanese Empire and to maintain the new heaven on earth (Shintenchi).

Conquerors of Manchukuo, August 1945

The basis of temporal control remained the Kwantung Army. Until 1931, it consisted of a regular army division, together with a battalion of heavy siege artillery and six independent railway guard battalions, with a total of some 10,000 men. By the time of the end of the war in 1945, its strength had risen to (with the addition of some Mongolian Army and other forces) twenty-four divisions and eleven brigades, totaling more than three quarters of a million troops, supported by 1,215 AFVs, 6,700 artillery pieces and 1,800 aircraft. This formidable fighting force was sufficient to hold off any Chinese resistance but was no match for post VE-Day Soviet forces. Most equipment was outmatched and the troops themselves fierce but lacking in military discipline and, hence, morale.

In the second Sino-Chinese War, known in China as the Eight Year War of Resistance, beginning in 1937, the Kwantung Army made rapid inroads, together with the North China Army. It seized Kalgan, Tatung and Kueisui, after which it formed the second puppet state, the Mongolian Federated Autonomous Government. Yet once the limit of conquest had been reached, Kwantung Army officers remained unsatisfied and proposed a penetration of Soviet territory. The Japanese army had for some decades been planning for and working towards war with the Russians. Self-belief, however, outstripped ability.

In May of 1939, the Kwantung Army crossed the border into Soviet-dominated Mongolia. There they were met in due course by the Soviet Twentieth Army and decisively defeated and driven out. Other border incidents confirmed that this was no fluke. The difference between bullying Chinese and meeting well-drilled and armed Russian troops was apparently instructive, since the Kwantung Army spent the next seven years skulking within its Manchukuo territory. Over the course of the war, some elements were stripped out from China and redeployed on Pacific Islands, where their skills were better suited.

Manchukuo itself remained something of a backwater, which is perhaps why it was chosen to host the Bacteriological Warfare Unit and its horrific experimentation. As for wartime living, it depends on the sources consulted. Japanese sources focus on the heroic pioneer survivors and their efforts to maintain the Manchurian Lifeline for the sake of all Japanese under difficult odds. Chinese sources focus on the resistance offered by Chinese residents at all walks of life and in whatever ways were possible for them. Presumably, the wartime occupation was similar to most forms of wartime occupation in that people survived as best they could in the situation in which they found themselves. Those in vulnerable positions had to do more to save themselves from hunger than others. Small acts of desperate resistance mingled with everyday stoic heroism and endless compromises with what had to be accepted. Elsewhere in Asia, as is well known, the Japanese occupation experience was increasingly harsh as wartime privations increasingly affected all concerned. One common theme was the harshness with which Chinese and ethnic Chinese were treated, wherever they might be found.

The Decline and Fall
The fighting between the various Chinese forces and the occupying Japanese was indecisive, especially compared with the ruthless rapidity with which the end came. Soon after the victory in Europe, Soviet troops were freed to transfer to the east and begin their assault. Japanese forces were distracted and depleted by the American island-hopping strategy and, ultimately, the use of two atomic bombs on their cities. On August 9th, 1945, Marshal Aleksandr Vasilievsky led 1,600,000 Soviet troops against half that many occupying Japanese and destroyed them. The Japanese were not just outnumbered but hopelessly outgunned. Assaults killed 40,000 Japanese troops, with only one fifth as many Soviet troops falling. With characteristic temerity, the Kwantung Army fought on beyond government orders to submit and only did so on August 16th, after a direct instruction from the emperor.

Unknown numbers of Japanese soldiers and civilians were shipped to Soviet gulags and held there, without any legal justification, for years. Some eventually found a way home to Japan but thousands are believed to have died before doing so, as victims of difficult elements, overwork and harsh treatment.

Under the People’s Republic of China after Communist victory in the Civil War, all citizens were officially treated as equal and all ethnicities (at least initially) dissolved in a new country of the revolution and all economic activities subsumed by an agency of the state. And so the remnants of Manchukuo disappeared into the recycling bin of history.

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