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Diary spurs rethink of prewar anti-militarist, postwar prime minister

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

This is the first of a three-part series about the life and diplomatic theories of Hitoshi Ashida, who was president and editor-in-chief of The Japan Times from 1933 to 1939, based on his recently published diary.


On Jan. 23, 1933, lawmaker Hitoshi Ashida stood up to deliver a speech in the House of Representatives. It was a fateful day for the diplomat-turned-politician, who would later become prime minister.

It was only eight months after the May 15 Incident, in which Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai was assassinated by young military officers in an attempted coup. The killing spread fear among Japan’s liberal politicians and strengthened the militarists, who eventually led the country into the catastrophic Pacific War.

But Ashida, who had taken over as president and editor-in-chief of The Japan Times earlier that month, bluntly criticized the Imperial Japanese Army for effectively running Manchukuo — the puppet state set up by the army in northeastern China — and for taking the diplomatic initiative away from the Foreign Ministry.

“Japan is now giving the world the impression that Japan’s diplomacy is being led by the military. . . . The foreign minister must first take back the real power (from the military),” Ashida shouted at the Lower House.

“It is a humiliating disgrace for the constitutional politics of our country,” he said of the widespread impression that militarists were controlling Japan’s diplomacy.

The speech caused a sensation both at home and abroad, prompting foreign correspondents in Tokyo to report it as a political rebellion against the powerful military.

It also caused the military’s leadership to put him on its blacklist of “dangerous persons.” This reputation as an anti-military liberal helped him become prime minister three years after the end of World War II.

Ashida, who fell into historical oblivion, is now staging a comeback more than 50 years after his death.

The diary he kept during the tumultuous period from 1905 to 1945 was edited and published two years ago in five volumes, prompting historians to reassess his diplomatic theories from both the prewar years and the postwar period.

“Now young researchers have started viewing Ashida differently. More people now say Ashida didn’t change his opinions throughout the prewar and postwar years,” said Motoharu Shimokobe, a grandson of Ashida and one of the two main editors of the diary.

During the Cold War, Ashida was criticized as a political “proselyte” because he had argued in the 1950s that Japan should have a military force despite war-renouncing Article 9 of the pacifist Constitution.

After the war, Ashida chaired the special Diet committee that modified and eventually approved the draft of the Constitution penned by the U.S.-led Occupation. He would later argue that Article 9 does not deny Japan the right to fight a war in self-defense, an inherent right of any nation under international law.

During the Cold War, most mainstream Japanese historians and constitutional scholars were left-leaning pacifists, and they criticized Ashida’s interpretation of the Constitution because Article 9 says, “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

Regardless, the Self-Defense Forces were created in 1954 and today, few Japanese question its constitutionality.

Now many historians view Ashida as a “realist” who was not affected by the militarism that preceded the war nor the left-leaning pacifism that followed it.

“My grandfather used to tell me: ‘Left-wingers and right-wingers are the same breed. The only difference is who they worship, the Emperor or Lenin and Stalin,” said Shimokobe, who is also a member of the Postwar and Occupation History Study Society.

The diary also details Ashida’s struggle, as president of The Japan Times, to fight against the pressure by the Foreign Ministry to spread government propaganda during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which started in 1937.

The newspaper, suffering from chronic financial difficulties, was receiving subsidies from the Foreign Ministry at that time. The diary shows that Ashida himself repeatedly asked the ministry and businesspeople for loans to cover its monthly operating costs.

Yet Ashida pledged to resist the Foreign Ministry’s push to turn the paper into a mouthpiece for its propaganda.

“From 1933 through 1935, I don’t think there was a big gap between the policies of the Foreign Ministry and Ashida’s diplomatic theories. . . . But the situation totally changed after the breakout of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937,” said Akira Yajima, a researcher at Osaka University whose doctoral thesis analyzed Ashida’s life and diplomatic theories.

Ashida, an amazingly prolific writer, wrote numerous articles analyzing international politics and diplomacy for newspapers and magazines in the 1930s, including The Japan Times.

In 1938 he opposed the government’s policy of establishing “a New Order in East Asia,” a concept used to justify Japan’s advance into China that would later evolve into “the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

Instead, he called for international cooperation among Japan, Britain and United States, and for the preservation of China’s territorial integrity.

“Ashida quit as The Japan Times president at the end of 1939. I think the confrontation between him and Foreign Ministry over editorial policy was the cause,” Yajima said.

Indeed, some diary entries hint that relations between Ashida and the Foreign Ministry were very strained.

“Bureaucrats . . . try to treat the Times as if it was a purveyor for the government. I will fight back,” Ashida wrote in his diary on Sept. 23, 1938.

“I don’t mind quitting the Times at any time, but I don’t want to compromise my own principles either,” Ashida wrote on Oct. 4, 1938.

“Should I keep working for the Times? Is (it) just harming my political activities? I’m always wondering about it,” he wrote that Nov. 1.

Ashida stepped down in December 1939. Foreign journalists and diplomats would come to view the paper as a semiofficial propaganda machine of the government.

During the 1941-1945 Pacific War, The Japan Times was censored by the government before publication, as were all major Japanese-language newspapers.

When Japan opened the Pacific War with the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, joining World War II, most Japanese were overjoyed with the early victories there and elsewhere.

But Ashida, who had called for peaceful cooperation with the Western powers, in particular the United States, was in despair, deeply concerned about the future of Japan.

“All of the efforts I made for more than 10 years have added up to nothing,” Ashida wrote in his diary on Dec. 31, looking back on the year of 1941.

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