Militarism-Socialism in Showa Japan

Statism in Shōwa Japan (国家主義 (Kokka shugi?)) was a political syncretism of Japanese right-wing political ideologies, developed over a period of time from the Meiji Restoration. It is also sometimes also referred to as Shōwa nationalism or Japanese fascism.

This statist movement dominated Japanese politics during the first part of the Shōwa period (reign of Hirohito). It was a mixture of ideas such as Japanese nationalism and militarism and "state capitalism", that were proposed by a number of contemporary political philosophers and thinkers in Japan.


Basis of Japanese nationalism

Japanese nationalism featured many differences from European fascism, yet in parts its development can be seen as comparable.[1]

The Yamato Empire had the concept of the state as led by a powerful singular leader (Emperor). In feudal times, the military caste, which included the bushi and the samurai, were organized as a single headquarters-like structure, the Shogunate, which represented the required civil and political power. In this period, the Shogunate constituted the basic social composition, power structures and the foundation of law. It can be divided into three stages: Kamakura Period (1185–1333), Muromachi Period (1338–1573), and Tokugawa Period (1603–1867).

After the Meiji Restoration and the birth of the Empire of Japan, the result seems similar to what has been described above, yet it developed under different circumstances.

The ultranationalism movement in Japan can trace its origins to the disaffected samurai class, who lost their social status and privileges in the Meiji Restoration. Disgruntled samurai rose in a number of unsuccessful rebellions (including the Saga Rebellion, Satsuma Rebellion, etc.) against the new order. When violent protest proved ineffective, many turned to political movements, both in terms of political parties and in militant secret societies. Politically, under the aegis of the Freedom and People's Rights Movement, the rightists campaigned for a Constitution, which would allow them to get elected into positions of power. Within the secret societies, such as the Genyosha and the Black Dragon Society, they formed paramilitary organizations which assisted the Imperial Japanese Army in the First Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, while politically striving towards greater Japanese expansionism under the aegis of Pan-Asianism, which would give the military more of a role in Japanese politics and society.

Japanese militarism

Main article: Japanese militarism

The military had a strong influence on Japanese society from the Meiji Restoration. Almost all leaders in Japanese society during the Meiji period (whether in the military, politics, or business) were ex-samurai or descendants of samurai, and shared a common set of values and outlooks. The early Meiji government viewed Japan as threatened by Western imperialism, and one of the prime motivations for the Fukoku Kyohei policy was to strengthen Japan's economic and industrial foundations, so that a strong military could be built to defend Japan against outside powers.

The rise of universal military conscription, introduced by Prime Minister Yamagata Aritomo in 1873, along with the proclamation of the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors in 1882 enabled the military to indoctrinate thousands of men from various social backgrounds with military-patriotic values and the concept the unquestioning loyalty to the Emperor was the basis of the Japanese state (kokutai).

With a more aggressive foreign policy, and victory over China in the First Sino-Japanese War and over Imperial Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, Japan joined the imperialist powers. The need for a strong military to secure Japan's new overseas empire was strengthened by a sense that only through a strong military would Japan earn the respect of Western nations, and thus revision of the unequal treaties.

The Japanese military viewed itself as "politically clean" in terms of corruption and criticized political parties under liberal democracy as self-serving and a threat to national security by their failure to provide adequate military spending or to address pressing social and economic issues. The complicity of the politicians with the zaibatsu corporate monopolies also came under criticism. The military tended to favor dirigisme and other forms of direct state control over industry, rather than free market capitalism, as well as greater state-sponsored social welfare to reduce the attraction of socialism and communism in Japan.

The special relation of militarists and the central civil government with the Imperial Family supported the important position of the Emperor as Head of State with political powers, and the relationship with the nationalist right-wing movements. However, Japanese political thought had relatively little contact with European political thinking until the 20th century.

Under this ascendancy of the military, the country developed a very hierarchical, aristocratic economic system with significant state involvement. During the Meiji Restoration, there had been a surge in the creation of monopolies. This was in part due to state intervention, as the monopolies served to allow Japan to become a world economic power. The state itself owned some of the monopolies, and others were owned by the zaibatsu. The monopolies managed the central core of the economy, with other aspects being controlled by the government ministry appropriate to the activity, including the National Central Bank and the Imperial family. This economic arrangement was in many ways similar to the corporatist models of European fascists.

During the same period, certain thinkers with ideals similar to those from Shogunate times developed the early basis of Japanese expansionism and Pan-Asianist theories. Such thought later was developed by experts, such as Saneshige Komaki:[2] the Hakko Ichiu, Yen Block, and Amau doctrines.

State religion

Main article: State Shinto

State Shinto was an important part of the militarist ideology. Based on emperor worship, it gave religious justification to totalitarianism and promoted nationalism.

According to this cult, the emperor of Japan was an arahitogami, an incarnate divinity and the offspring of goddess Amaterasu. As the emperor was, according to the constitution, "head of the empire" and "supreme commander of the Army and the Navy", every Japanese citizen had to obey his will and show absolute loyalty.

State Shintō placed emphasis on the idea that the "center of the Phenomenal World is the Tenno [Emperor]". In the Shōwa era, religious and political doctrines joined to dictate that subjects should spread the hakko ichiu (the eight corners under one roof) and thus extend the great divine spirit around the world. All proclamations of the emperor took on religious significance. Prince Kanin, Heisuke Yanagawa, Kuniaki Koiso and Hiranuma Kiichirō developed a deep link between state and religion, in relation to nationalism.

Developments in the Shōwa era

International Policy

The Treaty of Versailles, which did not recognize the Empire of Japan territorial claims and the international naval treaties between the Empire of Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and the United States, (Washington Naval Treaty and London Naval Treaty), imposing limitations on naval shipbuilding and limiting the size of the Imperial Japanese Navy, with a 10:10:6 ratio, were considered by many in Japan as refusal of by the Occidental powers to consider Japan as an equal partner. The later one brought the May 15 Incident.

On the basis national security, these events released a surge of Japanese nationalism and resulted in the end of collaboration diplomacy which supported peaceful economic expansion. The implementation of a military dictatorship and territorial expansionism were considered the best ways to protect the Yamato-damashii.

Works of Ikki Kita

Ikki Kita was an early 20th-century political theorist, who advocated a hybrid of state socialism with "Asian nationalism", which thus blended the early ultranationalist movement with Japanese militarism. His political philosophy was outlined in his thesis National Polity and Pure Socialism (国体論及び純正社会主義, Kokutai ron oyobi junsei shakai shugi?) of 1908 and An Outline Plan for the Reorganization of Japan (日本改造法案大綱 Nihon Kaizo Hoan Taiko?) of 1928. Kita proposed a military coup d'état to replace the existing political structure of Japan with a military dictatorship. The new military leadership would rescind the Meiji Constitution, ban political parties, replace the Diet of Japan with an assembly free of corruption, and would nationalize major industries. Kita also envisioned strict limits to private ownership of property, and land reform to improve the lot of tenant farmers. Thus strengthened internally, Japan could then embark on a crusade to free all of Asia from Western imperialism.

Although his works were banned by the government almost immediately after publication, circulation was widespread, and his thesis proved popular not only with the younger officer class excited at the prospects of military rule and Japanese expansionism, but with the populist movement for its appeal to the agrarian classes and to the left wing of the socialist movement.

Works of Shūmei Ōkawa

Shūmei Ōkawa was a right-wing political philosopher, active in numerous Japanese nationalist societies in the 1920s. In 1926, he published Japan and the Way of the Japanese (日本及び日本人の道 Nihon oyobi Nihonjin no michi?), among other works, which helped popularize the concept of the inevitability of a clash of civilizations between Japan and the west. Politically, his theories built on the works of Ikki Kita, but further emphasized that Japan needed to return to its traditional kokutai traditions in order to survive the increasing social tensions created by industrialization and foreign cultural influences.

Works of Nakano Seigo

Nakano Seigo sought to bring about a rebirth of Japan through a blend of the samurai ethic, Neo-Confucianism, and populist nationalism modeled on European fascism. He saw Saigō Takamori as epitomizing the 'true spirit' of the Meiji ishin, and the task of modern Japan to recapture it.

Works of Sadao Araki

Sadao Araki was a noted political philosopher in the Imperial Japanese Army during the 1920s, who had a wide following within the junior officer corps. Although implicated in the February 26 Incident, he went on to serve in numerous influential government posts, and was a cabinet minister under Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe.

The Japanese Army, already trained along Prussian lines since the early Meiji period, often mentioned the affinity between yamato-damashii and the "Prussian Military Spirit" in pushing for a military alliance with Italy and Germany along with the need to combat Soviet communism. Araki's writing are imbued with nostalgia towards the traditions of the samurai Bushido code, and the military administrative system of former Shogunate, in a similar manner to which the Fascist Party of Italy looked back to the ancient ideals of the Roman Empire or the Nazi Party in Germany recalled an idealized version of First Reich and the Teutonic Order.

Araki modified the interpretation of the bushido warrior code to seishin kyoiku (spiritual training), which he introduced to the military as Army Minister, and to the general public as Education Minister, and in general brought the concepts of the Showa Restoration movement into mainstream Japanese politics.

Some of the distinctive features of this policy were exported. The puppet states (Manchukuo, Mengjiang, or the Wang Jingwei Government) were later organized on comparable militarist-socialist doctrinal lines. (In the case of Wang Jingwei's state, he himself had some German influences—prior to the Japanese invasion of China, meeting with German leaders and picking up some fascist ideas already during his Kuomingtang administration rule. These, he combined with Japanese militarist thinking. ) Japanese agents also supported local and nationalist elements in Southeast asia and White Russian residents in Manchukuo before war broke out.

Shōwa Restoration Movement

Kita Ikki and Okawa Shumei joined forces in 1919 to organize the short-lived Survivor's Society (猶存社 Yuzonsha?), a political study group intended to become an umbrella organization for the various right-socialist movements. Although the group soon collapsed due to irreconcilable ideological differences between Kita and Okawa, it served its purpose in that it managed to join the right-wing anti-socialist, Pan-Asian militarist societies with centrist and left-wing supporters of state socialism.

In the 1920s and 1930s, these supporters of Japanese statism used the slogan Showa Restoration (昭和維新 Shōwa isshin?), which implied that a new resolution was needed to replace the existing political order dominated by corrupt politicians and capitalists, with one which (in their eyes), would fulfill the original goals of the Meiji Restoration of direct Imperial rule via military proxies.

However, the Shōwa Restoration had different meanings for different groups. For the radicals of the Sakurakai, it meant violent overthrow of the government to create a national syndicalist state with more equitable distribution of wealth and the removal of corrupt politicians and zaibatsu leaders. For the young officers it meant a return to some form of "military-shogunate in which the emperor would re-assume direct political power with dictatorial attributes, as well as divine symbolism, without the intervention of the Diet or liberal democracy, but who would effectively be a figurehead with day-to-day decisions left to the military leadership.

Another point of view was supported by Prince Chichibu, a brother of Emperor Shōwa, who repeatedly counseled him to implement a direct imperial rule, even if that meant suspending the constitution.[3]

In principle, some theorists proposed Shōwa Restoration, the plan of giving direct dictatorial powers to the Emperor (due to his divine attributes) for leading the future overseas actions in mainland Asia. This was the purpose behind the February 26 Incident and other similar uprisings in Japan. Later, however, these previously mentioned thinkers decided to organize their own political clique based on previous radical, militaristic movements in the 1930s; this was the origin of the Kodoha party and their political desire to take direct control of all the political power in the country from the moderate and democratic political voices.

Following the formation of this "political clique", there was a new current of thought among militarists, industrialists and landowners that emphasized a desire to return to the ancient Shogunate system, but in the form of a modern military dictatorship with new structures. It was organized with the Japanese Navy and Japanese Army acting as Clans under command of a supreme military native dictator (the Shogun) controlling the country. In this government, the Emperor was covertly reduced in his functions and used as a figurehead for political or religious use under the control of the militarists.

The failure of various attempted coups, including the League of Blood Incident, Imperial Colors Incident and the February 26 Incident discredited supporters of the Showa Restoration movement, but the concepts of Japanese statism migrated to mainstream Japanese politics, where it joined with some elements of European fascism.

Influences of European Fascism

During the 1920s and 1930s, Japan received the visits by members of European fascist parties, and there were small German and Italian communities in Tokyo, Karafuto and other parts in Japanese empire. Karl Haushofer stayed certain times in Japan and was a key developer of the "Lebensraum" concept of Geopolitik. His proposals for a future Germany that was a Eurasian superpower called for an alliance with Japan, which would further augment German strategic control of Eurasia, with the naval power of Japan protecting Germany's insular position. The Japanese theorists concerned with mainland Asia also knew of the geopolitical theory of Halford Mackinder, as expressed in the book Democratic Ideas and Reality. He discussed why the "World Island" (the Eurasian-African landmass) was dominant, and why the key to this was the "Central Land" in Asia.

The influence of German ideology in terms of Lebensraum can be seen in the works of Shūmei Ōkawa, Kingoro Hashimoto and Ishiwara Kanji. Some ideologists, such as Kingoro Hashimoto, borrowed concepts of social justice mixed in with militarism, in proposing a single party dictatorship, based on egalitarian populism, patterned after the European fascist movements. An Investigation of Global Policy with the Yamato Race as Nucleus shows the influence clearly.[4]

All these political theorists also added European fascist elements to conform their movement to one similar to European style dictatorships, where there exists one leader very similar to the Führer or Il Duce. This centralizes all political and military power to a single leader conducting the nation against enemy countries and conducting the "inner ideological revolution" against reactionaries and decadents. It also attacks the old structures of the upper classes to allow the lower classes, which represent the majority of the militarists and their followers (farmers, fishers, industrial workers, etc.), to ascend the social ladder and receive social justice, satisfy the public's needs, and raise a military to maintain control of the nation.

These geopolitical ideals developed into the Amau Doctrine (an Asian Monroe Doctrine), stating that Japan assumed total responsibility for peace in Asia, and can be seen later when Prime Minister Kōki Hirota proclaimed justified Japanese expansion into northern China as the creation of "a special zone, anti-communist, pro-Japanese and pro-Manchukuo" that was a "fundamental part" of Japanese national existence.

Although the reformist right wing, kakushin uyoku, was interested in the concept, the idealist right wing, or kannen uyoku, rejected fascism as they rejected all things of western origin.

Because of the mistrust of unions in such unity, the Japanese went to replace them with "councils" in every factory, containing both management and worker representatives to contain conflict.[5] Like the Nazi councils they were copying, this was part of a program to create a classless national unity.[6]


The Kokuhonsha was founded in 1924 by conservative Minister of Justice and President of the House of Peers, Kiichirō Hiranuma.[7] It called on Japanese patriots to reject the various foreign political "-isms" (such as socialism, communism, Marxism, anarchism, etc.) in favor of a rather vaguely defined "Japanese national spirit" (kokutai). The name "kokuhon" was selected as an antithesis to the word "minpon", from minpon shugi, the commonly-used translation for the word "democracy", and the society was openly supportive of totalitarian ideology.[8]

Divine Right and Way of the Warrior

One particular concept exploited was a decree ascribed to the mythical first emperor of Japan, Emperor Jimmu, in 660 BCE: the policy of hakko ichiu (八紘一宇, all eight corners of the world under one roof).[9] While Emperor Jimmu's policy would really only have applied to Japan itself, it was used by the imperialists who supported official State Shinto to guide Japan in its dealings with Far east Asia and the entire world, which should be brought under the imperial rule of the divine emperors as manifest destiny.

This also related to the concept of kokutai or national polity, meaning the uniqueness of the Japanese people in having a leader with spiritual origins.[10] The pamphlet Kokutai no Hongi taught that students should put the nation before the self, and that they were part of the state and not separate from it.[11] Shinmin no Michi injoined all Japanese to follow the central precepts of loyalty and filial piety, which would throw aside selfishness and allow them to complete their "holy task."[12]

The bases of the modern form of kokutai and hakko ichiu were to develop after 1868 and would take the following form:

  1. Japan is the center of the world, with its ruler, the Tenno (Emperor), a divine being, who derives his divinity from ancestral descent from the great Amaterasu-Omikami, the Goddess of the Sun herself.
  2. The Kami (Japan's gods and goddesses) have Japan under their special protection. Thus, the people and soil of Dai Nippon and all its institutions are superior to all others.
  3. All of these attributes are fundamental to the Kodoshugisha (Imperial Way) and give Japan a divine mission to bring all nations under one roof, so that all humanity can share the advantage of being ruled by the Tenno.

The concept of the divine Emperors was another belief that was to fit the later goals. It was an integral part of the Japanese religious structure that the Tenno was divine, descended directly from the line of Ama-Terasu (or Amaterasu, the Sun Kami or Goddess).

The final idea that was modified in modern times was the concept of Bushido. Bushido was the warrior code and laws of feudal Japan, that while having cultural surface differences, was at its heart not that different from the code of chivalry or any other similar system in other cultures. In later years, the code of Bushido found a resurgence in belief following the Meiji Restoration. At first, this allowed Japan to field what was considered one of the most professional and humane militaries in the world, one respected by friend and foe alike. Eventually, however, this belief would become a combination of propaganda and fanaticism that would lead to the Second Sino-Japanese War of the 1930s and World War II.

It was the third concept, especially, that would chart Japan's course towards several wars that would culminate with World War II.

New Order Movement

Main article: Taisei Yokusankai

During 1940, Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe proclaimed the Shintaisen (New National Structure), making Japan into a "National Defense State". Under the National Mobilization Law, the government was given absolute power over the nation's assets. All political parties were ordered to dissolve into the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, forming a single-party state based on totalitarian values. Such measures as the National Service Draft Ordinance and the National Spiritual Mobilization Movement were intended to mobilize Japanese society for a total war against the West.

Associated with government efforts to create a statist society included creation of the Tonarigumi (residents' committees), and emphasis on the Kokutai no Hongi ("Japan's Fundamentals of National Policy"), presenting a view of Japan's history, and its mission to unite the East and West under the Hakko ichiu theory in schools as official texts. The official academic text was another book, Shinmin no Michi (The Subject's Way), the "moral national Bible", presented an effective catechism on nation, religion, cultural, social, and ideological topics.

End of military statism

Japanese statism was discredited and destroyed by the utter failure of Japan's military in World War II. After the surrender of Japan, Japan was put under allied occupation. Some of its former military leaders were tried for war crimes before the Tokyo tribunal, the government educational system was revised, and the tenets of liberal democracy written into the post-war Constitution of Japan as one of its key themes.

In August 1945, State Shintō was abolished. On 1 January 1946, Emperor Shōwa issued an imperial rescript, sometimes referred as the Ningen-sengen, in which he quoted the Five Charter Oath of his grandfather, Emperor Meiji and announced he was not an akitsumikami.

See also


  • , Nik Howard, 2004.
  • Bix, Herbert. (1982) "Rethinking Emperor-System Fascism" Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. v. 14, pp. 20–32.
  • Dore, Ronald, and Tsutomu Ōuchi. (1971) "Rural Origins of Japanese Fascism. " in Dilemmas of Growth in Prewar Japan, ed. James Morley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 181–210. ISBN 0-691-03074-X
  • Duus, Peter and Daniel I. Okimoto. (1979) "Fascism and the History of Prewar Japan: the Failure of a Concept, " Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, pp. 65–76.
  • Fletcher, William Miles. (1982) The Search for a New Order: Intellectuals and Fascism in Prewar Japan. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-1514-4
  • Maruyama, Masao. (1963) "The Ideology and Dynamics of Japanese Fascism" in Thought and Behavior in Modern Japanese Politics, ed. Ivan Morris. Oxford. pp. 25–83.
  • McGormack, Gavan. (1982) "Nineteen-Thirties Japan: Fascism?" Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars v. 14 pp. 2–19.
  • Morris, Ivan. ed. (1963) Japan 1931-1945: Militarism, Fascism, Japanism? Boston: Heath.
  • Tanin, O. and E. Yohan. (1973) Militarism and Fascism in Japan. Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-8371-5478-2


External links

  • About Japanese Nationalist groups, Kempeitai, Kwantung Army, Group 371 and other relationed topics
  • Info about Japanese secret societies
  • Article on Alan Tansman's forthcoming book, The Aesthetics of Japanese Fascism.
  • Discussions in Perspective, Discussion Paper by Xiaofei Tu in the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies, 27 July 2006.
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