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Tatsuo Kage's Talk at the World Peace Forum Teach-In, November 8, 2009

The Rise of Fascism in Japan in the 1930’s

WPF Teach-In, November 8, 2009

By Tatsuo Kage, VSA9

Thank you for inviting us to this year’s Teach-In of the WPF.

1. Was the Japanese Regime in the 1930’s and 40’s Fascist? 

Since Japan was one of the axis powers during World War II, it meant that Japan as a nation in Asia joined the fascist powers and fought the allies of democracy in WWII. Still, some of you may hesitate to call Japan a fascist regime at that time.

There were differences between Japan and Germany or Italy: Japan did not have a fascist party similar to the Nazis in Germany, or to the one in Italy based on a mass movement which took power and established a dictatorship. Another difference was that Japan lacked a dictator like Hitler or Mussolini. Tojo Hideki is sometimes called a dictator because at one time he held the positions of prime minister, minister of army and the chief of Army Staff simultaneously. He was an elite military officer who climbed the ladder of the military bureaucracy but lacked the “charismatic character’ of European dictators who could generate mass support. Once he lost support from political leaders and court advisers, he had to resign, as happened in July 1944. .

2. Fascism as a Phenomenon of the 20th Century

Dictatorial, reactionary regimes existed widely for many centuries and even under socialism, rule by dictatorship can be seen such as during Stalin’s rule. Fascism, on the other hand, appeared in countries with highly developed monopoly capitalism. Under fascist regimes socialist movements were severely suppressed, while monopoly capitalists prospered as merchants of death in the armament industries. Fascists claimed their regime was state-socialism or “national socialism” but its result was the opposite of socialism.

Fascists served the interests of monopoly capitalism but could be both anti-socialism and anti-capitalism. (For example, the Zaibatsu capitalists were attacked by Japanese fascists.) Although the middle class of small-scale producers declined because of capitalism, they thought socialism would wipe them out totally. Externally they were terrified by international socialism and the rise of nationalist movements in developing countries. Rightly or wrongly, they saw the economic crisis as due to being a ‘have-not nation. They believed their country was unfairly treated by other nations because of a corrupt political system with spineless politicians who tolerated the rise of socialism. Therefore, they argued, the present system has to be destroyed and renewed. It did not matter whether or not this way of thinking was logical because for a fanatic movement, including fascism, irrational thinking may have been necessary.

3. Fascism From Below and Above

In the 1950’s Maruyama Masao, a political science professor, proposed an analytical theme of “fascism from below” and “fascism from above.” Even a half a century later, his theme of analysis is useful when we look at the political scene of the 1930’ and 40’s in Japan.

- “Fascism from below”: Fascism has some aspect of a grass roots movement. If it gathered strength with a party machine, it could seize power through the support of large parts of the population and through parliamentary procedure, i.e., as a major political party it could take power to form a government. They would claim that they could change everything once in power. These movements have sometimes been called “pseudo-revolutionary. ”

- “Fascism from above”: The controlling political and military leaders and high officials in the bureaucracy took measures to dissolve democratic principles by introducing policies such as emergency decrees and the suppression of socialist and communist movements in order to deal with crisis situation. Constitutional principles such as freedom of speech were disregarded or suspended, and dissidents persecuted. In Japan a notorious legislation called the Peace Preservation Law (1925-45) was introduced. Eventually, spontaneous dissolution of political parties took place and with government initiative the Imperial Rule Assistance Association (1940) was founded. It was a kind of one party system. These trends can be characterized as “authoritarian - reactionary”.

4. The Ideological Basis of Fascist Movements in Japan

There were a number of groups of extreme nationalism from around the turn of the century advocating Japan’s expansion into Asia. Why did they want to expand to the continent? Japan was a small country with limited space and resources. To develop into an imperial power, Japan wanted to secure natural resources, markets for its capital investment and industrial products, and land for the settlement of surplus population.

Without exception right wing nationalists supported the Emperor system with its absolute power. Under the Meiji constitution the Emperor was the supreme commander of the army and navy. He also had the power to conclude international treaties and declare war. Nationalists regarded the Emperor system as a uniquely Japanese political institution, based on a paternalistic idea expanded from the level of the family to the nation and the empire.

After WWI extreme nationalists, such as Uchida Ryohei (内田良平), realized that their expansionist aims could not be achieved without drastic changes in the domestic political system. They promoted a totalitarian position against western style parliamentary democracy and individualism. They were also openly antagonistic toward socialism and communism after the Russian revolution of 1917. The combination of expansionist ideas coupled with an anti-Soviet stance and anti-democratic aims can be regarded as the common characteristics of fascist ideology.

5. What was the Social Basis of Their Movement?
Farmers Class: In the early l930’s agriculture was depressed due to a bumper rice crop, causing the price of rice to fall. Soldiers recruited for the military were from families of poor tenant peasants in rural areas. They were happy to have enough to eat and to receive some pay in the army, but were also concerned about their impoverished family members remaining in the countryside. The extreme nationalists, concerned about building military strength, saw the welfare of the peasants and farmers to be the main pillar of the nation’s strength. They had connections with the young and middle rank military officers who came from the landowner class and were familiar with the serious situation in the rural areas. Many supported the ‘nohonshugi’, or ‘agriculture first’ principle, and the component of this principle among Japanese fascists can be understood in this context.

Middle Class: In addition to the rural population, the fascist movement appealed to the traditional middle class, such as smaller business owners and craftsmen.

These entrepreneurs and trade people had strong affinities with the ideas of anti-socialism and anti-capitalism. As capitalism developed, these people felt threatened by poverty and decline. They were anti-capitalist but as small property owners or merchants, they were strongly against socialism. They did not have a clear idea of what a desirable regime could be, therefore the demand for the destruction of the present state of affairs appealed to them.
In general, if a society faced a crisis one could see the rise of fascism. In Europe the economic crisis was one of the causes of fascism, but many people in difficulty were not capable of organizing their own movement. In Japan, farmers with difficulties were represented by young officers from the same social base and whose interests coincided with the military, the traditional middle class, and the extreme nationalists.

6. How “Fascism from Below” Leads to “Fascist from Above”

1) Manchurian Incident

Measures to deal with the world wide economic crisis of the l930’s included the increase of military expenditure to establish a foothold in East Asia, and efforts to expand into the continent became more aggressive. In this context the Manchurian Incident of 1931 was important: Staff officers of Japan’s Army stationed in the North Eastern part of China (Kwantung Army) had been looking for a pretext to commence military action. They put explosives on the rail of the South Manchurian Railway in Liutiao hu. (柳条湖、near Shenyang)  controlled by Japan. The damage was slight but the Japanese military blamed the Chinese army and immediately ordered an attack. Within a few days cities along the railway were occupied and within 5 months most of Manchuria came under the control of the Japanese army.

These actions by military commanders and officers were a serious offense under military criminal law and punishable by death as the action was not ordered by the government or the top military leaders. However, no one was punished. The government repeatedly announced the non-escalation of military actions to appease international criticism but it did not prevent the escalation. Rather, it continuously approved aggressive military acts. One fait accomli followed another and hostilities escalated. The government attitude reflected the will of the ruling classes including Zaibatsu, the monopoly capitalists, as a means to deal with the internal and external crisis faced by Japan.

The League of Nations condemned Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, and in response Japan left the League of Nations in 1933. This withdrawal publicly announced Japan’s decision to engage in aggressive expansion policies without considering the danger of international isolation. After intermittent military operations, the Marco Polo Bridge incident occurred in July l937, beginning a full-fledged war which was then called the Sino-Japanese Incident, an undeclared war with China.

2) A Series of Coup Attempts -

On May 15, 1932 Inukai Takeshi, the Prime Minister,(犬養毅), was killed at his official residence in Tokyo by rebellious navy officers. (May 15th Incident) This led to the growth of more right-wing associations. In 1933 as many as 501 associations existed and more than half of them had been formed since 1932.( Fujimura, p. 150.) Other incidents followed, including several coup attempts.

In 1936 a full-fledged military revolt in Tokyo led by military officers shook the civilian government. For a few days rebellious troops occupied the residence of the Prime Minister and key government buildings. The Finance Minister and the Inspector General of Military Training were assassinated. The mutiny was not immediately crushed because Araki Sadao and other army leaders gave signs of approval and support. The Emperor, as the absolute authority, was personally against the coup of February 26 as his ministers and officials had been assassinated or assaulted. These events illustrated the confused situation among the nation’s top leaders in the face of serious revolt.

Once the insurrection was under control military leaders blamed everything on the rebellious officers and civilians. Over a dozen rebel leaders were tried in a military tribunal in Camera and executed. As the government tried to deal with these and other insubordinations, power increasingly slipped from the hands of party politicians into those of men who might be better able to control or work with the militarists.

3) Decline of Democracy and the Establishment of Fascist Regime

Foremost among these new leaders was Prince Konoe Fumimaro (近衛文麿), who then served as prime minister. He favored a strong foreign policy and intervention in China, views that made him popular among many army officers. In July 1937 Prime Minister Konoe said: “I think North China is vital, particularly for our economic development.”(Quoted in Ienaga, The Pacific War, p.69) This comment reflects the prevailing view of Japan’s ruling elite. Deeply anxious over the loss of markets due to tariff barriers and desperate for a solution to the crisis confronting Japanese capitalism, they wanted to control North China. In other words, to keep Manchukuo a puppet state and to prevent China from becoming communist were the absolute minimum objectives of the military and Japan’s civilian leaders. There was a broad consensus about these goals.

Military expansion abroad required repression at home. As an authoritarian regime, fascism in Japan was imposed from above by political leaders, the military and bureaucrats, aided by their junior partners, the civilian rightists.

The Konoe government tried to reorganize the political system to mobilize the nation for the war efforts. All political parties were spontaneously dissolved and the “Imperial Rule Assistance Association” (大政翼賛会IRAA) was founded in 1940. It did not functioned efficiently as a political organization, rather it became a control mechanism of people’s daily lives.

The Nazis destroyed the Weimar Republic and established a dictatorship in 1933 but no such clear break with the past occurred in Japan. The Meiji Constitution was never revised or suspended and the Diet became impotent but it continued to exist.

The only major legal shift was the 1938 enactment of the National Mobilization Law(国家総動員法). Although it could be regarded as unconstitutional, this law allowed the government to issue emergency decrees, i.e., its sweeping provisions broadened the state’s administrative authority, imposing new duties on citizens and curtailing civil rights.

Despite the differences, Japanese Fascism compared to Germany was no less effective in destroying political freedom. Threats and use of physical force by the police and Kempeitai were the ultimate weapons. Marxists, Christian pacifists and anyone considered even slightly opposed to the war were arrested and incarcerated under regulations that in effect voided the Criminal Prosecution Law. Some prisoners were tortured and physically mistreated. Others were held indefinitely. Political prisoners were pressured to make false confessions and to recant their political beliefs.


Even without a fascist party having mass support or the ability to seize power, we can see how a fascist regime could nevertheless be established. Young officers and right wing civilians played the role of forerunners in the process of establishing a fascist regime. Political and military leaders and others from the ruling class did not openly support drastic measures to change the existing system, but they actively or tacitly undermined institutions based on parliamentary democracy in order to deal with external and internal crisis. The government with its powerful police bureaucracy was efficient in suppressing any dissidents who opposed the total mobilization of citizens for the war effort.

Nowadays, most of us can easily see the irrational nature of neo-Nazi type right wing movements and it may seem that the danger of “fascism from below” belongs to the past. On the other hand, we can also note that there is a continuing trend towards curtailing the democratic rights of citizens in the name of public security. In this sense, ongoing vigilance is necessary in order to prevent governments from sliding into the direction of “fascism from above” as it happened in Japan in the 1930’s ☺


Banno Junji. Showashi no Ketteiteki Shunkan. Chikuma Shinsho. Tokyo. 2004.
Fujimura Michio. Nihon Gendaishi (Sekai Gendaishi 1). Yamakawa Shuppansha, Tokyo, 1981.
Ienaga Saburo. The Pacific War, 1931-1945. Pantheon Books, NewYork, 1978.
Eizawa Koji. Nihono no Fashizumu. Kyouikusha, Tokyo, 1988.
Maruyama Masao. Gendai Seiji no Shiso to Kodo. Miraisha, Tokyo, 1956/57.
Toyama, Shigeki, Showa Shi. Iwanami Shinsho, Tokyo, 1959.

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