Booster literature in the early twentieth century beckoned Chinese, then Japanese, migrants to eastern Mongolia to transform this region into the “granary of Asia,” an idealistic depiction discussed in recent scholarship. This paper, however, reveals more anxious undercurrents belying the optimism toward settlement through a study of the Mongol banner once known as Yekhe-Minggan. Reports of heavy metal poisoning among Chinese homesteaders in this area and the precautions taken by Japanese authorities suggest a more nuanced understanding of the mechanics of state-sponsored migration, not only the gears that pushed people across borders but also the brakes that held them back. Military personnel responsible for the migration of Japanese worried that these newcomers would flee back to the archipelago in alarm without advance warning of environmental disease. The fear of heavy metal poisoning spurred research in comparing hygiene between Chinese and Japanese migrants, thus further hardening ethnic differences. The emergence of environmental disease, moreover, point to how successive waves of migrants—Oirats in the eighteenth, Chinese in the nineteenth, Japanese in the twentieth—repositioned this Mongol borderland in a changing global economy. The irony lay in the fact that what had made Chinese living in eastern Mongolia ‘civilized’ during the late Qing and Republican regimes—that is, the conversion of “wasteland” into farmland through settler colonialism—had uncivilized them in the eyes of the Japanese. The drawing of metals into crops through the soil, then consuming that harvest—ultimately resulted in the disfigured bodies that so fascinated colonial scientists and officials.
In 1935 reports surfaced of a mysterious illness stalking the population of Keshan, a county in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Scientists and officials descended upon the population to study this new disease, but left with inconclusive findings that linked the health of bodies to their environment. Due to medical advances by the PRC in the 1960s and 70s, we now know that Keshan Disease results from a fundamental deficiency in selenium from foodstuffs grown in the soil. Selenium, though produced in great quantities during volcanic eruptions in the area’s prehistoric past, evaporated into the air, and as a result, deprived the earth of a critical amount for bodies to function. Nevertheless, selenium deficiency still does not account for the disease’s sudden emergence in 1935. This presentation seeks to answer the question, what made Keshan Disease a distinctly twentieth-century phenomenon or did certain structures of colonial rule allow these Japanese to ‘discover’ a disorder obscured by a much longer history? It seems as if colonial science, in terms of its ability to make observations, conduct experiments, and disseminate its results through an empirical language only formalized the existence of this disease.
An environmental sketch of Keshan, the approach taken here, helps to explain this unexpected demographic crisis in the early twentieth century. Until the late nineteenth century, Keshan had served as pastureland for an exiled community of Oirat Mongols when the Qing state began opening up the northeast for official settlement by Chinese farmers. While these herders had eaten predominantly meat and dairy, the homesteaders grew their own vegetables and grains. Land tenure in Keshan put greater pressure per unit of soil to produce more food, and with a limited supply of selenium, the mineral intake of crops decreased over time. By the 1930s Keshan devoted over ninety percent of its output to soybeans, millet, and wheat as a consequence of Japanese endeavors to transform the region into the “granary of Asia.” The irony lay in the fact that what had made Chinese living on the frontier during the late Qing and Republican regimes—that is, the conversion of “wasteland” (Ch. huangdi) into farmland through settler colonialism—had uncivilized them in the eyes of the Japanese. The drawing of deficient nutrients into crops through the soil, then consuming that harvest ultimately resulted in the disfigured bodies that so fascinated colonial scientists.
Both contemporary witnesses and present-day historians point to the construction of railroads across Manchuria and Inner Mongolia as marking the end of an older order on the Eurasian steppe. The railroad may have disrupted a perceived balance between nomads and settlers along this “Inner Asian Frontier,” and in so doing, integrated the region into the global market economy, but it was the airplane that transformed spatial perception as a new technology of rule during the Japanese occupation. This talk examines how the experience of flight and, correspondingly, aerial perspective led to the formation of a new frontier space in Inner Asia. Taken within a larger context of British bombardment of Arabia and French surveys in Mali and Vietnam, this presentation reveals Japanese anxieties over the seeming vastness of space as the empire sought to expand control over the continent. In an era when national boundaries of airspace remained uncertain in Inner Asia, however, flying planes and building airports often resulted in contested sovereignty over the skies, and one that complicates the nature of informal rule and territoriality for the Japanese empire. If the view of the horizon from a train corresponds to the panorama, as Wolfgang Schivelbusch argues, then the view from an airplane—in eliminating that horizon—corresponds to the map. Such cartographic depictions of an aerial Inner Asia appear in the travelogues of Murata Shirō (?—1945) and Imanishi Kinji (1902-1992) among other intellectuals who experienced flight. Indeed the aerial perspective led to an unprecedented precision in measuring and mapping terrain, as conducted by the photography bureau of Manchukuo National Airways (Manshūkoku kōkū kabushiki kaisha) from the early 1930s. This technology delineated space in new calculative regimes beyond earlier methods of triangulation from the ground. While the resulting maps tended to circulate among military and corporate circles, the aerial perspective did not necessarily produce a privileged view for a select few. Architects and archaeologists, for example, co-opted aerial surveys for their own projects. This view from above, moreover, filtered into literature for mass consumption, from bird’s-eye photographs in tourist publications to technical glossaries in Mongolian-language newspapers, even as their audiences came under increased threat of aerial bombardment during the war.