|The 1936 uprising in historical photographs.|
|The 1936 uprising in cinema: 1962's 二・二六事件 脱出 & 1989's 226.|
At a time when Article 9 of the Japanese constitution is being re-examined, Kita Ikki (北 一輝) provides a political philosophy of military domination that is as blunt and direct as Thomas Hobbes or Machiavelli --and yet (unlike Hobbes or Machiavelli) his objectives were to create and maintain a "citizen state" of "social democracy". (Wilson, 1966, p. 91) Kita's combination of militarism, socialism, and democracy (with an expansive view of Japan's leadership for the rest of Asia) is, perhaps, more salient to 21st century Japanese politics than anyone would like to admit.
The purpose of this paper is not to offer apologetics for why Kita has been categorized as an ultranationalist and a fascist: the work of George Wilson in the 1960s (discussed below, §3) has addressed the question of how an author who was both pro-democracy and pro-socialism ended up with the fascist label. By the end of this essay it will be clear that this reputation was not entirely undeserved: some aspects of Kita's work drew him closer to fascism than was safe for anyone, least of all for Kita himself, as his ideological implication in the armed uprising of 1936 [二・二六事件] resulted in his execution, although he did not, in fact, organize or participate in the rebellion. (Wilson, 1969, p. 128–131)
This paper is instead addressed to the paradoxical approach to democracy found within Kita Ikki's philosophy, with a view to the possibility that this reflects formative assumptions about the nature of Japanese government that may continue to be salient today. Democracy and empire are two fundamentally incompatible impulses, a major theme discussed even by Thucydides, many centuries ago; these impulses were competing within Japanese socialism throughout Kita's lifetime, with the end of the struggle coming shortly after his death, when the Social Democrats decided to support the 1938 mobilization law [国家総動員法] placing the economy under military control. The contradictions within Kita's philosophy illustrate the Japanese conundrum of struggling to justify democracy in relation to the needs of empire, and to reconcile the empire with ideals of democracy, in a political context dominated by the fear of impending wars with Western powers (the British Empire and the Russian Empire especially, from Kita's perspective).
Anyone interested in politics during Kita's lifetime had a crowded shelf of books to choose from, with many new ideas contending for the attention of intellectuals, and many new political movements forming, breaking into factions, and so on. Totten (1996, p. 406–8) provides a dizzying chart of the various Socialist parties, labor unions and farmers' unions as they formed, split up and recombined in the pre-war period.
Kita's early work emerged in this highly-competitive context, where he had the challenge of distinguishing himself from numerous other varieties of Socialism, none of them easily categorized in terms of left-vs.-right, as Totten complains (Totten, 1966, p. 111–2). Conversely, Kita had the luxury of writing for a sophisticated audience, perhaps even an unusually cynical audience (relative to Europe in the same period), as he is exclusively trying to appeal to those who support State Socialism, but who are (1) willing to discard Marxism as an "outmoded" idea of an earlier era, and (2) who are willing to sneer at the commitment to pacifism among so many mainstream socialists as unrealistic or counterproductive. These two criteria alone would have made Kita some enemies, and alienated him from parliamentary-party Socialism to some extent; however, one might also suggest that it attracted a different audience to his books, such as the military men of the 1936 uprising, who felt repulsed by both the Marxism and pacifism of other Socialist theories.
In understanding the valence of Kita's politics in his own time, his vision of the future of Japan's empire was doubtless of greater significance than any other single factor. Although Kita condemned the aspects of Japanese imperialism that he considered predatory, exploitative, racist, etc., he basically sought to reform the empire, while supporting the further expansion of the empire, arguing that it could/should serve a moral purpose. For a diametric contrast, we may compare this to the position of an outright Communist like Katayama Sen [片山 潜] who was instead calling for the Japanese to "…transform the imperialist war into a civil war against the Japanese bourgeoisie". (Kublin, 1964, p. 330) Obviously, Kita's approach had the potential to appeal to many people who would be alienated by the Communists, particularly members of the bourgeoisie and the military, who did not want to imagine themselves as the enemies of social progress. Even in his earliest works (when Kita unambiguously describes himself as "a Socialist"), Kita situated himself somewhere to the right of the radical left, and this didn't narrow potential audience, but broadened it.
The simultaneous arrival of so many new and newly-translated ideas from the west was one of several aspects unique to the historical development of Japanese statism, and so too was and the arising of (genuinely sophisticated) intellectual responses from Japanese authors of the time. Kita makes references to Marx, Kropotkin and numerous other western authors in a manner that presumes his reader is already familiar with these sources. The reader is expected to know the events of the Russian revolution, the French Revolution, the Chinese revolution, various schools of Socialism, critiques of Social Darwinism, and so on. Added to this "background material" are Kita's allusions to Asian philosophy, religion and literature. Admittedly, Kita's use of Asian sources is often cynical: he argues, for example, that whereas Western Socialism was derived from the philosophy of Plato, his own brand of Socialism is instead derived from the philosophy of Mencius [孟子] --although Kita proceeds to discuss the numerous ways in which his work really has nothing in common with Mencius at all. (Tankha, 2006, p. 63–4). If we imagine Kita and the soldiers who came to idolize him as the right-wing brutes of Japan, it would nevertheless be remarkable that they had such a high level of familiarity with political authors and events, or that they were concerned with the issues that dominate Kita's work. Prima facie, an outsider would expect these soldiers (of the 1936 rebellion) to lack any sophisticated views on democracy, Socialism, empire, the plight of the poor, and so on, but their selection of Kita Ikki as their intellectual sourcebook reflects an interesting array of concerns.
When he was in China himself, Kita saw Japanese co-operation with Britain and Russia as eroding China's attempts to construct its own democracy, while under fire from so many would-be empires; the collusion of the Japanese with European imperialism made Japan despicable in the eyes of Asia. (Tankha, 2006, p. 91) With this established as a basic assumption, it seemed to Kita that Japan should act on behalf of all of Asia, establishing a paradoxical anti-imperialist empire, excluding Europeans from Asia; this empire would, in effect, "make the world safe for democracy", to use Woodrow Wilson's phrase. This conceit has a close parallel in American pretensions to exclude European imperialism from the Caribbean with "the Monroe doctrine", and Kita makes this comparison himself, describing Japan's mission as a sort of (Japanese-controlled) Monroe doctrine for Asia. (Ibidem, p. 93)
It was from his analysis of the situation in China that Kita developed his own "Machiavellian" realism in discussing plans for revolution and reform in terms of military power, ultimately endorsing the coup d'état as a "necessary" method of social progress within Japan, and conquest as a "necessary" method for Japan to bring its reforms to the rest of Asia: "In fact, the lesson that Kita learned best in China was that revolution had to be carried out by elements of the military…". (Wilson, 1969, p. 144)
Kita's work provides a window onto the fundamental assumptions of Japanese statism during the crucial period of Japan's definition of itself as both a country and as an empire. As will be discussed below, Kita's central conceit was that the empire existed for democracy (conquest was for the sake of democracy within Asia), and also that Japan needed democratic (and Socialist) reforms, precisely in order to become a stronger empire. Although somewhat paradoxical, this formula probably came close to expressing the aspirations of many non-Communists in Japan at the time, who wanted to remain both pro-empire and pro-emperor, while sharing various of Kita's "Social Democratic" concerns.
The single most important text for the purposes of this article is Kita's 1919 Nihon Kaizō Hōan Taikō (日本改造法案大綱), a title variously translated into English as An Outline Plan for the Reorganization of Japan, or (as Tankha prefers) Fundamental Principles for the Reorganization of Japan. Brij Tankha provided a complete English translation of the text as an appendix. (Tankha, 2006, p. 169–229)
One of the most-often-misrepresented aspects of Kita's plan is simply the caveat that military takeover he suggests is supposed to operate for a transitional period of only three years. (Ibid., p. 169) It is common to see his philosophy referred to as supporting military dictatorship in perpetuity; instead, rightly or wrongly, he supports it only as a temporary measure, and, in fact, he insists that there will be an elected parliament even during the period of martial law. (Ibid., p. 175)
The section of the Plan detailing the imagined period of transition (via military takeover) contains some disparaging remarks about electoral democracy, and the suggestion that Japan should not slavishly imitate the West in this regard: "The theory of the divine right of voters was a feeble philosophy, merely the obverse of the divine right of kings." (Ibid., p. 171) With repeated comparisons to both Napoleon and Lenin, Kita offers a rationalization of the coup d'état itself as a legitimate expression of "social will". (Ibid., p. 169–170) However, just a few pages later, it seems as if we're reading another author entirely, as Kita sets down his specific plans for a bicameral assembly, with details concerning the elections (and the importance of universal male suffrage, etc.) soon thereafter. (Ibid., p. 172–3) Does this reflect a real ambivalence on the part of the author, or is it a canny attempt to appeal to an audience that he understands fairly well?
The juxtaposition of contradictory views within Kita's Plan seems to be an intentional, rhetorical device, used throughout. In this case, he is disparaging democracy, yet also presenting democracy as a crucially important, positive aspect of his future plan. This leaves the reader in the position of being able to make a "selective reading", choosing between the possibilities presented by the text. This is also the case with Kita's (internally-contradictory) treatment of the role of the emperor, discussed below.
Kita himself was aware that his political position could not be easily identified as "left" or "right": in the preface to his 1919 Plan he states that he "would not like to answer the question of whether this [plan] will be to the left or the right as the intellectuals of the previous century [i.e., the 19th century] judge good and bad." (Tankha, p. 164) This statement also reflects Kita's "epochal" approach, in declaring 19th century ideas obsolete, certainly including Marxism: "In the twentieth century it is not possible to believe the revolutionary theories that failed in the nineteenth century." (Ibid, p. 163)
In 2015, we can draw on two (very different) generations of authors reappraising the legacy of Kita Ikki. In the earlier of the two periods, Tanaka Sogoro [田中惣五郎] was both typical and influential in treating Kita as self-evidently fascist. Tanaka's 1949 book presents itself as an inquiry into the Origins of Japanese Fascism, i.e., with Kita Ikki being the subject, and thus treated as a proto-fascist. (Brown, 1952, provides an English-language summary of Tanaka's work.) Writing in 1947, Maruyama Masao (丸山 眞男) was also adamant in condemning Kita as "the ideological father of Japanese fascism." (Wilson, 1969, p. 138–9)
In the 1960s, by contrast, there was "a spate of [new] analyses of Kita", rejecting his former categorization as a fascist, and reflecting the diversity of radical political impulses in Japan at the time. (Tankha, p. 69) Writing in the late 1960s, we could see George M. Wilson's contribution as trying to bring the English-language literature on Kita's politics up-to-date with the trend in Japanese, i.e., insisting that Kita not be dismissed as an ultranationalist fanatic. Wilson offered a comprehensive reconsideration of Kita's political legacy in a 1966 article followed by a 1969 book; both are directly concerned with the question of how and why Kita had come to be categorized as a fascist. His 1969 work also argues against the idea (sometimes used as an apologetic) that Kita's earlier work was socialist, whereas his later work became fascistic: "No such shift ever occurred because, as Wilson makes evident, Kita had always advocated a synthesis of state socialism with messianic nationalism." (Shillony, 1970, p. 222)
With this refusal to divide Kita's career into before and after phases, Wilson was trying to counter the tendency to rehabilitate Kita's reputation as a Socialist by focussing only on his early work. Skya, 2009, is an example of this tendency. Skya offers a significantly different evaluation of Kita, describing him as an anti-fascist, supporting this opinion exclusively with Kita's 1906 book, On the Kokutai and Pure Socialism [国体論及び純正社会主義]:
Kita detested State Shintō ideology with an intensity and a passion found in few Japanese thinkers in modern history. Accordingly, he wrote one of the most massive and systematic critiques of the ideology of State Shintō in modern times. […] [In his early work he] launched a devastating attack on Hozumi Yatsuka's [穂積 八束] theory of the Japanese state and the ideology of the conservative ruling elite. (Skya, 2009, p. 112)
Whereas Wilson (1966 & 1969) discusses the difficulty (or impossibility) of categorizing Kita as either "left" or "right", Skya's strategy removes any possible ambiguity by omitting to mention the bulk of the evidence, making Kita into an anti-nationalist (rather than a nationalist).
This is misleading in a subtle way. For example, Skya points out (correctly) that "Racialism or ethnicity had absolutely no part in [Kita's] theory of the modern Japanese state", and then remarks that Kita's anti-racism "was [an] attack [on] the core doctrine of Shintō ultranationalism". (Skya, p. 123–4) Although it is significant to note Kita's opposition to racism (rejecting even that there should be any bloodline-requirements for Japanese citizenship, stating that there should be Japanese citizens of African descent in the future, etc.), we would be left wondering how Kita was ever "mistaken" for an ultranationalist if we just read Skya's account in isolation, and just considered these facts as he presented them. Almost everything Skya has said in characterizing Kita would be challenged simply by contrasting it to the conclusion from Kita's 1919 Plan. It would be more fair to say that Kita offered a fundamentally new (and non-racist) form of ultranationalism than to say that he was non-racist as a means of attacking ultranationalism.
The other lesson to be drawn here is the one that Wilson already made: the distinctions between political camps in this Japanese context cannot fit into western ideological types. It is impossible to "translate" (e.g.) an author's status as being anti-Shintō (and yet pro-Buddhist) into a point on the left-vs-right political spectrum. Likewise, it is very difficult to label Kita's views on democracy and empire in western terms.
In the popular imagination, it seems there was some sort of symbolic link between the spirit of rebellion in 1936 and the anti-establishment sentiments of the 1960s, although it is outside of the scope of this essay to pin down exactly what this linkage was, or which ideas (from Kita's works) appealed to the Japanese public at that time, if any.
I have not seen a complete list of such works, but, apparently, major motion pictures about the 1936 rebellion (a.k.a. "the February 26th Incident") were released in 1954 (叛乱), 1958 (重臣と青年将校 陸海軍流血), 1962 (二・二六事件 脱出), 1967 (宴), 1969 (日本暗殺秘録), and 1989 (this last one was simply titled, "226"). There were two different TV dramas on this chapter of history in the year 1976, one titled ドキュメンタリードラマ 二・二六事件 目撃者の証言, the other titled 妻たちの二・二六事件. Further television adaptations followed in 1979 (熱い嵐) and 1984 (山河燃ゆ). The example from 1984 was, apparently, a very successful drama, 51 episodes long, with the opening episodes depicting the 1936 uprising itself. I have no reason to assume that this list is exhaustive, and I can't offer any opinion as to what extent the history is romanticized (rather than criticized) in these depictions; I simply note that this turning point in Japanese history has certainly not slipped into obscurity, rather, it has maintained a fairly high profile through its representation in cinema, television and fiction.
For Japan, remarkably, the 1936 rebellion has become the subject of romance, drama and outright myth --perhaps securing a type of immortality for Kita's political writing as a part of that mythology.
In the 1980s, Kita became an example of a the distinctly Japanese culture of "re-imagining" historical figure in popular fiction. Kita's appearance in the best-selling series of novels (1983–1987) Tale of the Imperial Capital [帝都物語] by Aramata Hiroshi [荒俣 宏] has probably increased both his fame and his infamy, cementing the assumption that (for better or worse) Kita is a pivotal figure in the history of Japan. These novels were adapted into two big-budget, highly successful films (1988 and 1989) as well as an animated video series thereafter (1991).
In this fictional narrative of the 1980s, considerably more emphasis is placed on Kita's religious and supernatural views; as Brij Tankha dedicates a chapter to this subject (Tankha, 2006, p. 142–160) we may say that Kita's (eccentric) religious beliefs were indeed of greater importance to understanding his character than his own political publications would reveal.
This type of fame might have been an inevitable consequence of the (dramatic) circumstances of his death, and the mythification of the 1936 rebellion that led to his execution.
Whether or not the various fictionalizations of Kita and the 1936 rebellion are themselves pro-fascist or anti-fascist is another interesting question that lies outside the scope of this paper.
In Kita's approach to Korea we see his ideals of democracy and racial equality alongside his model of the "anti-imperialist" empire, bringing these notions into contrast. During Kita's lifetime, Korea was both the source of a significant labor force oppressed within Japan (a fact brought to public attention by the massacre of Korean workers following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, Gordon, 1991, p. 177) and also served as the strategic lynchpin of Japan's overseas empire, connecting Manchuria to Japan via the "Southern Railway" [満鉄].
Unlike the British Empire, the French Empire, etc., Kita's Plan absolutely insists that the Koreans should have their own democracy, with "the same right to participate in politics as the Japanese." (Tankha, 2006, p. 211) The contrast to the British Empire is explicit. Kita does not want the Koreans to suffer the level of racism endured by the Irish (under British dominion), let alone the racism directed against blacks in the United States:
If Korea becomes the Ireland of Japan then it will be proof that Japan, which seeks to establish a Great Roman Empire [in Asia], does not have the ability to take the first step. […] Therefore, the recent violence, if it is compared with the conflicts between whites and blacks in American cities, must make Japan feel the degree of disgrace some hundred times more. (Ibid., p. 208)
As stated previously (in §4, above), Kita's anti-racism does not equate to anti-nationalism; he's a Japanese nationalist who calls for "equal" treatment of Koreans, within what he hopes will be a democratic empire. The paradox here is that Kita does not believe that Korea has the right to exist as a separate country, and even pauses to clarify that "this [democratic requirement] has nothing to do with the popular idea of the so-called right of self-determination of people." (Ibid., p. 211)
This idiosyncrasy is resolved in Kita's understanding of Ancient Greece as both democracy and empire. The assertion that Japan should become "the Greece of Asia" is found repeatedly in Kita's Plan, and is stated more than once in the conclusion. (Tankha, 2006, p. 228–9) Although Kita was certainly not a scholar of Ancient Greece, he borrowed the idea of a democratic, pan-civilizational empire from the history of Athens, and he evidently imagined that this was profoundly different from the British Empire (that he despised). The picture of Athenian empire in the writings of Herodotus and Thucydides is very different from the ideals that Kita attached to Ancient Greece; however, for someone who is so openly critical of western ideas, it is doubly significant that Kita propounds this model for the future of Japan.
In Kita's mind, at least, it was possible for Japan to lead Korea, China and even India as democracies in a struggle against the European empires, in the same sense that Athens led an empire (imagined as a cluster of democratic societies) in a struggle against the Persians. (Tankha, 2006, p. 229) This leads the reader into the rhetorical loop of Kita condemning imperialism even as he is setting out the rationale for a new empire:
It would be a great crime if the Eastern Development Company [of the Japanese Empire] sought to learn violence from the earlier East India Company [of the British Empire]. Japan's destiny in Asia cannot be allowed to repeat the evil crimes of the British. […] In Korea, in undertaking the so-called policy of colonization there are really many harmful institutions of the West that have been mechanically borrowed. (Tankha, 2006, p. 213)
In this quotation, above, we have both a critique of Western imperialism and a sort of apologetic for Japanese imperialism as it had existed to that point: whatever was wrong with the Japanese empire could be blamed on Western influence (and not, e.g., on Japan's own imperialist values).
It is easy to see how this approach would appeal to many segments of Kita's audience. Other rationales for empire might alienate military officers who were aware of the brutality and moral turpitude of the empire (as it then was) in praxis, but Kita advocates for the expansion of the empire while remaining critical of its shortcomings in various ways. Kita's Plan for the future of the empire is supposed to create democracy everywhere, eliminate the oppression of the poor everywhere (through Socialist reforms), and so on; his political philosophy remains pro-Empire (in contrast to many other Japanese socialists), while also being anti-elite and pro-poor (unlike Japanese fascists and ultranationalists in general).
With this emphasis on the Greek ideal, Kita's proposed future for Japan manages to combine democracy and empire, yet the whole contraption remains impossible to reconcile with other aspects of Kita's Japanese exceptionalism. In his Plan, Kita offers some dogmatic statements about the divinity of the emperor (e.g., Tankha, 2006, p. 175). While these statements may be a cynical ploy to appeal to his audience (and/or an effort to avoid censorship) they are also a significant part of his argument for the unique nature of Japanese society as an "organic" whole, different from other Asian and European societies:
…because of the divine character of the emperor [emphasis original] the reorganization of Japan will not lead to the killing and rebellion of soldiers as happened during the Russian revolution…. (Ibid., p. 175)
This is a strange contrast to his seemingly-secular (and democratic) redefinition of the emperor as merely "the representative of the people" found in the same text. (Ibid. p. 170) Indeed, it is an even stranger contrast to Kita's earlier work (cf. Ibid., p. 17), attacking the basic concept of Japan's unique national polity derived from the divinity of the emperor (i.e., kokutai, 国体):
[In an earlier work of 1906,] Kita's interpretation collides head-on with the kokutairon[,] both its myth of a sacred line of emperors and its assertion of monarchic sovereignty. The emperor is not a god, Japan has no "unchanging kokutai," and the people should know better than to swallow such mythification. Under the heading "The Japanese people have all become imbeciles whose skulls have been crushed by the one phrase 'bansei ikkei [万世一系]' [eternal line]," he ridicules the public for its gullibility. (Wilson, 1969, p. 27)
However, the earlier work that Wilson is quoting above, Kokutairon and Pure Socialism (1906), was suppressed by the Home Ministry (Ibid. p. 19); part of Kita's development as an author was learning how to reach his audience within the limits of both censorship and popular interest.
Is Kita's ideal for the emperor to be merely the representative of a democratic people (in a defensive war against European imperialism), or is the emperor supposed to be the divine leader of an island on a mission to dominate Asia through military conquest? Reading the text of the Plan directly one can only say "both". As with many peculiar contradictions within Kita's work, the contrast this presents to the reader is not an accident of sloppy writing, but instead an intentional creation of the author. Can the emperor be simultaneously divine and a mere figurehead of a parliamentary government? Unlikely, yet Kita presents his Plan in a form that appeals to more than one audience by juxtaposing these possibilities as part of the same program for reform, just as he leaves the reader to decide whether his vision should be considered "left" or "right". Debates about the status of the emperor had been a major, divisive issue within Japanese Socialism from its earliest period in the 1880s; (Crump, 1983, p. 135) Kita was making his own position clear within a well-worn ideological battlefield, and yet, perhaps, he was being intentionally unclear just to the extent necessary to unify people who had taken up slightly different positions on that battlefield.
So, in contrasting Kita's earlier work to his later work, he may not be offering different answers on this matter so much as he's employing different rhetorical devices. In 1906, Kita had written in a verbose, academic style, filling about 1,000 pages, (Wilson, 1969, p. 19) whereas his 1919 work was a succinct plan of action, appealing to a relatively broad audience. In the longer work of 1906, the emperor had been explained to share his place as the head of a "citizen state" with democratically elected representatives, (Wilson, 1969, p. 29–31) but, as already mentioned, his work of 1906 ended up in obscurity due to censorship, whereas the 1919 Plan did reach its audience (with only a few lines deleted here and there by the censors). The peculiar contradictions within the 1919 Plan leave a door open for a believer in the divinity of the emperor to support Kita's brand of Socialism, whereas the longer tract of 1906 would have alienated such an audience, even if it had not been censored.
The trouble is that, taken as a whole, Kita's view of the emperor cannot easily fit into the same framework as the (idealized) notion of Japan as an Athenian democracy leading a civilization of other ("equal") democracies. This intersects with the problem of Kita's religious views; he imagined Japan as the sole custodian of (what he considers) legitimate Buddhism, now to be promulgated around the world, in a period of messianic empire:
A narrow-minded theory from Indian civilization [i.e., Buddhism] became the basis of Western religious philosophy but all traces of this in India itself were wiped out and its passage in China left only the bare bones. Only in a tiny island in the Eastern Sea was it closely treasured as a Great Way. Here it became Japanized, and later modernized, and now universalized and, after the coming of the Second World War, its revival will brighten the whole world. (Tankha, 2006, p. 228–9)
No complex argument is necessary to prove the irreconcilability of a democratic (and vaguely Greek) model with the rule of a single emperor as the divine leader of a religion imposed on the people being ruled. As a former scholar of Pali [パーリ語], I have grave doubt that any emperor would easily convince the Theravada Buddhists of Southeast Asia that Japanese Nichiren Buddhism [法華系仏教] was the paramount (authentic and authoritative) form of Buddhism in the world; of course, India, China and even Korea would also offer significant resistance to such an idea (even for even the most "modernized" form of Nichiren imaginable). This aspect of Kita's Plan, apparently reflecting his deeply-held religious beliefs (discussed by Tankha, 2006, p. 142–160) is neither reconcilable with his democratic values, nor with his tendency toward "Scientific Socialism" (it is, simply put, unscientific, un-socialist, and undemocratic).
The conclusion of Kita's plan refers to a "spiritual surge" as the necessary complement to the scientific and military advancement that makes the ("peaceful") unification of many states under one "Supreme State" possible, under the rule of "one sacred emperor". (Tankha, p. 229) I am not the first person to put emphasis on this contradiction within Kita's Plan:
Hashikawa [橋川 文三] shows that Kita's international program is "based on an unparalleled and cold regonition of power politics and Staatsräson," yet on the other hand it features "elements of transcendental prophesying and mystical world-intuition." He concluded that World War I was the catalyst that moved Kita to this labored combination of reason and irrationality. […] Hashikawa draws a parallel between Kita and Dostoevsky. […] In both there is something "enigmatic and mystical," and a groping for universality through religious faith […]." (Wilson, 1969, p. 167–8)
Although Kita is doubtless indulging in hyperbole in the religious aspect of his work, it is fair to say that it is Fascist hyperbole. In this aspect, his Japanese exceptionalism is incompatible with his democratic ideals.
With all this having been said, it is important to include a disclaimer that Kita remained committed to democracy at a time when Japan's (mainstream) Social Democrats (in parliament, etc.) were increasingly militaristic and decreasingly democratic. (Totten, 1966, p. 400–401) We might say that Kita was (conceptually) more successful in compartmentalizing military and democratic theories of social change (within one whole), whereas the (mainstream) Social Democrats had begun with a democratic idea that differentiated them from the Communists, but were gradually corrupted by militarism. By the 1930s, many Social Democrats were hoping that the military could be "the real agent of reform", and that it could institute "'socialist control' over the economy" of the colonies in Manchuria, and in Japan itself. (Ibidem)
In this contrast (between Kita and the mainstream Social Democrats) we find many of the same building-blocks, arranged in a different configuration. It is certainly possible to imagine that some of the soldiers who were drawn to Kita's philosophy were disillusioned former Social Democrats. Conversely, it is possible to imagine that the 1936 uprising was a catalyst for some disillusioned Social Democrats supporting the aforementioned 1938 mobilization law [国家総動員法] that marked the nadir of Japanese democracy.
Within Kita's work we thus see a juxtaposition between several sincere but contradictory motives. He does, genuinely, want Japan to protect and liberate the countries of Asia from European Empires, and sees India, China and Korea as victims of western aggression; however, he chooses to downplay the possibility that Japan, also, would be seen as a hated as a foreign empire, and that "liberation" would be perceived as occupation. For Kita, the solution to the problem is to offer real racial equality and local democracy to the countries that were, at the time, the colonies of either western powers or else (already) colonies of Japan itself. However, Kita does not regard Japan as equal to other Asian countries, nor merely as a country in a fortuitous position by happenstance, technological advantage or past military victories. Kita's version of Japanese exceptionalism is ultimately rooted in religious supremacism.
Further, large parts of the Plan are remedies to uniquely Japanese social problems, and these do not seem to be well-designed for export. One of his major themes (in both 1906 and 1919) was to eliminate the corrupt "cliques" [閥] of the wealthy that had emerged in connection with Japan's rapid industrialization. In the Plan this is iterated as an anti-zaibatsu [財閥] coup d'état, that would accomplish the "union of the emperor and the Japanese people" (Wilson, 1969, p. 67–8) —a goal that is presented as synonymous with democracy. The merits of this plan for Japan could be debated, but trying to extend it beyond Japan seems absurd; it certainly isn't a program that would bring Cambodians or Manchurians rushing to support the Japanese empire. Simply put, Kita's Plan fails to present any basis for a pan-Asianist movement.
Where does the Plan leave Korea, perhaps the most important example? First and foremost, the Plan supposes that democracy will come to Korea in the same way that it came to Japan: as a foreign idea, responding to the threat of foreign annexation. This is an implicit but profoundly important aspect of the Plan, reflecting Japan's historical experience. From Kita's perspective, Democracy and Socialism were objectively good, just as Japan's defense of Korea (against European encroachment) was something objectively good; so, therefore, if these things were "offered" to the rest of Asia, who could possibly object? The fact that the method of "offering" is conquest and annexation hardly seems to interfere with the logic of the thing. The very foreignness of democracy and socialism, and that these would be imposed on Korea from the outside, in the circumstances of a military emergency, seems unproblematic to Kita, presumably because he regards Japan's own political development in much the same terms. The notion that democratic reform arises a military strengthening against foreign threats is ineluctably (and uniquely) Japanese.
Kita was probably not so unusual in his cavalier attitude toward Korea's loss of its independence; what was unusual was that he combined this with a commitment to providing Koreans with a democracy equal to Japan's own, a status better than that of Ireland in Europe, etc. etc., as already mentioned (§6). However, it is prima facie absurd to think that the Koreans would welcome this kind of change, if imposed in the name of the Emperor of Japan.
Kita has no sense that the benefits of democracy emerge from debate within a given society, nor that the functions of democratic institutions are linked to ongoing negotiations between different social forces. Instead, from his perspective, new institutions (and a new society) could simply be set up by the military, and so it didn't much matter if it were the Japanese military, the Korean military or the Chinese military. This is, again, the quintessentially Japanese assumption that democracy itself arises as a form of "military preparedness in civilian garb". [文裝的武備]
Kita's perspective on democracy reflects both the (unique) circumstances surrounding Japan's 1889 constitution and his (grim) observations on China's failed revolutions. Grassroots violence wasn't good in itself, but only if it resulted in working, democratic institutions (i.e., China had endured plenty of revolutionary violence, but didn't get the desired results). Therefore, top-down reform was preferable to grassroots violence, and, if progress could be achieved without the bloodshed of revolution at all, even better. This line of reasoning that began with Kita's analysis of China ends, in 1919, with Kita simply and directly endorsing a coup d'état as a method of social progress. Although logical, this is also absurd: a constitution imposed on Korea by the Japanese military would never have the legitimacy of a grassroots constitution, even if some argument could be made for the people of Japan accepting such a constitution (produced by their own military-in-revolt).
Kita presumes that all Asians are corralled together by the Western threat, much as Japan responded to the threat of Western intervention (and/or annexation) in making its own modernizing (and democratizing) reforms. However, there is no rationale given as to why any of these Asian countries would prefer to invaded by Japan: in 1919, how many Asians really believed that they faced a threat from Britain or Russia that was worse than the threat posed by Japan itself? Under the ideology of Kita's Plan, would Cambodians really receive the Japanese as preferable to the French? Would the Burmese or the Australians really receive the Japanese as preferable to the British? How many would see Japan as offering "protection", any more than the French were creating "a protectorate" in the colonization of Cambodia? If some minority of Koreans could be convinced that democracy and Socialism were benefits enough to justify the the loss of their independence to Japan, perhaps they would support an empire such as Kita envisioned, but even such a minority of supporters would soon be dissuaded by the fascistic aspects of Kita's Plan already noted (the role of the emperor, Nichiren religious supremacism, etc.).
Kita posed the rhetorical question of how Japan could possibly create a pan-Asian empire if they couldn't even deal with the Koreans fairly, granting them their own democratic society, (Tankha, 2006, p. 208–11) but we might turn this question around, and take it as a clear indication of how impossible and impracticable Kita's dream of empire really was. Although he was writing to encourage the reform and expansion of the empire, he had really struck on a solid indication that the imperial project was doomed from the outset: the Japanese, indeed, could not even treat the Koreans as well as the British were treating the Irish. The Japanese could not (and did not) create a democratic society for any of its colonies. Japan was not in the position to be the Athens of Asia, and, on the contrary, hyper-militarization (in the pursuit of empire) eroded Japan's own tenuous claims to democracy at home, during this same period, that was punctuated by the 1936 rebellion, and Kita's death.
The Japanese seem to have reinvented the significance of both Kita Ikki and the 1936 rebellion several times, and there may be yet more innovation of this kind in future. Kita has been condemned as a Fascist, exculpated as a Socialist, defended as a Social Democrat, and also reappraised as an "enigmatic and mystical" religious figure —and these reinventions have taken place not merely in academic journals but also, to some extent, in popular culture. Meanwhile, a failed military uprising that could have been forgotten as a shameful footnote in history has, instead, been remembered as a symbolically-powerful turning point in Japan's 20th century.
Under one interpretation or another, Kita's place as an important intellectual in Japanese history seems assured, even if absolutely nobody sympathizes with his political program anymore. That, alone, is a very rare constellation of factors in the history of political thought.
In the current era of Neoliberalism, an extremely small minority of the general public would be interested in supporting Kita's "synthesis of state socialism with messianic nationalism", (Shillony, 1970, p. 222) and public interest in the content of his ideas will continue to be limited by the degree of interest in State Socialism at any given time (rise or fall though it may). However, the idea of Japan's lost potential as the leader of Asia's transition to democracy still has currency, and is, doubtless, part of the romanticization of the 1936 uprising, remembered as the last chance for Japan to play such a role (as a leader of democracy) in alliance with the United States, as Kita had urged, (Wilson, 1989, p. 82–3) rather than becoming the ally of Germany (and explicitly Fascist). As has already been stated, Kita's plans for the Japanese Empire were impossible in many ways, and in the prior sentence's summary I've omitted to mention the absurdity that Kita imagined that Japan would be able to wage war against the British Empire while being allied to (and supported by) the Americans. With all these absurdities noted, nevertheless, in retrospect, it may be appealing for many Japanese to now wistfully imagine how different things could have been if (ca. 1936) Japan had joined an American alliance, and devoted itself to the cause of Social Democracy, in some sense (i.e., perhaps not in the precise sense defined by Kita Ikki).
Kita's Plan may also be compared to the current aspirations (of the Abe Shinzo government) to have Japan become the leader of a pan-Asian, pan-Democratic alliance. However, Kita's imaginary empire was justified by defending Asia against the encroachment of European colonialism, whereas the current (putative) bid for Japan to take on such a leadership role is, instead, to defend Asia against Chinese hegemony.
Within Kita's work there's always an implicit contrast between descriptive truth and prescriptive truth. The state should uplift the poor and bring down the corrupt elite (of the zaibatsu [財閥], etc.), yet his whole philosophy is set out with an awareness that the state is doing the exact opposite, and will only change if it is compelled to do so by military force. Likewise, the Japanese empire should be uplifting all of Asia, and serving a purpose very different from the predatory empires of Europe, and yet Kita is aware that the truth is the very opposite, and that Japan's empire has imitated all the evils of the European empires he rails against. Under both headings (domestic and pan-Asian), the poor and the downtrodden can't expect anyone other than the military to act on their behalf; this is the fundamental pessimism and pragmatism that Kita brought back from his observation of China's failed revolutions. As has been stated previously, this knot of values and assumptions (that led Kita to look to the military, alone, for national salvation) reflects the unique historical circumstances of Japan's modernization and democratization being embraced as a program of military preparedness [文裝的武備]. Kita shows us the unfortunate corollary of these attitudes, i.e., the Japanese tendency to regard the military as the agent of modernization, democracy and social change; and, of course, this knot of cultural values had tragic consequences, as Japan degenerated into a military dictatorship.
In the paradoxes found within Kita's Plan, we can find many of the distinctive assumptions of both Japanese democracy and Statism written out explicitly. This is not due to Kita's genius, but simply due to the type of compromise that he was trying to work out between the competing ideals that dominated his era. Conquest and coup d'état cannot be reconciled with democracy, but Kita sets his mind to exactly this task. The divinity of the emperor cannot really be reconciled with the democratic and Socialist aspects of Kita's Plan, and yet he has to find just such a compromise, both to satisfy his audience and to satisfy himself. Although the results are flawed in many ways, these "negotiations" within Kita's work show the reader the aspirations that the Japanese attached to democracy itself, to Socialism itself, and even the role of the state itself, during this formative period of the nation's history.
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