- Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern
Manchukuo is a hot topic among historians these days, and for good reason. This short-lived state in the border regions of northeast China, established under Japanese military authority in 1932 and deeply tied to the fate of the Japanese Empire, promises important lessons on the world in which we live today. As academics and others turn to new paradigms to extol the virtues of transnational identities, constructed nationhood, multiethnicity, and postcolonialism as transnational critical practice, Manchukuo offers a tempting optic in which to position these issues in a new relationship to Western cultural power. It is in this hope that Manchukuo can speak to us today that Prasenjit Duara offers his own deep meditations on Manchukuo and "the East Asian modern."
Duara's trajectory takes him well beyond the historical polity called Manchukuo. But let's begin there, as much of his broader argument is shaped by how he approaches the nature of this chimeric state. As Tsukase Susumu pointed out some years ago, most studies on Manchukuo fall into two broad categories: those that regard Manchukuo merely as a "puppet" or colony of Japan, and those that see Manchukuo as an effort at building an ideal state that failed due to the pressures of war.1 One hastens to add that these positions [End Page 502] do not correlate with Chinese and Japanese historiography per se for, as Tsukase notes, the first approach also is largely the established position among postwar Japanese historians. Duara's own argument draws most heavily from scholarship that reflects the first position, although in subtle and fascinating ways he draws from both (as does Yamamuro Shin'ichi, whose work Duara builds on in his own study).2
While Duara in no way underplays the role of Japanese hegemony in the founding and management of Manchukuo, he gives more serious attention than many others have to the complex relationship of dependence and independence within the modern nation-state system. He cannot ignore the fact that Manchukuo did achieve diplomatic recognition by ten independent states and the Vatican, and recognition by other independent states was a key element in traditional international law for deciding whether a state has legitimacy.
What I find most original and provocative about Duara's argument is that he meets those who advocate a more independent approach to understanding Manchukuo on their own turf, but only to turn their arguments against them. In short (and it is difficult to do justice to Duara's nuanced and complex argument "in short"), he agrees with much of the argument for Manchukuo as a modern state, but not with the conclusions of many who make this argument (i.e., that liberation, especially in East Asia, will only come through membership in a nation). Rather, his point is to question the moral legitimacy of all forms of nationalism through an analysis of Manchukuo as a paradigmatic example of the modern regime of "governmentality." The key is Duara's concept of "the East Asian modern," an effort to signify "a regional mediation of the global circulation of the practices and discourses of the modern" (p. 2). But, as those who persevere to the end of the book will find, "East Asian modern" is also a metaphoric critique of the model, often derived from Chalmers Johnson's classic study of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, of the rational, bureaucratic state as the key to an East Asian model of successful modernization (p. 250).3 Here, through the lens of Manchukuo, the bureaucratic state instead becomes an emblem of the dystopia of modern East Asia.
The originality of Duara's argument derives not from yet another lesson about how oppressive bureaucracies can be, but from his creative dislodging of Michel Foucault's concept of "governmentality" from a domestic focus on a people and their government (the nation ↔ state relationship) in order to apply it to the relationship of imperialism and the international nation-state system. The key, for Duara...