China’s three northeastern provinces (Fengtian, Heilongjiang, and Jilin) were transfigured by Japanese imperialism in the opening decades of the 20th century. South Manchuria and the Kwantung Leasehold on the Liaodong Peninsula in particular became the site of a railway imperialism that would, beginning in 1905, allow Japan to claim a sphere of influence in the northeast and profit from the export of soybeans, coal, lumber, and other raw materials from the region. The South Manchuria Railway Company (or “Mantetsu”), which held the dual mantle of joint stock-owning company and governmental national-policy company, was the central organ in Japan’s so-called management of Manchuria. The expansion of Mantetsu’s rail network (originally built by Czarist Russia in the late 1890s) in the post–World War I years allowed for greater extraction of resources and greater wealth for company stockholders, while giving rise to an upswell of protest from a burgeoning nationalist movement in mainland China as well as in the northeast itself. Throughout the preconquest period (pre-September 1931), bureaucrats, Mantetsu employees, doctors, teachers, and economic sojourners of every stripe made a home for themselves in Japanese Manchuria, parts of which were transformed to replicate the modern conveniences and amenities of the metropole’s urban centers.
The Manchurian Incident, which began on September 18, 1931, with a plot by renegade officers from the Kwantung Army (a division of the Japanese Imperial Army) to destroy Mantetsu track and blame it on Chinese brigands, led to the military takeover of the three northeastern provinces by January 1932. The establishment of the army-led state of Manchukuo in March 1932 gave way to a new kind of Japanese power and influence on the continent—one that operated independently from Tokyo and at the pleasure of the Kwantung Army. Despite repeated proclamations of pan-Asian unity and the harmony of the five races by the state’s propaganda agents, Manchukuo existed for the purpose of strengthening Japan’s war machine, as well as for planning a total renovation of the domestic Japanese state in line with army objectives.