Japan 1931-1945: Militarism, Fascism, Japanism?

Japan 1931-1945: Militarism, Fascism, Japanism?

Japan 1931-1945: Militarism, Fascism, Japanism?

Japan 1931-1945: Militarism, Fascism, Japanism?


One of the difficulties in discussing the 1931-1945 period in Japan is that of nomenclature. Few people would disagree about referring to Italy between 1922 and 1944 as "Fascist" or to Germany between 1933 and 1945 as "Nazi." But when it comes to Japan there is no generally accepted word to denote the corresponding era. It has been termed, inter alia, ultra-nationalist, fascist, totalitarian, militarist and Japanist. Each of these descriptions has its drawbacks.

"Ultra-nationalism," though widely used in relation to pre-war Japan, does not lend itself to simple definition, and there is still no consensus about its real meaning. A distinguished political scientist from Japan has discussed the question of why in his country nationalism evokes epithets like "ultra" and "extreme":

The distinction that may first come to mind is the presence of expansionist, militarist tendencies. The trouble is that during the period when nation-states first came into existence all the countries that were under absolutist regimes blatantly carried out wars of external aggression; in other words, a tendency to military expansion was an inherent impulse in nationalism long before the so-called age of imperialism in the nineteenth century.

It is quite true that in Japan nationalism was guided by this impulse to a stronger degree and that it manifested it in a clearer way than in other countries. But this is merely a matter of quantity. Quite apart from any difference in degree, there is a qualitative difference in the inner motive power that spurred Japan to expansion abroad and to oppression at home; and it is only owing to this qualitative difference that Japanese nationalism acquired the "ultra" aspect.

Now, when we come to analyze this qualitative difference, we find that it involves concepts fundamental to political thought and psychology in Japan since the Meiji Restoration. Though ultra-nationalism appeared in some of its most blatant manifestations during the years with which we are concerned, it has been an underlying approach for almost the entire modern period.

"Fascism" has lost much of its semantic value since it came to be bandied about as a pejorative to describe unpopular people or ideas. The term is still meaningful when carefully used in concrete contexts like "the West European form of fascist government in the 1930's," but whether it can correctly be applied to Japan without some very careful qualifications is a moot point. Since one of the common approaches to understanding what happened in pre-war Japan is a comparison with Nazi Germany, and to a lesser extent with Fascist Italy, and since the word "fascism" is a great favourite with certain writers, we shall find it cropping up frequently in the selections that follow. A major question for the reader to decide will be whether Japan of the 1931-45 period does in fact fit into the general pattern of European fascism and, if not, where the essential difference lies. It should be noted that the language contains no word for "fascism" and that Japanese . . .

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