Was WWII Japan Fascist?
By Walter Skya
What was the ideology that mobilized the Japanese masses to fight to the death—and inspired the elite to wage war in Asia and the Pacific? Writings on Japanese history have referred to it by a number of names such as “Japanism,” “State Shintō,” “ultranationalism,” “emperor-system fascism,” but most often just plain “militarism”—which of course tells one nothing about the ideology.
The question of Japanese ideology has generated debate among scholars since the end of the Second World War. One reason for the lack of clarity is the fact that there was no single individual or group of individuals who came to power on a specific date—such as Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party in 1922, or Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Worker’s Party in 1933. Further, one cannot point to a single piece of writing such as Mein Kampf that served as an authoritative text.
The central debate has revolved around the question: was Japan fascist or not? Some scholars argued that the Japanese case was so different from Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany that it could not be characterized as “fascist”. This view dominated the discussion for several decades. Scholars Daniel Okimoto and Peter Duus, for example, in “Fascism and the History of Pre-War Japan: The Failure of a Concept” (1979) argued that comparing prewar Japan to German Nazism and Italian Fascism was misguided.
Other scholars disagreed. Maruyama Masao, Japan’s leading postwar political scientist, argued that Japan’s prewar ideology was “fascism from above,” emphasizing that Japan’s ultranationalistic bureaucratic elites engineered Japan’s slide into World War II. Harvard’s Andrew Gordon found enough similarities among Italian Fascism, Nazism, and prewar Japan to conclude that “fascism” was a useful concept to describe the prewar Japanese ideological-political system.
In short, in the early decades after the postwar period, the majority of Japanese historians held the opinion that prewar Japan was different from European fascism, and that the parallel was a misleading one. Recently, the scales have shifted. In The Culture of Japanese Fascism (Tansman, 2009), Marilyn Ivy observes that the consensus that the term fascism was not applicable to Japan has been broken. In Japan in the Fascism Era (Reynolds, 2004), Joseph Sottile shifted the debate by looking at prewar Italy, Germany, and Japan within a broader framework of “Axis Powers” studies.
Curiously, there has been almost no analysis of the influence of prewar Japanese thinkers on Italian Fascists and German Nazis—despite the fact that arguably Japanese thinkers had a much more profound effect on both Italian Fascists and German Nazis than either had on Japan. A close examination of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf shows that Japan was very much on Hitler’s mind in the early 1920s. He referred to Japan numerous times and praised the Japanese for making right choices in history. In 1936, he recognized the Japanese as “honorary Aryans.”
Heinrich Himmler was another admirer of Japan and the Japanese. In 1937, he wrote the forward to the book Die Samurai: Ritter Des Reiches in Ehre und Treue (The Samurai: Knights of the Empire in Honor and Loyalty) by Heinz Corazza. Although Corazza was not a member of the SS, the book was written primarily for SS troops. The focus on Japanese samurai (or bushi) loyalty mirrored the ideology of Himmler’s SS. The SS are identified with the Japanese samurai—glorification of the Japanese! Accordingly, the moral authority and leadership of the samurai in Japanese society became simultaneously the expression of the role of the SS in German society.
Giovanni Gentile, the great Italian philosopher, dreamt that the immortal spirit of Rome would be reborn in Fascism. Gentile pointed to Japan as another model for his Fascist dream, stating that the Japanese spirit lived on in “immortal unification of the living and the dead.” Gentile was in awe of Japan.
In Japan in the Fascist Era, Klaus Antoni observes that German admiration for Japanese ideology can be seen in a report compiled by the SS from 1938 to 1945 (Meldungen aus dem Reich, Reports from the Reich). In one report (August 6, 1942), the SS authors seek to understand the reasons for Japan’s astonishing power—entering the war against the West in alliance with Germany despite fighting a war in China for many years.The report revealed a German inferiority complex—in face of the Japanese willingness to sacrifice the self. The Japanese appeared to be “Teutons squared.” There was even fear that the “Japanese power might one day turn against us.”
Considering the massive influence of Japan on German Nazism and Italian Fascism, one wonders why American scholars have been so keen to equate prewar Japan with European fascism. Why not think of Fascism and Nazism as local manifestations of Japan’s wartime ideology? So—what was the nature of the Japanese ideology that awed both the Italian Fascists and German Nazis, and that prompted Fujiwara Chikao to proclaim that Japan was the ideological leader of the Axis Alliance powers?