Rationalizing Empire in Wartime Japan


A review of Rationalizing Empire: Nation, Space and Community in Japanese Social Sciences, 1931-1945, by SEOK-WON LEE.  

Much of the literature on the Japanese empire in the 1920s and 1930s implicitly addresses the transformation of the imperial worldview from internationalist to Asianist, against a political backdrop of rupture, autarky, and military collision. Seok-won Lee’s dissertation explores this metamorphosis within the social sciences, including the disciplines of political science, sociology, and economics. In the relatively liberal atmosphere of the 1920s, social scientists justified Japan’s position as a global power with reference to its developed character, as expressed through commitment to the “universal” values of democracy and capitalism. In the early 1930s, however, the expansion of the empire brought Japan into conflict with its former models in the West, and necessitated the creation of a rationale for an Asian political community under imperial domination. The doctrine of Pan-Asianism, which mobilized “un-scientific” referents such as race, blood, religion, and customs, emerged to supply a justification of Japanese rule. Social scientists, however, were not persuaded by this chauvinistic and spiritual ideology. Rather, they sought to establish a rational basis for its explicitly non-scientific contentions. Lee shows how both imperialist and colonial social scientists participated in the process of subject formation and the creation of logics for a rational commitment to an irrational community of collective violence—that is, the empire.

This dissertation is organized conceptually, rather than by discipline or thinker. Following the introductory chapter (Chapter 1), Chapter 2 explores the exchange of universalism for Asian regionalism as a justification of imperial rule. In the Mukden Incident of September 1931, Japan’s Kwantung Army overran Manchuria; within six months, it had established the “puppet state” of Manchukuo. The simple metropole-colony binary no longer adequately described the empire. To capture the altered set of relations among imperial spaces, social scientists offered the concept of regionalism. In devising the so-called East Asian Cooperative Community, two scholars were particularly significant: Rōyama Masamichi, a Tokyo Imperial University professor of political science and the subject of significant scholarship by Victor Koschmann, Sven Saaler, and others; and the less-studied Shinmei Masamichi, a professor of sociology at Tōhoku Imperial University.

Chapter 3 addresses the efforts of social scientists (mostly sociologists) to conceptualize the multiethnic empire. How could Japan establish the racial commonality needed to link its subjects in a Pan-Asian community, while simultaneously maintaining the superiority of the Yamato people as a justification for their political primacy? This chapter revisits the work of Shinmei Masamichi as well as the thought of Takata Yasuma, an economics professor and a key figure in the institutionalization of sociology as an independent academic discipline in Taisho-era Japan.

Chapter 4 examines the re-formulation of space, a given, natural, and static concept, into a dynamic and rational force capable of stimulating modern development. As Lee observes, historians have paid little attention to the concept of space in Pan-Asian discourses. His study reinserts geopolitical thought into the intellectual currents of the 1930s. In wartime Japan, the analysis of space emerged from German intellectual traditions and diverged into the Kyoto school of geography and the Tokyo school of rationalist geopolitics. From these two largely discrete and even hostile academic centers, social scientists considered how to conceptualize an imperial space that was at once mutual, multiethnic, and multicultural. They suggested modernization and economic development as rational sources of unity for an East Asian empire. For these mostly Marxist intellectuals, however, this solution provoked a new challenge: how could unity be achieved among regions in different stages of development? Japan’s relatively advanced economy came to serve as a justification for imperial leadership of the ethnically, spatially, and economically heterogeneous Asian political community.

Chapters 5 and 6 review Marxist interpretations of Pan-Asianism in the 1930s. Chapter 5 focuses on orthodox Japanese and Korean Marxists, who attempted to historicize a distinctively Asian mode of production as a trope of imperial unity. By situating this phenomenon in the ancient past, however, they neutralized it as an obstacle to socialist revolution. In Chapter 6, Lee examines the village community in the writings of East Asian Community theorist Hirano Yoshitarō and Moritani Katsumi, a student of colonial Korea. The setting of the Asian mode of production, the village community, was traditionally constructed as a site of stagnation, inefficiency, overpopulation, and underdevelopment. The imperative to make Pan-Asianism scientific, however, resulted in a more positive evaluation of this idealized community as a cooperative and self-sufficient form of sociopolitical organization, in contrast to the profit-oriented individualism of the West. By the mid-1930s, however, the entire notion of the village community had come under attack, as Moritani and other leftists were forced to commit tenkō (formal renunciation of a Marxist political position) and resign themselves to the ideological orthodoxy of the state.

Within the field of prewar Japanese intellectual history, Lee engages important questions raised by his advisors Victor Koschmann and Naoki Sakai, as well as other scholars such as Andrew Barshay, Kevin Doak, Harry Harootunian, Oguma Eiji, and Stefan Tanaka. Lee rejects the contentions of Maruyama Masao and his student Ishida Takeshi, who dismiss the legacy of prewar social science for postwar thought. Instead, Lee argues that the social science of the 1930s not only represented an outgrowth of 1920s ideas and methodologies formulated by scholars working voluntarily and independently of the state, but also served as a critical foundation for scholarship after Japan’s defeat. An elegantly written and insightful study that calls attention to both little-known names and the acknowledged intellectual leaders of the wartime era, this work has much to contribute to the field of Japanese intellectual history and the currently booming study of the Japanese empire.

Miriam Kingsberg
University of Colorado at Boulder

Dissertation Information

Cornell University. 2010. 310 pp. Primary Advisor: Julien Victor Koschmann.

Primary Sources

As a work of intellectual history, this dissertation takes as its primary source base the published and unpublished writings of Japan’s leading sociologists, political scientists, and economists in the 1930s and 1940s. Many of these works appear as individually authored monographs, or in posthumously edited collections (zenshū). The journals Chūō kōron, Shisō, and Keizai ōrai loom large as forums for the writings of many of the social scientists examined by Lee.

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