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During the last decades, scholars have focused on studying the concept of fascism in a thorough manner. Nonetheless, the term has created a substantial confusion, since various researches derive considerably diverse meaning out of the concept. In these terms, the extent to which pre-war Japan can be described as a fascist regime contributed towards the emergence of heated scientific debates about the issue.

In order to understand the essence of scientific arguments, it is pivotal to distinguish various approaches towards the problem. The most prominent one lies within the “attempt to associate fascism with a particular historical stage in the development of industrial society.”

Moreover, the critics often attribute currency of the term to Marxist influence; therefore, the debate has been further complicated by ideological tendencies. There is a certain divergence of opinion between Marxist and non-Marxist scholars. Meanwhile, some describe fascism as an inevitable stage in the capitalist development that can be predominantly characterized by dictatorship and oppression; others suggest that the described stage of development can be omitted or result from distinct reasons. Moreover, fascism was also perceived as a form of political movement. There were attempts to associate this phenomenon with particular social groups that protested against the existent order. The abovementioned characteristics are mainly attributed to European countries with fascist regimes such as Germany and Italy. However, these features cannot be applied to the Japanese case, since its development differed from European fascist regimes to a considerable degree.

Ultra-nationalism as the Crucial Ideological Factor

The crucial ideological factor that have influenced on the formation of a specific regime within Japan is described as ultra-nationalism or extreme nationalism. According to Maruyama, this phenomenon was widely described by the scholars; however, it lacked a proper and thorough examination of its origin and essence. The distinctive feature of ultra-nationalism is the inevitable presence of militarist and expansionist tendencies. However, the Japanese nationalism was mainly based on the attempt to balance the national sovereignty in terms of internal and external values, while maintaining the distribution of authority between the rulers and the ruled. It is essential to emphasize the role of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1890), since it caused significant transformation within the Japanese society. Thus, the peasant majority was exploited in order to achieve the goals of the bourgeois class. Moreover, the charisma of the imperial institution was utilized with the purpose of enhancing the influence on the lower classes. Meanwhile, the role of the emperor was crucial and elevated to a considerable degree; this policy caused the elevation of emperor’s servants and advisors over the rest of the society. During the late Meiji period, the ideology of Japan was predominantly based on absolutism infused by nationalism.

After World War I, the abovementioned historical circumstances led to the emergence of oppressed classes that challenged the absolutist regime from within. By the 1930s, the ruling classes consisted of people sharing the fascist aims and ideas. While the representatives of a new movement gradually occupied the leading position within the ministries, the policy of the government shifted as well. Thus, the form of the political regime in Japan began to alter. 

According to Maruyama, the new regime in Japan was rather distinct as there were no mass movement or cult of the supreme leader. However, a crucial role of military officers was emphasized. The armed forces were imbued with a notion of their superiority in a profound manner, which determined their attitude towards the lowest classes. This behaviour was predominantly based on the concept of being the Imperial force, which implies the direct control of the Emperor. Thus, it is essential to highlight the status of the Emperor within the Japanese society. In the psychology of ultra-nationalism, he occupied the apical position in the hierarchy system, in which each element from bottom to top relied on a superior one in terms of values and authority.   

 The Differences between the Japanese and European Fascist Regimes

Nevertheless, Duss and Okimoto emphasize the differences between the Japanese case and other European fascist regimes, which leads to a conclusion that “it is meaningless to speak of Japan in the 1930s as a ‘fascist’ political system.” However, it should be noted that fascist movement dissolved and became the part of the total political system of Japan of those times. 

 There is a notion that fascist parties exercised unilateral control, when they attained state power. However, fascism predominantly cooperated rather than displaced the most significant pre-fascist ruling circles. In this context, it was impossible for the representatives of fascism movement to exercise unilateral control in each apparatus or branch within the political system of Japan. Thus, there was a necessity for them to adjust appropriately.

When compared to Germany and Italy, the elitist politics of Japan is distinct to a considerable degree. The European fascist regimes relied on political movements that aimed at causing the rupture of the elite continuity. The leaders of these movements tended to proclaim themselves representatives of new trends in terms of modern realities. This led to the seizure of power by fascists in both Italy and Germany. However, the status of the emperor made it substantially difficult to borrow fascist ideas from Europe by the simple fact that they excluded monarchical rule.

The Japanese case differed from the abovementioned European cases, since there was no similar experience in the history of the country during this period. According to Duus and Okimoto, the assassination of Premier Inukai in 1932 can be considered as an analogous event, although the pace of developments took an alternative direction.

Consequently, the power was not transferred to the assassins or those, whom they supported. Instead, it was seized by a highly respectable senior admiral, who lacked the most prominent and exposed features of the fascism supporters, namely youth or action. In 1936, the military revolt avoided displacing the ruling elite, while adhering to the established policy. According to Maruyama, the leaders of the 1930s were “the brightest and the best”, unlike those misfits, positioners and street fighters who seized the power in fascist Europe.

The Emperor-System Fascism

In this context, a distinctive feature of fascism in the Japanese case is usually emphasized by its denomination of the ‘emperor-system fascism’. In 1949, this concept was introduced by Moriya Fumio and received a wide support later. The theory was mainly based on the thesis of the enduring and absolutist nature of the emperor system. The essential feature of this system lied within its ability to acquire fascist functions in a gradual manner. Moreover, the emperor system turned into a growing fusion with the monopoly capital. Nonetheless, various researches utilize the term differently, while fiving this concept a slightly distinct meaning.

According to Bix, the emperor-system fascism emphasizes “the temporary combination, merging or loose juxtaposition of elements formed in different historical stages of the same capitalist mode of production, within a nation having distinctive historical traditions of authoritarian rule and the value structures derived from a long feudal past.”

Therefore, the concept of the emperor system describes a particular framework of power, which consists of the ruling circles that encompass various spheres of state policy. Despite the fact that these structures and institutions differ in their development, each of them relates to others in some respect. The emperor system denotes a specific structure of the state, including its ruling scheme, which was conditioned by the historical circumstances that contributed vastly towards the formation of this political system as well as the most prominent principles of governing within the state.  

In this context, Duus and Okimoto suggest to perceive the 1930s as the formative period of a managerial state. During this period, bureaucracy became the pivotal element in terms of shaping and executing the national policy. Furthermore, economic and social development of the state became principal directions of this policy. However, its implementation involved numerous state interventions during this period. It is crucial to emphasize that the process of economic development and industrialization began to have a substantial impact on all segments of the Japanese society.

In pre-war Japan, fascism became a powerful state renovative drive, which predominantly focused on developing each of the components of the emperor system during the late 1920s and1930s. It involved a movement against the forces of orthodoxy, which had some of the characteristics of a crusade for the reformation of a sacrosanct church. This was an attempt to redefine the emperor system at the political and economic levels. The abovementioned goal was achieved by means of national mobilization campaigns and war, as well. Therefore, the emperor-system fascism obtained specific features of incomplete nature of the fascist form of crisis regime in Japan.

While occupying the most significant position in terms of the political hierarchy, the emperor focused on defending the essential interests of the ruling class by managing the political framework. The power of the emperor applied to giving or withdrawing his trust, while attending to particular groups that expressed obedience and support to the ruling bloc. Therefore, the imperial institution benefitted to a considerable degree from the alliance if the monopoly bourgeoisie with the military. Nonetheless, the ultimate power was concentrated in the hands of the emperor.

In addition, it is essential to note that those who expressed the powerful managerial impulses of the 1930s ignored the countryside to a certain extent. Moreover, they predominantly focused on the alteration of relationships between private capitalism and the state bureaucracy. The reason for this lied within the relative simplicity of executing control over this sphere in comparison with the attempts of controlling the countryside that had been taken previously.    According to Duus and Okimoto, “the central nervous system of corporate capitalism was far more accessible and controllable than the amorphous mass of local communities”. Moreover, it was also rather susceptible to compulsory bureaucratic penetration in terms of the corporate decision-making process. Nonetheless, unlike the divided, dispersed and relatively weak local ruling circles, the leaders of the corporate capitalism had considerably powerful allies in the political arena.

During the period of 1932-1935, the right was mainly divided into two main categories, namely pure Japanism and national socialism. Both were critical of party politics and capitalism, but the national socialist journals were singled out for the extremism of their positive programme. There were several proposition, namely to eradicate capitalism and replace it with a planned state socialist economy, which were influenced by the Japan’s leading national socialist intellectual and one-time translator of Marx's Capital, Takabatake Motoyuki. In addition, they advocated nationalization of the means of production, while being highly critical of private property. Thus, Japan's national socialists perceived their movement in an exceptionally serious manner.

While taking into consideration the elite politics of pre-war Japan, it is essential to highlight the attempt to substitute bureaucratic rationality for market rationality in the allocation of scarce resources and in the distribution of rewards from the productive process. When compared to other countries with fascist regimes, Japan also differed, since the European fascism represented the consequences of the general impulse toward managed economies. This trend was notably on the rise all over the world during that period, which could be explained by its survival in the post-war world. Therefore, unlike Japan, European fascist regimes had a common problem in terms of their political economies that lacked a proper functionality and efficiency in the face of the world economic crisis.

The Transnational Ideology of Pan-Asianism

In addition, it is of paramount significance to emphasize that Japan followed the transnational ideology of Pan-Asianism. This doctrine played an integral and critical role in Japan’s policy formulation. Despite the unstable foreign policy and difficulties of the decision-making process, Pan-Asianism became a consistent and steady element that played a pivotal role in the gradual development of the ideological though in Japan.

Furthermore, the aforementioned ideology contributed vastly towards the Japanes ability to mobilize its population in a comprehensive fashion. Thus, Hotta suggests that Japan might not have taken the path from Manchuria to Pearl Harbor, Southeast Asia and its ultimate defeat in 1945, in case it did not follow the Pan-Asianism ideology.

By the time of the Manchurian Incident, this pattern had already been set and utilized. The army agitated the nation with propaganda not only on Japan's foreign policy crisis, but also on the need for more armed forces. Meanwhile, the pervasive internal security apparatus deflected the public's attention from the economic impact of the Depression with the purpose of focusing it on the internal crisis.

When studying the Japanese fascism, a wide range of scholars pay attention to domestic factors, even in explaining Japan's foreign policy. The reason for this is that they attempted to perceive imperialism and military expansionism in terms of external manifestations of domestic conflicts. In this context, the international behaviour of Japan depended on its domestic structure or framework. Furthermore, military expansionism results from inability to supply the state with all the necessary in order to develop and evolve, which made Japan seek overseas markets and resources.

Consequently, the global breakdown of the capitalist accumulation process led to overseas expansion. In general, there were several reasons that caused the abovementioned events. The substantial structural imbalances in the distribution of income and wealth, along with consequences of World War I represented the principal reasons.

While Japan’s population was gradually growing and the economic infrastructure was developing, there were substantial challenges in terms of the loss of export markets and access to overseas resources. Whereas the available resources were finite, the state was seeking for opportunities to improve its position in the international arena, while solving domestic issues as well. Therefore, the incentives to engage in war were considerable. Economic necessity to expand the country’s colonial empire coupled with the emergent fascist ideology comprised a series of internal changes, which were further manifested in terms of the external policy of Japan.

Pre-war Japan can be described as a fascist regime only to a certain extent, since it differed from the European cases substantially. The overall introduction of the regime took place in a distinct manner. Moreover, the essential difference was represented by the crucial role of the emperor. However, the phenomenon of fascism had a significant impact on the development of Japan. A wide range of incentives contributed towards the involvement of Japan in tragic events of World War II.

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