Politics and culture?

More like "ideology" in wartime Japan

By William Wetherall

A review of
Ben-Ami Shillony
Politics and Culture in Wartime Japan
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981
xii, 238 pages, hardcover

A version of this article appeared as
"Revisiting the Pacific war" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 139(5), 4 February 1988, pages 73-74

A longer version appeared earlier as
"What's in a Title?" in
Asahi Evening News, 11 December 1987, page 10

Blue phrases were cut from the FEER version.
Purple phrases were added to the FEER version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the two versions.

Ben-Ami Shillony, a professor of Japanese history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, should have called this 1981 book Thought, Propaganda, and Ideology in Wartime Japan -- for these are the topics he directly discusses. The first three "political" chapters (The Wartime Regime; Tojo's Downfall; The Last Year of the War) provide a socio-historical framework for the last three "cultural" chapters (The Wartime Press; Scholars, Writers, and the War; East versus West).

The author's religious identity is clearly behind his decision to end the last chapter of the book with a section called "The Imaginary Devil: Japanese Anti-Semitism". This section is the best summary I have seen of the history of Japanese anti-Semitism, being more general in scope though lacking the anecdotal detail of The Fugu Plan (The Untold Story of the Japanese and the Jews During World War II), by Marvin Tokayer and Mary Swartz (New York:Paddington Press, 1979).

About Japanese stereotypes of Jews, a topic of present interest, Shillony concludes: "The ambivalent attitude towards the West reached its peak in the curious phenomenon of Japanese anti-Semitism . . . Whereas Hitler saw the Jews as alien, Oriental element that threatened European civilization, the Japanese regarded them as the very embodiment of the West . . . The Japanese hated and admired the Jews, just as they hated and admired the Western world."

Shillony also concludes:

Had Japan taken the side of the Western Allies in World War II, as she had in World War I, or had she remained neutral as she had before the Pacific War, her prewar attempts at establishing a regional hegemony and her wartime violations of human rights might have subsequently been condoned in the context of the Cold War, as was the case with many Asian countries. They could even have been dismissed as overreaction to the real or imaginary dangers of those years. But by joining the Axis and attacking the US and Britain, Japan committed the ultimate crime that sealed her fate and gained her the stigma of a fascist, totalitarian dictatorship.

But he cautions: "Japan was not an ideological disciple of the Axis" and that Japanese society was in many ways "freer than those of the Soviet Union or Kuomintang China, both of which ostensibly fought on the side of democracy." He also documents a number of interesting examples of dissent by intellectuals writing in small and little-known magazines during the war.

Disputable, though, is Shillony's claim that "the wartime regime had no distinct ideological basis," though he may be right in saying that at the time it "lacked even a name." He briefly discusses but gives little weight to the concept of kokutai -- conventionally translated as "national polity" but meaning "national essence" -- which has been the keyword in Japan's nationalistic ideology since the middle of the 19th century and is still used with similar nuances.

Japan's ideology during the war, and arguably now, is clearly rooted in what this writer has called Yamatoism. This seems the most suitable name for the religion which continues to move not a few Yamato (ethnic majority) Japanese to believe in the moral superiority of their imperial family, and to advocate a fusion of Shinto and state as a means of maintaining their racial unity and spiritual allegiance, to defend themselves from (if not dominate) the surrounding world.

Shillony unwittingly gave his very readable book (20 percent of which is end notes, bibliography and index) a title which suggests that it might be good background reading for understanding the current debate about whether Japan is a country ruled by "politics" or governed by "culture". Unfortunately, the author does not tell us what he means by these two words, which he seems to have used -- as too many other writers have used them -- simply for their fashionable ring.

There are two vital questions in the continuing debates on the causes of the Pacific War between Japan and mainly the United States, and the causes of the trade friction and other present conflicts involving Japan and many countries: (1) are the Japanese government and its policies the result of cultural processes which are somehow "natural" and thus require that they be accommodated in the name of cultural relativism? Or (2) is the Japanese government a misnomer for a loose confederation of powerful groups which consciously control society by manipulating its culture with domestic and foreign policies designed to maintain their power and promote their interests?

In the past, most writers have endorsed the cultural argument. But recently, the political argument has gained a following. Although Shillony does not address this issue, the wartime Japan he portrays was a country not run by a true leader but by various groups of powerholders who used culture as an excuse for their global policies.