Heterotopias within French and Japanese Imperialism

As Michael Foucault details, heterotopias are places of mixed experiences, representing the existence of different expectations and meanings for different groups.[1] While this is a model that can be applied to a variety of other spaces, it visibly manifests in imperial ambitions of both French Hanoi and Japanese Manchukuo. In both cases, leaders albeit with different motivations, pursued the construction of ‘modern’ cities in these areas ignoring the existing people and structures in place already. Despite efforts to adapt to different terrain with architectural changes, in the end, both efforts failed due to a variety of reasons.

The leaders overseeing Manchuria’s development into a Japanese territory saw it as an ideal blank page, one which would be a model for slow to change Japanese society and cities back home. Repression evident in events like mass resignations of staff at Kyoto University in 1933 saw Japanese social reformers looking to use imperial additions as a canvas to model the changes they imagined but could not implement at home.[2] The French saw Hanoi as another imperial location necessary to expand its empire. Influenced by the discourse around tropical architecture, sanitation, and contagion theory, Hanoi saw rapid urban expansion and the implementation of sanitation laws in the early twentieth century part of  France’s larger imperial agenda.[3]

The Japanese pursued a similar expansive agenda, with the development of industry, railways lines and technology evident in the prestigious symbolism the Asia Express came to represent.[4] They framed the development of Manchukuo as the creation of a new ideal Japanese city. Additionally, an elaborate tourism industry saw travel passes on increasingly expanding rail lines into far towns, touring to see Chinese ‘exotic’ markets and the newly created modern cities creating a dichotomy between a Chinese past and the Japanese future.[5] In a similar vein, the French developed Hanoi’s European quarter on the vision of a renovated Vietnamese city, improved by Western sanitation and urban planning.[6] French construction saw colonizers tackling issues of how to build houses suited to the foreign climate, similarly to how the Japanese borrowed Manchurian designs in their hamlet planning.[7] This reflected the different motives with the Japanese pursuing construction of a model Japanese city in Manchukuo to encourage reforms at home while the French sought to extend their imperial power in Hanoi to boost their world standing.

Additionally, both powers showed a disregard for existing structures. In Manchukuo, the distance between the Chinese and Japanese populations was attempted, although it failed as it did not practically consider labor needs.[8]  The French’s European quarter remained isolated and reserved for European immigrants despite the use of local labor in its construction. Thus, the complex sewage system within it served as a symbol of European victory over germs and their success in the area.[9] When rat hunts broke out in 1902, French powers used the local population as the rat-hunting workforce, a move capitalized on by the latter. Thus, French powers were duped by their dismissal of the local existing structures of people, climate and pests.

Both cases show imperial ambitions attempting to cultivate and create a utopian city model for colonizers to enjoy. While both ultimately fail in part because of their disregard for the existing structures in place, they also create concrete examples of Foucault’s heterotopias. Both reflect utopian dreams for imperial ambitions and the inaccessible nature of that dream.







[1] Michael Foucault, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias (PUBLISHER 1984), p. 4

[2] Louise Young, Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism, Twentieth-Century Japan (University of California Press 1999), p. 255

[3] Laura Victoir and Victor Zatsepine, Harbin to Hanoi: The Colonial Built Environment (Hong Kong 2014), p. 2

[4] Young, Japan’s Total Empire, p. 245

[5] Ibid., p. 274

[6] Michael G. Vann, ‘Of Rats, Rice, and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre, an Episode in French Colonial History’, in French Colonial History 4 (2003), p. 192

[7] David Turner, Crossed Histories Manchuria in the Age of Empire (University of Hawaii Press 2005), p. 57

[8] Ibid., p. 54

[9] Vann, ‘Of Rats, Rice, and Race’, pp. 193-94

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