Praise, where it’s due, for Japanese fascism


Once upon a time men were proud to call themselves fascist. “I am convinced,” wrote a leading Japanese reformist bureaucrat in the early 1930s, “that from now on the spirit of the civilization and politics of mankind is fascist ideology … Before the iron laws of historical development, the downfall of the liberalistic, individualistic, capitalistic world is unavoidable.”

PLANNING FOR EMPIRE: Reform Bureaucrats and the Japanese Wartime State, by Janis Mimura. Cornell University Press, 2011, 229 pp., £24.95 (hardcover)

So it seemed to many enlightened spirits, and we reading these lines 80 years later can perhaps congratulate ourselves on a narrow escape. To the democratic mind, “fascist” is the most damning political epithet in the lexicon — just as, to the fascist mind, “democrat” was, unless “liberal” or “capitalist” trumped it.

Japanese fascism — not to be confused with the emperor-worshiping militarism with which it was fitfully, uneasily allied — has a decidedly more intellectual, less charismatic, less hideously vicious and sadistic cast than its German and Italian equivalents. It was “techno-fascism,” “managerialism.” Its proponents, writes American historian Janis Mimura in this provocative re-examination of recent history we thought we knew, “were neither fanatic militarists nor manipulated leaders. They were highly rational and conscientious public servants who promoted a vision of an ultramodern Japan.”

We are uncomfortable hearing fascism in any form praised, however equivocally, but it must have its due if it is to be understood, and “Planning for Empire” is a scholarly but readable contribution towards that end. “Fascism,” writes Mimura, “offered a means to overcome the crisis of capitalism and resolve the problems of class conflict and authority in modern industrial society. It was viewed as a ‘third way,’ an alternative path to modernity that was superior to liberalism and communism and best suited to meet the technological challenges of the modern era.”

Two revolutionary phenomena marked 20th-century man to such an extent as to make almost a new species of him — mechanization and “total war.” These were the facts with which techno-fascist intellectuals grappled. Mechanization “introduced the new principles of machinelike efficiency and organization.” Total war meant “extended wars conducted between nations, not just troops, requiring the mobilization of the entire population and self-sufficiency in resources.” The Russo-Japanese War and World War 1 were harbingers of worse to come (or of better, if you see war as the forge which tempers the race); war would be permanent; peacetime itself would be consumed by warlike preparations.

It’s not an attractive vision, from our vantage point, but from theirs, liberalism, democracy and laissez-faire capitalism had proven themselves abject failures. The Wall Street crash of 1929 and the ensuing global Great Depression were hitting Japan very hard. Capitalism was seen as grossly enriching the corrupt few while grossly impoverishing everyone else. That aside, the new technological environment demanded technocratic government. Japan’s brief fling with party politics in the 1920s had produced — so it seemed — chaos. “Totalitarian” to us is an evil word. To progressive thinkers of the 1930s it was the solution to evils that to us are good — individualism, the pursuit of profit, the quest for personal advantage at the expense, if necessary, of the collective. It is one of the challenges and satisfactions of this book that it takes us inside an alien, unattractive mindset and forces us to look at our own from outside.

Techno-fascism was progressive in ways that we can recognize, acknowledge and even admire. It spurned privilege, despised social rank, scorned wealth. Competence, expertise, selfless dedication to the nation were the virtues it valued and displayed. It produced no Japanese Hitler or Mussolini, no personality cult, no mass hysteria. A guiding spirit and representative figure was a decidedly uncharismatic young agriculture ministry bureaucrat named Nobusuke Kishi, better known as the postwar prime minister (1957-60) whose political resurrection followed three years served in Sugamo Prison as an unindicted Class A war criminal. The prewar Kishi was as awed by the productive capacity of the United States as he was by the “organic hierarchical, functionalist society” (the words are Mimura’s) he observed in early Nazi Germany. Of the U.S. he wrote in 1926, “The United States was a country blessed with the power of its vast richness … Its vast economic structure … made Japan’s own economy appear extremely shabby in comparison.”

But America was no model for Japan. Lacking the natural resources with which America overflowed, Japan, the techno-fascists believed, must seek “liberation from natural resources. If ‘have-not’ countries could overcome their resource limitations by creating synthetic substitutes, their entry to the exclusive circle of resource-rich powers would no longer be blocked.” The industrial engineering envisioned was on such a scale as to make social engineering seem inevitable. The individual would be swallowed by the state, and either find happiness in being so swallowed, or live without happiness. Happiness was beside the point.

To most of us today this seems a bad dream from which humanity is fortunate to have awakened. And yet, Mimura stresses, there are continuities. “Kishi’s personal imprint,” she writes, “can be seen in basic aspects of Japan’s postwar managerial state” — techno-fascism modified to the democratic demands of the new age.

There is another continuity which Mimura does not mention. The “war on terror,” 10 years on, has no end in sight. A recent Washington Post report shows the Pentagon now envisioning “a period of persistent conflict” — “total war,” perhaps, by another name.