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Japanese-style fascism in the 1920s



presentation at the workshop "Axis Empires: Toward a Global History of Fascist Imperialism" (23-24 November, 2015, LMU)
Tatiana Linkhoeva, PhD
Debates on “Japanese-style fascism” in the 1920s
In 1923, the socialist Takabatake Motoyuki and the conservative academic Uesugi
Shinkichi created the Statecraft Study Association (Keirin gakumei), which was
seen by many at that time, including the Ministry of Justice, as the first fascist
group in Japan. This paper looks at how the establishment of the Association
sparked debates as early as 1923 on the rise of “Japanese-style fascism” (wasei
fashizumu), based on Takabatake’s national socialist group. Japanese
commentators, Left and Right, did not fail to notice the propensity toward
totalitarian politics in European and Japanese fascism, as well as in Russian
communism. Taking its cue from their observations, this paper argues that this
particular, highly influential for subsequent ultranationalist movements strand of
the Japanese radical Right had been honed by Marxist theory and instructed by the
new Bolsheviks’ dictatorial policies.
In January 1923, the socialist Takabatake Motoyuki (18861928) and the
conservative academic Uesugi Shinkichi (18781929) created the Keirin gakumei, or
the Statecraft Study Association. Besides the Genyōsha (Dark Ocean Society) and the
Kokuryūkai (Amur River Society), the Keirin gakumei is considered the main
progenitor of all important ultranationalist organizations. The group’s main tenets
were total ethnic mobilization and militarization, struggle against capitalism and the
contemporary political system, and opposition to communism and the Soviet Union in
The creation of the Association greatly alarmed Japanese intellectuals,
activists, and even bureaucrats from the Ministry of Justice, who detected in this
alliance the beginning of the new radical right, and saw the Association as the first
fascist organization in Japan in the manner of Mussolini’s Fascist Party.
In 1922 Japanese communists were already attempting to analyze Japanese
right-wing organizations, such as Dai Nippon kokusui kai (Great Japan National
Essence Society) and Yamato minrōkai (Yamato National Workers Society) as
As prescribed by the Comintern, they saw these organizations as middle-
class reaction, sponsored by the oppressive government, big business, and the
police, against the rising labor and communist movements in Japan. However, the
Keirin gakumei stunned observers because it was a cooperation between the
renowned socialist and equally renowned conservative, whose theoretical baggage
and political ambitions elevated the radical right to a new dimension. In March
1923, the leftist magazine Kaizō ran a special issue, “Critique of the New Patriotic
Organizations” (“Shinkō aikoku dantai hihan), which was a direct public reaction
to the creation of the Keirin. Statements from Uesugi and Takabatake were also
included in the issue. The contributors realized the deadly potential of this
alliance, which represented a qualitatively new type of organization, aimed toward
mobilizing the whole of the Japanese masses. They made parallels between Italian
fascism and the Keirin, which had the ambition and potential to become the first
In 1923, Sakai Toshihiko and Arahata Kanson published in the Profintern organ a piece “Fascism in
Japan” (July 1923) in English. Takahiro Fuke, “Sen kyūhyaku nijū nen shoki Nihon ni okeru Itaria
fashizumu kan no kōsatsu,” (Kyoto University, 2007).
Japanese fascist party, while Takabatake obviously for some dreamt of becoming
the Japanese Mussolini. However, most of the commentators also wondered
whether a fascist party in Japan would succeed. The Criminal Investigation
Bureau of the Japanese Ministry of Justice (Shihōshō Keijikyoku) stated in a
secret report in 1923 that the Association was seen by many Japanese as a “fascist
group,” or as a Japanese version of Mussolini’s Blackshirts.
The same report
considered the society along with the pan-Asianist zonsha (Society of Those
Who Yet Remain) as one of the “two great wellsprings of recent radical national
revolutionary movements in our country.”
Few historians in English have mentioned the organization as they saw it as
an unnatural alliance doomed from the start.
However, I think that the Keirin
gakumei is the key to understanding some peculiar features of the Japanese radical
right and of Japanese fascism. It physically brought together socialists and
nationalists, and made possible future alliances between them. It created a
theoretical precedent, and validated nationalism within the socialist movement,
and socialism within ultranationalist thought. From the start, the Japanese radical
right was very close to the socialist group, as both agreed on the plans of anti-
capitalist, populist social revolution, which would aim nevertheless at
strengthening the function of the state as the great social leveler. The Japanese
new radical right, as I show in the case of the proto-fascist Keirin gakumei, was
originally inspired by socialist thought, and kept this inspiration by the constant
influx of former socialists and anarchists into their ranks. This is why the radical
right always denied being fascist, because they understood fascism as a reaction
against socialism and as a supporter of big industrial capital. Throughout the
1920s, very few right-leaning commentators could break away from this
Comintern definition of fascism. Rejection of the term “fascist” does not mean,
however, that they were immune to it. As the following analysis exposes, the
political ambitions of the Keirin gakumei leaders were similar to those of
European fascism.
Both leaders came from very different backgrounds and although the Keirin
gakumei dissolved in a couple of years, they used this first organizational
experience to work on their other projects. Uesugi Shinkichi was professor of
Law at Tokyo Imperial University while also lecturing at the army and naval
academies. He was most famous for his attack on Minobe Tsukichi’s emperor-as-
organ theory, and as an instigator of the Moritō Incident. Uesugi went on to create
the Seven Lives Society (Shichishō) in 1925 to combat liberal-democratic thought.
Some of its members became members of the Ketsumeidan (League of Blood)
terrorist association, which murdered Inoue Junnosuke, former minister of finance,
in February 1932, and Dan Takuma, director of the Mitsui holding company, in
March 1932. Uesugi also became the president the Kenkokukai (National
Foundation Association), created in 1926 by Akao Bin (anarchist turned militant
radical Shinto ultranationalist), former socialist Tsukui Tatsuo, and Atsumi
Masaru. The Kenkokukai was responsible, among other things, for a bomb attack
on the Soviet embassy in Tokyo in 1928.
Takabatake Motoyuki came from the socialist group and was once close
friend of the legends of Japanese socialism, such as Kōtoku Shūsui, Yamakawa
Ida Terutoshi, Uesugi Shinkichi (Tokyo: Sanrei Shobō , 1989).
Richard Storry, The Double Patriots (Greenwood Press, 1973); Ivan Morris, Nationalism and the
Right Wing in Japan: A Study of Post-War Trends (Greenwood Press, 1974).
Hitoshi, and Ōsugi Sakae. He was also the translator of Marx’ Capital. Under the
influence of the Russian Revolution in 1917, he broke with the socialist group and
started a new movement, national socialism (kokka shakai shugi).
He became an
advisor and an inspiration to the right-wing terrorist organization Taikakai created
by Iwata Fumio; the National-Socialist Party of Great Japan (Dai Nippon kokka
shakai ), created by Ishikawa Junjūrō; and the Patriotic Labor Party (Aikoku
Kinrō tō), created by Tsukui Tatsuo, which closely resembled the views and
structure of the Nazi Party. Finally, Takabatake closely worked with the leaders of
Social Mass Party (Shakai Taishū tō), Asō Hisashi and Akamatsu Katsumaro,
whose active support of Japanese militarism and imperialism in the 1930s
discredited the whole social-democratic movement in Japan.
The Keirin gakumei oath stated: We pledge our total devotion to the
emperor (tennō), to revealing to the world the genius and abilities of the Japanese
nation (Nihon minzoku), to the domestic preservation of the true spirit of the
Japanese nation, and to groundbreaking new work on opening a new era in world
history.” Uesugi envisioned the association as a school which had Thought
Cultivation (renshi) and Body Cultivation (tanshin) departments. “The goal of the
association is, by educating the spirit and the body, to nurture future statesmen
who will display steel-like strength of spirit and body.” He continued, “Who but
us can create warriors (bushi) to promote the glory of our national polity
Uesugi's six-point agenda was published in a March 1923 Kaizō issue as
“The rise of the glory of kokutai” (“Kokutai no seika wo hatsuyō”): 1) realisation
of the ideal of the whole nation beating as one heart’ through ideology;
2)mobilisation of the entire nation to enhance national glory; 3) national
militarisation based on the premise that each and every individual in the nation is a
soldier; 4) the creation of a national economy through the control of capital and
labor; 5) the establishment of a nation of one people through administration of a
public welfare system and the preservation of the national characteristics of the
nation; 6) reform (kakushin) of the government around the authority of the
emperor and the adoption of a nationwide system of elections.
In the same issue, Takabatake also published his statement, “Kokkashakai
shugi de iku” (“Going with National Socialism”). According to him, the Keirin
gakumei (and his national socialist movement in general) aimed at strengthening
the nation-state and state defense to prevent foreign aggression, improving social
policies, implementing a general vote to create a unified nation, and abolishing
capitalism, which was the cause of anti-statist, communist ideologies. Takabatake
hoped for a mass political movement and the creation of a political party while
Uesugi provided finances through his higher up connections.
By 1923, Takabatake already broke off with the socialist groupnot,
however, for ideological reasons but because he was impatient to start a mass
movement in the manner of the Bolsheviks and, later, Mussolini’s Fascist Party. In
September 1922, however, the first Japanese Communist Party was created with
the help and funding of the Comintern. This development greatly alarmed
Takabatake, who began to see the Soviet Union and especially its rising influence
see my forthcoming article, “The Russian Revolution and the Emergence of the Japanese Radical
Right in the 1920s: Takabatake Motoyuki and his Theory of National Socialism.”
Walter Skya, Japan’s Holy War (Duke University Press, 2009), p. 161
in China as the main threat to the Japanese state. It was by his instigation that the
main actions of the Keirin gakumei were public agitation against Japan’s
recognition of the USSR and disruption of the welcoming party for the Soviet
diplomat Adolf Ioffe in May 1923. Anti-communism or, more precisely, anti-
Soviet Union sentiment, was an element brought to the radical Right by people
like Takabatake with a socialist background who were alert to the problems of the
working class and the immense appeal communism might have for Japanese
workers, minorities, and immigrants. Takabatake, for example, saw the JCP as the
Comintern agent aiming to turn Japan into nothing less than a Soviet colony.
Uesugi, on the other hand, claimed that the Japanese people (minzoku), their
morale, and their innate loyalty to the emperor were so strong that neither
anarchism nor communism was ever possible in Japan.
On the other hand, Uesugi never concealed that he was influenced by Peter
Kropotkin and generally considered anarchism as one of the most important
theories of the ideal state that had come out of Western thought. He believed that
anarchism attacked the evils of the existing Western capitalist state. Uesugi
adopted Kropotkin’s idea that society should run by means of a network of
voluntary agreements among individuals and groups associating freely on the
basis of equality. However, both Uesugi and Takabatake disagreed with anarchists
and Marxists on the premises that society and state were separate entities and that
the state signified power and oppression. Both claimed that no union, association,
or national society could exist without authority. Uesugi even claimed that
socialism comes from a love of humanity and, in this sense, he must also be called
a socialist. But, in order to realize their socialist program and abolish capitalism,
they needed a state. Therefore, statism was at the core of socialism. Uesugi
promised that the Keirin would be able to help workers’ cause and “cure them
from communist fever” by rekindling their patriotism to the Japanese state and the
In Uesugi’s view, Japan was privileged because, throughout its history, it
preserved the moral authority of the state through three factors: 1) the continuous
emperor institution, 2) the equality of all people under the emperor: in the
Japanese state, all people constituted one body in which no one sector of society
had any advantage over another or could benefit at the expense of the whole, and
3) the purity of Japanese ethnic group. The only natural state was one in which the
state and one ethnic group were identical, in which those related by ancestry and
blood constituted an “interdependent community” (kan renzoku) and shared a
sentiment of their own national identity (minzoku kanjō). Japan was a unique
“pure ethnic nation-state,” and people’s task was to maintain their ethnic purity
and ensure its endurance in history.
Takabatakes kokka shakai shugi can be translated as state socialism or
national socialism. Kokka is an ambigious term that entered into common usage in
the Meiji period. It denotes both the nation as a group of people and the state as an
institution of government. Both of these meanings served Takabatake’s purposes
perfectlythat is, a) the ethnically homogenous Japanese masses constitute the
nation; b) the Japanese nation is coterminious with the state; and c) socialism
provides economic equality for all members of the nation-state, thus ensuring its
more on the rise of ethnic nationalism in Taisho period see Kevin Doak, “Culture, Ethnicity, and the
State in Early Twentieth-Century Japan,” in Sharon A. Minichiello, ed., Japan’s Competing
Modernities (University of Hawaii Press, 1998), pp. 181-205.
unity and stability. Thus kokka shakai shugi theory was based on the belief that
the masses had two fundamental desires: national unity and economic equality.
Takabatake insisted that under a socialist economy the nation for the first time
becomes one community and the state becomes the collective authority that
embraces all people. After disentangling itself from its alliance with big capital,
the state also wins back the loyalty of its people. He never gave any specifics
about the future state, but his new party program evoked many features of the
Soviet state: it was industrial and militarized, ready to resort to dictatorial, non-
democratic methods if the situation demanded it. Takabatake also promoted
universal conscription and increase in military spending. Furthermore, the unity of
the people must not be class-based, as an orthodox Marxist would insist, but
ethnic (minzokuteki). What Takabatake was saying, in fact, was that class-
consciousness did not exist. What existed were sentiments of shared ethnic and
racial, or historical and cultural, unity, which did not overlap with class unity.
Thus, even within the Keirin gakumei, statism meant different things:
Takabatake wanted a state-controlled economy, while Uesugi wanted a suspension
of the constitution and a promise of direct imperial rule. Some of their more
radical followers would aim later at a military junta. All of them, however,
rejected democracy and liberal values because they were primarily associated with
Western laissez-faire economic liberalism, rather than with the active participation
of the people in politics and civic life.
Concerning the emperor, Takabatake and Uesugi had slightly different
views, albeit both argued that the emperor institution was the essence of the
Japanese nation and state. Takabatake believed that the Japanese state originated
with the establishment of the imperial house and, throughout its unbroken history,
the imperial institution was indispensable for its survival. During the Meiji
upheaval, the imperial institution became a rallying slogan to unite the nation,
order the country, and control the otherwise uncontrollable encroachment of
Western imperialist capitalism. The Japanese state had existed and therefore
would continue to exist only as a monarchy. Hence, Takabatake urged that if the
instinctive loyalty of the people were left alone and not nurtured, directed, and
managed by the state, with time, the national polity (kokutai) would be conquered
and destroyed either by Western capitalism or Soviet “internationalism.”
On the other hand, Uesugi rejected the Meiji official orthodoxy on the
Japanese state as based on the family principle, with the emperor as the father of
the nation. He reckoned that when consciousness of the family, man’s primary
social group, is strengthened, identification of the self and one’s own being with
the emperor is necessarily weakened. In the Meiji patriarchal theory of the state,
the emperor was not identical with the self; the emperor remained ultimately
something external to the self, thus not achieving absolute control over all spheres
of the individual’s life. Under Uesugi’s state theory, the emperor had become
totally internalized.”
The Keirin gakumei gave birth to one strand of Japanese fascist thought that
was inspired by socialism and anarchism. Takabatake was and claimed to be until
his death a Marxist, while Uesugi, despite his reputation as a conservative
traditionalist, was influenced by European anarchism. Their ambition was to
Skya, Japan’s Holy War, p. 183.
reconstruct the existing political and ideological system in crisis by strengthening
the function of the state and the emperor. In their vision, society becomes,
however, classless and homogeneous, while the state stops being the “executive
organ” of society and acquires an authoritarian character. As some historians have
suggested, the total war system (ryokusen taisei) of the 1940s, which forced
homogeneity and functionality on all members of society in order to prosecute the
war, had already been entertained in the early 1920s.
The inspiration for a
totalitarian system came not only from WW1, as many historians have argued, but
also from the ideals and realities of the Russian Revolution (the Russian Civil
War, war communism, the Bolshevik manipulation of the masses, rejection of all
existing political alternatives, one-party and charismatic dictatorship,
nationalization, and control of all institutions). Therefore, we may argue that
fascist thought in Japan, like in Europe, had revolutionary intentions, originated in
European socialist tradition, and, in its methods and tactics, was radicalized by
Bolshevik policies as well as by the Italian Fascist Party.
Yasushi Yamanouchi, Victor Koschmann, and Ryūichi Narita, eds., Total War and Modernization
(Cornell University, 1998).
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