Japan’s Surge of Militarism: An Historical Perspective

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent visit to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo has caused an international uproar based on the shrine’s symbol of Imperial Japan’s military aggression and colonialism in Asia. The current emperor, Akihito, and his predecessor and father, Hirohito, both refused to visit Yasukuni. Their refusals were based on the shrine’s military symbolism and probably also on the more obvious reason that the powerless monarch of a pacifist Japan has no business worshipping at a Shinto shrine whose honored dead include WWII war criminals.

Abe’s visit to Yasukuni is part of his master plan to revive the country’s economy in order to rebuild Japan into the military power that it once was. He reasonably defends the visit as a customary practice among heads of state to pay respects to war dead. Nonetheless it seems clear that Abe wants a standing army like other world powers, capable of waging war anywhere. And it’s a reasonable desire, especially in face of dangerous tensions with China over the disputed Senkaku Islands and Japan’s sovereignty over Okinawa. Part of Abe’s plan is to rewrite Japan’s pacifist Constitution, including Article 9, which restricts the country’s right to go to war. The emperor has expressed disapproval of this part of Abe’s plan and his high regard for peace. However, if history repeats itself (and it does), it would be imprudent to take solace in the current emperor’s pacifism, or to be absolutely certain that the Constitution might not be rewritten so as to restore Imperial power as well.

Akihito’s pacifism and Abe’s military designs are reminiscent of their respective ancestors. Akihito’s great-great grandfather, Emperor Komei, opposed war during the turbulent years leading up to the 1867 overthrow of the military government of the Tokugawa Shogun. (Actually Komei opposed civil war among Japanese, but not war against the foreign “barbarians” who threatened Japan’s sovereignty.) Like Akihito, Komei was a figurehead with no political power. Since Komei wanted nothing more than peace in his empire, he supported the tried-and-true Tokugawa regime that had ruled peacefully for two and a half centuries. Ironically this put him at odds with the so-called Imperial Loyalists, who would crush the Tokugawa by military force and place the emperor in power. Leading the Imperial Loyalism movement were samurai of two powerful clans: Satsuma (modern-day Kagoshima Prefecture) and Choshu (modern-day Yamaguchi Prefecture). Abe’s forebears were Choshu samurai.

The revolution was a reaction to Western powers including Great Britain, France and the United States, who had forced unfair trade treaties on the thus far isolated Japanese nation. Since the shogun had been unable to keep the “barbarians” out, the Imperial Loyalists vowed to “expel the barbarians” under a restored Imperial monarchy. One of their slogans was a “strong military and rich nation” in order to defend against foreign countries that threatened Japan’s sovereignty.

After Komei’s sudden death in late 1866 (some claim by poisoning), he was succeeded by his 16-year-old son, posthumously named Meiji after the era during which he ruled. The leaders of Satsuma and Choshu colluded with the boy’s maternal grandfather and a few other noblemen of the Imperial Court to control the emperor, whom they privately (and irreverently) referred to as “gyoku” (“jewel”)—a symbol by which to carry out the revolution. In early 1868, Satsuma and Choshu led an Imperial army of samurai from various clans to victory against the deposed shogun’s army, which would have been unthinkable under Komei.

During its infancy, the Meiji government was dominated by three samurai from Satsuma and Choshu and two noblemen of the Imperial Court. Satsuma and Choshu continued to control Japan’s Imperial government, including the military, under Emperor Meiji until the beginning of the 20th century. The Constitution of 1889 was written by Ito Hirobumi, Japan’s first prime minister, formerly of Choshu. Of the nation’s first fourteen cabinets (1885 to 1912) eight were led by former Choshu samurai, and three by men of Satsuma. Choshu dominated the army until the 1920s, after Meiji’s death. These government leaders never abandoned their drive for a “strong military and rich nation”—which was why they were able to defeat China and then Russia in wars, and colonize Taiwan and Korea under Meiji’s rule.

Abe’s maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was from Choshu. Before becoming prime minister in the 1950s, Kishi had served in the cabinet of wartime prime minister Hideki Tojo, who was executed for war crimes in 1948. Emperor Akihito, now eighty years old, is the first Japanese emperor since 1867 to have ascended the throne as a powerless figurehead. His eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will become Japan’s next emperor. Like his father, Naruhito is a direct descendent of Komei. But they are also descendants of Meiji and Hirohito, both wartime emperors. Though Akihito has no political power, neither did Komei. But Meiji certainly did. And though until just recently a militarized Japan would have been unthinkable, such is no longer the case. If Abe has his way and is able to rewrite the Constitution, what’s to stop him from restoring political power to the emperor? At any rate, it will be a point of no small interest to see if Naruhito has inherited his father’s love of peace and not his grandfather’s and great-great grandfather’s willingness to go to war.

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Read about the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the rise of Imperial Japan in Samurai Revolution.