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The South Atlantic Quarterly 99.1 (2000) 163-189

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A Road to “A Redeemed Mankind”:
The Politics of Memory among the Former Japanese Peasant Settlers in Manchuria

Mariko Asano Tamanoi


Walter Benjamin once wrote, “Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments.”1 What does it really mean to receive the fullness of the past? The individual memory is always unstable and malleable, unable to hold the recollection of every minute of one’s past. How one remembers is always susceptible to the ideology (in its broadest sense) of the moment of recollection. In this respect the collective memory may be no better. Only those memories that a group of people could agree on tend to endure, primarily because of the intensity of the emotions those memories inspire. When the members experienced deep trauma, they convey anything but the most devastating memories. If the authoritative discourse, of the government or the media, endorses the narrative of suffering, those of less traumatic experiences disappear. Why can they not cite their past in all its moments? Does this mean they cannot be part of a redeemed mankind? [End Page 163]

In this article I ask this question in my own fieldwork on the former Japanese peasant settlers in Manchuria, Japan’s de facto colony in the early twentieth century. They were peasants, impoverished in the wave of economic recessions, who tried to build their new homes in Northeast China, then called Manchuria. In 1905 Japan secured a leasehold of its southern tip, called the Liaodong Peninsula, from Russia as part of war indemnities. The wave of Japanese emigration to Manchuria (and Far East Russia), however, began a few decades earlier.2 By 1931 about 200,000 Japanese, mostly soldiers, entrepreneurs, women offering services to the male immigrants, and the employees of the South Manchurian Railway Company, had moved to the cities in southern Manchuria.3 In 1932, after having seized northern Manchuria, Japan established Manchukuo. Although it was a Japanese invention, “a separate state under Chinese leaders who took their orders from Japanese officers and civilian officials,” Japan presented it as an independent nation to the international community.4 Most of the peasant settlers left for Manchuria after 1932. These settlers as well as the earlier group of Japanese emigrants crossed the sea to “Japanize” Manchuria, transforming it into a part of the Japanese empire.5 Yet I must point out the important differences between the peasant settlers and the rest of the Japanese emigrants. First, although as Japanese they joined the rank of the colonizer, the peasant settlers occupied the bottom of the hierarchy. Second, these peasants could not have migrated to Manchuria without the active intervention of the Japanese state, which provided them with material resources and military protection.

I am not contesting that these settlers suffered in both Japan and Manchuria. At home they were largely tenant or small-scale owner/tenant farmers who suffered from protracted agricultural depression and a serious land shortage.6 Yokozeki Mitsue7 vividly describes the economic condition of these peasants when she introduces her father’s narrative in her autobiography: “The price of raw silk plummeted. My father uprooted all the mulberry trees and began to plant cabbage, but he could not make any money.” All his land was taken away by the landlord. One night he declared to his family, “We cannot live here any more. Our land is gone. All that we can do is to run away to Manchuria!”8 For Mitsue’s father, Manchuria was by no means a glorious colony of the Japanese empire. It was simply where he thought he could escape his material misery.

As to their experiences in Manchuria, the number of people who did not return to Japan after the end of the war vividly tells us of...


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