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positions: east asia cultures critique 12.2 (2004) 457-478

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The Problem of Sovereignty:

Manchukuo, 1932–1937

The history of Manchukuo (1932–45) affords an excellent example for exploring the complexity of sovereignty in the twentieth century. Manchukuo has generally been classified as a puppet state of Japan, built by the Kwantung Army, the Japanese garrison troops stationed in the northeastern region of China (so-called Manchuria) from 1906 to 1945. When scholars persist in seeing this entity as simply a puppet, the multifaceted character of its fourteen-year history is obscured and Manchukuo's potential as a model remains submerged. I will take the position here that Manchukuo was in fact an exceptional space of transnationalism in the era of "high nationalism."1

During the late twentieth century globalizing trends transformed world history's course. New visions attend the new phenomena, and when I speak of ideology in this essay I am referring to this phenomenon of envisioning the shape of globality. An issue confronted by scholars of globalization is precisely the fate of sovereignty. Potentially transnational forces run counter [End Page 457] to the sovereign interests of nation-states and are likely to place the latter "in a painful predicament."2 Some scholars have gone so far as to argue that nation-states will dissolve with the rise of regional economies or deterritorialized political space.3 However, debate has tended to remain trapped in analyses that address the nation-state while overlooking the relationship of nation to transnationalism and sovereignty in the ideological realm.4 This paper addresses the resilient nature of sovereignty with a focus on the ideological aspects of early Manchukuo and seeks to intervene in the ongoing debate over the relation of nation and transnationalism.

The default notion of the "puppet state" has led to a monolithic understanding of Manchukuo and its significance. Most historical work focuses on the so-called Mukden Incident, in which the Kwantung Army drove off Zhang Xueliang's warlord in 1931; discussion seldom goes further.5 (One recent work deals with the frenzied mobilization within Japan over the Manchurian question but avoids connecting that history with the inner workings of Manchukuo.)6 Such histories leave a fixed image of the region and era symbolized by Japanese colonizers' exploitation and brutal rule. In this literature, Manchukuo is nothing more than a severely ransacked colony, a strategic point for Japanese expansion to China proper.7 There is no doubt that the alien regime was cruel. That fact is not disputed here. In the late period, in particular, the Japanese rulers annually forced hundreds of thousands of people into forced labor, and hundreds were taken in Japan's notorious 731 Unit for bacteriological experiment.8

What is missing from the prevailing literature, however, are assessments of how Japanese state builders tried to incorporate a variety of theories of modern sovereignty into their creation of Manchukuo. The discourse of sovereignty in Manchukuo exploited all sorts of ideologies, including transnational ones. Regardless of its military origin, the Manchurian government adopted an idealistic ideology that surpassed ethnic boundaries. The early stage of Manchukuo gets scant attention because of the trajectory of its history after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937. But restricting my analysis to the early years of Manchukuo's history gives us a better understanding of the sheer energy the state managers directed toward creating a sovereign Manchukuo. In what follows, I trace the direction Manchukuo's sovereignty took with an emphasis on the strategies state builders employed [End Page 458] to use whatever ideological resources lay at hand. The flexibility of theories and practices of sovereignty in Manchukuo's ideological sphere gives an understanding at odds with prevailing "strong" versions of globalization. The historical example of Manchukuo affords us a possible alternative framework with which to examine our more immediate world. I begin with a reconsideration of the notion of the puppet state, which, I believe, has an overly uniform and rigid view of sovereignty.

The Exteriority of Sovereignty

The idea of sovereignty in the traditional...


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