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Bill Sewell, Constructing Empire: The Japanese in Changchun, 1905-45

Peter Cunich
Référence(s) :

Bill Sewell, Constructing Empire: The Japanese in Changchun, 1905-45, Vancouver; Toronto: UBC Press, 2019

Entrées d’index

Indice de palabras clave:

imperialismo, colonialismo, arquitectura japonesa

Index géographique :

Asie, Chine, Changchun

Index chronologique :

XXe siècle
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Texte intégral

1The Japanese vassal state of Manchukuo in the 1930s may seem an unlikely site for the implementation of a daring modernist experiment in urban planning and architecture but, as Bill Sewell’s Constructing Empire reveals, the Japanese invaders were determined to use their new regional capital of Xinjing, adjacent to the old Chinese city and treaty port of Changchun, as a manifestation of the modernising Japanese state within the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. That the Japanese experiment in Xinjing would not be entirely successful could probably have been predicted from the start: the modernity of the new capital was inevitably moderated by an overriding need to create social and political harmony within the evolving Pan-Asian political climate of the time. While Xinjing became a symbol of the “light of Asia” which Japanese propagandists hoped would radiate across the continent and beyond, it was also a site of contestation between contemporary internationalism and the need to anchor the new capital within its historical context, using architectural forms that were familiar to the Japanese, Chinese and Manchurian inhabitants of the city. The new city was not, therefore, a tabula rasa onto which the Japanese planners and architects could project their vision for a new Asian urban style. In this first major study of the modern history of Changchun to be written in English, Sewell carefully analyses the complex interplay of myriad factors that impacted on the work of Japanese professionals—mostly civilians—who were tasked with creating the new capital city in the 1930s, but he also explains the roots of Japanese colonialism in Manchuria starting in 1905. This is an important study of urban and architectural history that will be greatly valued by historians of both urban planning and modern architecture.

2Bill Sewell has already written extensively on the history of Changchun, so this study incorporates previous work published between 2002 and 2013, but Constructing Empire provides him with a broader canvas to explore a much wider range of topics concerning not just urban history but also Asian imperialism, colonialism more generally, and national identity-building in East Asia in the first half of the twentieth century. Sewell is particularly concerned with revealing the role of civilians within a built environment that could easily have been more militarised than it was. Civilians are revealed as both the agents of an imperialist agenda in the processes of planning and design, but also as participants in the resulting built environment. Sewell additionally seeks to illustrate social and economic interactions within the built urban environment, so these concerns determine the structure of the book, which is essentially divided between a treatment of urban planning and modernist architecture in the first two main chapters, and economic development and “Colonial Society” in the second half of the book. His analysis is further subdivided in each of the four main chapters into two more narrowly defined historical periods within the broader sweep of Japanese imperial expansion between 1905 and 1945. Sewell uses 1931 as the natural dividing line between an earlier period of economic exploitation (Japan’s informal empire) and a later period in which Japan sought, as the victorious imperial power, to “create a new order in Manchuria, one superior to anything offered by rivals” (p. xi). Each of his four main chapters is therefore structured to reflect this change of direction after 1931, when Xinjing was conceived as a progressive capital city that its designers hoped would rival all other modern capital cities anywhere else in the world. Each chapter begins with a substantial section on Japanese activities in the original treaty port of Changchun, before exploring the ideas behind the “imperial” capital city of Xinjing and its performance as a “modern” capital.

3In the long introductory chapter, Sewell deftly sketches the history of Manchuria as a contested space in the imperial projects of China, Russia and Japan, revealing the multifaceted nature of Japanese imperialism in the region from the beginning of the twentieth century. An explanation of Japan’s dominance from 1905 as the region’s major military power, but also her role in the construction of modern infrastructure, industrial capacity and banking, are exemplified in the Japanese “railway town” constructed between the old city of Changchun and the newer Russian railway station at Kuanchengzi. The Japanese settlement at Changchun quickly became the most important entrepot in the whole of Manchuria, allowing the Japanese to impose their own style of state planning based on foreign forms that had been “digested” and indigenised since the Meiji restoration. It was in the Japanese railway town of Changchun that the sometimes competing aims of the Mantetsu company and Kantogun army leaders imprinted a distinctly modernist character on the Japanese treaty port. The first main chapter on “City Planning” demonstrates how planners such as Kato Yonokichi designed the new “treaty port” of Changchun as Japan’s “gateway to the north”, using a modern grid system and infrastructure that ushered in “a new age in urban life” (p. 42) that brought “civilisation” to an area where previously there had been nothing even resembling a modern urban space.

4The cityscape of Changchun was designed both to express Japanese national identity and to provide an environment conducive to business and attractive to settlers from Japan. This functional urban space would also provide the basic pattern for all future city planning in Xinjing after Changchun was proclaimed as the new capital of Manchukuo in March 1932. In this second phase of urban design, the Japanese planners set about creating a city that performed a strong propaganda role, expressing a “Pan-Asian identity that would surpass the West” (p. 43). Sewell sees the puppet-capital of Xinjing as “a tragic tribute to the aspirations of the Japanese in East Asia” (p. 44). His explanation of the process by which the dream of a modern city was realised is a fascinating dissection of the various motivations and competing aims—economic, political, cultural and propagandistic—that influenced the Capital Construction Bureau overseeing the city’s planning and construction. He concludes that “modern inspirations were more important” than the traditional Chinese or Japanese elements of the plan, and that “the new city was more fundamentally modern, with intended but only incidental invocations of tradition” in the “holistic planning” of its extensive open spaces, orderliness and harmony (p. 51-52). Indeed, Sewell dwells at considerable length on the modernist inspiration of Xinjing’s layout and infrastructure, considering both the aesthetic and functional dimensions of what was intended to be a “model capital” that would demonstrate Japan’s power in the world.

5Many readers, especially architectural historians, will find Sewell’s second chapter on “Imperialist and Imperial Facades” to be the most enlightening section of the book. Assisted by a representative selection of photographs illustrating the numerous major structures that were constructed by the Japanese over a forty-year period, he shows how the evolving urban fabric of Changchun and Xinjing reflected an ongoing national discussion about the built environment that emanated from the Japanese metropole. The historical eclecticism of the buildings in the Changchun railway town owed much to the Tokyo University trained architects who favoured the emerging “international style”, but Manchuria was also an architectural laboratory that reflected metropolitan trends while finding new ways of expressing cultural ideals in a “Japan-West compromise style” (p. 75). In creating the idealised imperial city of Xinjing, Japanese architects designed Asian-inspired structures that were “more striking than anything in the railway town” of Changchun, but Xinjing’s architectural orientation, for all its traditional motifs, was “fundamentally modern” (p. 76). Sewell concludes, however, that the new Pan-Asian style of the capital actually represented a “failure of style” because Xinjing, for its local inhabitants, was stigmatised by its Japanese imperialistic purpose while Japanese residents found the style problematic because modernity’s “inherently cosmopolitan perspective was difficult to reconcile with purely national or even cultural boundaries” (p. 77).

6Several iconic government structures such as the Hall of State (1934-36), Ministry of Justice (1935-36), Ministry of Public Security (1935), Ministry of Transportation (1937), Supreme Court (1938) and National Foundation Shrine (1940) are examined in detail to demonstrate the essential hybridity of the new “Manchurian style”. The symmetrical lines of these massive structures, creating a sense of balance and harmony, their very large towers compelling the viewer to look upwards and appreciate the power of the state, and the Asian roof lines that represented “modernity in an Asian guise”, reveal a mixture of Chinese and Japanese elements, but the overriding architectural influences were modernist, internationalist, and functionalist. Another set of commercial buildings in the civic centre of Xinjing are examined to demonstrate the unambiguous modernity of “a new architecture for a new people” (p. 97). It is a shame that a larger selection of photographs could not be provided to illustrate this second set of structures and, given the importance that the Japanese placed upon providing modern residential accommodation for their own workers and other residents of Xinjing, the lack of illustrative material for these lesser but nevertheless essential elements of modern living is unfortunate.

7In the second half of the book, Sewell employs Henri Lefebvre’s assertion that “built space is historically coded, betraying underlying economic and social systems” (p. 188) to support an argument that the economic and social dimensions of colonial urban space in Changchun are as important as the built environment in understanding the impact of Japanese imperialism in Manchuria. While readers of this journal may not find this second half of the book to be as riveting as the first, Sewell nevertheless makes a ground-breaking contribution to our knowledge of the economic and social dimensions of Japanese imperialism in Manchuria. As in the first half of the book, these two chapters are supported by an array of statistical data and helpful tables. All areas of economic activity are considered, together illustrating Changchun’s role in the incorporation of Manchukuo into the Japanese imperial economy, first as a site for exploiting natural resources and later as a logistics and industrial hub. In assessing colonial society, Sewell focuses on the multifarious activities of the Japanese in Changchun and Xinjing and the formation of “a local imaginary” that sought to recreate a contemporary Japanese lifestyle in Manchuria. This was necessarily more Japanese than Pan-Asian. From demographic change and health, to education, religion, recreation, cultural production and propaganda, this chapter presents a thorough analysis of the ways in which the Japanese sought to make Manchukuo more like home, in the process alienating the local Chinese and Manchurian populations.

8It is not until the final pages of Constructing Empire that the reader is confronted with some of the grim realities of life in Japan’s “model capital”. Xinjing was essentially an authoritarian project that was both capitalist and colonial in character, and while the Japanese believed from the outset that their presence in Manchukuo was both legitimate and modernising, there was always a destabilising tension in the Japanese colonial imaginary because the Chinese were for the most part unreceptive to the Pan-Asianism that the Japanese tried to force upon them in the name of progress and civilisation. The planners and architects who designed Xinjing as an urban space in which ethnic harmony and peaceful co-existence were supposed to flourish, instead created an ethnically segregated and economically unequal society in which Chinese and Japanese “lived in parallel worlds” within an oppressive police state (p. 169-170). While the military presence inside the city of Xinjing was understated, a large army base lay just to the north of the city and the notorious biological warfare Unit 100 was strategically located adjacent to the city so that Chinese citizens could be rounded up and used for experimentation whenever necessary. Opium addiction in the city was “devastating” and labour resources were forcefully mobilised to support the Japanese war effort in Manchuria. These realities give the lie to the supposedly beneficent purpose of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere during the war years, while afterwards the city became a battlefield for both the invading Russians and later the Chinese communists, resulting in 100,000 civilian deaths in 1948 alone, and the destruction of around one-third of the city’s buildings.

9The modernist project in Manchukuo thus lay in ruins by the end of the 1940s, and the city that the Japanese expatriate community remembered with such fondness was largely obliterated. Sewell may well be correct in stating that there is still ample opportunity for individual Japanese scholars to deconstruct the Japanese empire and its legacies in Manchuria, and especially in the city of Changchun/Xinjing (p. 197), but Constructing Empire will surely continue to be the essential guide which future authors will use in order to understand the original intentions of those who set about to create “the paradise of the East” in Manchukuo.

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Peter Cunich, « Bill Sewell, Constructing Empire: The Japanese in Changchun, 1905-45 »ABE Journal [En ligne], 20 | 2022, mis en ligne le 31 octobre 2022, consulté le 23 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Peter Cunich

Director of the University of Hong Kong Centenary History Project, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Orcid ID: 0000-0003-2579-4380

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