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Wartime Engineers as Social Visionaries

Wartime Engineers as Social Visionaries

Aaron Moore, a Terasaki Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA and faculty member at Arizona State University, explains the vision of a modern empire behind Japanese engineering projects during the Sino-Japanese War.

By Lorena Olvera

Development projects never really incorporated the participation or the interest of local residents but subsumed them into these grand visions of comprehensive development through technology.

The idea of the engineer as "social engineer" took root in Japan in the early 20th century. Naoki Rintaro, who came to lead Manchuria’s hydroelectricity bureau, described his work as "a cultural activity of planning and implementation, construction and management involving more than specialized knowledge of the physical world." However, engineers held low social status in Japan and struggled in the poor economy of the 1920s. When the army moved into Manchuria in 1931, Japanese engineers saw a new opportunity to carry their visions of development through technology to colonies in Asia, explained Aaron Moore at a colloquium sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center on Feb. 23, 2009. Moore, an assistant professor at Arizona State University, is the first scholar to hold a one-year Terasaki postodoctoral fellowship at UCLA.

"Manchuria became a focal point for idealistic engineers who wanted to escape the low status, red tape, and sectionalism in Japan," said Moore. Hundreds of Japanese engineers went to the colonies to build infrastructure for industrialization, exploiting local resources and labor. The engineers believed their projects could transform Asia into an "optimal and efficient social system that mobilized and incorporated the various peoples into the Japanese empire."

During the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), Japanese engineers began to construct a series of multi-purpose dams inspired by completion of the Wilson Dam in Alabama in 1927 and the 1933 chartering of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which developed a hard-hit region of the U.S. South during the Great Depression.

Engineers pitched Suihô Dam to occupation officials in "Manchukuo," the Manchurian puppet state, and Korea as an effort at Manchurian–Korean unity that would develop the military and economy in both regions. The project represented their vision of "comprehensive technology" geared toward developing lands and rivers through technology and expertise in order to win the hearts of the colonized peoples. Suihô would be one of seven dams on the Yalu River intended to improve irrigation, control flooding, provide hydroelectric power for industry, improve transport and bring infrastructure to the undeveloped areas. Engineers even traveled to the United States to study the technology behind Boulder and Grand Coolie Dams. Now known as Sup'ung Dam, at the time, it was one of the largest hydroelectric dams in the world.

The Suihô Dam was portrayed as "the victory of Japanese technology and human effort over uncontrolled nature," although in reality its success was mixed. It began delivering electricity for industrial centers in August 1941, but when engineers failed to complete a promised diversion channel for lumber, the region's vibrant lumber trade collapsed and companies were forced to relocate inland. Engineers also studied water levels and flows before construction, but summer floods frequently damaged sections of the dam and partially flooded the electricity plant at one point.

World War II ended before engineers fully completed the dam and most of the generators were confiscated by the Soviet Union as reparations. Despite loss of the territory in Manchuria, some Japanese engineers stayed in China and later aided the People's Republic of China by improving the dam alongside Soviet engineers.

However, other key engineers returned to Japan. Yutaka Kubota, leader of the Suihô Dam project, founded Nippon Koei, a consulting firm that played a hand in many of Japan's overseas projects in the post-war era. He convinced the government to include some of these projects as wartime reparations, which formed the basis of what later became known as Official Development Assistance (ODA).

"Kubota's philosophy from early on was that Japanese technology and development was the first step in promoting lucrative trade and business contracts with Japanese firms," said Moore.

According to Moore, most post-war projects abroad aimed to create business for Japanese companies and, similar to the colonial period, "development projects never really incorporated the participation or the interest of local residents but subsumed them into these grand visions of comprehensive development through technology."

Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies