Building Legitimacy From Manchuria to Nanjing: The Red Swastika Society’s Collaboration with Japan During the Second Sino-Japanese War and Transitional Justice

After it was forcibly opened to the rest of the world by Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1853, as the well-known story goes, Japan began its rapid path towards modernization and expansion, eventually leading to its invasion of the resource rich region of Manchuria in 1931, much to the consternation of the League of Nations and to the extreme detriment of the Chinese people as they endured the horrors of the brutal fourteen-year occupation.[1] In so doing, the Imperial Japanese government had a monumental task on their hands in terms of being able to resolve the “Manchurian crisis” that arose in the face of the “revolutionary diplomacy” that emerged out of China’s increasingly radical nationalism and what they viewed as Prime Minister radical elements like Ishiwara Kanji and Seishirō Itagaki saw as Prime Minister Sidehara’s inability to address the situation in an effective manner. In order to resolve this threat to their interests and defense, separating Manchuria from the rest of Mainland China was seen as a must in order to use the resource rich region for Japan’s own ends both internationally and domestically in order to combat the threat of other foreign powers, most specifically the USSR, as Tobe Ryoichi argues in the 2011 Japan-China Joint History Research Report.[2] After this contentious invasion, it was necessary for the Japanese invaders to bolster their legitimacy in the territory that they had claimed, leading them to turn to a variety of different methods in order to achieve this goal, with Redemptive Societies and print publications being a prominent ways in which they sought to achieve this goal in tandem with a variety of other sectarian groups and secret societies, as well as groups whose concerns were more purely local.[3] By examining this in closer detail, historians can attain a fuller understanding of the methods that the Japanese utilized in order to further bring Manchuria and other parts of China under the heel of its Empire, an aspect that has been under-studied, and reckon with this still contentious part of history that remains an ever present specter in Sino-Japanese relations today.

The first point that must be addressed with regards to the previously mentioned methods of control exercised by the Japanese Empire in Manchuria is why Redemptive Societies like the Red Swastika Society provided a convenient avenue for Japan to take in establishing its control over the region. As Duara pointedly shows in Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asia Modern, these societies were at once both incredibly pervasive in Chinese society and highly persecuted by the Nationalist government. According to surveys conducted by the puppet government of Manchukuo, one society, the Fellowship of Goodness, commanded a following of 30 million in 1929, while the Red Swastika Society had a following of 7 to 10 million in 1937. While this has been debated by some scholars, such as Chan, who claims that the Red Swastika Society had a following of only 30,000 in 1932. He does concede, however, that the Fellowship of Goodness had over 1,000 branches in China proper and Manchuria at the time.[4] Secondly, along with many adherents, they also had a variety of mechanisms through which to spread their message, from print publications to philanthropic endeavors, they possessed the necessary infrastructure through which to spread their message over vast swaths of land, and their presentation of their ideas as a modern East Asian solution to the problems facing the world in the early part of the 20th century, which, to a small extent, aligned them with Japan’s vision of itself in the modern world; however, its universalist ideology soon placed it within Japanese sights as a potential collaborator as its elite members, rich people such as scholars merchants, and politicians, joined its ranks, shunning the “third worldism” that they saw as dominating Chinese society and filling the Red Swastika Society’s coffers.[5] They also suffered from a cycle of attacks and repression by the Chinese state, whether it was the Qing Dynasty or the KMT that was in power, making them more favorable towards receiving foreign support, and the Red Swastika Society’s 1924 trip to Tokyo to provide aid placed them in contact with the ideologically aligned Ōmotokyō religious society.[6] It was for these reason that it was aligned with Japan’s “civilizing” mission in Manchuria and in other parts of China.[7]

This ideology, of course, spread outside of Manchuria and collaboration occurred in other parts of China as well, with the most salient impact that the Red Swastika Society being its role in the Nanjing Massacre, illustrated in Jiang Sun’s 2014 article entitled “The Unbearable Heaviness of Memory” in which she tells the story of Tao Baojin, the president of the Nanjing chapter of the Red Swastika Society. [8] While Tao Baojin was president of the Nanjing Self-Rule Committee, and eight years after the Nanjing Massacre took place, he would be charged with “fraternizing with the enemy and conspiring against his own country”, caught up in the GMD’s search for and trials of traitors.[9] The experiences of members of the Red Swastika Society illustrate the problems faced both by collaborators at the time and for the historians analyzing these events:   Cooperate or resist? Save others or oneself? Cooperate to save others; resist to save oneself?[10] And, importantly, where should they sit in our collective memory? What should their commemoration in the different “terrains” of memory that Gluck describes look like, with the most important in this context being public debates about memory given the far-reaching diplomatic consequences of this period?[11] These are all questions that historians, politicians, and the general public are still trying to answer as this debate shifts over time. There will, perhaps, never be one, as figures like Tao Baojin operate in a grey area of history, perfectly illustrating the conflicts in the homogenization of collective memory and memory essentialism, ending in individual memories’ being suppressed by the collective.[12] In dealing with issues of collaboration and wartime atrocities, necessarily also entailing that issues of transitional justice be brought into the fray, it is of the utmost importance that individual stories be told and heard as part of this healing process as those responsible for these injustices and those responsible for facilitating them, are brought to account, although the mechanisms for doing so, both in the present and in the past, are deeply flawed, with many escaping justice and leaving behind only the “poison” of memory as the wounds of the 20th century remain open in the 21st.[13]

[1] Prasenjit Duara. 2003. Sovereignty and Authenticity : Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern. State and Society in East Asia Series. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.; Ferrell, Robert H. “The Mukden Incident: September 18-19, 1931.” The Journal of Modern History 27, no. 1 (1955): 66–72.; Federal Research Division, Judgment of the International Military Tribunal of the Far East Part B § (2014).

[2] Ryoichi, Tobe, Japan-China Joint History Resrarch Report § (2011).

[3] Duara, Ibid.

[4] Duara. Ibid.

[5] Duara, Ibid.; SUN, Jiang. “The Predicament of a Redemptive Religion: The Red Swastika Society under the Rule of Manchukuo.” Journal of Modern Chinese History 7, no. 1 (April 28, 2013): 108–26.

[6] Duara, Ibid.

[7] DuBois, Thomas David. “Piety in Print.” Chapter. In Empire and the Meaning of Religion in Northeast Asia: Manchuria 1900–1945, 85–107. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. doi:10.1017/9781316711026.005.

[8] Sun, Jiang. “The Unbearable Heaviness of Memory: Nanjing to Tao Baojin and His Descendents.” Chinese Studies in History, December 5, 2014, 53–70.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11]Kushner, Barak. Men to Devils, Devils to Men: Japanese War Crimes and Chinese Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2015.

[12] “What Is Transitional Justice?: ICTJ.” International Center for Transitional Justice, September 22, 2021.

[13] Sun, 2014, Ibid.; McGregor, Richard. Asia's Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2018.