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  • Significant Soil: Settler Colonialism and Japan’s Urban Empire in Manchuria by Emer O’Dwyer
  • Miriam Kingsberg (bio)
Significant Soil: Settler Colonialism and Japan’s Urban Empire in Manchuria. By Emer O’Dwyer. Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge MA, 2015. xvi, 511 pages. $59.95.

Emer O’Dwyer’s Significant Soil is an eagerly anticipated contribution to a recent wave of scholarship on the social and political history of Japanese imperialism in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Asia. Originating from the author’s 2007 dissertation, it is the first monograph dedicated to the singular history of the Liaodong Peninsula or Kwantung Leased Territory (KLT)—now the administrative unit of Lüda (Lüshun and Dalian) in the People’s Republic of China. With its natural deep-water harbor, Liaodong was the object of imperialist designs by multiple powers following its discovery by British surveyors in the 1880s. Acquired by Japan upon its victory in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, the approximately 3,500-square-kilometer peninsula was almost immediately restored to China through the so-called Triple Intervention of France, Germany, and Russia. Three years later, Russia claimed the Kwantung leasehold for itself, much to the dismay and disgust of the Japanese public. However, the tables turned again in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5, when Japan invaded, occupied, and reclaimed the KLT. Over the next four decades, its principal city, Dairen (“Great Connection”), became the hub of Japan’s political and economic presence in Manchuria and a leading imperial metropolis in its own right. O’Dwyer explores the conscious development of urbanism, including unintended and often ironic consequences for the nation, empire, and above all Japanese society in Manchuria.

The book’s title, taken from the T. S. Eliot poem “The Dry Salvages” (1941), suggests “the particular importance of place in the formation and maintenance of a political identity among Japanese settlers in the Kwantung Leasehold and Railway Zone” (p. 19). Rejecting the typically phantasmagoric constructions of the contemporary Manchuria nostalgia industry, the title is explicitly earthbound, grounded by the abundance of soil metaphors in the primary sources. Meanwhile, the book’s subtitle introduces the idea of settler colonialism used to characterize KLT society. With this framing, O’Dwyer follows in the footsteps of Jun Uchida’s influential Brokers of Empire: Japanese Settler Colonialism in Korea, 1987–1945 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2010), the first full-length application of the concept to the Japanese imperial context. Like Uchida, O’Dwyer attempts to restore agency to Dairen’s society of Japanese migrants. As she argues, these newcomers to the KLT acted with “determination and initiative” (p. 4) to shape [End Page 183] local governance. In asserting civic privileges and responsibilities, they enjoyed the support of Tokyo, which wished to stabilize the community and secure Japan’s interests and holdings on the Asian mainland. In this way, Dairen transcended its peripheral geography and pseudocolonial status to become “a city like no other” (p. 23), a progressive urban model for the metropole as well as for the expanding empire.

After setting the geographic and demographic stage, the author proceeds to analyze the creation of an exceptional political space in the Liaodong Peninsula. The KLT was the sole long-term leasehold within the heterogeneous agglomeration of interwar Japanese imperial territories (including the formal colonies of Taiwan and Korea, South Sea Islands mandate, treaty port of Qingdao, and puppet states of Manchukuo, north China, and inner Mongolia). It was ruled by the so-called four-headed government, composed of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, the Kwantung Army, the Office of the Governor-General, and the South Manchuria Railway Company (SMR or Mantetsu), the primary economic player in the region from 1906 to 1937. The uneasy coexistence of these authorities, on top of the general insecurity of Japan’s presence in continental Asia, was expressed through a constant power struggle that engendered challenges as well as opportunities for settlers.

One such opportunity appeared during the global cataclysm of World War I, in which Japan participated as a belligerent on the side of the Allies. With the attention of the military diverted, civil authority in the KLT leasehold expanded, culminating in the...


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pp. 183-186
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