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  • Constructing East Asia: Technology, Ideology, and Empire in Japan’s Wartime Era, 1931–1945 by Aaron Stephen Moore
  • Philip C. Brown (bio)
Constructing East Asia: Technology, Ideology, and Empire in Japan’s Wartime Era, 1931–1945. By Aaron Stephen Moore. Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 2013. Pp. 328. $55.

This wide-ranging, important study of technology’s role in Japan’s wartime empire will interest students of the history of technology under fascist regimes, its role in imperialist enterprises, and its place in the history of early-twentieth-century Japan. Those seeking to understand Japan’s “construction state” and its relations with East and Southeast Asian development in the post–World War II era will benefit by this examination of the antecedents. [End Page 1019]

As opposed to portrayals of technology (typically conceived as artifacts) as progressive, Aaron Stephen Moore compellingly argues that technology (both ideas and artifacts) was important in shaping Japan’s regressive social order. Focused largely on Manchuria and Korea, he contends that technological and imaginative (non-rational) elements combined to shape and support Japan’s wartime enterprise, not just as material instruments of policy, but as key ideological and policy components. The Japanese adapted contemporary European and Japanese definitions of technology not only to produce new artifacts, but also to mobilize components of Japanese society (including mainland colonies) in support of empire. As presented here, technology constituted a subjective, even utopian, realm, not just an objective, rational force. “[The] technological imaginary represented something more than a politics of nationalism and technocratic planning. … [W]e also see the contours of another mode of power … based more on harnessing the creativity and vitality of human subjects than solely on repression and violence” (p. 9), a form of socially organic power that attempted to engage the creative forces of all levels of society in a harmonious whole that escaped the conflicts among elements of capitalist society.

Constructing East Asia portrays political leaders, philosophers, social thinkers, engineers, and bureaucrats of the 1920s to 1940s interacting to create ideas and institutions that moved greater Japan in a generally consistent direction, even as proponents of different policies and projects disagreed with each other. In contrast to a long tradition of historical scholarship that presumes the preeminence of right-wing army officers and their imperialist designs, Moore takes these other actors seriously, analyzing how debates among them played out at theoretical levels and in specific projects such as the Liao River regional development scheme and the construction of two world-class dams, Fengman (near Jilin in Manchuria) and Sup’ung (on the Yalu River in Korea). Projects, Moore contends, were not only outcomes of emerging ideas about technology, they also were the sites within which new ideas and new bureaucratic structures converged to influence a larger trajectory of power relations.

Each substantive chapter analyzes these themes through key examples. Chapter 1 is devoted to intellectuals’ evolving ideas of technology, primarily through an examination of Aikawa Haruki, a theorist. Chapter 2 takes up transformations in the thinking of engineers, focusing primarily on the career of Miyamoto Takenosuke, well known for his accomplishments in Japan as well as on the Continent. Regional planners are introduced to this mix of actors in chapter 3, which explores their work in Manchuria (the Liao River area especially), and massive dam construction in Manchuria and Korea (chapter 4). Discussions of political leaders and bureaucrats appear throughout these chapters, but one group, the “reform bureaucrats,” occupies center stage in chapter 5, especially the ideologue Mōri Hideoto. [End Page 1020] In the early chapters, Moore demonstrates the influence of socialist thought on opinion leaders, providing compelling examples of the political construction of “technology.” An epilogue explores links between these wartime developments and postwar constructionist trajectories.

Throughout, Moore analyzes a wide range of historical sources: for intellectuals and theorists, their own books, articles, and speeches; laws and policy papers are used for understanding emergent policies and administrative structures; and archival records for specific projects. Certain kinds of data for Manchuria were inaccessible. (The author does not say so explicitly, but the subject of the Japanese control of the Chinese “Northeast” remains a highly sensitive issue; archives and libraries frequently...