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Reviewed by:
  • Significant Soil: Settler Colonialism and Japan's Urban Empire in Manchuria by Emer O'Dwyer
  • Rana Mitter
Significant Soil: Settler Colonialism and Japan's Urban Empire in Manchuria. By Emer O'Dwyer. Harvard University Asia Center, 2015. 528 pages. Hardcover $59.95/ £44.95/ €54.00.

In this long but well-focused and deeply researched study, Emer O'Dwyer gives us the most comprehensive account so far in English of a Japanese imperial city outside the home islands. The term "imperial" is perhaps preferable to "colonial," since Dairen (Ch. Dalian), the city concerned, was a settler city of a type different from, say, Taipei or Seoul under Japanese rule. Yet Dairen was clearly crucial to the Japanese empire, and this study adds immensely to our knowledge of the relationship between the metropole and the periphery. It is not only theoretically acute, but is based in a wide and impressive range of Japanese-language sources and written in a clear and accessible style.

The book starts by explaining the unusual status of Dairen. Rather more scholarly attention has been paid to the wider significance of Northeast China ("Manchuria") as a whole than to this city in particular, which has generally been treated as something of an anomaly: a city in the Liaodong Peninsula on the tip of Manchuria that enjoyed a different status from the landmass to which it was attached. The book shows that Dairen was immensely important in its own right as a settler community that sought both to link itself to Tokyo and to create a sense of distinctness in comparison with other Japanese cities. The city had originally been built by the [End Page 331] Russians in the late nineteenth century under the name of Dalnyy ("distant"). However, at the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, the Liaodong Peninsula was ceded to Japan as a leasehold territory and its major city renamed Dairen, meaning "great link," a reference to its importance as a trading port.

During the next few years and decades, the local Japanese community succeeded in carving out a city that would be part of the empire, but with considerable political and business autonomy: a community of kokumin (citizens), but "imperial kokumin" (p. 4) who might be thought equivalent to the inhabitants of cities like Osaka or Sapporo, only living on the Chinese mainland. This community was shaped by the dual conviction that its members were entitled to the privileges of the metropolitan citizens of Japan and to considerable autonomy in terms of governance arrangements as well as relations with the indigenous Chinese residents, who, of course, made up the vast majority of the population of the region in which Dairen was located.

O'Dwyer gives the reader a detailed, granular account of the workings of urban government in Dairen, contributing an important addition to the growing scholarship on metropolitan life and governance in Japan. Rather like Shanghai, the single other major settler city in China at the time, Dairen was run by a council of locals that controlled issues such as taxation, property rights, and social welfare. Collaboration (in the sense pioneered by the historians of British empire Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher in their "excentric" model of empire) with the local Chinese population was clearly an important dynamic, and interaction with these inhabitants was crucial (despite the attempts of at least some Japanese army planners in the 1930s to portray Manchuria as terra nullius, a blank sheet waiting to be populated). The outbreak of warlord conflicts in north China in the mid-1920s created significant refugee flight, leading to cooperation between the Japanese authorities and local Chinese chambers of commerce, native-place organizations, and guilds for the purpose of providing social welfare. Meanwhile, as the economy worsened, the Dairen Employment Referral Center became an important focal point for giving guidance to those Japanese settlers who found themselves unemployed.

Central to Dairen was the Mantetsu (South Manchurian Railway), the great trading and infrastructure vehicle of Japanese settler imperialism; far more than a railway, it held an autonomous status that has led to frequent comparisons with the East India Company. There were clear points of difference between Mantetsu and the city...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1880-1390
Print ISSN
0027-0741
Pages
pp. 331-334
Launched on MUSE
2018-03-14
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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