Genri Nippon and “Japaneseness”

A review of Philosophizing ‘Japan’: The Genri Nippon Society and the Question of Japaneseness, by John Person.

John Person’s dissertation, Philosophizing ‘Japan’: The Genri Nippon Society and the Question of Japaneseness, focuses on Minoda Muneki (1894-1946)—an intellectual sometimes called the “Joseph McCarthy of Japan”—and the Genri Nippon Society that he led in the 1920s-1940s. It aims to recover the importance of so-called “rightist” thought, which Person claims is too often dismissed as mere “fanaticism.” Without denying the danger of some of Minoda’s ideas, Person shows how the rhetoric of “fanaticism” forecloses the possibility of serious scholarly engagement with a vital—and at times even mainstream—vein of intellectual and political activity. Taken together, the chapters of Person’s dissertation present a dynamic intellectual biography of Minoda that also raises questions about the vocabulary scholars use to categorize intellectual and political positions in interwar and wartime Japan. As Person puts it, his goal is not to “resuscitate the theories of Minoda or any other ultranationalist ideas,” but rather to approach Minoda’s writings “as a useful standpoint from which we can critically engage some of the more tired conventions of historical analysis” (p. 5).

In the Introduction, Person outlines his reasons for undertaking the study. He begins by noting that the label “fanatic” allows for complex thinkers to be treated as no more than irrational lunatics. The problem with this, Person notes, is that it obscures the theoretically grounded aspects of so-called “rightist” thought. It also occludes the unexpected points of convergence between the so-called “left” and the so-called “right” by presupposing a stable set of relations which, on close inspection, he claims are not very stable at all. For example, Person points out that whereas “rightists” in early Shōwa Japan are sometimes thought of as the enemies of democracy and the loyal advocates of a totalitarian statist regime, several thinkers associated with the so-called “right” in fact advocated for democratic ideals and violently attacked (and even tried to overthrow) the state. This leads Person to conclude that the labels “fascist” and “rightist,” “while useful for illuminating certain aspects of prewar culture, also carry with them significant flaws that work to efface crucial issues of the interwar and wartime period” (p. 5).

Person further distinguishes his approach from others by focusing less on the atmospherics of ideology, and more on the relationship between ideas and society in concrete terms. In this regard, Person describes his study as a combination of “an intellectual history of the ‘rightwing,’ in this case Minoda, with a concrete analysis of the way in which ideas held by the ‘right’ translated into state policies of repression, which in turn wielded with destructive force the silencing violence of the special higher police and other forms of state power. Thus, this is a study concerned less with ideology than giving light to the particular, unpredictable ways in which ideas are made concrete” (p. 14).  In this way, Person’s work participates in and sometimes critiques the conversation about politics in interwar Japan that has unfolded in Harry Harootunian’s Overcome by Modernity: History, Culture, and Community in Interwar Japan (Princeton University Press, 2000) and Alan Tasnman’s The Aesthetics of Japanese Fascism (University of California Press, 2009), among other studies.

In Chapter 1, “From Writing the Self to Reading the Nation: Poetry and Politics in the Founding of the Genri Nippon Society,” Person traces the language of the founding charter of the Genri Nippon Society (1925) to the literary theory produced between 1906-1925 by Minoda’s mentor, Mitsui Kōshi (1883-1953). The appellation “Genri Nippon” derived from Mitsui’s and Minoda’s notion that the “Japaneseness” of native history, culture, politics and subjective experience was what mattered most, and it was in this sense that “Japan” (Nippon) became for them a philosophical principle (genri) for understanding a wide range of modern problems. Chapter 1 locates the roots of this Japanist philosophy in Mitsui’s reading of the Meiji Emperor’s waka, pointing in particular to how a poetic genre (waka) came to define a national genus (Japaneseness) in Mitsui’s writings.

Inspired by Masaoka Shiki’s haiku technique of transcription (shasei), Mitsui envisioned a form of 31-syllable waka that would mobilize native verbal forms to express the dynamics of subjective experience. Person emphasizes that Mitsui’s poetics brought together aspects of collective representation (native language and poetic form) and national identity in a literary theory that carried important political implications. Near the founding of the Genri Nippon Society and the publication of its charter, for example, Mitsui extolled the Meiji Emperor’s verse as the perfect combination of subjective experience and collective representation, a cathartic text that provided both insights into the Meiji Emperor’s psyche as well as didactic instructions to the masses on matters of ethics and loyalty to the nation. In this way, Person shows how Mitsui’s theorization of native literary form guided the imagining of a cohesive national body bound by an inalienable “Japaneseness.” By locating the theoretical roots of the Genri Nippon Society charter in Mitsui’s writings, moreover, Person reconsiders the notion that Japanism made an abrupt entrance onto the early Shōwa stage, and rather traces its origins to an era more commonly associated with Meiji liberalism and Taishō democracy.

In the second chapter, “Japanism and Marxism: Science, State and Nation in the Early Thought of Minoda Muneki,” Person argues that although Minoda is sometimes portrayed as a fanatical enemy of leftists intellectuals, he was, in fact, a “serious student of political economy” who drew inspiration both from the “literary nationalism” of Mitusi as well as from European intellectuals Wilhelm Wundt, Werner Sombart, and Hendrik de Man (p. 70). For example, Person observes that Minoda engaged Wundt’s writings that critiqued Marxist intellectuals for relying too much on the abstract laws of the natural sciences. He also points out that Minoda shared Wundt’s interest in developing the “human sciences” in a way that would counter Marxian social science by foregrounding the inherent unpredictability of subjective experience. Person then draws attention to how Minoda’s critique of his Marxist contemporaries emerged from his doubt that the social scientific, “universal” laws developed in 19th-century Germany and England could retain their explanatory power within the specific context of 1920s Japan. Person observes that for Minoda, “nationality is the single most powerful shaper of one’s worldview,” and notes that Minoda believed that his Marxist contemporaries had “too hastily proclaimed the universality of the proletarian experience and the historical necessity of socialism. This ‘obsolete’ version of political economy failed to take into account the international context of Japan’s domestic socio-economics, and never questioned the adequacy of the imported categories of proletariat and capitalist for the Japanese context” (p. 113). For Minoda, then, the problem with Marxist understandings of 1920s Japan was that they insisted on universal social scientific categories that he thought were ill-suited to the local context, and which he thought ignored the unpredictable aspects of subjective experience.

Minoda’s critique of Marxist methods ultimately led him to attack professors working at Imperial Universities. Person points out that for Minoda, the Imperial Universities were charged with training the future leaders who would serve the Emperor; yet, Minoda also feared that Marxist professors would corrupt their students by inculcating a flawed scientific universalism that obliterated the national peculiarities of Japan. For Minoda, this made the Marxist professoriate a threat to national security, one that he would aim to silence.

Yet, although Minoda is remembered as a tyrannical censor, Person also emphasizes that Minoda’s criticism of his Marxist contemporaries—including Kyoto Imperial University professor Kawakami Hajime and Marxist theorist Fukumoto Kazuo—was not motivated by an irrational fanaticism, but rather emerged from a theoretically founded, at times even mainstream sensibility: “Minoda’s denouncement of Marxism as excessively abstract and removed from actual lived experience was a coherent argument, especially given the historical context of the theoretical problems of Japanese Marxism at the time” (p. 121) Without denying the objectionable aspects of Minoda’s thought—including his anti-Semitism and racism—Person concludes that Minoda’s critique of Marxism “can easily be traced to legitimate philosophical positions and claims that were simultaneously argued in Japan as in Europe,” and that “[w]hile Minoda’s political ideals were far different from his Marxist contemporaries,’ the methodological problems that he focused on were consistent with the issues raised within the community of Marxists as well” (pp. 124-125). In this way, Person shows how labeling Minoda a “fanatic nationalist” fails to account for the theoretically legitimate aspects of his critique of Marxist methods, many of which also held currency in Europe.

In Chapter 3, “A Japanist Democracy?: Liberty and Nation in Taisho Conservatism,” Person considers the blind spots of the “leftist-versus-rightist” binary by examining moments of convergence in the discourses of Japanism and democracy—two aspects of early Shōwa intellectual history sometimes held to be antagonistic. Against this supposed opposition, Person observes that “pitting certain forms of oppressive nationalism as purely in opposition to an essentialized idea of ‘democracy’ risks fetishizing ‘democracy’ as a good in itself while effacing the precarious relation between the experience of freedom and oppression that are inherent within its history in modern Japan” (p. 132). With this in mind, the chapter points to how a lingering discourse of “Taishō democracy” might have converged with Japanist thought ascendant in the early Shōwa years.

Making this point, Person compares the writings of Yoshino Sakuzō, “a dominant figure in the intellectual exploration of democracy in this period,” with the “Japanist” Mitsui’s “project of articulating a theory of popular government buttressed by national morality” (p. 132, 135). Person points to how Mitusi’s support for universal manhood suffrage, free or subsidized education and controls on political corruption echoed the liberal ideals of democratic theorists like Yoshino. Person is careful to note, however, that Mitsui’s vision of broader political participation was governed by the crucial caveat that such participation must never threaten the survival of the state itself. For this reason, Mitsui approved of the Peace Preservation Law of 1925, which authorized the censorship and imprisonment of presumed enemies of the state (especially Marxists). In these ways, Person points to how Mitsui’s Japanist position was not necessarily at odds with some liberal democratic ideals, with the provision that the state’s survival could never be threatened: “Mitsui is consistent with his overall promotion of democracy within the boundaries of national interest, an idea that we might term ‘Japanist Democracy’” (p. 146).

Person begins Chapter 4, “Surveilling the Right: The Convergence and Divergence of Japanist Ideology and Government Policies,” with the provocative claim that “[t]he history of Minoda and his compatriots is best read as a history of anti-establishment activism” (p. 177).  Person’s reasoning is that although Marxist activists of the so-called left were famously imprisoned as enemies of the state (especially under the terms provided by the Peace Preservation Law), it is sometimes forgotten that by the 1930s, the most violent threats to the statist establishment came from the so-called “nationalist right.” For this reason, Person argues that Japanists like Minoda should be viewed as more the adversaries of the state than its allies.

Substantiating this point, Person focuses on how assassination and attempted coup d’état provided the means by which a range of nationalist activists aimed to overcome corrupt party politicians and political theorists whose notions of governance diluted the authority of the Emperor. Focusing on the Imperial Organ Theory incident and the “movement to clarify the national essence” (kokutai meichō undō) of the mid-1930s, Person describes how a “hodgepodge” of nationalist activists aimed to bolster the authority of the Emperor over that of the cabinet of ministers and of party politicians. In the course of this analysis, Person argues that what is sometimes remembered as a monolithic nationalist “right” in the service of the state was in fact a “momentary convergence” of various factions, each with differing interests that sometimes were—but often were not—coterminous with those of the state. Foregrounding the contradictions of the so-called “nationalist right” in this way complicates the common sense association of “nationalism” and “the state” in 1930s Japan, offering instead a more granular perspective on the conflicting interests of specific nationalist groups.

Person next draws attention to how the nationalist exhortations issued by the state ran up against the uncomfortable reality that dozens of assassinations of state officials—as well as attempted coups d’état—were in fact carried out in the 1930s by activists who believed that the state and its bureaucrats obstructed the direct rule of the Emperor and therefore corrupted the Kokutai. For these violent actors, the state itself was the enemy of the Kokutai—not its champion—and they therefore set out to reorganize or destroy it. Person then examines how the conflicted task of the state became to simultaneously promote a general allegiance to the Kokutai while at the same time neutralizing those violent agents who attacked the state in the name of the Kokutai: “Unlike campaigns against Marxist, Communist and anarchist movements, this campaign [against nationalist intellectuals and activists] required of the authorities the simultaneous eradication of subversive threats and the promotion of the general political ideology to which such threats adhered, that is, ultimate deference to the Kokutai” (p. 222).  Noting that different strains of Kokutai nationalism simultaneously became the enemies and the allies of the state, this chapter complicates any easy association of “nationalism” and statist ambitions in 1930s Japan. More broadly, it implies that although it is sometimes remembered that the Japanese state began distancing itself from the nationalist “right” only after the 1945 surrender, the state’s active policing of nationalist activism in fact began more than a decade earlier, out of the fear that some strains of violent Kokutai nationalism presented the most dangerous threats to the wartime regime.

Chapter 5, “The Intellectual as Metaphor: Theories of Leadership and Empire in Wartime Japan,” examines how intellectuals in the late 1930s conceived of their leadership role in the midst of a world-historical crisis, asking: “Given the increasingly complex relationship between ideas and society, how did intellectuals respond to the challenge of redefining their political function?” (p. 234).  Person engages this question through a comparison of Minoda and Miki Kiyoshi.  He notes that although their legacies “could not be any more dissimilar,” they “both shared the fundamental faith in the power of ideas in their ability to effect a new system of social relations” (pp. 235-236).  Person focuses on how Miki and Minoda were both concerned that the leadership role of intellectuals was jeopardized by the declining influence of general interest journals (sōgō zasshi), and that an ascendant group of technocrats threatened to usurp the influential role previously reserved for public intellectuals. Despite their similar concern over the place of the intellectual in society, however, Person also points to how Miki and Minoda promoted the intellectual-as-leader in nearly opposite ways: Miki joined the Shōwa Kenkyūkai, a state policy bureau organized by Konoe Fumimaro, whereas Minoda distanced himself from the state, remained skeptical of the Shōwa Kenkyūkai and instead placed his faith in the masses and the Emperor.

Person notes the irony that Miki, who critiqued technocrats’ leadership, ended up joining their ranks as a member of the Shōwa Kenkyūkai, while Minoda, by contrast, engaged in grassroots efforts aimed at clarifying the Kokutai and instilling a collective sprit among the masses. Yet, while Miki’s and Minoda’s methods for mobilizing the populace and reclaiming a privileged role for the intellectual differed, Person is careful to point out that both of them conceived of the intellectual as a threatened but indispensable force in shaping the future of Japanese society. The chapter ends by noting the irony that Minoda, who championed statist initiatives to “clarify the national essence,” wound up being viewed as an enemy of the state in the early 1940s, when student demonstrators thought to have been under his influence clashed with police. With this, Person returns to the uneasy relationship between “nationalism” and the state by showing how Japanist intellectuals and activists were sometimes perceived as the state’s most dangerous enemies.

In the course of these five chapters, Person crafts a wide-ranging, yet conceptually focused study of so-called “rightist” political thought and action in interwar and wartime Japan. In so doing, Person does more than present a dynamic intellectual history of Minoda Muneki; he also complicates the perceived unity and “fanaticism” of so-called “rightist” thought during the period by emphasizing the points of difference even among nationalist factions as well as the conceptually founded contributions that Japanist intellectuals made to conversations about liberal democratic thought and Marxist materialism. The study also points to the conflicted position of the state within this intellectual and political milieu, at once charged with policing violent challenges to its own hegemony while at the same time needing to promote a controlled loyalty to the very Kokutai that its most dangerous challengers also championed. The result is an important study that reads a complicated moment in a complicated way, and that poses provocative questions in every chapter.

Brian Hurley
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures
UC Berkeley

Primary Sources

Nihon oyobi Nihonjin (1910-1926)
Genri Nippon (1925-1944)
Genri Nippon Society Charter (1925), translated by the author into English
Jinsei to Hyōgen
Minoda Muneki zenshū

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012.  299 pp. Primary Advisor: James Ketelaar.


Image: Genri Nippon, 1934. WikiMedia Commons.

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