Japanese nationalism provided a political and ideological foundation for the actions of the Japanese military (Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy forces) in the years leading up to World War II. Despite its distinctive features (Emperor worship and the ethno-religious character of the state), Japanese nationalism served the same function as and drew inspiration from similar ideologies developed under Western Fascism.
Constituted over a long time by house manuals on war and warriorship, it gained some official backing with the establishment of the Bakufu, which sought an ideological orthodoxy in the Neo-Confucianism of Chu Hsi tailored for military echelons that formed the basis of the new shogunal government . An important early role was played by Yamaga Sokō in theorizing a Japanese military ethos. After the abolition of the feudal system, one of the slogans used to mobilize public sentiment and orientate national policy in early Meiji times was Fukoku kyōhei, namely 'Enrich the country, strengthen the military'. The new military institutions of Japan were shaped along European lines, with Western instructors, and the codes themselves modeled on standard models adapted from abroad. The impeccable behaviour, in terms of international criteria, displayed by the Japanese military in the Russo-Japanese war was proof that Japan finally disposed of a modern army whose techniques, drilling and etiquette of war differed little from that of what prevailed among the Western imperial powers.
An undercurrent of traditional warrior values, however, had never wholly disappeared, and, as Japan slid towards a cycle of repeated crises from the mid-Taishō to early Shōwa eras, the old samurai ideals began to assume importance among more fanatical professionals in the Imperial Japanese Army. Sadao Araki, for one, played an important role in adapting a doctrine of "seishin kyōiku" (spiritual training) as an ideological backbone for army personnel. As Minister of Education, he supported the integration of the samurai code into the national education system.
In developing the modern concepts of and emperor worship, various Japanese philosophers tried to revive or purify national beliefs (kokugaku ) by removing imported foreign ideas, borrowed primarily from Chinese philosophy. This "Restoration Shintōist Movement" began with Motoori Norinaga in the 18th century. Motoori Norinaga, and later Hirata Atsutane, based their research on the Kojiki and other classic Shintō texts which teach the superiority of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. This formed the basis for State Shintōism, as the Japanese emperor claimed direct descent from Amaterasu. The emperor himself was therefore sacred, and all proclamations of the emperor had thus a religious significance.
After the Meiji Restoration, the new imperial government needed to rapidly modernize the polity and economy of Japan, and the Meiji oligarchy felt that those goals could only be accomplished through a strong sense of national unity and cultural identity, with State Shintōism as an essential counterweight to the imported Buddhism of the past, the Christianity and other western philosophies of the present..
In 1890, the Imperial Rescript on Education was issued, and students were required to ritually recite its oath to "offer yourselves courageously to the State" as well as protect the Imperial family. The practice of emperor worship was further spread by distributing imperial portraits for esoteric veneration. All of these practices used to fortify national solidarity through patriotic centralized observance at shrines gave pre-war Japanese nationalism a tint of mysticism and cultural introversion.
The hakko ichiu philosophy came to be regarded by militarists as a doctrine that the emperor was the center of the phenomenal world, lending religious impetus to ideas of Japanese territorial expansion.
The government published official text books for all levels of student, and reinforced that with cultural activities, seminars, etc. These cultural courses were supplemented with military and survival courses (against invasion).
Apart from indoctrination in nationalism and religion, children and school students received military drills (survival, first aid). These were taken further by the Imperial Youth Federation ; college students were trained, and some recruited, for home defense and regular military units. Young women received first aid training. All of these actions were taken to insure Japan's safety, and protect against larger and more dangerous countries.
In 1882 the Japanese Government organized the Teiseito (Imperial Gubernative Party), one of first nationalist parties in the country. From the Russo-Japanese War Japan was called "Dai Nippon Teikoku", setting up a real Empire, with the inclusions of Formosa (1895), the Liaodong Peninsula and Karafuto (1905), the South Pacific Mandate islands (1918-19) and aiming at control of Joseon (Korea)(1905-10).
The wars against China and Russia were total wars, and required a nationalistic focus of patriotic sentiment. From this period the Yasukuni Jinja was converted into a center of the new patriotic sense.
In 1926-28 the central government organized the "Peace preservation Department" (an antisubversive police section), and prosecuted all local communists who proposed a socialist form of government. The Japanese Army organized the Kempeitai (Military police service) and the Japanese Navy an equivalent. These security groups not only had military police responsibilities, additionally they possessed special weapons (groups in Manchuria), and a political department, and were ideologically related to the Kōdōha Party (a faction, and a political branch of the Army in civil government) and the colonial and security administrations.
According to some authors, to call Japan in 1941 fascist or totalitarian is an error. The "New Structure" in Japan did not depend on one leader at the centre, a Mussolini or Hitler. Japanese citizens were rallied to the "Defensive State" or "Consensus State", in which all efforts of the nation supported collective objectives, by guidance from national myths, history and dogmas, obtaining a "national consensus".
Since the Meiji restoration, the central figure of the state was the Tenno, the emperor. According to the constitution, the emperor was Head of State (article 4) and supreme commander of the Army and the Navy (article 11). Emperor Shōwa was also, from 1937, the commander of the Imperial General Headquarters.
About who really held the political power in Japan, there are three versions. One says that real control was exerted by the Emperor over the military; another validates a "consensus leadership" between the Emperor the other members of the Imperial General Headquarters, the government and the zaibatsu. There is also the 'militarist' position, denying politics as a factor. It argues that real control did lie with the military, behind a front formed by the Emperor and Government (as certainly occurred in Manchukuo with the Kangde Emperor Puyi).
For many historians such as Akira Fujiwara, Akira Yamada, Peter Wetzler, Herbert Bix and John Dower, the work done by Douglas MacArthur and SCAP during the first months of the occupation of Japan to exonerate Hirohito and all the imperial family from criminal prosecutions in the Tokyo tribunal was the predominant factor in the successful campaign to diminish in retrospect the role played by the emperor during the war. They argue that post-war view focused on the imperial conferences and missed the numerous "behind the crysanthemum curtain" meetings where the real decisions were made between Emperor Shōwa, his chiefs of staff and the cabinet. For Fujiwara, "the thesis that the Emperor, as an organ of responsibility, could not reverse cabinet decision, is a myth (shinwa) fabricated after the war."
The principal military figures were:
During the 1920s Right wing-Nationalist beliefs became a major force. The state support for Shinto encouraged a semi-religious belief in the mythological history of Japan (and thus to mysticism and cultural introversion). Some nationalist secret societies took up ultranationalism, Japan-centred radical ideas, and a new conception of State Socialism. They included: Genyōsha (Black Ocean Society, 1881), Kokuryu-kai (Amur Society, or Black Dragon Society, 1901), movements dedicated to overseas Japanese expansion to the north; Nihon Kokusui Kai (Japanese Patriotic Society, 1919), founded by Tokoname Takejiro; Sekka Boshidan (Anti-Red League) founded at the same time as the Japanese Communist Party; and the Kokuhonsha (State Basis Society) founded in 1924 by Baron Hiranuma, for the preservation of the unique national character of Japan and its special mission in Asia.
The introduction of the distinctive theory of "State Socialism" is attributed to Kita Ikki (1885-1937), an Amur Society member and Asian mainland expert, in his 1919 book Nihon kaizo hoan taiko (General Plan for National Reorganization of Japan). He proposed a military coup d'état to promote the supposed true aims of the Meiji Restoration. This book was banned, but certain military circles read in it in the early 1930s.
Kita's plan was phrased in terms of freeing the Emperor from weak and treasonous counsellors. After suspending the Constitution, and dissolving the Diet, the Emperor and his military defenders should work for a "collectivist direct voluntarism" to unify people and leaders. Harmony with the working classes would be sought by the abolition of the aristocracy and austerity for the Imperial House. Overseas, Japan would free Asia of Western influence.
The military were considered politically "clean" in terms of political corruption, and assumed responsibility for 'restoring' the security of the nation, too. The armed forces took up criticism of the traditional democratic parties and regular government for many reasons (low funds for the armed forces, compromised national security, weakness of the leaders). They were also, by their composition, closely aware of the effects of economic depression on the middle and lower classes, and the communist threat.
Both branches gained in power as they administered the exterior provinces and military preparations.
Violent coups took place, and the Kwantung Army made, in effect unilaterally, the decision to invade Manchuria. This was then treated as a fait accompli by Government and Emperor.
During 1940 Prince Konoe proclaimed the Shintaisen (New National Structure), making Japan into an "advanced state of National Defense", and the creation of the Tasei Yokusankai (Imperial Authority Assistance Association), for organizing a centralized "consensus state". Associated are the government creation of the Tonarigumi (residents' committees). Other ideological creations of the time were the book "Shinmin no Michi"(臣民の道), the "Imperial Way" or "War Party" (Kodoha) Army party, the "Yamato spirit" (Yamato-damashii), and the idea of hakko ichiu(whose directly translation is "4 walls and 4 corners under one roof", that means, "one house in which every people can live" or "everyone is family"),"Religion and Government Unity" (Saisei itchi),and Kokka Sodoin Ho (General Mobilization Right).
The economic doctrines of the "Yen block" were in 1941 transformed to the "Great Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" Plan, as a basis for the Japanese national finances, and conquest plans. There was a history of perhaps two decades behind these moves.
The Japanese theorists, such as Saneshige Komaki, concerned with Mainland Asia, knew the geostrategic theory of Halford Mackinder, expressed in the book Democratic Ideas and Reality. He discussed why the 'World Island' of Eurasia and Africa was dominant, and why the key to this was the 'Central Land' in Central Asia. This is protected from sea attack, by deserts and mountains, and is vulnerable only on its west side, and to advanced technology from Europe.
Mackinder declared that: "Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World". These central Asiatic lands included: all of the Soviet Union, except the Pacific coast, west of the Volga river; all Mongolia, Sinkiang, Tibet and Iran. This zone is vast and possesses natural resources and raw materials, does not possess major farming possibilities, and has very little population. Mackinder thought in terms of land and sea power: the latter can outflank the former, and carry out distant logistical operations, but needs adequate bases.
These geopolitical ideas coincided with the theories of Lieutenant Colonel Kanji Ishiwara, sent in 1928 to Manchuria to spy. The Army adopted them, in some form. The Navy, on the other hand, was interested in the southerly direction of expansion. An extended debate ensued, resolved in the end by the stern experience of Japan's armed conflicts with the Soviet Union in 1938-39. This tipped the balance towards the 'South' plan, and the Pearl Harbor attack that precipitated the Pacific War in 1941.
These revolutionary groups later had the help of several important personages, making reality to some certain ideas of the Socialist-Militarist policy with practical work in Manchukuo. They included General Hideki Tojo, chief of Kempeitai and leader of Kwantung Army; Yosuke Matsuoka, who served as president of the (South Manchuria Railway Company) and Foreign Affairs minister; and Naoki Hoshino, an army ideologist who organized the government and political structure of Manchukuo. Tojo later became War Minister and Prime Minister in the Konoe cabinet, Matsuoka Foreign Minister, and Hoshino chief of Project departments charged with establishing a new economic structure for Japan. Some industrialists representative of this ideological strand were Ichizo Kobayashi, President of Tokio Gasu Denki, setting the structure for the Industry and Commerce ministry, and Shozo Murata, representing the Sumitomo Group becoming Communication Minister.
Other groups created were the Government Imperial Aid Association and Imperial Youth Federation. Involved in both was Colonel Kingoro Hashimoto, who proposed a Nationalist single party dictatorship, based on socialism. The militarists had strong industrial support, but also socialist-nationalist sentiments on the part of radical officers, aware of poor farmers and workers who wanted social justice.
The "New Asia Day" celebration was to remember the sacred mission of extending influence to nearby Asian nations.
The Japanese government, possibly following the German example of a "Worker's Front" State Syndicate, ultimately organized the Nation Service Society to group all the trades unions in the country. All syndicates of the "Japanese Workers Federation" were integrated into this controlling body.
The official press agency Domei Tsushin was connected with the Axis powers' press agencies such as D. N. B., Transoceanic, the Italian agency Stefani and others. Local and Manchukoan newspapers such as "Manchurian Daily News" (Japanese-owned) were under the control of these institutions and only published officially approved notices and information.
After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the whole structure was dismantled by the Allied occupation authorities in the whole Japanese Empire and Japanese-held territories.
The shiragiku (literally white chrysanthemum) or more common chrysanthemum flower was much used as an imperial symbol. It alludes to the Chrysanthemum Throne, the traditional throne of Japanese emperors.
With the renunciation of war and military power, Japan looked to the United States for security. As the Cold War began, the United States fostered a closer relationship with Japan due to the latter's strategic location in respect to the USSR. Japan became, as stated by the Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" for the United States. Ensuing from this close relationship with the United States, Japan hoped that in time their country would become the "third leg in a triangle involving two superpowers." The seventies witnessed Japan's adoption of three fundamental tenets that would seek to define and direct Japanese internationalism, all concerning the need for Japanese initiatives in fostering a liberal internationalism. Japan's economic miracle of the late 20th century distracted its citizens' attention away from nationalism.
Today, Japanese nationalism is perceived by some to be on the rise. Some lawmakers in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) seek to revise the constitution with the focus on Article 9. Another example is a history textbook that some claim downplays Japan's role in World War II. The 1998 adoption of the national anthem and flag as state symbols (some believe them to be symbolic of Japanese nationalism during World War II) and previous Prime Minister Koizumi's six visits to the Yasukuni Shrine have also been viewed by some as an increase of nationalism. On the other side, others view changes over recent years as merely an assertion of Japanese confidence and point out that Japan is no more nationalist than any of its neighbours.
In 1996, the National Police Agency estimated that there are over 1,000 right wing groups in Japan, with about 100,000 members in total. These groups are known in Japanese as Uyoku dantai. While there are political differences among the groups, they generally carry a philosophy of anti-leftism, hostility towards People's Republic of China and North Korea and justification of Japan's role in World War II. Uyoku dantai groups are well known for their highly visible propaganda vehicles fitted with loudspeakers and prominently marked with the name of the group and propaganda slogans.
Activists affiliated with such groups have used Molotov cocktails and time bombs to intimidate moderate politicians and public figures, including former Deputy Foreign Minister Hitoshi Tanaka and Fuji Xerox Chairman Yotaro Kobayashi. An ex-member of a right-wing group set fire to LDP politician Koichi Kato's house. Koichi Kato and Yotaro Kobayashi had spoken out against Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine.