Heil Hirohito: Was Imperial Japan a Fascist Totalitarian State?

The Japanese army presses forward in the Pacific theater during World War II I Image: Keystone/Getty Images

“To Spencer–may you never have to hear this history rhyme.”


Was Imperial Japan a fascist totalitarian power? Fascism scholar Robert Paxton does not think so (arguing instead that it was a simple military dictatorship), but this essay argues to the contrary: despite not having a fascist party in power, Imperial Japan does indeed fulfill the definitions of totalitarian fascism. Rather, Japan underwent a fascist revolution in slow motion. With the collapse of civilian bureaucratic credibility and political opponents, the military acquired a monopoly of power through a mix of terrorist and state co-option methods. The emergence of a radical interpretation of Shinto effectively created a political religion undergirding the dictatorship’s domestic repression and foreign policy, and sought to create a new man devoid of individuality and completely loyal to the Emperor. Yet, the absence of the revolutionary party does not immediately disqualify Japan from being a totalitarian state: ideological conformity and mass mobilization ensured that the population overwhelmingly consented to the war and the dictatorship.
Keywords: fascism; totalitarianism; emperor worship; Hirohito; Imperial Japanese military

In his seminal study of fascism, Robert Paxton argues that with the absence of a mass revolutionary party and a rupture from the incumbent regime, Imperial Japan was merely “an expansionist military dictatorship with a high degree of state-sponsored mobilization [rather] than as a fascist regime”.[1] Yet, despite his reservations about the extent of Japan’s oppressiveness, the similarities between Japan and its totalitarian European allies are extraordinarily similar. Although no fascist party rose to power in Imperial Japan, the events leading to the rise of radical militarism, the use of a totalitarian ideology centered around Emperor worship, mass popular mobilization, and institutionalized repression, nevertheless simulated the same revolutionary and totalitarian conditions that a militia party-based revolution would have brought about. For this essay, I will use Emilio Gentile’s definition of totalitarianism, which, in a nutshell, stresses that totalitarianism is

an experiment in political domination undertaken by a revolutionary movement, with an intergralist conception of politics, that aspires toward a monopoly of power and … destroys or transforms the previous regime and constructs a new state, based on a single party-regime…. It seeks … a political religion that aims to shape the individual and the masses [by creating] a new man… The ultimate goal is to create a new civilization along expansionist and supranational lines.[2]

The root of why a fascist party leadership did not materialize in Imperial Japan dates back to the beginning of the modern Meiji state. In accordance with the Emperor’s divinity, the Meiji constitution was considered a sacred document that could not be amended or changed. As such, many of the radicals who wanted to transform society were forced to work within the system—these became the pragmatic Control Faction in the military. Their rivals, who instead believed that the Emperor must become closer to the people by removing the corrupt political structures separating them, emerged as the terroristic Imperial Way Faction.[3]

The historical and cultural context in which these radical factions rose can largely be termed as a crisis of modernity in Japan, wherein the military appeared to be the solution to Japan’s longstanding problems. Japan faced at least two pressing concerns: geopolitical ambitions and social modernization. With regards to the former, interwar Japanese elites identified modernization and prosperity with military power. Given that it was Western imperialism that abruptly forced Japan to modernize its feudal status quo,[4] the lesson learned was that Japan’s imperialism was inseparable from nation-building and capitalist development.[5] By the 1930s, the literate Japanese public was well-acquainted with the standard narrative of their national modernization, in which Japan’s victories over China and Russia since the 1890s demonstrate the increasing actualization of Japan’s ambitions of becoming a world power.[6] Not only did these military campaigns bring Japan respect from the West through territorial conquests, they also helped overcome the atomization of society brought about by modernity through rallying  people around the flag.[7]

The other issue the military seemed to provide a solution to was the rise of mass participation. Throughout the 1900s and 1910s, popular riots at home and people’s revolutions abroad led to the collapse of the Meiji-era political assumption of absolute monarchy being a viable rein. Intellectuals realized that the state must now take into account the masses by giving them more political consciousness.[8] The military seemed to address the issue of incorporating the common folk into the nationalization project through mass mobilization. After all, the military, as well as paramilitary settler organizations, were places for social advancement. The war provided people—particularly the educated-but-unemployed demography—with an outlet for “social and political participation and advancement in a time of crisis”, including opportunities for profit and women attempting to earn more space in society through wartime contributions.[9] While life for conscripts and enlisted men was borderline torturous in the military, for many volunteer NCOs, the military flattened the socioeconomic class strata and allowed them to advance in society.[10] With their solutions to Japan’s thirst for expansion and need to address the rise of mass politics, the military appeared to be a vanguard of Japanese modernity, giving it much clout and respect in society.

Since the establishment of the military general staff in 1878, the military as a whole was constitutionally independent of civilian oversight and control. They sent their own candidates to represent them in the civilian cabinet, who were answerable only to the Emperor himself. As such, they had always been able to exert extraordinary influence on successive civilian cabinets to bend them to their will on national policies, lest the Army or the Navy dissolve the cabinet’s mandate by refusing to nominate their own cabinet ministers.[11] In this system of a de facto military veto, the civilian government was largely impotent in expressing power over foreign policy and military spending.

Unfortunately for the civilian government, they bore the brunt of a popular interwar nationalist discourse of a “victim consciousness” myth that decried how Japan was treated unfairly by the West. Japan was forced by “diplomatic pressure by three European countries to give up territory it had won by “legitimate” means in the war with China”, diplomatically sideline at the Versailles conference, and stop America from barring Japanese immigrants. Note that these milestones of grievances all involved diplomacy and politics; conversely, the triumphalist narrative featured a military that had never been defeated.[12] The civilian politicians were blamed for messing up Japan. As Ienaga Saburo recounts, by 1932, fifth and sixth graders were naturally espousing xenophobic attitudes, alongside the fervent belief that civilian diplomacy was weak whereas “the cowardice of the cabinet” and the League of Nations were national embarrassments for the children. They looked forward to “Japan winning one battle after another”.[13] The unpopularity of civilian bureaucrats eventually extended to even civilian co-conspirators of ultranationalist military terrorists in the mid-1930s. Although ultranationalist civilian terrorists dominated right wing violence in the prewar era, the growing prevalence of radicalized military officers led to political violence being “[planned] and led primarily by military officers against other military officers, as well as against civilians”.[14] Therefore, it would seem that a civilian-driven mass party would have been impossible given the civilian government’s unpopularity and the military’s strong influence on society.

The fall of the fledging Taisho democracy in the early Showa period was, in a sense, a revolution in slow motion. The Taisho era had a reasonably vibrant debate on the constitutional role of the Emperor given that the absolute monarchy model was obsolete, between authoritarian monarchists who saw the Emperor as divine but ultimately “responsive to the needs and the welfare of all the Japanese people”,[15] and liberal constitutionalists who saw the Emperor as an “organ” of a constitutional monarchy.[16] In 1935, the liberal emperor-as-organ interpretation of the constitution (in which the emperor was treated as yet another branch of the government, rather than as divinity) collapsed in credibility as various military and civilian ultranationalists effectively purged leading Emperor-as-organ theorist Minobe Tatsukichi from public life following a protracted campaign of character assassination, threats, and book burnings.[17] At the same time, increasingly broad interpretations of the draconian Peace Preservation Law — which empowered police to arbitrarily arrest dissidents for upsetting public peace — allowed for the full suppression of the already weak leftists and liberals.[18]  With the absolute discrediting of civilian bureaucrats and the disintegration of any dissent by the military and their ultranationalist allies, only the military provided a viable source of legitimacy for leading and radicalizing Japanese society. Yet, the traditional institutions of Meiji and Taisho Japan remained, albeit co-opted by the military, as opposed to being radically transformed. Why?

Through the aforementioned crisis of modernity in interwar Japan, reactionaries whom Walter Skya calls “radical Shinto ultranationalists” developed a genuinely totalitarian ideology. Realizing that the Emperor’s absolute authority and divinity must also include the newly politicized masses, political theorists like Kakehi Katsuhiko expounded the idea that the Japanese people were inherently superior for being “faithful to the original, true essence of the state”, which is defined as the “unique unity of all the Japanese people, superiors and inferiors, living at different times and places throughout history under the rule of the divine emperor”.[19] In order to bring about a utopian “Plain of High Heaven” on Earth, the Japanese people must purify themselves by annihilating the individual self and transcend “into the mystical body of the emperor once one’s own individuality is abandoned”. In other words, the figure of the Emperor was the living embodiment of the popular, general will of the Japanese people, not unlike the almost mystical Fuhrer of Nazi Germany.[20]

Concurrent with the shift towards ultranationalism was the change in policing culture, where the police began to view themselves as “officers of the state” sworn to protect the kokutai (the national polity) and the Emperor, rather than “servants of the people”.[21] Rather than physically annihilating thought criminals from society, from May 1931 onward the Japanese Tokko (thought police) carried out the policy of conversion (tenko),[22] in which dissidents were pressured to recant their beliefs and convert to Emperor-worship.[23] Ultimately, between 1928 and 1941, 66,000 were arrested under the Peace Preservation Law, but just a small fraction of this number ever moved beyond prosecution stage, and only a single person was executed for treason.[24] While this was lenient compared to Nazi or Soviet concentration camps,[25] this lenience was naturally derived from Kakehi’s notion that “one was born, in the ultimate sense, not from one’s parents but from the emperor”.[26] Because everybody was the Emperor’s child, one prosecutor argued that “No “thought criminal was hopeless….Since they were all Japanese, sooner or later they would all come around to realizing that their ideas were wrong.”[27] While Elise Tipton argued that this leniency made the Japanese police state ideologically closer to “the early modern European police state than its twentieth-century contemporaries and wartime allies”,[28] as we shall see later in this essay, the ideology the police was protecting was certainly totalitarian.

At the same time, radical Shinto ultra-nationalism helps ideologically justify the brutal conquest of Japan’s neighbours. The ideology identified Western individualism and non-volkisch states as mortal enemies of the Emperor. Skya notes that if one follows Kakehi’s fundamentalist ideology to its logical conclusion, it justifies totalitarian expansionism on the grounds that the existence of non-collectivized peoples would always threaten the kokutai’s cohesiveness, so Japan must extend his dominion to the entire world to bring the “one great universal life” under the Emperor’.[29] Although the Japanese leadership used pan-Asian and anti-Western imperialism rhetoric in their propaganda to justify their invasions to the peoples they conquered (in the form of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere), few ultra-nationalists believed in it by the time the war was underway.[30] Indeed, a March 1941 government directive declared that “although we use the expression ‘Asian co-operation,’ this by no means ignores the fact that Japan was created by the Gods or posits an automatic racial equality”.[31] Given this superiority, Japan must necessarily bring the rest of East Asia under the same Emperor-worshipping ideology through assimilation, and they instituted a policy of cultural assimilation, if not cultural genocide, on their direct colonies and the rest of the Co-Prosperity Sphere.[32] Korean and Taiwanese culture and language were banned and replaced by their Japanese equivalents, while other East Asian countries were treated as sub-humans.[33]

This totalitarian ideology explains the contradiction between a relatively lenient police state on the Home Islands and the horrific atrocities visited on colonized subjects abroad.[34] Indeed, as Yoshimi Yoshiaki noted in Grassroots Fascism, there is a supreme irony in that the “critical moment of fascist consolidation” happened when the domestic fascist movement failed to take power in 1940-1941—just as the early victories of the Pacific War suddenly created a rally-around-the-flag consensus among the Japanese people in support of the war. The mass mobilization and social upheavals of total war rendered blatant fascism redundant as Japanese society collectivized and radicalized itself.[35]

The 1930s saw an epic struggle between the Imperial Way Faction and the Control Faction, both of whom believed in this ideology but disagreed on the methods. Individuals broadly affiliated with the Imperial Way Faction launched a terroristic campaign between 1932 and 1936 that assassinated prime ministers and ideological opponents, and occasionally attempted coups.[36] Yet, the notion that the Control Faction consisted of traditional conservatives[37] is an incorrect one. After all, there was a unanimous consensus at the top about the war’s aims and the supremacy of the Emperor. Moreover, it was only through the radical actions of the Imperial Way Faction destabilizing Japan that the Control Faction was able to ascend to power. The senior commanders not only effectively tolerated the junior officers’ terrorism by rarely disciplining them in a meaningful way, the military leadership also took advantage of the February 26, 1936 coup attempt by the Imperial Way to consolidate their control over the civilian cabinet by mandating that only active generals could serve as military ministers, thus cementing the primacy of aggressive militarism in the political agenda.[38]

Despite this emphasis on the military leadership taking over and radicalizing Japan, the Japanese population was complicit in providing mass support to the military leadership. Ethan Mark noted that traditional Marxist and Western historiographical approaches to wartime Japan’s development were essentially elite-centric, often ignoring and thereby implicitly absolving the common people from the war.[39] Rather, there was legitimate appeal at the grassroots level for the Emperor and the war. Although this popular appeal was based on decades of elite-driven socialization and education, by the time the war rolled around, there was popular support for the legitimacy of the war as a whole.

Decades of militaristic education contributed to inculcating a culture where such militarism was normalized. As textbook and curriculum production became increasingly centralized over the final decades of the Meiji Emperor’s reign, the government intensified patriotic materials and values in course curricula, including questions figuring military scenarios, military training during physical education, and reinforcing notions of absolute loyalty in ethics class.[40] Although generally these jingoistic curricula spiked during the wars, since wars were becoming increasingly frequent, “they left a permanent militaristic tint to the standard curriculum taught during the interwar years”, including during the relatively liberal Taisho period.[41] Given decades of exposure, the critical mass of the Japanese population would have instinctively supported at least some aspects of the war,[42] but it also made the national shift towards radical Shinto ultra-nationalism less of a revolution than a continuation of existing trends.

Contrary to suggestions that the Japanese leadership was merely reinforcing conservative values, by the time Japan entered into wartime, a nascent development of a New Man ideology by the ultranationalists sought to remake the Japanese man into an extension of the Emperor’s state. The popularization of military training from 1925 on was designed to transform students into “the soldier of the plough, obedient, loyal, committed, muscular and disciplined”,[43] in particular to build up the male body as well as inoculate Japanese from potential infiltration of Western ideals from an early age.[44] The militaristic propaganda in schools and in mass media emphasize collectivity and importance of military virtues, over the valorization of individuals; for instance, “three brave soldiers” legend did not name the martyred soldiers who fell adhering to the bushido code. This myth democratized in a sense old elitist samurai codes to the masses, while stressing collectivity over individualism as what matters in war.[45] Under this radical Shinto ultranationalist ideology, the New Man at the end of this ideological refashioning was one who obliterated his own individualism and incorporated into the spiritual collective of the nation as embodied by the Emperor.[46] Thus, this incorporation of the masses into the state through refashioning them into cells of an organic body constituted yet another incremental development towards totalitarianism in Japan, fulfilling another one of Gentile’s requirements.

A potential argument against the totalitarian nature of Imperial Japan may lie in its structural organization. For all the ideology’s talk about national unity for the Emperor, there was little cohesion within the government, and even the military itself. Of course, the military as a whole was contemptuous of the civilian government, and even sought to lock them out of decision-making during the Pacific War.[47] The Kempeitai (military police) and the civilian police, as well as the Justice Ministry, also locked horns on divvying up domestic policing prerogatives and jurisdiction.[48] Conversely, the Army Ministry and the Navy Ministry were at odds with each other, to say the least; at one point, even Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, himself an army general, did not learn about the “defeat at Midway till a month later”.[49] That abuse and neglect was rife in the military ranks and in paramilitary settler organizations only contributed to Japan’s increasingly brutal exertion of force on Chinese civilians as the brutalized rank-and-file had to vent their frustrations out somewhere.[50] This internal division, and the inefficiency and brutality it produced, seems to suggest that Japan may have been simply an authoritarian state.

Yet, arguably this lateral competition from each other was a by-product of the radical Shinto ultranationalist ideology. The Shintoist ideologues and propagandists sought to redefine traditional familial, social and emotional bonds such that they would be meaningless, as every person’s energies would be devoted to serving the Emperor and carrying out his wishes.[51] Despite these internal divisions, the Emperor’s legitimacy was never in question; for instance, the different police departments all agreed on the same basic ends of preserving the nations despite bickering over the means of doing so.[52] In effect, by placing the kokutai and upholding of Japanese values first, this devalued human lives and served to atomize society, which serves to reinforce the totalitarian structure of the Empire absent a solitary, disciplined mass party.

It is clear that, although it was the military that took over the state rather than a revolutionary party, much of Imperial Japan matches Gentile’s definition of totalitarianism. With the collapse of civilian bureaucratic credibility and political opponents, the military thus acquired a monopoly of power through a mix of terrorist and state co-option methods. The emergence of a radical interpretation of Shinto effectively created a political religion undergirding the dictatorship’s domestic repression and foreign policy, and sought to create a new man devoid of individuality and completely loyal to the Emperor. Yet, the absence of the revolutionary party does not immediately disqualify Japan from being a totalitarian state: ideological conformity and mass mobilization ensured that the population overwhelmingly consented to the war and the dictatorship. Imperial Japan may have been a relatively less murderous or genocidal regime than Nazi Germany, but its totalitarian grip on society would give Hitler a run for his money.


Gentile, Emilio. “Fascism and the Italian Road to Totalitarianism.” Constellations 15, no. 3 (September 1, 2008): 291–302.

Ienaga, Saburō. Japan’s Last War : World War II and the Japanese, 1931-1945. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1979.

Mangan, J. A., and Takeshi Komagome. “Militarism, Sacrifice and Emperor Worship: The Expendable Male Body in Fascist Japanese Martial Culture.” The International Journal of the History of Sport 16, no. 4 (December 1, 1999): 181–204.

Mitchell, Richard H. Thought Control in Prewar Japan. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976.

Paxton, Robert O. The Anatomy of Fascism. New York: Vintage, 2005.

Skya, Walter A. Japan’s Holy War: The Ideology of Radical Shinto Ultranationalism. Durham: Duke Univ Pr, 2009.

Tipton, Elise K. The Japanese Police State : The Tokkô in Interwar Japan. North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1990.

Wilson, Sandra. “The Past in the Present: War in Narratives of Modernity in the 1920s and 1930s.” In Being Modern in Japan: Culture and Society from the 1910s to the 1930s, 170–84. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

Yoshimi, Yoshiaki. Grassroots Fascism: The War Experience of the Japanese People. Translated by Ethan Mark. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

The content of this article does not represent the positions, research methods, or opinions of the Synergy Editorial Committee. We are solely responsible for reviewing and editing submissions. Please address all scholarly concerns directly to the contributor(s) of the article.

Benson Cheung is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto, and majored in history and political science.

[1] Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, 198–200.

[2] Gentile, “Fascism and the Italian Road to Totalitarianism,” 292.

[3] Skya, Japan’s Holy War, 231.

[4] Wilson, “The Past in the Present: War in Narratives of Modernity in the 1920s and 1930s,” 171.

[5] Yoshimi, Grassroots Fascism, 8.

[6] Wilson, “The Past in the Present: War in Narratives of Modernity in the 1920s and 1930s,” 173.

[7] Ibid., 174–178.

[8] Skya, Japan’s Holy War, 136–137.

[9] Yoshimi, Grassroots Fascism, 21.

[10] Ienaga, Japan’s Last War, 53–54.

[11] Ibid., 33–37.

[12] Wilson, “The Past in the Present: War in Narratives of Modernity in the 1920s and 1930s,” 172–173.

[13] Ienaga, Japan’s Last War, 29–30.

[14] Skya, Japan’s Holy War, 239–240.

[15] Ibid., 138.

[16] Mitchell, Thought Control in Prewar Japan, 151–152.

[17] Ibid., 151–153.

[18] Ienaga, Japan’s Last War, 13–18, 98.

[19] Skya, Japan’s Holy War, 192–193.

[20] Ibid., 193–198, 218–221.

[21] Tipton, The Japanese Police State, 139.

[22] Mitchell, Thought Control in Prewar Japan, 127.

[23] Ibid., 127–138.

[24] Ibid., 141.

[25] Tipton, The Japanese Police State, 142–151.

[26] Skya, Japan’s Holy War, 196–197.

[27] Mitchell, Thought Control in Prewar Japan, 127.

[28] Tipton, The Japanese Police State, 131.

[29] Skya, Japan’s Holy War, 217–221.

[30] Ibid., 248.

[31] Ienaga, Japan’s Last War, 154.

[32] Skya, Japan’s Holy War, 218–322.

[33] Ienaga, Japan’s Last War, 156–180.

[34] Yoshimi, Grassroots Fascism, 18.

[35] Ibid., 19–20.

[36] Skya, Japan’s Holy War, 233–238.

[37] See Mitchell, Thought Control in Prewar Japan, 175–179; Tipton, The Japanese Police State, 152.

[38] Ienaga, Japan’s Last War, 41–45.

[39] Yoshimi, Grassroots Fascism, 1–5.

[40] Ienaga, Japan’s Last War, 23–26.

[41] Ibid., 24–25.

[42] Mitchell, Thought Control in Prewar Japan, 149.

[43] Mangan and Komagome, “Militarism, Sacrifice and Emperor Worship,” 184.

[44] Ibid., 191–193.

[45] Ibid., 189–190.

[46] Skya, Japan’s Holy War, 195–198, 269–270.

[47] Ienaga, Japan’s Last War, 36–38.

[48] Tipton, The Japanese Police State, 140–141.

[49] Ienaga, Japan’s Last War, 39.

[50] Ibid., 51–53; Mangan and Komagome, “Militarism, Sacrifice and Emperor Worship,” 202.

[51] Skya, Japan’s Holy War, 326–328.

[52] Tipton, The Japanese Police State, 152.

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