Bodies Colonized as Risky Resources: ID Systems in the Disputed Territory of Manchukuo


Midori Ogasawara

Mass surveillance systems today are highly individualistic, identifying the population as individuals, accumulating data on an individual basis across spheres, and tracking individual movements physically and virtually (Lyon & Bennett, 2008). In such an expansion of personal data, enabled by networked databases, biometrics is seen as the ultimate identifier of the individual, one which can never be detached from the body. The body is targeted as the final evidence of self and the original source of data.
Although this individualistic trend by surveillance systems visibly proliferated during the “war on terror” after 2001, the demand to govern individual bodies is rooted in basic modern institutions: the nation-state, capitalism, bureaucracy and colonialism (Weber,1946; Foucault,1977; Giddens,1981; Lyon,2007). Fingerprinting, one of the first biometrics, was invented during the colonization of India by the British Empire, to identify the local population (Cole 2001). In Northeast China, fingerprinting was implemented to identify the civil population and track individual movements in so-called Manchuria, under Japan’s occupation in the 1920s–1945. ID cards with fingerprints, issued by Japan, can be seen as the first biometric ID system in Northeast Asia.
In its own modern nation-building, Japan established national ID systems based on the patriarchal family registry called Koseki, and also deployed similar systems in its colonies Taiwan and Korea. The Koseki systems represented the unity of imperial Japan as a collective, and constructed a national identity in a hierarchal order of ethnicities and races. While the Koseki systems became the basis of modern administration, including conscription, they were static records and incapable of following individual movements (Sato, 1991). In contrast, the ID systems that Japan introduced in Manchuria were very individualistic. Japan issued two kinds of national ID cards, with attached fingerprints and photographs of the individuals: the first was to workers and migrants, and the second to residents in the strategic areas (Tanaka, 1987). These were checked by officers, employers and soldiers, to monitor the bearers’ comings and goings. So why did this forerunner of today’s surveillance scheme emerge in Manchuria, rather than in mainland Japan or its other colonies?
Since the 1920s, Japan had enlarged its military occupation in Northeast China, and it declared the state of Manchukuo in 1931, by installing the “Last Emperor” of the Qing Dynasty, Puyi. Clearly, this was a puppet regime that allowed Japan’s army to occupy and govern the disputed territory. Japan’s army pushed to expand its external borders, and Manchukuo had been in a state of covert war, fighting the armed resistance by China’s Nationalist, Communist, and local groups. The primary purpose of the ID card systems in Manchuria was to distinguish between “bandits” and “innocents”, and put down potential enemies. Around the border zones, the colonizing power had to classify almost the entire population as potential risks.
However, watching over risky people was only one side of the Manchurian ID card system. Japan wanted Manchukuo to support its imperial expansionism economically, and used it as a solution for the agrarian issues generated by capitalist development in Japan. For the creation of the Japan-Manchukuo bloc economy, more than a million Japanese agricultural emigrants, entrepreneurs and soldiers went across the ocean to their promised land (Young, 1998). At the same time, the local Chinese population and migrants were mobilized to work in coalmines and other heavy industries to maintain Japan’s ever-expanding territorial battles. It was risky to use the local population, but they provided necessary labour power for Manchurian development. The colonizing power, the state, corporations and other organizations, needed the flood of labourers for economic production. The Chinese were treated as untrusted but profitable resources, cheaper than Japanese workers, in the war economy. Their bodies were colonized as risky resources, not as able subjects, by the individualistic ID systems.
Therefore, the biometric ID card systems performed dual tasks: they sorted the population to monitor it and also to use it as a resource. In this sense, the ID card systems can be seen as a technique of bio-power that Foucault suggested, not only repressive, but also productive (1978). In fact, population sorting in Manchuria reached the point where sovereignty “fosters life or disallow it to die to the point of death”, as in Foucault’s description of bio-power (ibid: 138). A secret project of Japan’s army, Unit 731, systematically transferred and used individuals sorted as “bandits” or “communists” for bacterial experiments and human dissection. They were eventually killed, but were not allowed to die until they had produced the final results in the scientific research of war. These atrocities have rarely been recognized by the Japanese public, nor seen as outcomes of the ID systems. But, without systematic population sorting, such war crimes could not be institutionally organized.
The historian Louise Young called Manchukuo Japan’s Total Empire in her book title. The total in this context refers to “multicausal and multidimensional, all-encompassing and, by the end, all-consuming” imperial power (Young,1998, p. 14). The colonial war turned Manchuria from a battlefield into an economic force for the Great Empire of Japan, and wove an intricate web of connection between Manchukuo and Japan by tying its development to Japan’s domestic economic goals. Using biometric ID card systems for population sorting represented this complex totality, and mobilized people in conflict zones. Humans were reduced to bodies as sources of resistance and labour, and were consumed for profit and knowledge on a large scale. Manchukuo was unique among the colonies in its total mobilization for a sovereign power. In turn, ID techniques found a demand in conflicting situations, and were deployed in the expansion of other disputed territories, in order to exclude risky people while maintaining the dynamic flow of labour power. However, for the very same reason, Manchukuo was unstable and fragile. In the end, total surveillance was never accomplished, and the bold and cruel experiments of Manchukuo failed, along with the downfall of the Japanese Empire.
Today, one can see the advancement of such all-encompassing and all-consuming practices in the prevalent biometric ID systems. Humans are again reduced to bodies, not whole subjects, and monitored as sources of dissent or profit in the globalized capitalist world. In other words, we live with the digitally updated technology of nameless colonialism. Like the imperialism of the early 20th century, today’s sophisticated institutions of individual classification are programed to lose our ability to refuse undemocratic policies, while we face growing political and economical inequalities worldwide.
This paper examines the colonial roots of biometric ID systems, their focus on the body, and the totality of their practices, and discusses the implications of techniques that are today taken for granted in relation to global conflicts and neoliberal economy. Finally, it notes that, like today’s mass surveillance systems, building the total empire of Manchukuo was a collaborative project with many different agencies (Young, 1998; Yamamuro, 2004). Not only right-wing expansionists, but also left-wing social reformers, young bureaucrats, top scientists and engineers participated in the project with their own visions and hopes. This was partly why the novel technology of fingerprint ID card systems appeared in the marginal territories of Manchukuo. Although many participants worked to make Manchukuo a “heaven on earth” for “five ethnicities in equality” with benign intentions (Yamamuro,2004), the differences among people were eventually incorporated into the colonial management and absorbed into militarism. The attempts to serve democratization, race equality, or fair redistribution of wealth were demolished by the increasing outcry for Japan’s conquest of China. Biometric ID cards were implemented as a way to achieve “good governance”, but served only to exclude the Chinese from governance of their own land. This corresponds to the fact that most Japanese narratives on Manchuria are still full of nostalgia for the “good old days” and “pure intentions” by the Japanese. It is rarely found in those memories how the imperial governance was seen and experienced by the Chinese. There are no “others” in this vision, even to this day (Young,1998; Kobayashi, 2008). The Manchurian ID card systems demonstrate that one can dream different dreams for a technology, but the technology of “othering” can never contribute to democracy and peace.

Keywords: ID Systems, risk resources, surveillance, biometric, technology.

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