In 1942, not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a group of Japanese philosophers got together in Kyoto to discuss Japan’s role in the world. The project of this ultra-nationalist gathering was, as they put it, to find a way to “overcome modern civilization.” Since modern civilization was another term for Western civilization, the conference might just as well have been entitled “Overcoming the West.” In a complete reversal of the late-nineteenth-century goal of “leaving Asia and joining the West,” Japan was now fighting a “holy war” to liberate Asia from the West and purify Asian minds of Western ideas. Part of the holy war was, as it were, an exercise in philosophical cleansing.
The cleansing agent was a mystical mishmash of German-inspired ethnic nationalism and Zen- and Shinto-based nativism. The Japanese were a “world-historical race” descended from the gods, whose divine task it was to lead all Asians into a new age of Great Harmony, and so on. But what was “the West” which had to be purged? What needed to be “overcome”? The question has gained currency, since the chief characteristics of this Western enemy would have sounded familiar to Osama bin Laden, and other Islamic extremists. They are, not in any particular order, materialism, liberalism, capitalism, individualism, humanism, rationalism, socialism, decadence, and moral laxity. These ills would be overcome by a show of Japanese force, not just military force, but force of will, of spirit, of soul. The key characteristics of the Japanese or “Asian” spirit were self-sacrifice, discipline, austerity, individual submission to the collective good, worship of divine leadership, and a deep faith in the superiority of instinct over reason.
There was of course more at stake in Japan’s war with the West, but these were the philosophical underpinnings of Japanese wartime propaganda. The central document of Japan’s claim to national divinity was entitled Cardinal Principles of the National Polity (Kokutai no Hongi). Issued in 1937 by the ministry of education, this document claimed that the Japanese were “intrinsically quite different from so-called citizens of Western nations,” because the divine imperial bloodlines had remained unbroken, and “we always seek in the emperor the source of our lives and activities.” The Japanese spirit was “pure” and “unclouded,” whereas the influence of Western culture led to mental confusion and spiritual corruption.
Western, especially German, ideas inspired some of this. A famous right-wing professor, Dr. Uesugi Shinkichi, began his spiritual life as a Christian, studied statecraft in Wilhelminian Germany, and returned home to write (in 1919): “Subjects have no mind apart from the will of the Emperor. Their individual selves are merged with the Emperor. If they act according to the mind of the Emperor, they can realize their true nature and attain the moral ideal.” Of such stuff are holy warriors made.
Similar language—though without the neo-Shintoist associations—was used by German National Socialists and other European fascists. They, too, fought against that list of “soulless” characteristics commonly associated with liberal societies …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.