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Culture of Death: Japanese Nationalism and the Second World War
Walter Skya
Walter Skya, PhD is Director of Asian Studies at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. For more information on Walter Skya and his publications, click here.
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 is an absolutely outstanding and necessary work, a major contribution to international scholarly debate.”—Klaus Antoni, University of Tübingen

Click here for a review of Japan's Holy War

Click here for information on how to purchase from Amazon.com at a special, discounted rate.
This is the third in a series of essays by Walter Skya exploring the ideological sources of Japan’s participation in the Second World War.

To read Part I, click here.

To read Part II, click here.

On May 27, 2016 President Barak Obama made an historic visit to Hiroshima, Japan. He is the first sitting American president to have visited the site where the first atomic bomb was dropped at the end of the Second World War. In the speech he delivered at the site, he stated with regards to those who died, “Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.”

But what do those souls say to us? Has anybody seriously looked inward to the root causes of this war? To this day, more than seventy-one years later—incredible as it may seem—Japanese have never really come to terms with their wartime past. There seems to be a kind of national amnesia. And shockingly, Americans too have not even identified the ideology of their adversary in the Pacific War, let alone thought deeply about it—despite thousands of books and articles written about the Second World War and the Pacific War in particular.

On August 15, 1945, shortly after Emperor Hirohito publicly announced to the world that the Japanese nation would accept the conditions of the Potsdam Proclamation, thus ending the war, thousands of Japanese subjects prostrated themselves before the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to apologize to their Sovereign for their inability to win the war.

How can you explain such intense loyalty to the emperor even after the unimaginable suffering from the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the near devastation of the Japanese state? Who did the masses blame for the defeat in war? In typical Japanese fashion—themselves! Would the Germans have bowed down and apologized to the Führer and Reich Chancellor of the German People (Führer und Reichskanzler des deutschen Volkes)had he not chosen to take his own life? And, what happened to Mussolini?

My book Japan’s Holy War: The Ideology of Radical Shintō Ultranationalism (Duke University Press, 2009; reprinted, 2012) is the first major work presenting a comprehensive analysis of the birth, development, diffusion, and triumph of the ideology that mobilized the Japanese masses and inspired the Japanese elite to make a bid for global power in modern times. I call this ideology radical Shintō ultranationalism.

I argue that this ideology refers to the revolutionary, mass-based form of ethnic nationalism that had at its center of its ideology the Shintö creation story of the Japanese islands by Izanami and Izanagi, the divine origins of the imperial line, the divinity of the emperor, the superiority of the Japanese Volksgemeinschaft, and the belief in a divine mission to establish global imperial rule under the emperor.

In this paper I explore the deep historical structures and components of Japanese thought—and a culture of death that made possible the totalitarian ideology of radical Shintō ultranationalism in the 20th century.

The first component was the resurrection of the ancient Shintō concept of emperorship that “Japan shall be ruled over and governed by an unbroken line of emperor from ages eternal.” This central tenant of Shintō doctrine that originated in the ethnic clan Yamato state reached its high point of power in the 4th century at the time of emperor Nintoku, and was embedded in the center of the modern Japanese state in Article I of the Constitution of the Empire of Japan. But what does it mean?

In the earliest Japanese society, called UJI society, a clan system existed in which everyone was supposedly related by blood. People were interconnected and organized in a hierarchical structure. The ruler claimed political legitimacy on the basis of direct descent from a supernatural being, Amaterasu Ōmikami. In this society, the distinction between political and parental authority did not exist. Neither was there a distinct sense of individuality or of a consciousness of a transcendent humanity. Of course, there was no sense of individual salvation either.

When someone died, one become an object of worship in the community and in the household. In other words, one still remained very much a part of the ethnic community. Accordingly, there was no value of the individual either inside or outside the community—and that meant in death too. The idea that all human beings constitute a single community, united by mutual obligations or a universal moral code, did not exist.

In these early clan or tribal societies, as historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto stated, “Most cultures, for most of history, did not even have a word for “human being.” Anyone outside one’s family, clan, or tribe would usually be labeled by words meaning “beast” or “demon.”[1] Japanese early Shintō UJI society was no different.

Buddhism was introduced to Emperor Kinmei of the Yamato state by way of Korea through the king of Paekche in the mid-6th century, and the Yamato state was heavily exposed to Chinese Confucianism ideas and institutions in the 7th century. Confucianism does contain a concept above the ethnic group; the concept of Tian.

The Chinese emperor had to receive Tianmei, the “Mandate of Heaven,” to have political legitimacy. According to the concept of Tianmei, anyone could win the mandate of heaven. He need not even be ethnic Chinese. However, the Japanese never accepted this Confucian bases of political legitimacy for a political ruler, and they never really instituted the Chinese examination system for recruitment into the centralized-inspired centralized state they had constructed.

The rulers of the Yamato state retained the concept that the emperor was a lineal descendent of Amaterasu Ōmikami, the heavenly progenitor of the ethno-race. In other words, universalism did not penetrate deeply into the Yamato state.

Buddhism, of course, is a universal religion, and central to its teachings is a concept of personal salvation. One would proceed through a cycle of births and rebirths to ultimately attain the state of nirvana. Buddhism, with its path to universal salvation, would present a threat to the cohesiveness of the ethnic Shintō society. However, as the Chinese-style of the imperial bureaucratic state structure was gutted of its intellectual underpinnings and never adopted in Japan, the core universal doctrines were eviscerated as Buddhism was amalgamated with Shintō ancestral deities.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, The World: A History, argues that “in the second millennium B.C.E., various cultures developed the concept of humankind as a large category that extended far beyond the immediate group to which a person belonged.” This never occurred in Japan. What’s more, Japan society reverted back to the psychology and religion of the ancient tribal or clan state in the 20th century. In the Western tradition, this would be the same as if the religion of the Gods of the Greeks and the Romans had resurfaced in the modern period and pushed out Christianity as the state religion of European countries.

The second historical component that made the Japanese people susceptible to the radicalization of Shintö nationalism is what I describe as a “culture of death.” This culture of death developed in the feudal period of Japanese history (that emerged around the 10th century and lasted to the middle of the 19th), but crystalized in the Tokugawa period.

The purest form of bushidō, the code of the warrior, is found in the book Hagakure (In the Shadow of the Leaves), an early eighteen century collection of sayings, episodes, and recordings compiled into eleven volumes. This book was required reading for Japanese students in the prewar period. The most famous words from contain the essence of bushido:

The essence of bushidō is to seek death. This means that when a warrior is faced with a choice between life and death, he chooses death. It is as simple as that. To say that death without achieving one’s aim is a death in vain—a dog’s death—is the kind of calculating bushidō practiced in the Kyōto area. When pressed with a choice between life and death, it is not necessary to gain one’s aim.

We all want to live. And in a large part, we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and go on living is cowardice. To die without achieving one’s aim is a dog’s death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the essence of bushidö. If one, by being prepared for death every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, one gains freedom.[2]

Thus, according to Hagakure, the purpose of life of a bushi (samurai) was to be constantly prepared for death. That is to say, for the military aristocracy, achieving victory in battle was not one’s ultimate aim. Further, when one’s lord died, vassals would follow him in death.

There is a special word for this kind of death in Japanese: junshi. It specifically meant following one’s lord in death. In other words, life had no meaning for the samurai after the death of one’s lord. There are countless examples of this in Japanese history. For example, when Nabeshima Katsushige, lord of Saga feudal domain died in 1661, 36 vassals followed him in death.

As we find in the above quote, Hagakure taught that the true bushi does not think of victory of defeat. “He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death.” Even sex was used to cement the lord-vassal relationship. Hagakure states that “To lay down one’s life for another is a basic principle of homosexuality.” Accordingly, homosexuality among the traditional military aristocracy was rampant.

The Japanese culture of death is seen in the ritual practice of hara-kiri or seppuku, which goes back deep in the history of the bushi to the Ashikaga period (1336-1573). This was an excruciatingly painful method of dying and was at the center of bushi culture. When a bushi had no choice but to pay the ultimate price for his actions, it was the supreme honor to kill the self by his own hands rather than being executed.

In the year 1869, a motion was brought forward in the Japanese parliament by Ono Seigoro, clerk of the house, advocating the abolition of the practice of hara-kiri or seppuku. Two hundred members of the house of 209 members voted against the motion. In the debate among the parliament members, seppuku was referred to as “the very shrine of the Japanese national spirit.”

The fact that Ono was murdered not long after the debate in the parliament took place for proposing the abolition of the practice in the first place clearly illustrated the power of the tradition of death among the military aristocracy had over the psychic of the Japanese people.

There were warrior thinkers of the Tokugawa period (1600-1868) such as Yamaga Sokō, “contaminated” with Confucian thought, who provided a rationale for a purpose in life outside the lord-vassal relationship—who criticized the practice of junshi. However, with the rise of the Shintö revival movement in the Tokugawa period, Chinese thought was discredited.

This culture of death was not confined to the bushi military aristocracy. It filtered down to the masses. For instance, this seeking death over life was a paramount theme in the plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon, who is often considered the Shakespeare of Japan. But unlike in Shakespeare’s plays, Chikamatsu’s suicide plays were based on real life suicides.

Like with the bushi or samurai, the merchant class—when shamed or placed in a difficult situation such as not being able to repay a debt—often committed suicide rather than go in living in shame. Unique to Japan, shinjū, a special word not found in Chinese, means two or more people dying together for some purpose. The very well-known scholar and translator Donald Keene translated Chikamatsu’s play Sonezaki Shinjū as “The Love Suicides at Sonezaki.”

I would not have translated it this way, however. A more accurate translation would be “The Double Suicides at Sonezaki.” In other words, the latter translation leaves out the motive for the deaths of the two individuals. The point here is that the Japanese suicides in Chikamatsu’s plays are not motivated for love like that in Shakespeare’s sixteenth century Romeo and Juliet.

In conclusion, in the tradition of the Japanese völkisch gemeinschaft society, the underlying organizing principles of Japanese society did not provide a moral purpose for the existence of the individual, whether between lord and vassal, or between emperor and subject. In the feudal period, the ideal was for the vassal to entrust matters of good or evil to the lord. Likewise, no Japanese subject would question the emperor.

Radical Shintō ultranationalists on the 20th century mobilized these traditional elements of the Japanese German-like völkisch state and a völkisch ideology and the culture of death and amalgamate them with German metaphysics, thus creating the ideology of radical Shintö ultranationalism of the 20th century. This spirit of seeking death in Hagakure was incorporated into the Japanese military’s Senjinkun (Field Service Code) issued by the Minister of War General Tōjō Hideki in January 1941.

Radical Shintō ultranationalists did not conceive of the notion that dying for the emperor was a sacrifice of the self for the emperor. According to Fundamentals of Our National Policy (1937), “Offering our lives for the sake of the emperor does not mean so-called self-sacrifice, but the casting aside of our little selves to live under his august grace and the enhancing the enhancing of the genuine life of the people of the State.” It is the “dying to self and returning to [the] One.”

Death in this sense was the return to the progenitor ancestor of the Japanese ethnic clan state. This is probably one of the most radical forms of ultranationalism in modern times. If one can understand these traditional Japanese thought patterns, it is relatively easy to understand why Japanese subjects by the thousands went to the Imperial Palace to apologize to their Sovereign for their inability to win the war in East Asia and the Pacific. To a non-Japanese, this reaction is unfathomable. To this day, many Chinese and Koreans are concerned that below a thin veneer of postwar Japanese pacifism lurks a warrior still willing to die for his emperor.

[1] Felipe Fernández-Armesto, The World: A History (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2007), p. 226.

[2] There a number of translation of this famous passage into English. I have cobbled together various translations plus my own. See John Dower’s book Mishima: A Biography (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1974), p. 223; Takao Mukoh trans., The Hagakure: A Code to the Way of the Samurai (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1980), p. 35; and. William Scott Wilson trans., Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai (Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1979), p. 17. For the best Japanese language edition of Hagakure, see Sagara Tōru, Saiki Kazuma, Okayama Taiji collation and annotation, Mikawa Monogatari, Hagakure (Tokyo: Iwaname Shoten, 1974), Nihon Shisō Taikei, vol. 26.