Manchukuo: Master of Puppets

Forged by relentless Japanese military takeover on 15th September 1932, the new state of Manchukuo was not built to last. Born in the northeastern Chinese province of Manchuria, the state existed under elementary independence of its colonial master, which installed the puppet emperor Mr Henry Puyi. In response to the view of their ‘manifest destiny’ to expand and reform areas of their neighbouring Asian lands, Japan set its sights on Manchuria decades before the eventual takeover, believing the province to be within their natural sphere for expansion as Manchuria remained one of the few Chinese provinces to maintain its own dynastic independence from the ruling of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang.

Fulfilling Japan’s desire to secure raw materials and supplies for her own population alongside an exclusive market for her manufactured products, Manchukuo quickly became worth the risk. With fertile land and 34 million ready and willing workers, to improve its industrial output, the province’s largely unharvested gold, iron ore and coal resources attracted Japanese attention not only for her own uses, but also as a means of starving China of the necessary natural reserves to ultimately become an efficient rival machine. Alongside such natural potential, Manchukuo also satisfied a significant man-made Japanese requirement, as its vast lands would accommodate the ever-growing Japanese population that the mainland struggled to house, and also provide a secure homeland for the Japanese migrants already living in Manchuria. Japan’s imperial improvements for Manchukuo included a road building programme, which expected 4,000km of new routes by June 1934 and a merge of telegraph, telephone and radio services to easily and efficiently regulate communications within the state.

Following the Manchurian Incident of 1931 which was publicly displayed to Japanese audiences as a Chinese uprising, the Japanese felt a collective sense of superiority over the disrespectful Chinese people who would be tamed by Japan through its initial step to pacify Manchuria. Throughout the establishment of the new state, Japan’s view of an inferior and ill-equipped Chinese race frequently made itself known, most notably through propaganda warning the population of Manchukuo of the ‘barbarian people’ across the borders that were waiting to strike on the province if it were to lie dormant and vulnerable much longer without Japanese rule. The invasion frequently intended to broaden Japanese power within China with a view, albeit grand, to transforming the nation into a Japanese colony as a whole. The Japanese government stated that through Manchukuo, they would be saving China from decades of playing second fiddle to the Soviet Union, effectively being bullied into submission by the communist state, as well as effectively blocking Chiang Kai-shek from reforming north-east Asia. Acting as a mainland anchor for Japanese security, Manchukuo became Japan’s shield from the threats of Western imperialism, Soviet communism and consequently Chinese communism.

The primary aim of the creation of the state of Manchukuo was to utilise the existing Manchuria railroad, with Japanese power assumption over the system almost instantly as a method of bridging the gap between China and Japan’s colony of Korea while simultaneously opening opportunities for further expansion in the direction of Mongolia. Three decades prior to the establishment of Manchukuo, Japan was strategically working to forge the South Manchurian railroads to their advantage with the aim of eventual entire control. By 1933, Japan’s armies were forging the foundations of an ‘enduring economic and strategic organisation to meet the Empire’s needs’ through the control of Manchuria’s northbound rail links to transport the wealth of harvested natural resources on Chinese land to its desired locations. The new railroad management scheme in March 1933 promised to promote the well-being of the Japan-Manchukuo relationship for defence purposes only, alongside the efficient restructuring of the railways to eliminate futile Chinese opposition, ensuring the full repayment of reparations owed to Japanese interests, specifically the South Manchuria Railway. The railroads were organised more efficiently by Japan in the first two years of the takeover than it had ever been arranged under the previous Chang regime. In 1934, Japan made a promise to install 4,000km of new tracks in the coming decade as a means of transporting their troops to the Russian front with ease. The South Manchurian Railway established in 1935 was considered the ‘economic spearhead of Japan’s expansion in China’ and emphasised the great importance of haste in taking action to hold back communism in the Soviet Union and China.

Japan obtained a valuable lesson from the creation of Manchukuo in its initial attempt to economically control their new independent nation entirely through state capitalism and banning the zaibatsu from participating in growing its economy, however these were fundamental players in forging a grassroots economy, consequently stifling Manchukuo’s finances. Locating its birth in 1932 in the midst of global depression and the 5.9 billion yen cost of establishing Manchukuo between the years of 1932 and 1941, initial fears were expressed that Manchukuo would cause more harm than good. The Japanese intended on organising their new independent state in a way to achieve ‘a self-sufficient economic unit’ in comparison with its own, through an outright expression of a desire to belong in a world of total war through its imminent industrial prowess. Within its first year, Manchukuo defied expectations of failure by consistently making progress in the initial years, particularly in the direction of financial improvement with the establishment of its own national bank on June 15 1932 which distributed a new coin monetary system as opposed to the previous worthless notes. The Manchukuo yuan, based on the silver standard, restored monetary stability and was welcomed by farmers and merchants who were suffering under the Chang dynasty, receiving too little in payment for their high-priced soy beans. In the spring of 1933, Manchukuo launched an economic program to tie the loose ends created by the new state, preventing the monopolization of the plentiful natural resources in the region by any one class, controlling the state’s economic activities from above, and ensuring the employment of foreign skills and experience through encouraging foreign investments. Two concepts of economic governance were used in Manchukuo, with a combination of state-managed economic development using the neighbouring Soviet as a model and a self-sufficient production sphere or ‘bloc economy’. An unexpected but welcome side effect of the economic improvements was the reduction in poverty among natives which quelled anti-imperialist protest, opening Manchukuo to unquestioned Japanese rule.

Japan’s economic management of Manchukuo combined methods of state capitalism with national socialism, which merged ‘the advantages of public ownership and private management’, was considered a revolutionary approach that brought suggestions that Manchukuo marked a stage of Japanese colonialism where Japan tried and tested its economic theories in its new state, as Young compares it to a ‘laboratory’, and would then export the successful policies back home to be implemented. Japan’s imperial expansion into Chinese territory unintentionally brought a number of appealing promises to the Chinese people of Manchuria, specifically the offer of prosperity through such successful economic risks, which ‘means more to Chinese than political choice’, allowing Japan a free reign to complete control. Addressing the trading ‘Open Door’ in Manchukuo’s economic situation, Timperley’s contemporary article argues that ‘the door may be open but there are too many Japanese crowding the threshold for anybody else to be able to get even a look in’ as Japan expressed no desire to share Manchukuo’s wealth with foreign traders or even native Chinese. Through pushing aside Western competition with radically cheap prices that Britain and America could not possibly hope to rival, Japan assumed its rightful monopoly over its new state’s economic advancement. However, the speed at which Manchukuo succeeded economically brought suspicions of the legality of their actions, with goods smuggled into Manchukuo from Dairen avoiding export charges.

Japan’s subliminal control of the supposed central Manchukuo government blurred the meaning of independence for its new colony, with Japanese officials in power over the Manchukuo administration and Mr Henry Puyi and his ‘phantom cabinet’ answering to Japan at every turn. Manchukuo instantly declared itself independent of China, therefore snubbing the League of Nations designed to protect nations from such violations of national rights that Japan exceeded through its takeover. Manchukuo gradually became an efficient state through the effective mobilisation of the Japanese and Manchurian population in military, political, economic and cultural outputs, such as the Manchukuo Army, to evoke a sense of belonging and patriotism to the motherland Japan in the new state. The ‘revolution of 1932’ soon became the ‘restoration of 1932’, as outside views quickly realised the Japanese invasion had undoubtedly improved the region’s output in its first year. However, with all its successes, Manchukuo faced an unrelenting internal problem of banditry and the maintenance of order in a new state born out of the chaos and corruption of the previous Chang dynasty. While the independent state of Manchukuo was short-lived, arguments remain that the province of Manchuria was always independent, as China had never governed Manchuria and the Manchu dynasty never ruled China.

Manchukuo, the ‘child of conflict’ was handed over to European control following Japan’s crippling defeat at the close of the Second World War, and as a consequence suffered economic collapse and national distress, suggesting the Japanese occupation and governance significantly stabilised its Chinese colony, proving that Manchukuo was largely a risk worth taking.


‘As to Recognizing Manchukuo’, World Affairs (1932) 73-75.

‘Japan’s Railway Control in Manchuria’, Foreign Affairs, 12 (1934) 294.

Akagi, Roy H., ‘Japan and the Open Door in Manchukuo’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1933) 54-63.

Akagi, Roy H., ‘Future of American Trade with Manchukuo’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1940) 138-143.

Fenby, Jonathan, Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the China He Lost (London, 2003).

Harries, Meirion, Soldiers Of The Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army (New York, 1991).

Hunter, Janet E., The Emergence of Modern Japan: An Introductory History Since 1853 (New York, 1989). (Hunter, 1989).

Kushner, Barak, The Thought War: Japanese Imperial Propaganda (Honolulu, 2006). (Kushner, 2006).

Pyle, Kenneth B., The Making of Modern Japan (Lexington, 1978). (Pyle, 1978).

Timperley, H.J., ‘Japan in Manchukuo’, Foreign Affairs, 12 (1934) 295-305.

Young, Louise, Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (California, 1999).

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