Japanese Colonial Tourism in Manchuria, Korea & Taiwan


A review of The Boundaries of the Interesting: Itineraries, Guidebooks, and Travel in Imperial Japan, by Kate L. McDonald.

In a beautifully written dissertation, Kate McDonald tells a story of Japanese colonial tourism in the aftermath of World War I. Interestingly, it turns out that it is a story less about defining colonized populations (as was the case with the British and French) and more about shaping perceptions of the colonized place. Taking for granted that colonial administrations used tourism for political purposes, McDonald focuses on how Japanese travelers and colonial residents used itineraries and sights to argue for a specific vision of Japan’s political, historical, and cultural boundaries. In so doing, she does not simply argue that place has politics, but shows how those politics varied in different parts of the empire and how this landscape changed over the first half of the twentieth century.

The dissertation starts with the establishment of the South Manchuria Railway Company (SMR) in 1907 and its efforts to solidify its claims over Manchuria. This struggle took place, in part, in the context of Japan’s campaign, championed by Gotô Shimpei, to create “a geography of transportation in which Japan occupied the center position” (p. 34). In practice, this meant negotiating for Japan to be included in the newly established “Around the Eastern Hemisphere” and “Around the World” tickets, both of which could have easily bypassed Japan via Vladivostok or Shanghai. The SMR and the Japan Tourist Bureau (JTB) achieved this by coordinating train and ferry schedules, negotiating prices, and implementing “through passage” – a ticketing system that allowed the use of a single ticket for travel on lines owned by different companies. As McDonald notes, the irony here is that a story about thousands of metropolitan tourists discovering the colonies started, in fact, with Japanese bureaucrats’ desires to bring foreign tourists to (or at least through) Japan.

Based on an analysis of tourist guidebooks, as well as travel magazines, diaries, and other accounts, Chapters 2 through 5 examine the changing representations of Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria in tourist literature. They show tourism to be an eminent arena for debates over inclusion, exclusion, racism, and the success or failure of the colonial project. Tourism also served as a mirror reflecting how that project changed, most notably in Korea (Chapters 3 and 4) and Taiwan (Chapter 5).

Chapter 2 deals with Manchuria, showing that emphasis in travel literature – before and after 1931– was fixed on Japanese efforts to industrialize and develop the territory. A fascinating map that accompanies this chapter makes it clear that what ought to be seen in Manchuria consisted mostly of wharves, factories, and mines. As such, tourism was to showcase the strength and promise of Japanese management in action. Chapters 3 and 4, in contrast, show that the framing of must-see sights in Korea changed along with the political climate on the peninsula. Chapter 3 reveals that in the 1910s, traveling in Korea was about seeing Japan in Korea or the modern civilization Japanese had brought in contrast to the uncivilized people who lived there. But as the political situation evolved in the 1920s, it became increasingly difficult to project a sense that Korea was on an inexorable march toward becoming Japan. Thus, in guidebooks and travel literature from the 1930s, the focus shifted to the exotic beauty and timeless customs of Koreans (Chapter 4). In the case of Taiwan, Japanese tourist literature at first divided the island into two places: the out-of-reach Savage Territory and the (real) Taiwan. There too, as the political situation changed, so did the tourist guidebooks. As the relationship between the colonial government and the “Savage Border” turned from oppositional to hierarchical, Japanese tourists were able to get a closer look at the “outside.” Consequently, guidebooks naturalized difference. Savages became Takasagozoku, or the tribal peoples of Taiwan, and “tamed” villages became prime tourist attractions.

The dissertation concludes with an epilogue that transcends World War II by briefly sketching the transformation of Japan from “the center of the Pacific” to a “peaceful Japan.” Now, the SMR is a vestige of the past, and the main role has been assumed by Japan Airlines (JAL), the country’s first postwar civil air carrier. McDonald reminds us that occupation authorities initially showed little interest in reviving Japan’s tourism industry, but eventually ended up championing it. Because they were caught between the need to cut Japanese industrial potential in half to diminish Japan’s military capacity and the need to boost the economy, the tourism industry offered a possible solution.

The principal originality of McDonald’s work lies in how it looks at Japanese colonial tourism as a whole. Certain aspects of her story have been subject to prior scrutiny, notably by Sonia Ryang and Gao Yuan, but previous studies have often offered compartmentalized narratives of Japanese tourism in Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria, as if they had a separate existence. After reading this dissertation, it becomes hard to make an argument for studying Japanese tourism in Manchuria (man) separately from that in Korea (sen). McDonald forcefully and elegantly shows that in the experience of Japanese travelers, the two hardly ever existed in isolation; they were coupled as a part of a single man-sen itinerary and connected symbolically and physically by the iconic bridge over the Yalu River. The iron bridge that now lies in ruins was not simply a technical feat, but also a reflection of the unity of the two territories despite their very different legal statuses and administrative structures. Such unity was a key element in building a “new Japan” as a unified, if diverse, geopolitical body.

McDonald’s dissertation is a carefully researched, in-depth study of Japanese colonial tourism which changes its readers mental map of the empire, in part, by making good use of cartographic tools that help the reader navigate not only the physical geography, but also its trilingual toponymy. McDonald is passionate about trains, but readers with an interest in the history of technology will appreciate how she does justice to the transportation culture as a whole, giving thoughtful play to the different norimono that tourists used along the way. Making a strong case for the necessity of looking at Japan’s colonial spaces together as a whole, this dissertation is poised to become an influential study in our field. In shifting the focus away from the politics of the representation of colonized peoples to the politics of the representation of colonized places, McDonald also contributes to the emerging field of tourism studies. This study puts Japan on the map of global colonial travel and engages with the emerging literature on the topic that is as global as the practice was at the time. Thus, McDonald succeeds in taking a much-needed step in bringing writing on the modern history of Japan into the larger intellectual debates of our day.

Aleksandra Majstorac-Kobiljski
D. Kim Postdoctoral Fellow
Needham Research Institute, Cambridge UK

Primary Sources

Japan Travel Bureau Library, Tokyo, Japan
National Archives and Records Administration. Records of the General Headquarters Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (GHQ SCAP). RG 331. National Diet Library, Tokyo, Japan
Tourist guidebooks from South Manchuria Railway Company, Chôsen Government Railways, Taiwan Government Railways, and Japanese Government Railways
Magazines such as Tabi; Chôsen oyobi Manshû; Heigen; and Taiwan gahô

Dissertation Information

University of California, San Diego. 2011. 255 pp. Primary Advisors: Tak Fujitani and Stefan Tanaka.


Image: “Newly built vessel Takasago Maru in service from Japan to Taiwan” (Boston Public Library, Prints Department)

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