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“Reluctantly” acting out of necessity — The raison d'état of modern Japan

Makiyo Hori
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

The year 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. However, what remains of the issues that loom over Japan-Korea-China relations? The Japanese government could not settle issues surrounding “comfort women” despite its one billion yen payout, and China, with its V-J Day commemorations, retaliated against Japan for the wartime conduct of military personnel and civilians in mainland China. As long as the Chinese and Korean administrations regard consumer nationalism as a necessity, and the Japanese populace does not address the wounds they inflicted on modern East Asia, the 71st and 72nd anniversaries will be nothing more than dates on a calendar. We must pave the way for East Asian history to move forward. To that end, we must better understand the past. It is especially significant to understand the nature of wartime Japanese national politics.

What does “national politics” mean? National politics consists of initiatives and strategies based on consideration of the state’s interests; it is often referred to as raison d'état, or national interest. A nation is expected to bear the burden of protecting and developing itself. However, it is actually driven by politicians, the military, and statespersons who incorporate their own lust for power into the preservation and expansion of national interests. How national interest takes form depends on the country and time period. Prominent Japanese writer Yukio Mishima held an acute insight into this matter and called for the fusion of state politics and nationalism.

"Nationalism is the raw impulse of its people and stands back-to-back with an impulse towards death. I believe a top priority for today’s government is how to secure this impulse towards death. To put it simply, this is an issue that concerns the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty and Japan’s national defense." (The Way of the Samurai: Yukio Mishima on Hagakure in Modern Life, 1969)

If you look back at the history of national politics with nationalism in mind, you realize that Japan, in particular, has pursued national policy as "‘reluctantly’ taking action out of necessity" ever since the Mejia era (1868–1912).

Munemitsu Mutsu, the foreign minister who, with then Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito, took Japan into the Sino-Japanese War, stated the following in his book, Ken Ken Roku (1896):

“Although the Japanese Government has always played the patient one in diplomatic relations, it was the first to take military action once an incident occurred…”

Hideki Tojo

Kanji Ishiwara

Munemitsu Mutsu

This rationale of “reluctantly” taking action out of necessity applies to the Kwantung Army, which plotted the Manchurian Incident. According to a sworn affidavit at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, Kanji Ishihara, a Kwantung Army staff officer, conducted a preemptive strike on 200,000 enemy soldiers with 10,000 troops out of the necessity to protect the interests of 30 million Chinese people. (Materials on Kanji Ishihara (Enlarged edition): National Defense Part, 1994)

Policies employed by former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo also reflect this consistent characteristic of “reluctantly” taking action out of necessity. When the Pacific War erupted, he made an impassioned speech in the Imperial Diet.

“Now we have no choice but to stand up firmly and overcome the present crisis faced by the Empire, and fulfill our self-sufficiency and self-defense policy. When faced with an enemy's challenge that endangers the survival of the country and authority, we must spring to our feet…(the ambush by the Imperial Navy was successful). Since then, the Imperial Army has consistently launched preemptive strikes against the enemy under a regime of close cooperation with the Imperial Navy to launch surprise attacks everywhere (Malaya, the Philippines, Guam, Hong Kong, and other areas), steadily expanding the gains won through battle…” (The Speeches of Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, in the face of the Greater East Asia War, 1942)

Japanese national politics has developed in this fashion. Of course, rulers alone cannot complete the state’s actions. They receive help from intellectuals to mobilize the public towards promoted national interests. As Stalin stated, “No governing class has been able to survive without its retained Intelligentsia.” Intellectuals willingly throw themselves to the currents of the times.

The people went along with their rulers and became cogwheels for the state.

Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata asserted:

“There is no point in complaining and questioning after Japan’s defeat as to whether the war that destroyed the country could have been avoided…No one got tricked into going to war.” (Modern Japanese Literature Compendium Edition 70: Collection of Works by Rintaro Takeda, Sakunosuke Oda, Kensaku Shimaki, and Kazuo Dan, 1970, with comments from Kawabata)

Undoubtedly, some intellectual undercurrents refused attempts at continued deception. Others regretted being deceived. It can be said that their thoughts are inseparable from true patriotism. Teruo Yamaguchi (a 23-year-old graduate of Kokugakuin University), a second lieutenant in the navy, who died after a suicide attack, left the following will:

“For twenty-three years after being born, I have had my own thoughts, but they are no longer of use and I would not mention them. However, the statesmen who deceived the majority of good people are infuriating…A setback in history is not the fall of a race.” (Included in A Record of the Kamikaze Corps, 1984)

Bunji Unai, First Lieutenant (MP) (executed at the age of 48 in Manila) said the following:

“Looking at my country struggling to find a threshold and break new ground, I wish the Japanese people well. I have grown to dislike war. I wonder if there is any other way to heal the Japanese people and obtain happiness.” (Included in Wills of Military Policemen who Dedicated Their Lives for Their Country, 1982)

I applaud the above sentiments, but I also fear that Japan is turning back to the sort of national politics where the government and its people make a pretense of having to take action out of necessity. I say so out of my concern for Japan and the future of East Asian history. Finally, I wish to conclude this article with two powerful statements. The first is a wise saying from the British historian Lord Acton:

“History, to be above evasion or dispute, must stand on documents, not on opinions.” (J.E.E. Dalberg Acton, Lectures on Modern History, 1960)

Another is about the purpose of national politics by Hans Morgenthau, an American international political scientist:

“The national purpose has been derived from the superiority of race or the laws of history or economic necessity…In order to comprehend the reality of the national purpose it is not necessary to listen to the ideologues of nationalism. It is only necessary to consult the evidence of history as our minds reflect it. We know that a great nation worthy of our remembrance has contributed to the affairs of men more than the successful defense and promotion of its national interests.” (H.J. Morgenthau, The Purpose of American Politics, 1960)

Makiyo Hori
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

Makiyo Hori was born in 1946, and graduated from the School of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University. After serving as Seinan Gakuin University’s Head of the Department of Law, a visiting professor at Cambridge University, a University of Oxford Knowledge Exchange Research Fellow, and others, he was appointed professor at Waseda’s Faculty of Political Science and Economics.
His latest works include Modern Japanese Politics―Nationalism and Historical Perception (2015, Waseda University Press), Mitsugi Nishida and the Fascist Movement in Japan (2007, Iwanami Shoten), The Record of a Refugee―The Story of Chi Myong Kwan (2010, Waseda University Press [translated into Korean in 2011 and published by Sohwa Publisher, Seoul; and into Chinese in 2013 and published by World Knowledge Publishing House, Beijing), Ikuo Oyama and the History of Japanese Democracy―From the Science of the Nation to the Politics of Society (2011, Iwanami Shoten), Reading the Original Text: Theories of Japanese Democracy (2013, Iwanami Shoten), and a translation of Laski’s Where Do We Go from Here? An Essay in Interpretation (new edition, 2009, Waseda University Press).
Professor Hori was awarded the Ono Azusa Memorial Academic Award Medal (1974), the Sakurada Prize for Research on Politics (2009), and the Okuma Memorial Academic Prize (2009).