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In Session: New Approaches to Infrastructures in Japan’s Empire in the Twentieth Century
2: Red Brick Know-how: The Production of Technical Expertise in Colonial Manchuria (1905-1945)
Monday, March 22, 2021
10:00am – 11:30am EDT
Harvard University, United States
In this paper, I focus on the role of nature in the construction of Japanese urban infrastructure in colonial Manchuria. Specifically, I take red brick as the focus of analysis. Red brick was the key building material in Japanese residences and government architecture in Manchuria and made up 61.5 percent of all the buildings constructed by the South Manchuria Railway Company (Mantetsu). This paper explores how Japanese technical experts produced and built with red brick in the unfamiliar environment of Manchuria.
The climate of Manchuria was an “intrusive force” (Sutter, 2007) that reconfigured the relation between Japanese technical experts and Chinese physical workers. On the one hand, lacking experience in building in a dry, windy, and clement environment, Japanese technical experts found that their training in the metropole was insufficient. The challenge posed by building in an unfamiliar environment forced Mantetsu engineers to observe and learn from Chinese skilled and physical workers and factory owners in order to produce solid brick and build with them to create suitable dwellings for Japanese settlers. Similarly, Japanese engineers and geologists also interviewed local residents to learn how to bake with local materials.
Building on previous scholarship on the relationship between infrastructure and the natural environment, I tell a complex story of how nature worked with and within human actors to challenge the hierarchy of metropolitan training over vernacular skills. In doing so, I show that infrastructure in Japan’s colonies was a product of technical expertise on the ground of colonial interactions.