Japanese Nationalism and the Second World War
By Walter Skya
Walter Skya, PhD is Director of Asian Studies at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
Book by Walter Skya
Japan's Holy War Japan’s Holy War: The Ideology of Radical Shintō Ultranationalism. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009. Reprinted, 2012.

Japan’s Holy War reveals how a radical religious ideology drove the Japanese to imperial expansion and global war.

“Very well written and carefully researched, Japan’s Holy War is a classic work that should be on the reading list of every scholar. A major achievement.”
–Daniel A. Métraux, Virginia Review of Asian Studies

“An absolutely outstanding and necessary work. Skya’s book will become the standard work on the intellectual and ideological history of modern Shintō.”
–Klaus Antoni, University of Tübingen

“An exciting, theoretically informed, comparative study of Japanese nationalism.”
–Kevin M. Doak, author of A History of Nationalism in Modern Japan: Placing the People

Click here to read a Review Essay of Japan's Holy War

Japan's Holy War is available through Amazon at a special, discounted rate. Click here for information on how to purchase from Amazon.com
In a series of articles written especially for Library of Social Science, acclaimed author Walter Skya will explore and analyze the ideological sources of Japan’s participation in the Second World War.

Seventy years ago—on August 15, 1945—Emperor Hirohito announced that Japan would accept conditions for terminating the war as set down by the Allied Nations in the Potsdam Proclamation on July 26. His decision came after the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, followed by the Soviet Union’s entry into the war on August 8, and finally after another atomic bomb was dropped over the city of Nagasaki on August 9.

It came about after three of the six members of the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War (Saikō Sensō Shidō Kaigi)—Minister of War, Korechika Anami; Chief of the Army General Staff, Yoshijirō Umezu; and Chief of the Navy General Staff, Soemu Toyoda—had refused to surrender despite these three traumatic and horrific events in rapid succession. Japan’s military leaders had resolved to fight to the death, and to drag the nation onto a path of national annihilation.

One member of the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War, however, Minister of the Navy Yonai Mitsumasa, confided to Admiral Sōkichi Tagaki that the dropping of the atomic bombs and Soviet entry into the war were “a gift from the [Shintō] gods” (tenyū). Yonai was not concerned about the suffering of the Japanese people, but he was worried that if the war had gone on longer, his beloved Shintō monarchy might be destroyed by an internal rebellion, if not by outside Allied Forces.

In his speech announcement, Emperor Hirohito did not use the Japanese word for surrender. Instead, he said to his loyal subjects that “After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in our Empire today, we have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.”

The emperor went on to claim that “we declared war on America and Britain out of our sincere desire to ensure Japan’s self-preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.”

The emperor was insisting that Japan had done nothing wrong by waging war in Asia and the Pacific. In other words, he was distancing himself and the Japanese nation from any sense of war guilt or responsibility. Quite the contrary, he began to see the Japanese as victims of the war rather than perpetrators.

Still more, the emperor ignored the fact the Japanese had been waging war on China and the rest of the East Asia—causing the death of at least 20 million people—since 1931. He stated, “But now the war has lasted for nearly four years.” In another words, according to Emperor Hirohito, it was only after Pearl Harbor that the Second World War had begun.

Before that, he said, Japan had been “cooperating with the [Japanese] Empire toward the emancipation of East Asia.” He also stated, “We cannot but express the deepest sense of regret to our allied nations of East Asia, who have consistently cooperated with the Empire toward the emancipation of East Asia.” The problem with this statement is that Japan had no real East Asian allies!

In his classic, The Second World War (1989/2005), military historian John Keegan observed that the Second World War was the “largest single event in human history, fought across six of the world’s seven continents and all its oceans. It killed 50 million human beings, left hundreds of millions of others wounded in mind or body, and materially devastated much of the heartland of civilization.” While statistics vary, the latest research on this deadliest military conflict in human history shows that the total number of people dead was much higher—ranging from 60 million to as many as 80 million people.

What caused this war? What inspired the elites of these countries to embark on this war, and mobilized the German, Italian, and Japanese masses. Thousands of articles books have been written about the Second World War in the last seven decades. Nevertheless, there are large holes in the historiography. On European the side, Richard Koenigsberg and the Library of Social Science have done an incredible job bringing about an in-depth understanding of the ideology of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei).

In the case of Nazism, it is easy to name the ideological leaders. The average educated American has heard of Adolf Hitler’s book, even knowing it by the German language title, Mein Kampf. Many scholars have read Alfred Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century. As for Italian Fascism, the average American has heard of Benito Mussolini. Scholars may have read the writings of Italian Fascist theorists such as Giovanni Gentile and Alfredo Rocco.

Incredible as it may seem, however, there has been only one comprehensive history and analysis of the ideology that mobilized the Japanese masses and inspired the Japanese elite to embark on total war in Asia and the Pacific. What was the Japanese ideology that mobilized the Japanese masses to sacrifice their lives? The average American cannot answer this question.

More disturbingly, American scholars—even in the field of Japanese studies—cannot answer this question. Ask ten scholars, and you will get ten different answers. Who were the chief Japanese ideologues? The only person consistently mentioned in textbooks is Kita Ikki.

The purpose of this series of articles is to present a systematic analysis of the origins, development, diffusion, and triumph of the ideology that inspired the Japanese elite to embark on conquest in Asia and the Pacific, and that mobilized the Japanese masses to fight to the death. I also explore the relationship between the ideologies of Nazi Germany and Japan, a topic that has been glaringly neglected in the historiography on the Second World War.