The School That Built Asia

Unknown/Students of Kenkoku University

These days, Manchukuo is a name mostly known to dedicated historians. If it comes up, it is usually in the context of the Qing Emperor Puyi’s humiliating life in the Japanese client state, which was created after the Japanese invasion of September 1931 and then crumbled in the face of a massive Soviet incursion in August 1945 without putting up much of a struggle. In these stories, Manchukuo is generally thought of as a typical colony. Japan’s wartime pan-Asianist exercise, being a folly and a lie, became totally bankrupt at the end of the war and disappeared into thin air. The Cold War quickly rewrote the geopolitics of the region.

But during its lifetime, the Japanese colony was a highly unusual exercise in the history of imperialism. The harsh realities of Chinese life under the regime existed side-by-side with an ambitious pan-Asian ideological experiment. Japan’s tradition of technocratic modernization played a central role in Manchukuo’s governing bodies like the Concordia Association, the one-party state’s governing apparatus, and in the so-called South Manchuria Railway Company Research Department, a RAND Corporation-like research institution which ended up running much of Manchukuo’s development.

This interest in technocratic modernization did not remain within established ideological confines; many radical ideas, anything that could inform development, found a receptive audience. For example, even socialist ideas and Soviet policies informed the actions of Japanese technocrats and intellectuals, with a number of Japanese Marxists joining Manchukuo’s institutions after fleeing persecution in Japan itself. These Marxist exiles drew up industrial Five-Year Plans and promoted agricultural collectivisation, until they too fell afoul of the army-led purges of the political left in the early 1940s. Under the slogan of “Five Races Under One Union,” pan-Asianists in Manchukuo’s institutions attempted to put their ideas into practice, even finding themselves caught up or participating in movements against Japanese imperialism.

Through this dynamic, open-ended ideological ferment, and its application to practical problems of colonial development, Manchukuo became an experiment in developmental state‐building. It had immense consequences for the whole of East Asia. Its intellectual legacy is exemplified by the Japanese “reform bureaucrats” of the 1930s and ‘40s, who saw a technocratic state leading national development—and embracing neither electoral democracy nor class struggle—as being the way forward for East Asia. The Manchurian influence can be found in all the most significant cases of East Asian developmental success.

The Manchurian model of forced industrialisation under single-party rule found post-war expression in China, North Korea, and South Korea during the Park Chung-hee years, directly influenced by people who had participated in the colony’s institutions. The Japanese technocratic planners who worked in Manchukuo likewise returned to serve in the highest levels of government and economic and planning bodies in Japan after the war. They led Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, which governed uninterrupted from 1955 to the 1990s. The most prominent among these was Kishi Nobusuke, who was once Manchukuo’s economic tsar and among the most ruthlessly anti-Chinese and imperialist of its political leaders. His postwar position as America’s man in Tokyo allowed him to become prime minister from 1957-60 and retain prominence as an elder statesman until the 1980s.

Kenkoku University—the highest academic institution in Manchukuo from 1938 until 1945—was the educational center of the pan-Asianist experiment. Its students came from all over Asia under Japanese rule to learn how to modernize Asia. After the war, they maintained contact with each other while they assumed important roles in East Asia’s postwar order—some of their careers lasting until the 1990s. The legacy of Kenkoku lived on in their political achievements. Across East Asia, alumni implemented their goals of national liberation and state-led industrialization in the region’s postwar states, and on all sides of the Cold War divide. By inculcating the region’s rising elites, Manchukuo’s rulers secured an unlikely legacy. While the Japanese empire met its end, its tradition of technocratic state-building endured as East Asia’s new leaders drew on their Japanese training to build its successor regimes.

Kenkoku University and its Pan-Asian Order

Kenkoku University—the name means “Nation-Building”—was located on a small hill outside the Manchukuo capital city of Shinkyō, then known as Hsinking and now called Changchun, capital of China’s Jilin Province. Founded by Japanese military leader Ishiwara Kanji, a major architect of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, Kenkoku’s purpose was to nurture the leaders of a new pan-Asian order under Japanese hegemony. Ishiwara thought that an ultimate war between Japanese-led Asia and the U.S.-led West was unavoidable.

Kenkoku recruited its students from the Japanese Empire’s various ethnicities—Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, Mongolians, and even Russians. These incoming students were required to learn two foreign languages, while Japanese students had to demonstrate proficiency in Chinese, English, French, Russian, or German. Kenkoku even recruited Chinese and Korean professors with a background in organizing nationalist and anti-Japanese movements. Ishiwara hoped at one point to invite Gandhi, the pro-Japanese nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose from India, the American Sinologist Pearl Buck, and even Leon Trotsky.

From the outset, Kenkoku encouraged its students to criticize Manchukuo’s politics, a privilege justified on the grounds that the university was meant to be the incubator of Manchukuo’s future governance, not that of its present. Chinese students were allowed to write fiction on controversial themes: One surviving piece memorializes a female friend murdered by Japanese authorities, reminiscing about her nationalism by reading her writings and diaries every night. 

This unusual tolerance also extended to faculty. Bao Mingqian was a Chinese professor at Kenkoku with a background in leading nationalist campaigns, including the May Fourth Movement. Ultimately, Bao found himself sidelined at Kenkoku and later grew disillusioned with it. He was granted leave after faking an illness that opportunely lasted until 1945. In June 1946, he visited the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at Yan’an and was later briefly imprisoned by Nationalist authorities for his activities. In doing so, Bao was in fact continuing in a Kenkoku tradition of staff and students traveling to the “red capital” of the CCP at Yan’an or the wartime Nationalist capital of Chongqing.

Nor was the radical turn limited to Kenkoku’s Chinese members. Korean literary giant Choe Nam-seon, who had penned the “Korean Declaration of Independence” during the anti-Japanese March 1st Movement of 1919, was among the staff recruited. As a lecturer, Choe taught a different narrative to that of the Japan-centered view of Asia during his classes. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, Choe reportedly explained to his Korean students that a huge gap existed between the national strength of Japan and the U.S. and predicted that Japan would soon be defeated and Korea would become independent. One student remembered that it was at this very moment he was “awakened to his Korean identity with an electrified feeling thanks to Professor Choe.” Choe told another student, “We live our lives solely for that purpose [of Korean independence]. Without that hope, how would we keep going?”

Yet what all this fundamentally reflects is how Kenkoku failed to rectify real political problems. It could not offer a convincing narrative for the imperial project’s necessity, nor justify its brutalities. Kenkoku’s experiment in pan-Asianism, the foundation of its existence, also became its own enemy. One Japanese student wrote in his diary that he “came to respect those Chinese students who left Ken[koku] to join the anti-Japanese movement.” The ideologies of the anti-Japanese resistance proved far more attractive to the very students that Kenkoku’s founders intended to become a pan-Asian elite.

Due to this divide, Kenkoku became an important link in the very substantial phenomenon of “Manchukuo Marxism.” Marxist-inclined Chinese students betrayed their loyalties when registering en masse for Russian language courses. Books by Lenin, Marx, and the Japanese Marxist Kawakami Hajime circulated around the campus with the blessing of Kenkoku Vice President Sakuta Sōichi, an accomplished economist. In April 1940, Chinese students formed a group to contact the revolutionaries, and went as far as publishing a semi-annual bulletin called “Outpost.” These activities led to the arrest of 24 students by Japanese military police between 1941-43 during an anti-Marxist campaign. Frequently beaten and tortured, two of the students died in prison.

The contradictions of Kenkoku pan-Asianism spread among students too, with some Japanese students infamously using their privileges of access to rice as a way to bribe Korean students, whom Manchukuo’s wartime rationing laws restricted to other grains. The Korean students instead stood up for the excluded Chinese students on the grounds that this was a truer expression of pan-Asian solidarity.

Kenkoku came uneasily together only because of extraordinary circumstances and arbitrary shifts in ideological influence. It easily fell apart when the political circumstances for its continuation no longer existed. Yet it was clear that an authentic pan-Asianism did exist there. Despite the defeat of both the university and the Japanese empire that built it, Kenkoku alumni went on to act on those impulses. Both through their political careers and their ongoing social ties, they confounded the strict borders that undergirded the East Asian political order—the very same borders they often helped to construct.

The Kenkoku Alumni Network

While Kenkoku proved counter-productive in the eyes of its sponsors and organizers, it was ultimately a useful incubator of post-war talent in both revolution and governance. With an alumni network that contributed to socialist, liberal, and nationalist revolutions across the region, it ironically fulfilled the task of building a new Asian political order that Ishiwara had set for it. 

In 1954, former students founded the Kenkoku University Alumni Association in Japan. Contact between South Korean, Japanese, and Chinese alumni in Taiwan started in the 1950s, including group visits between countries. From 1980 onwards, alumni made four visits to mainland China, assisted by high-ranking CCP officials who were themselves former Kenkoku students—many of whom had suffered extensively during the Cultural Revolution.

Kenkoku graduates in China notably contributed to the restoration of Sino-Japanese ties from the 1960s onwards, an important element in securing the funding and trade deals that made China’s opening-up policy possible. Under the encouragement of Kenkoku alumnus and Jilin Party Secretary Gao Di, Kenkoku graduates even managed to resurrect the university in some form on its original site in the 1980s. One of the proposed names, Jianshe University (“Kensetsu” or “Construction” University), seemed a deliberate attempt to invoke Kenkoku’s memory. Deemed politically insensitive, the name ultimately became Changchun University.

The Cold War played a central role in preventing the evaporation of Kenkoku’s legacy. Common pro-Western geopolitical loyalties helped the initial reopening of contact between South Korean, Taiwanese, and Japanese alumni. But China’s increasing participation in that same international order, spurred on by their common opposition to the Soviet Union, allowed the warming of relations with PRC alumni as well.

Among the earliest events in which Kenkoku alumni played a major role was the socialist takeover of Manchuria itself. Among the ranks of the local activists was an ethnic Mongolian graduate named Jirgal. Born in northern Liaoning province, Jirgal graduated from Kenkoku in July 1944 and was assigned to work as a staff officer with advisory duties at Horqin Right Front Banner—a Mongolian county-level administrative unit—in what was then Xing’an Province. When Manchukuo fell apart in August 1945, Jirgal joined the East Mongolian Ethnic Autonomy Movement, collecting Japanese ammunition for the purposes of a popular revolution. By February 1946, an East Mongolian People’s Autonomous Government had been founded at Horqin, where Jirgal became banner chief. At the time, he belonged to the Inner Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (IMPRP) Youth Corps, ideologically closer to the Soviet Union and the Mongolian People’s Republic. But in March 1946, the CCP started sending representatives to contact the East Mongolian movement. By October, Jirgal had joined its ranks. 

During the April 1947 Inner Mongolian People’s Deputies’ Conference, which debated the issue of union with CCP-controlled China, Jirgal became a leading advocate of the union, arguing on the basis of the CCP’s new policy of ethnic autonomy. Jirgal’s own star rose with that of the party. He helped to devise a moderate policy against completely abolishing class differences in Inner Mongolia. Rising through the ranks until the Cultural Revolution, Jirgal found himself purged and brutally interrogated due to his previous alignment with Liu Shaoqi, his erstwhile links to the IMPRP, and suspected Soviet sympathies. But ultimately, he secured a release and returned to political office after Lin Biao died in 1971. Then in ill-health, Jirgal immediately flung himself into the work of reconstructing Inner Mongolia, collapsing and almost dying of a heart attack during a conference. By the time of his death from exhaustion and another heart attack in February 1982, he was Deputy Party Secretary and Vice-Chairman of Inner Mongolia. The Kenkoku graduate had seen the dawn of a new era.

Jirgal’s formation in the ideology of national liberation—first Mongolian, then Chinese—points to one of the major common inheritances of its alumni. Moreover, this tendency was shared across borders. But it was in South Korea that Kenkoku could boast its most prominent alumnus.

Kang Young-hoon, an ethnic Korean student of economics at Kenkoku, was already known as highly nationalistic during his tenure there. After 1945, he joined the South Korean army, where he fought in the Korean War and rose to the ranks of Lieutenant-General and Superintendent of the Korean Military Academy. Unlike many of his peers, Kang refused to participate or even sympathize with Park Chung-hee’s military takeover of May 16th, 1961, earning the title of “Anti-Revolutionary Officer Number 1” as a result.

Kang was hardly the only major South Korean figure with a Japanese tie. Park himself was an ex-Manchukuo officer and drew many supporters in the South Korean army and bureaucracy from the ranks of other ex-Manchukuo men, later known as the “Manchurian Clique” in South Korean political circles. Under the Park regime, South Korea embarked on a markedly statist economic path, with state-backed development of key sectors and the occasional strong-arming of a reluctant industrialist putting the country on a path of rapid economic development.

Despite its greater friendliness to markets, the parallels with Japanese state-building were clear enough for Park’s enemies, who often invoked his admiration of and collaboration with Japan to undermine his nationalist credentials. They may have had a point: Park’s admiration for Japan was strong enough that Kishi Nobusuke, meeting Park after his own tenure as prime minister of Japan, reported some embarrassment at the fact that the Korean leader’s political rhetoric seemed to have been directly imported from the Manchukuo years, unreconstructed by the etiquette of American liberalism.

After a six-month stint at Seoul’s infamous Seodaemun Prison, Kang went on to spend most of the Park and Chun Doo-hwan years as a diplomat and academic. In the late 1980s, his fortunes finally changed: Roh Tae-woo, another military strongman who pledged to transition to democracy, chose Kang as Prime Minister in 1988 on the basis of his anti-Park credentials. Kang became an architect of Roh’s “Nordpolitik” and led peace talks with North Korean Premier Yŏn Hyŏngmuk, staying in his role until 1990. Whatever their internal disputes, former Manchukuo men walked the halls of power in South Korea for most of the 20th century and drew on their political and military experience in its construction. Throughout the ups and downs of his career, Kenkoku’s most prominent Korean graduate was in good company.

The Manchurian Legacy

One of Kenkoku’s enduring ideological contributions was its inculcation of a state-led vision of industrialization and economic construction. Manchukuo itself practiced state economic planning from 1937 onward, intent on exporting the Japanese technocratic tradition across Asia. Kenkoku Vice-Chancellor Sakuta Sōichi, who possessed a doctorate in economics, was himself devoted to these ideals, as shown by his 1934 book entitled Japanese Statism and the Controlled Economy. His ideological tolerance was pivotal in the spread of otherwise seditious books among students. Manchukuo’s broader policy of agricultural collectivization was directly supported by the South Manchuria Railway Company Research Department, including by Japanese Marxist members working under the inspiration of agrarian thinker Tachibana Shiraki.

Kenkoku’s main economic planning course was taught by Okano Kanki, who wrote several books on Japanese-Manchurian economic integration, as well as on Manchukuo’s Five Year Plans and material mobilization for defense. The lectures were influential enough that Yu Jiaqi, a 1938 Kenkoku graduate and later professor at Jilin University, still favorably recalled the course in his memoirs. After 1945, Okano continued to write on topics such as reparations after the First World War—likely in expectation of similar demands being made on Japan—and the British Labour government’s industrial nationalization policy. His last work, a textbook on finance, came out in 1969. Associate professor Nemoto Ryūtarō likewise went on to postwar political office as Japan’s Minister for Agriculture and Forestry in 1951, Chief Cabinet Secretary in 1954, and Minister for Construction in both the late 1950s and early 1970s. Although stripped of its imperial radicalism, Japan’s postwar economy remained characterized by strong state intervention and multi-year planning until the mid-1980s.

However, Kenkoku’s statist economics did not remain a purely Japanese product. It went on to influence Korean state-builders in both north and south, as well as Chinese ideologues of national construction.

The Korean associate and Kenkoku lecturer Hwang Toyŏn, who taught statistics and bookkeeping, got his start in economics at Kyoto Imperial University, where his mentor was the Marxist economist Ninagawa Torazō. In Manchukuo, Hwang worked on behalf of the government, researching topics from soybean production to the silk industry, agricultural commodification, and business profitability under the Controlled Economy. 

After 1945, Hwang taught briefly in Seoul, until he resigned for political reasons and headed to North Korea. Under the auspices of the Democratic People’s Republic, he became a professor at Kim Il-sung University and became instrumental in establishing its planned economy. He was later appointed head of the Industrial Ministry Planning Office under Minister and General Kim Chaek. He was subsequently Chairman of the Central Statistics Bureau, a post he occupied until 1957. Even then, Hwang was still able to publish a work in Japanese introducing developments in and the transformation of the North Korean economy since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Nor was Hwang the only North Korean official with Japanese imperial ties: General Kim himself reported in his 1947 assessment of the new regime that 85% of its first cabinet had studied in Japanese, colonial Korean, or Manchurian tertiary institutions. Kim Tusam, its first Minister of Energy, began his own career in Manchukuo’s Hydro-Electric Power Construction Office.

While Korean alumni eked out comfortable positions in officialdom, it was a Chinese alumnus who maintained the most prominent expression of its ideological radicalism. Just as Kang became Prime Minister in South Korea, Jilin province—the former home of Kenkoku—found itself governed by yet another alumnus: the party chief Gao Di, whose studies at Kenkoku came to a premature end along with the war. Gao was unique among Kenkoku alumni in his unparalleled loyalty to the original Manchukuo ideals of state-led social renovation using non-liberal administrative means in shaping the economy. Based on Gao’s actions in office, he could well be considered the last of the reform bureaucrats, a Chinese counterpart to the officials who had modernized Japan decades before. 

Gao served first as Changchun City Party Secretary and Acting Mayor starting in 1981, before promotion to Jilin Provincial Party Secretary in the mid-1980s, operating out of the former Japanese Kwantung Army Headquarters in Changchun. Despite having been at the bottom of the Kenkoku social hierarchy due to his Chinese ethnicity, he went on to assist the later Changchun University project that explicitly invoked Kenkoku-era ideals of national construction. In 1985, Gao joined the 200-member Central Committee as one of a batch of younger members chosen to replenish the body’s elderly ranks. Gao was not only the top-performing Kenkoku student in the PRC, but also ensured the rise of Northeasterners such as Zhang Dejiang. Zhang had accompanied Gao on visits to North Korea in the 1980s and ultimately joined the Politburo Standing Committee in 2012.

After the rise in 1989 of Jiang Zemin—himself a former engineer in the Northeast, having led automobile manufacturing in Changchun—as General Secretary and successor to Deng Xiaoping, Gao was appointed head of People’s Daily. Chinese leaders had deemed the party newspaper to have previously gone too far in the neoliberal direction. The paper had even given a platform to anti-Communist intellectuals in the run-up to the Tiananmen Incident. 

But Gao did not abide by the party line, asking questions in his editorials about the nature of the Dengist reforms and allowing thinly-veiled attacks on Deng’s post-Incident speeches urging the continuation of the reforms. Gao questioned whether the housing shortages and high university fees as found in the capitalist West demonstrated any superiority of that model. Gao initially refused to publish Deng’s speeches on marketization, on the grounds that Deng had officially retired and was only an ordinary party member. He found himself removed from office in November 1992 after Deng’s victorious Southern Tour cemented pro-market reforms. 

By all accounts, Gao genuinely believed in socialism, the planned economy, and public ownership. He defended these beliefs despite his own persecution during the Cultural Revolution and the end of his political career. While other Kenkoku alumni in the PRC relied more on their Japanese connections and language skills to advance their post-reform careers, Gao uniquely defended core components of its ideology. His loyalty to the planned economy and his alliance with Jiang was a very Manchurian, “post-Manchukuo” phenomenon. It represented the rise of technocracy and its theorists in a technologically advanced and economically progressive region that saw itself and its model as superior—long before more well-known reactions against market reforms, such as the Chongqing model. Rather than trumpeting the superiority of the Chinese model, what Gao was defending in 1992 was the Manchurian model of economic technocracy, with its reliance on state leadership to build up technological advancement and economic progress.

In the careers of Gao, Kang, Jirgal, and their fellow alumni, we can trace a dual legacy by which Kenkoku University and the wider Manchukuo project continued to influence East Asia after the war. Kenkoku was the incubator of both pro- and anti-Japanese forms of pan-Asianism, the legacy of which was reinforced by Cold War-era geopolitical alliances. Its alumni went on to play important roles in the creation of the Cold War order in East Asia. But Kenkoku’s second legacy was its pursuit and embodiment of scientific administration and economic modernization as the necessary methods for building a new political order across Asia. From post-war Japan to modern China, material advancement and the building up of competent, modern states went on to reshape East Asia—often in only two generations. 

Kenkoku also demonstrates how the formation of new elite classes across East Asia often thwarted the national boundaries they themselves constructed and guarded. When Western colonialism swept across Asia, overthrew empires, and imposed modernity, the Asian continent found itself undergoing a common experience unlike any other. For the first time in history, intellectuals from India to Japan had grounds for a common cause. Pan-Asianists intended for their philosophy to be the awakening of the periphery against repression by core Western nations. New ideologies and institutions, even ones invoking strictly national liberation, inevitably found themselves operating in a continental political theater. Certain ideologies, like socialism and Japanese imperialism, explicitly sought to operate at the international level.

Yet Japan ultimately behaved as a newly-rising colonial power for which the rest of East Asia would remain a periphery. Pan-Asian ideology contradicted this aspect of Japanese development, despite their best efforts to employ it. In the end, it was the rise of both U.S. imperial power and of the socialist blocs loyal to Beijing and Moscow that displaced similar Japanese ambitions. The same logic plays out to this day: Despite the formal sovereignty of modern East Asian states, it is an international political order—undergirded by the military strength of the U.S.—which guarantees the position of states like Japan and South Korea.

But behind the scenes lay the realities of an ideologically complex past. Those victorious in building a new political order in Asia were not the ideologically pure, but the stern pragmatists who placed their various ideas at the service of building new regimes. In the end, Japan’s technocrats created a legacy that outlasted the imperial power that incubated their project. The Manchurian experience itself, once so isolated in Kenkoku and at the behest of imperial ambition, had the last laugh as it escaped the fate of its defeated Japanese masters and continued the project of pan-Asian technocratic development under new and shifting leadership. The Japanese imperial project to build a modernized Asian sphere of influence was successful in a way, despite the contradictions. Just not for Japan.

Ernest Ming-tak Leung is a PhD candidate at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on the history of economic planning in East Asia. He tweets @ernestleungmt.