The Glamorous Train Line That Justified a Brutal Occupation - Gastro Obscura
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The Glamorous Train Line That Justified a Brutal Occupation

Even the lunch menu had a nationalistic agenda.

The railway was used as an excuse for war.
The railway was used as an excuse for war. born1945/Cropped/(CC BY 2.0)

If you wanted to ride the South Manchuria Railway in the late 1930s, you could board a train in the coastal city of Dalian for a trip into northeastern China. Perhaps you’d even ride the glamorous Asia Express, the fastest train in Asia, with its glass-enclosed observation deck and air-conditioned cars. And if you got hungry, you could head into the dining car for lunch.

But the menu could be strange. Instead of a delicate flower design or a scenic watercolor, the menu cover might be a rough sketch of a soldier pointing a rifle. The food, which included oyakodon, chicken curry, and cake, could have come from a simple Japanese cafe. But the menu was written in Chinese, Japanese, and English, and on certain days, the menu was limited and a message stated, “To-Day Being a ‘Koa-Hokobi,’ no Alcoholic Beverages will be Served in the Dining Car.”

A Japanese soldier points a rifle on the cover of this menu.
A Japanese soldier points a rifle on the cover of this menu. NYPL/Used with permission

Koa-Hokobi was a short-lived, ultra-nationalistic Japanese holiday. And the South Manchuria Railway Company was a Japanese-controlled enterprise in what was traditionally considered part of China. Ostensibly to protect it, the Japanese began a military occupation that resulted in countless deaths.

In the early 20th century, northeastern China, or “Manchuria,” was fought over by the Russians, Chinese, and Japanese. When the Japanese won the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, they commandeered the region’s Russian-built rail lines and formed the South Manchuria Railway Company. Controlling the railway meant controlling much of northeastern China, including its rich mineral and agricultural resources.

In the 1920s, the South Manchuria Railway Company advertised itself in English as “the most important link between the Far East and Europe.” Its rails connected the Soviet north, Chinese port cities, and Korea. When local Japanese forces decided to permanently wrest control of the territory from the Chinese in 1931, it was through the “Manchurian Incident,” a faked bombing of a South Manchuria Railway line. After blaming Chinese dissidents, Japanese forces invaded, using the South Manchuria Railway to transport troops.

Even though the world was at war, this menu was still printed in three languages.
Even though the world was at war, this menu was still printed in three languages. NYPL/Used with permission

The resulting occupation was brutal. Innumerable Chinese were killed or injured; forced labor and human medical experimentation were common. The region was also used as a staging ground for the Japanese invasion of China itself, which had a death toll of millions. All the while, the trains kept transporting freight and international passengers, as shown by this trilingual menu.

Even in faraway Manchuria, the Japanese “Koa-Hokobi,” or “Public Service Day for Asia” was celebrated. From 1939 to 1942, the Japanese government established it as a holiday for the first day of every month. On Koa-Hokobi, Japanese citizens were meant to volunteer for civic causes and give up amusements—all in honor of soldiers at the front. Even food was an important element of the holiday; people back in Japan ate simple lunches of rice with a single red plum to symbolize the Japanese flag. (Thus the limited train menu and no alcohol in the dining car.)

This message is also printed in Japanese and Chinese.
This message is also printed in Japanese and Chinese. NYPL/Used with permission

Koa-Hokobi was replaced with another day of observance in January 1942, celebrated on the 8th of every month until the end of the war. The date commemorated December 8, 1941, when Japan declared war on the U.S. and Britain. But this second holiday didn’t last very long either. Japan’s surrender in 1945 ended it, as well as the South Manchuria Railway Company. Invading Soviet forces took most of what was movable back over the border, in a reversal that was 40 years in the making.

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