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Written in the Stones: Japanese Architecture in China

From film studios to shrines, Osamu Funao spent three years photographing around 400 surviving structures of Japanese architecture from the occupation of China.



The building of former Manchukuo Film Association, or Man'ei, with a statue of Mao Zedong looming over it. (From "The Modern Architectural Heritage of Manchukuo: Osamu Funao's Photograph Collection" 2022, Shukousha)

This old reporter (now in his sixties) has been writing about Manchuria for years. However, even I was surprised to discover that so much architecture from the Japanese occupation has survived. Since the end of the occupation, China has repeatedly and persistently engaged in anti-Japan campaigns. 

Despite this, over seventy years later, many relics of former Manchukuo and the Kwantung Army still survive in modern-day China. Corporations, hotels, train stations, schools, and shrine gates designed and built by the Japanese in Manchuria (including the former Kwantung Leased Territory) are still standing.

This was documented by photographer Osamu Funao in The Modern Architectural Heritage of Manchukuo: Osamu Funao's Photograph Collection (2022, Shukousha). Beginning in 2016, Funao spent three years visiting and photographing approximately 400 architectural sites connected to the Japanese. 

Coincidentally, Funao and I were in the same academic year as students. Therefore, he and I were among the first generation of students to take the old preliminary standard entrance examination. We were both immersed in the "democratic education" of the postwar period.

"At first," says Funao, "I just thought it would be nice to see former Manchukuo." Like many of his postwar-born contemporaries, Funao did not have in-depth knowledge of Japan's involvement in Manchuria.

"The Modern Architectural Heritage of Manchukuo: Osamu Funao's Photograph Collection" (2022, Shukousha)

Conflicting Emotions

However, something convinced him to commit to visiting the former Japanese territory. While covering the Japanese who remained in the Philippines, Funao learned of the Japanese army's tragic circumstances during the War. More than 500,000 Japanese soldiers died in the Philippines. Many of them ended up trapped deep in the jungle, starving to death or dying of disease.

"It made me wonder," explains Funao, "why Japan continued to fight such a disastrous war. Winning the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars and establishing the vast Manchukuo State may have convinced Japan it would ultimately prevail. That's what I thought." 

When he reached Manchuria, Funao was stunned by how pronounced Japanese architectural influence was in the region. These buildings' functions had changed and were labeled weiman (偽満), meaning remnants of Japanese misdeeds in Chinese. Nevertheless, they weathered the decades of Chinese resentment and survived as architectural structures. It is as if they are a testimony, weaving the stories of those who once lived and breathed there.


"I was surprised to see so many of these buildings still intact," Funao says. "To be honest, as a Japanese, I felt proud," he adds. However, Funao had mixed feelings. "On the other hand, I couldn't help but wonder how Chinese people at the time viewed these buildings," he admits. "I am neither a historian nor an architect. That's why I thought it best to present the buildings in the photographs simply as they are."

Shrine Gates in a Kindergarten

Hsinking Shrine was built in the Taisho period as Changchun Shrine on land adjacent to the Manchuria Railway. This was extraterritorial land where Japanese interests extended and many Japanese lived. In 1932, with the founding of Manchukuo, the city was renamed Xinjing (or Hsinking) and became the capital of Manchukuo. Changchun Shrine was subsequently renamed Hsinking Shrine.

The torii gate of the former Hsinking Shrine. (From "The Modern Architectural Heritage of Manchukuo: Osamu Funao's Photograph Collection" 2022, Shukousha)

Kokuto Hsinking Annai (Capital Hsinking Guidebook), a contemporary tourist guidebook, states that three deities were enshrined here. These three deities were Amaterasu Omikami, Okuninushi no Mikoto, and Emperor Meiji. A short poetic passage on the shrine reads, "The coming of spring sees trees flourish with lush new growth. With the shrine's rich natural bounty, Japanese and Manchurians have much to worship."

Colonial Shrines

The Japanese erected many shrines in the overseas territories they ruled and settled in. For Japanese residents, these shrines were places of peace and respite. However, as the war and imperial policy progressed, the negative symbolism of these shrines increased. Some local residents revealed after the war that they found the forced visits to shrines painful. As Japan's defeat became apparent in the last days of the war, residents demolished many of them. 

Hsinking Shrine's gates live on, however. Today, they frame the back entrance of a kindergarten. Funao speculates that shrine gates "made convenient gateways for kindergartens." He photographed the Hsinking Shrine gates in May 2016. As the photo shows, the shrine gates support the arch of the kindergarten's gateway, forming a single structure. Destroying them would mean destroying the gateway. 

But the gates are not all that remains of Hsinking Shrine. Another photo Funao took in June 2017 shows what appears to be a building constructed from Hsinking's main shrine. This, too, was on the grounds of the kindergarten. As Funao explains, there was no way in, as "a high fence surrounded it."

The Hsinking Shrine in Manchukuo. (From the "Capital Sightseeing Bus Guide," 1938)

Former Movie Mecca

In Xinjing, there was a film company called Manchukuo Film Association, or Man'ei. It was established in 1937. In 1939, Masahiko Amakasu was appointed head of the company. He set about building the largest film studio in the East and reforming its production system. 

Chinese-born Li Hsiang-lan became the studio's big star. Following the War, she became active in entertainment and politics under her Japanese name, Yoshiko Otaka (Shirley Yamaguchi was her stage name in English films). Man'ei also attracted many filmmakers from Japan who were unable to shoot entertainment films under wartime restrictions.

Actor Kazuo Hasegawa and Yoshiko Otaka in "Byakuran no Uta" (Song of the White Orchid), 1939. (Public domain)

After the War, the Chinese Communist Party's army seized Man-ei's assets. Some of its staff remained in Manchuria to teach the new generation of Chinese filmmakers. Funao photographed the former filmmaking mecca in 2016. The building later served as the site of Changchun Film Studios before becoming a museum. A colossal statue of Mao Zedong now looms over it. Toyoko Eiga Company, the precursor to Toei Company, took in many of Man'ei's staff that returned to Japan after the war. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people in the film industry are aware of this history. 

About Osamu Funao

The photographer was born in Kobe in 1960. He graduated from the Faculty of Biology, University of Tsukuba. His well-known publications include Afurika — Hojo to Konton no Tairiku (Africa — Continent of Fertility and Chaos) and Firipin Zanryu Nihonjin (The Japanese Who Remained in the Philippines).


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Yoshihiro Kita, journalist and editorial board member, The Sankei Shimbun


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