Visualizing North China Under Japanese Occupation: Digitized Photos of the North China Railway Archive

Digitizing the Visual Legacies of the North China Transportation Company

The North China Railway Archive (華北交通アーカイブ) is an online database of digitized stock photographs illustrating life under Japanese occupation in interwar North China. It contains more than 39,000 photographs taken in various parts of North China between 1939 and 1945 commissioned by the North China Transportation Company (J. Kahoku Kōtsū Kabushiki Gaisha 華北交通株式会社) for promotional purposes. Most of these photos showcase scenery along the North China Railway, which was subsidiary to the South Manchuria Railway and an important transportation infrastructure for the collaborationist Provisional Government of the Republic of China (1937-40), the Mongol Border Land/Mengjiang United Autonomous Government (1939-1945), and the Wang Jingwei Regime (1940-1945) under Japanese occupation.

Map of the North China Transportation Company (Wikipedia).

According to the archive’s description, the photo collection was discovered serendipitously in 2008 by the staff at Kyoto University during a move. In 2010, Dr. Kishi Toshihiko (貴志俊彦), Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, took notice of the significance of these images and began investigating them with Dr. Ishikawa Yoshihiro (石川禎浩), Professor of the Institute for Research in Humanities at Kyoto University. In 2013, a committee for the construction of the North China Railway Archive was created. Dr. Kitamoto Asanobu (北本朝展, National Institute of Informatics in Japan and the ROIS-DS Center for Open Data in the Humanities [CODH]) and Dr. Nishimura Yoko (西村陽子, Toyo University) joined as creators of the archive and database. The database has been online since February 2019 after an in-person exhibition of the archive was held at Kyoto University.

Most of the stock photos of the NCRA were taken as promotional materials for the North China Transportation Company and for Japanese-language periodicals such as Hokushi (北支, North China). The archive’s description points out that images deemed for public use were inspected and could only be published with the Japanese military’s approval. Since the archive contains many unpublished, and therefore possibly uninspected stock photos, it is a valuable source that would offer rare glimpses into the everyday life in North China in the 1930s and 1940s.

Cover of the Hokushi (北支) magazine; June 1939 issue. This site has a comprehensive online collection of these magazines.

In addition to the stock photos of the North China Transportation Company collection, the NCRA also contains promotional photographs of the South Manchuria Railway North China Bureau (J. Mantetsu Hokushi Jimukyoku 滿鐵北支事務局, 1937-1938), photos taken by Kuwabara Jitsuzō (桑原騭藏) during his trip to China (1907-1909), and photos taken by Kaizuka Shigeki (貝塚茂樹) in 1936. These collections have been tagged as such in the database.

Interwar North China on Film: Life Under Japanese Occupation

The North China Railway Archive contain tens of thousands of stock photographs of interwar North China that are not found elsewhere in the world. These valuable images reveal transportation infrastructures, industrial and commercial activities, railway towns, and various aspects of life under Japanese occupation. Since the North China Transportation Company also facilitated waterways and bus routes, many of these images also show the scenery of ports and roads.

A bus of the North China Transportation Company stationed in front of the Shanhai Pass.

These images are highly useful for studying various aspects of North China in the early twentieth century, especially since these photographs have preserved historical landscapes and architectures that are no longer extant. There are also thousands of photographs of women and children, as well as individuals from various parts of society. The collection also contains a considerable number of images on Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and even Russian Orthodox Christianity, which reveal intimate views into the religious lives of the people living in North China in the 1930s and 40s.

Children in the Tianqiao district of Beijing.

Young Chinese women studying in a Japanese school in Zichuan, Shandong.

Hui Muslims in a mosque in Kalgan (Zhangjiakou).

The archive would be an indispensable source for studying Japanese settler colonialism in Northeast Asia. In addition to images that meticulously record Japanese transportation infrastructures and industries in North China, there are a considerable number of images that record the Japanese military presence in the region. There are also photos that bring to light Japanese colonial education programs spread across North China, ranging from elementary schools to police academies. Hundreds of pictures show how Japanese settlers lived in various parts of China; how they shopped, how they traveled, and how they established Shinto shrines. Quite a few photos portray moments of interaction between Japanese settlers and their Chinese and Mongolian counterparts, which can give us valuable insights into the everyday orchestrations of the Empire.

A Japanese woman shopping at the Dongdan market in Beijing.

Inner Mongolia Captured on Japanese Cameras

Between 1939 and 1945, the North China Transportation Company operated a railway line (J. Keihō sen 京包線, the “Beijing-Baotou Line”) that ran between Beijing and Inner Mongolia, traversing through Kalgan (Zhangjiakou), Datong, Ulanqab, Hohhot, and Baotou. The line had 72 stations and 33 of these stations have been tagged in the archive with associated photographs. Baotou is currently tagged with 191 photographs, Hohhot with 89 photographs, and Kalgan with 213 photographs. This is only a small portion of the entire database that covers Inner Mongolia-related images; it does not include photos tagged with smaller stations in between these larger ones and images that are still unidentified and untagged.

Interactive digital map of the North China Railway Archive. The blue line is the Jing-Bao line, connecting Beijing with Baotou.

There are a number of images featuring Prince Demchugdongrub (德王, De Wang), the leader of the Mengjiang United Autonomous Government in Inner Mongolia, and life under the regime. There are quite a few images that reveal uncommon visuals of industries in the region, such as carpet-making and cashmere factories, as well as plantations for poppy cultivation. Hundreds if not thousands of images highlight the diverse cultural and religious life in Mengjiang: majestic Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhist monasteries, Chinese-styled urban architectures, Muslim mosques, Catholic churches, as well as Western-styled modern buildings and offices. Many other photos narrate life on the Inner Mongolian steppes: men wrestling at festivals, women posing for the camera dressed in elaborate deel (Mongolian traditional clothing), Buddhist monks traveling on foot between monasteries, and musicians playing the morin khuur (horsehead fiddle) for celebrations. Researchers interested in Inner Mongolia would definitely find in this archive a lot of useful visual materials for various kinds of studies.

Buddhist stupas and monks near the Xar Moron River (Xilamulun River).

Bökh, or Mongolian wrestling.

Mongol women in the Sonid Right Banner in Inner Mongolia.

Auto-colorization and Auto-tagging with A.I. Technology

The North China Railway Archive has enlisted the help of artificial intelligence technologies to auto-colorize the black-and-white photos of the collection and auto-tag their contents. Using deep learning A.I., the archive has colorized all of the photos in its collection. Viewers can switch between the original photographs (J. Orijinaru shashin オリジナル写真) and their auto-colorized versions (J. Jidō karāka shashin 自動カラー化写真) when viewing images on the online database. Although the results of the auto-colorization can vary, the option allows many photographs to “come alive” for the viewer.

A photograph of a Buddhist lama at the Yonghe Temple in Beijing in original black-and-white mode (オリジナル写真).

The same photograph when switched to the auto-colorized mode (自動カラー化写真).

Another A.I. technology used by the archive is its auto-tagging function. Through deep learning, the database is able to recognize features of the photographs and auto-tag them accordingly. Again, the results could vary and in most cases the accuracy remains an issue. However, the auto-tagging function offers a useful tool to look for images that might slip through the cracks with traditional keyword searches.

The auto-tagging function of the North China Railway Archive.

Image Search Methods and Image Viewing via IIF Curation Platform

There are three different methods to search for images in the North China Railway Archive:

One: By typing keywords into the search box in Japanese, such as “蒙古” (Mongolia). At the moment, the archive is only taking keywords typed in Japanese. This method will only give partial results, since many images in the database related to Mongolia do not have labels containing that keyword (e.g. labels using local place names instead). On top of that, although most images in the collection come with original labels, there are still many images that were unlabeled from the start. This leads to our second search method.

The North China Railway Archive currently accepts keyword searches typed in Japanese only.

The results page for the keyword search on “蒙古” (Mongolia).

Two: By searching through the auto-tags in English. There are 996 tags that the deep learning A.I. was able to recognize in these 39,000 images. All of the tags are organized in English on the “A.I. Technology” page (AI技術) in the main menu. The accuracy of these auto-tags can be an issue. For example, 4,772 images were tagged under “monastery,” while many of these images might not feature monasteries but similarly structured architectures such as residential buildings. However, like the Archive’s description explains, the auto-tagging function can be useful for researchers to look for images with similar compositions.

Tags that the deep learning A.I. generated from the digitized photographs.

While the auto-tagging function may not always be accurate, it offers a good tool to look for images that were not originally labeled.

Three: By clicking on individual railway stations on the interactive map, which can be found on the “North China Transportation” page (華北交通) in the main menu. All of the railway lines and stations of the North China Transportation Company have been mapped on Google Maps. The filled dots represent railway stations that have linked associated photographs. The blank dots represent stations that do not. By clicking on the dots, one can see how many photographs have been tagged to a particular station and view them either through the Archive or through the IIF Curation Platform, which is an image viewer that also provides curation functions. The images can then be viewed either as a black-and-white original or through auto-colorization.

The full interactive map of the North China Railway Archive.

Filled dots represent railway stations that have associated photographs linked to them. Unfilled dots represent railway stations that do not. Click on the tag to view the photos.

The page for individual railway stations. This page features the Hohhot station in Inner Mongolia. Click on “写真一覧” to see photographs associated with this railway station and region.

Photographs in the database that have been tagged to Hohhot Station.

Viewing images in the database through the IIF Curation Platform.

The North China Railway Archive is a highly welcomed addition to the growing number of open-access online databases that digitize historical photographs on North China. It will definitely become an essential visual resource for anyone interested in modern East Asia.

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