- Glorify the Empire: Japanese Avant-Garde Propaganda in Manchukuo by Annika A. Culver
Glorify the Empire reflects two important trends in the recent historiography of Japan’s overseas empire: the unprecedented and intensive scholarly attention devoted to Manchukuo (Manshūkoku 満州国), and the fearless application of the term fascism to describe the regime and culture of Japan during the 1930s and early 1940s. Since the publication of Louise Young’s magisterial, award-winning 1998 study, a host of established and younger scholars (particularly in history and literature) have embarked for the “frontier” of Japanese Manchuria.1 As befits a multicultural contact zone, this new scholarship examines Manchukuo from a multitude of ideological, political, gendered, and ethnic perspectives.2
Emboldened perhaps by the work of Alan Tansman, Japan scholars today are far more comfortable than the previous generation with using the F word to describe the wartime political order and its cultural productions.3 Although Maruyama Masao 丸山眞男 (1914-1996) famously characterized the wartime regime as fascist, the historians whose work I read in graduate school contended that, in the absence of a charismatic führer or Il Duce and a mass party, wartime Japan was better described as “ultranationalist” than “fascist” (though scholars [End Page 461] no longer think that is a hair worth splitting).4 Annika Culver is clearly comfortable with the term, arguing that the fascist view of “capitalism and liberal democracy as bankrupt” made Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany attractive to Japanese as alternative “economic and social templates” preferable to “the liberalism of the Anglo-Saxon West” (p. 23). Manchukuo became a laboratory for testing “corporatist capitalism” that institutional inertia and inflexibility made impossible in the metropole (naichi 内地) (p. 23). Culver even contends that “Manchukuo was more thoroughly fascistic than Japan itself” (p. 140).
Culver focuses specifically on painters, writers, and photographers working in avant-garde (usually surrealist) modes of expression who were invited to Manchukuo and encouraged to use their art to convey “unofficial propaganda” (p. 3) to the public in the metropole about the wonders occurring there under Japanese stewardship. Most of these artists had been involved in left-wing politics such as the Proletarian Arts movement, making them targets of the 1925 Peace Preservation Law and the Special Higher Police. Some of them committed tenkō 転向 (apostasy or recantation of prior beliefs) and realigned themselves with their fascist patrons, but others maintained their proletarian sympathies and viewed Manchukuo as the potential setting for their utopian visions. Culver states, “the form of fascism espoused by the new state’s Japanese handlers was so compelling that it attracted many former left-wing Japanese intellectuals with the promise of a developmental utopia that would safeguard the interests of both native workers and rural immigrants” (p. 12). That is, these intellectuals’ basic ideological commitments to impoverished workers did not change, yet in the building of Manchukuo they found an outlet that enabled them to be useful to the imperial state and stay out of prison.
The avant-gardists traveled voluntarily—usually sponsored by the state, the military, or the South Manchuria Railway (Minami Manshū tetsudō kabushiki-gaisha 南満州鉄道株式会社, or Mantetsu 満鉄)—to survey “a place where their personal aims could be realized and where, by virtue of their being Japanese, they held a privileged position” (p. 10). They transmitted their messages through their respective media, engaging in an “ideological soft war of suasion in support of [End Page 462] Japan’s imperial expansion in, and development of, Asia” (p. 10). In doing so, Culver observes, they maintained “a certain continuity with their earlier aesthetic and literary styles while, at the same time, following a very different politics” (p. 32). In making this argument, Culver questions the easy association of avant-garde art with leftist politics, suggesting instead that her subjects embraced “right-wing proletarianism” while continuing their artistic experimentalism (pp. 29-31, 35).
The first artistic notable who visited Manchuria, at the invitation of Mantetsu, was novelist Natsume Sōseki 夏目漱石 in 1909.5 Sōseki...