The Origins of Japanese Nationalism

Written by Dmitry Filippov. Edited by Bradley Bosson.

In recent years, Japan’s government and many members of the country’s political establishment have been described as nationalistic, with the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe often being labeled a nationalist. Abe’s plans to amend Japan’s peaceful constitution and increase its security role in East Asia in the face of growing tensions with China are viewed by many as signs of the resurgence of Japanese militarism. While greatly exaggerated, these opinions reflect the general point of view that, even though Japan was occupied by the United States, demilitarised and democratised after the Second World War, it never came to terms with its nationalistic, militaristic past like Germany did. Looking at the origins of Japan’s right-wing ideology might provide an insight into some of its current issues.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 opened a new era in Japanese history. The Tokugawa Shogunate was overthrown, and the young Emperor Mutsuhito ascended to the Chrysanthemum throne. The new government’s large-scale economic and social reforms mostly affected the samurai; Japan embarked on a path to capitalism which for the samurai as a social class became tantamount to a death sentence.

The samurai – who deemed even touching money beneath their dignity – became dependent on pawnbrokers and traders, and with the fiefdom system abolished and samurai troops disbanded, their very existence was put in jeopardy. As time passed, many samurai became disillusioned with the results of the Restoration. Their plight made them search for a way out in what they had been doing for centuries – war. The samurai called on the government to conquer Korea and Taiwan (then known as Formosa) and blamed the new regime for being undetermined and meek. Their frustration culminated in the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 which ended in defeat and the suicide of its leader Takamori Saigo; previously the hero of the Restoration and a fervid monarchist. Since then, Japanese society no longer suffered from upheavals, while the establishment of parliament (known as the Diet) and the enactment of constitution managed to create a semblance of social balance.

The first right wing societies that emerged in the wake of the samurai’s disillusionment with the Meiji Restoration were elitist rather than mainstream and concerned themselves primarily with issues of foreign policy. The first secret societies were formed by three samurai from Fukuoka, Mitsuru Toyama (1855-1944), Kotaro Hiraoka (1851 – 1906) and Rokusuke Hakoda (1850 – 1888). The three of them knew each other since attending a private school as teenagers and in 1879, they formed Koyosha, or the Society of the Sunward. The new organisation demanded the convocation of parliament and the adoption of constitution, and criticised the government for being too indecisive in revising the unequal treaties with the West.

In 1881, Koyosha was renamed Genyosha (the Dark Ocean Society). The new name referred to the Genkai strait separating Kyushu and the Korean peninsula, and reflected the society’s eagerness to promote aggressive expansionist policy. At the same time, the society was founded on the principles of reverence for the Emperor, love for Japan and civil rights protection. Therefore, the early nationalistic societies in Japan did not belong to the extreme right wing spectrum. Due to their support of parliament, freedom of speech and human rights, they in fact leaned towards the left.

On its foreign policy front, the Dark Ocean Society used everything in its power to instigate the government’s aggression towards Korea by collaborating with local rebels and kindling anti-Japanese sentiments. Such actions came to fruition in 1882 when Korea was forced to sign a humiliating treaty with Japan and pay a large contribution. Agents were dispatched to Korea, Taiwan and China to gather intelligence and further destabilise public order.

At different times, the society supported such revolutionaries as Kim Ok-Gyun in Korea, Emilio Aguinaldo in the Philippines and Sun Yat-Sen in China. Special schools were established where future agents learned foreign languages, trained in jujutsu and engaged in other endeavors necessary for their work. These schools were supported by political circles; for example, the Sapporo school was financed by the governor of Hokkaido. Such encouragement was attributed to the fact that right wing societies often shared interests with the government which also became eager to expand Japan’s territory. As a result, secret societies lost its former antagonism towards the regime; by 1880s, samurai-led anti-government uprisings had been gone without a trace.

1901 saw the creation of Kokuryukai, or the Amur River Society (often erroneously translated as the Black Dragon Society; Kokuryu is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters for the Amur river which literally mean “black dragon”). The ogranisation was formed by Ryohei Uchida (1874-1937), a publicist from Fukuoka and a former member of the Dark Ocean Society.

Japanese soldiers during the occupation of Seoul.

Japanese soldiers during the occupation of Seoul.

During the Russo-Japanese war, the 1910 annexation of Korea and the 1918-1922 Japanese intervention in Siberia, the Amur River Society engaged in covert activities aimed at strengthening Japan’s positions overseas. Uchida maintained ties with national movements in British India and Burma, paying special attention to collaborating with various Muslim nationalists. During the Russo-Japanese war, Uchida planned to use more than twenty million Muslims living in the Russian Empire to support the Japanese army.

The Russo-Japanese and the First World wars both brought unsatisfactory results for Japan which gave rise to the second wave of Japanese right wing ideology, much more radical and antagonistic towards the government. The 1910s became a period of numerous public protests and radicalisation of political parties and societies. New extreme nationalists saw their goal in establishing a dictatorship, and terror became their weapon of choice. Soon, far right ideology permeated the Japanese army resulting in the birth of the so-called Young Officers’ Movement which became the driving force of Japanese nationalism starting from the 1920s.