The violence specialists of Japanese politics


Japanese voters are frustrated because even if they throw the bums out of office, they know the opposition is much the same. These days money is the root of political scandals and influence buying, but here we examine how violence became institutionalized in Japan’s politics from the first parliamentary elections in 1890 with devastating consequences for democracy.

RUFFIANS, YAKUZA, NATIONALISTS: The Violent Politics of Modern Japan, 1860-1960, by Eiko Maruko Siniawer. New York: Cornell University Press, 2008, 269 pp., $39.95 (cloth)

Eiko Siniawer evokes the tensions between violence and democracy, and the messy entanglements that ensued. This is a gripping tale because she tells fascinating stories about the colorful violence specialists and their way of politics. In the late 19th century, these menacing “activists” swaggered about on tall wooden sandals, thumping stick in hand. Disrupting political gatherings was a matter of course and after cracking some heads, and otherwise intimidating voters and politicians, these ruffians enjoyed their carousing. They had their own codes of conduct and it was sporting for gangs to allow rivals to at least briefly disrupt meetings that they were assigned to protect so that the intruders could collect their fees. Parties openly wielded their thugs, concentrating on the mere 1 percent of the population — male and relatively wealthy — that enjoyed the right to vote. It was only later when the suffrage was expanded that it made more sense to bribe than beat voters.

These violence specialists, Siniawer explains, are so much more than a window into how democracy worked — they also shaped how democracy functioned and evolved. One of the key themes revolves around how “democratic politics attracted the very kind of violence that was often undemocratic in its consequences.” Ironically, the roots of violence in democratic politics lay in the Freedom and Peoples’ Rights Movement in the early Meiji Era. In trying to challenge the state and its monopoly on violence, prodemocracy activists resorted to violent means to promote political reforms.

Later these violence specialists became embedded in the system and they cultivated a chivalrous image as true patriots and protectors of liberty. However, overseas they advocated imperial expansion, playing a role for example in the assassination of the Korean queen, while at home they sided with industrialists against restive workers and the spread of communism. So despite posturing as the mailed fist of the common man, these violence specialists were usually in the thrall of the powers that be because they could pay. These thugs thrived because they provided protection, targeted opponents and helped win elections. They proved so effective in helping the antigovernment forces defeat the government in the 1890 elections that the government took off the gloves and used both ruffians and police, often indistinguishable in their tactics, to turn the tide in the following polls.

Siniawer suggests that violence did play a positive role in some respects in promoting democracy in the early stages, but as it became deeply embedded in the system it had undemocratic consequences. She makes a compelling argument that the everyday resort to violence facilitated the emergence of fascism in Japan during the 1930s. This movement involved the military, bureaucrats and yakuza. The dire consequences of the Great Depression for the Japanese provided an opportunity for extremists who celebrated and glorified violence, including assassination, while wrapping themselves in the flag of patriotism. Their bold actions contrasted with the impotence of political parties.

She argues that “never before had elite state figures and violence specialists been woven together so tightly,” leading to military-dominated Cabinets and coups d’etat. She concludes that “when the strategies of the violence specialists were adopted by the state, the violence took the most frighteningly systematic, dominating and powerful of forms.” As a result, the violence specialists were elbowed aside, supplanted by state actors in the 1930s.

Most of this excellent monograph focuses on political violence in the pre-World War II era, but the author argues that it remains a distinct aspect of contemporary Japanese politics even if it is infrequent. She writes, “The possibility of violence in Japan’s democracy persists in part because yakuza involvement in politics continues. Yakuza may now deal more in money than violence when it comes to politics, but they still embody the threat of physical intimidation and coercion.” Japan, she concludes, is not alone among democracies dealing with the reality and potential for violence by organized crime, citing Russia and Italy.

In elucidating Japan’s culture of political violence, one in which violence was not episodic but deeply rooted, she places it at the center of Japanese political history. In doing so, she undermines tropes about Japanese harmony while presenting a comparative analysis that rejects notions of Japanese uniqueness.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.