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The Legitimation of Manchukuo

Still from the Film

The film Investigation of the Lord Lytton Mission into the Manchurian Incident purports to document the travels of the League of Nation’s Lytton Commission in Manchuria. Yet on many levels, the documentary takes this visit as an opportunity to present the newly-proclaimed state of Manchukuo to the world in a number of specific contexts. Interestingly, the issue of legitimacy is not treated as the still open question that it was to the Commission but as a claim that is asserted throughout the film.

This section provides an analysis of a number of different aspects and topics used by the producers to promote the idea of a new, sovereign and rightfully established state which, supported by the Japanese, seems to be on the way towards international acknowledgement. We will examine the question of responsibilities for the conflicts in the region and the symbolistic use of national flags in order to identify the ways in which new media supported the legitimation of ‘the new-born state of Manchukuo’.

Responsibilities: Soldier-Bandits

Still from the Film

The film documents an international inquiry whose aim was to collect information in order to bring political and military tensions down to the bargaining table. The film, in contrast, at once decided over responsibilities, taking advantage of the complex situation of power in Manchuria. Deliberately, the film plays with the idea that Manchuria is characterised by elements of a frontier region (Duara 2003: 48-49) in urgent need of stability and control after years of upheavals under warlord domination. Therefore, through the lenses of the S.M.R., the answer of who was responsible for the ‘attack’ on the railway was clear: ‘soldier-bandits’, sometimes called ‘bandit-soldiers’, were to be blamed for the damages of the S.M.R. railroad. What type of agent is the soldier-bandit, and what is meant by these terms in context of the following military conflicts? In order to answer these questions, two different levels of the problem can be distinguished: first, the use of the term for propaganda purposes, and second, the involvement of bandits in the military conflict.


The mysterious ‘soldier-bandit’ is represented in the film on different levels of argumentation. First of all, soldier-bandits are charged with the serious damages of the S.M.R. railroad. The reasoning about the different crimes in the film is quite simple and obviously constructed. Besides a general description of damages at several places along the Antung-Mukden Line, there are sequences which visualise the permanent threats posed by soldier-bandits.

Still from the Film

A bullet hole in a window as proof of evidence for the violence of soldier-bandits.

A Japanese police station after an attack. The only visible sign of a conflict is an entrance door which has been boarded up.

A Japanese shop plundered. A torn-off wall and smoke is displayed.

The freed prisoners of a Chinese jail. As evidence for this case, destroyed hand- and foot cuffs are presented. This seens to indicate where the bandits which were responsible for the Manchurian Incident came from – they were freed from prisons by other bandit gangs in order to bring about chaos in the region.

A Community of Fate

Still from the Film

A second level of argumentation is the representation of the S.M.R. and the Chinese/Manchurian local population. The S.M.R. is making great efforts to guarantee the safety of the railroad and the well-being of the locals. The company is depicted as a main peace-keeping power of Manchuria. Both the population and the S.M.R. are said to be permanently under threat of soldier-bandit attacks, the locals are even shown to participate voluntarily in the fight against bandits - the S.M.R. and the ‘good’ local population are presented as a community of fate.

Scences in the film related to this argumentation are marked with the keyword “community of fate”. Please follow the link and use the G key on your keyboard to navigate through the results within the video annotation database.

Travel Route in Danger

Still from the Film

The third line of argumentation centers on the role of the Lytton Commission. The film indicates that during their travels the commissioners are in danger of being attacked by the soldier-bandits. Naturally, however, the S.M.R. is trying to do its utmost to guarantee the security of the delegation. In addition, in the film the commission seems to have unrestricted opportunities to visit the places of military conflicts.

Scences in the film related to this argumentation are marked with the keyword “travel route in danger”. Please follow the link and use the G key on your keyboard to navigate through the results within the video annotation database.

Who are the Bandits?

The film’s argumentation relies on the irresponsible soldier-bandits, but never actually presents a soldier-bandit in person. The scene that shows the freeing of bandits from prisons (not actually presenting the involved persons, but showing broken handcuffs and damaged buildings) implies the agents to be a group of lawless, fugitive bandits. The famous Chinese General Ma (Ma Zhanshan, 馬占山 ) is presented as an example of such an agent.

Ma had been appointed as governor of the northern Manchurian province Heilongjiang and, in accordance with the central government in Nanjing, commissioned by the Manchurian warlord Zhang Xueliang to organise the combats against the Japanese invasion. According to the title screen, the Lytton Commission was not able to travel to Tsitsihar/Qiqihar (then the capital of Heilongjiang) due to dangerous soldier-bandits en route. In fact, the commission’s itinerary was changed because of General Ma’s troops being on the way to Tsitsihar. Thus, for an informed audience of the film there was an equalisation of Ma and the soldier-bandits, taking advantage of Ma’s reputation and his former occupation in Zhang’s army. Obviously it was felt necessary to contradict the heroic image which Ma had acquired in China as a figure of resistance against Japanese occupation.

The volume The Mukden Mandate by British journalist John Newton Penlington, former editor of the weekly English-language journal The Far East in Tokyo, provides more information about the idea of soldier-bandits (Penlington 1932; about Penlington see: The New York Times, March 30, 1933). Published in 1932 by a Japanese company, the volume reviews the Manchurian incident relying on Japanese press releases and information gathered directly from the S.M.R. Its photographs seem to be taken by the Japanese (Penlington 1932: 70, i, cover page). The chapter The Bandit Menace presents a detailed and chronological list of conflicts with different kinds of banditry - attacks on trains, skirmish with Japanese troops etc. The conflicts are divided into five categories of bandit agents who caused damages: volunteer corps, soldiers, bandits, soldiers and bandits fighting together, and bandit-soldiers. In general, all of these differentiated soldier-bandit actors are described as cruel because of their attacks against civilians, women and foreigners. It is striking that soldiers are sometimes presented as fugitive, disbanded, or wearing civilian clothes. Analogously, bandits are depicted as being incorporated into regular troops, disguised as soldiers, and cooperating with Chinese authorities in order to be made soldiers (Penlington 1932: 70-82). The border line between soldiers and bandits obviously appears much blurred. On the 28th September, 1931, at the meeting of the League of Nations’ Council about the incident, the bandit problem was introduced into the international debate. The Japanese delegate Kenkichi Yoshizawa identified ‘Chinese soldiers and brigands’ as the crucial threat to security in Manchuria (The Monthly Summary of the League of Nations, Vol. XI, 1931, No. 9: 248). The Japanese continued this line of argumentation in the following debates about the situation in Manchuria (Hell 1999: 67).

Manchuria, the Wild Country

The Japanese assignment of responsibilities for the Manchurian incident was based on the fact that wide-spread banditry in different forms was indeed a well-known major problem of Manchuria. For decades, banditry had been established in the region, and the apparent lack of political order must have been an inherent and characteristic feature of the Manchurian situation in the eyes of the global public (Hell 1999: 67). Western newspapers regularly confirmed the problem of banditry in Manchuria (for example: The Times, June 7, 1932: ‘Trains looted by bandits’; and September 15, 1932: ‘The Bandit Outrages in Manchuria’). The Japanese accusation of bandits being responsible for the incident and the incapacity of Chinese authorities to guarantee security seemed perfectly plausible for a global public. Numerous Japanese publications in foreign languages underlined this argumentation. For example, a pamphlet in English by the Dairen Chamber of Commerce from December 1931 listed all incidents by bandit-soldiers on the Japanese and the local population before the Manchurian Incident in the form of a diary. It even provided a map with the local bandit chiefs’ names and number of men (Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Dairen, What Chinese Fugitive Soldiers & Hunghudze are Capable of. Into what Awful Condition they threw South Manchuria. Long List of Shocking Outrages Charged against them, Dairen 1931). Here, the Chinese authorities’ and the warlords’ anti-Japanese campaigning are mentioned as reasons for the ‘present trouble’ - the Japanese army did not have alternative options because of its dual duty to humanity and to protect their country (Chinese Fugitive Soldiers: iv-v). The German commissioner Schnee adopts a similar interpretation in his account of his Manchurian travels. He describes the blurred borders between regular soldiers, bandits and volunteer corps, giving as reason the links of the leading governors in Manchuria to banditry - former bandits became soldiers with new career opportunities (Schnee 1933: 117). Manchuria was therefore presented as a region of corruption, non-transparent entanglements, violence and weak governmental control, and continuous banditry a self-evident part of the Chinese/Manchurian authorities. In the Chinese and Japanese languages, the word ‘soldier-bandit’ 馬賊 can be more precisely translated as mounted bandit. Originally, during the end of the Qing era, they were guard troups who also engaged in brigandish practices. Some of them made careers as warlords 軍閥 in Manchuria, like Zhang Zuolin, Zhang Xueliang and Ma Zhanshan, playing an important political role before and the establishment of Manchukuo. The English term was a merger of two different levels of argumentation: soldiers as the normal enemies of the military dispute and bandits as the stereotype actor with negative attributes. The bandit features were attributed to the soldier and moreover – due to the inability of clearly separating authorities, bandits and soldiers – a new category of an allegedly homogeneous, illegitimate agent was created. Photographs and films are used to visualise the cruelty of and the damages caused by bandit-soldiers, being in opposition to the Japanese, the Manchurian locals, the League’s commission and to foreigners in general.

Destroyed bridges at the Nenkiang River

Still from the Film

Several exceptionally detailed and long sections of the film deal with destroyed bridges at the Nenkiang River 嫩江. Why was this issue of destroying and rebuilding bridges important for the Japanese producers of the documentary? Three aspects seem particularly relevant to answer this question: Firstly, bridges were destroyed by Japan’s opponent General Ma, who was thus shown to damage Manchurian infrastructure. Secondly, various fights and clashes occurred over the issue of bridges. The film gives the impression that these conflicts were a continuation or consequence of activities of Ma and his “soldier-bandits” in Manchuria. And thirdly, the bridges were rebuilt by the Japanese, who thus appear as the constructive power putting things in order again. These three elements together serve to establish a sharp dichotomy of good and evil – the Japanese and Ma.

Scenes in the film related to this argumentation are marked with the keyword “destroyed bridges”. Please follow the link and use the G key on your keyboard to navigate through the results within the video annotation database.

Still from the Film

The incidents at the Nenkiang bridges occurred in October and November 1931. General Zhang Haipeng (Chang Hai-peng, 張海鵬 ), a Chinese rival of General Ma, was secretly supported by the Japanese in order to seize the provincial government of Heilongjiang 黑龙江. As the troops of Zhang Haipeng approached, Ma ordered the destruction of the bridges as an act of self-defense. The Japanese authorities realised that their economic interests were affected by the destruction of the railway bridges. In order to repair the bridges, they devised a new strategy of pressurising both General Zhang and General Ma to withdraw their troops. Ma denied this demand, thus causing several new clashes, which forced him to retreat northwards in the end while the Japanese occupied Tsitsihar (League of Nations (ed.): Appeal by the Chinese Government. Report of the Commission of Enquiry. Geneva, League of Nations: 1932, 72-75). The Japanese presented themselves as generous rebuilders of destroyed infrastructure, although the incident had been the cause of the clashes and destructions. To sum up, the theme of the destroyed bridges is an illuminative example for the constant strategy of turning the facts for propagandistic purposes.

Symbols: Manchukuo, the Sovereign State?

The flag of Manchukuo, symbol of the state newly proclaimed just a few weeks before the arrival of the Commission, is omnipresent in the film. By seeing this symbol frequently, the audience is supposed to get accustomed to the idea of the new state and accept its existence. The local population is depicted as being enthusiastic about the idea of Manchukuo. We see people waving flags of the new state, and flags are also visible in the native Chinese towns of Manchuria. This representation of an agreeing and participating population clearly constitutes an attempt todepict alleged internal legitimation.

Besides asserting domestic political acceptance the film brings forward a second line of argumentation: that of legitimacy on an international level. Strikingly, the flags of Manchukuo are presented quite naturally alongside the flags of Japan and the commissioners’ home countries. At the top of the entrance of an official building, for example, the flags of the Western nations, Japan and Manchukuo are affixed right next to each other. Ordinary people waving Western, Japanese and Manchukuo flags are shown throughout the film. This presentation of national flags in combination contains a powerful message. By presenting the newly-created state of Manchukuo in the same manner and alongside well-established nations, the filmmakers place it self-evidencingly on the level of equal and sovereign states. Thus, to all appearances, Manchukuo develops an internationally legitimate status. This is even more important when taking into account the actual status of Manchukuo, which at that time was not accredited by the international community of states. This presumed status of sovereignty and rightfulness is not at all compatible with the Commission’s investigation mission, which, of course, centred precisely on the question of Manchukuo’s legitimacy and the Japanese activities in the region.

Sequences in the film related to this argumentation are marked with the keyword “Flag of Manchukuo” within the video annotation database. Please follow the link and use the G key on your keyboard to navigate through the result.