Against Japanism

Ghost in the Machine: The Emperor System & Anti-Revolutionary Thought Policing in Interwar Japan w/ Max Ward

November 09, 2021 Against Japanism
Against Japanism
Ghost in the Machine: The Emperor System & Anti-Revolutionary Thought Policing in Interwar Japan w/ Max Ward
Show Notes

Kota sits down with Max Ward to discuss his book about the Japanese state’s effort to suppress revolutionary movements and ideologically convert their participants through the Peace Preservation Law in the 1920s & 30s. 

We begin our interview by discussing the elusive concept of “Kokutai” (national polity or national essence) through a metaphor of Ghost in the Machine, the ideology of imperial sovereignty that animated the Japanese state and its application of the PPL.  While the law was intended to criminalize anybody who sought to “alter the kokutai,” because of the term’s ambiguity,  the legislators and state officials had to interpret it on a case by case basis. The previous scholars have interpreted this ambiguity as a problem that should not have been brought into the legal rationality of the law.  However, Dr. Ward argues that it was this very ambiguity that constituted the logic of imperial sovereignty and imperial ideology which stipulated that Japan shall be governed by “a line of Emperors unbroken for ages eternal.” 

We then trace the change in the applications of this law from outright suppression of anarchists, communists, and anti-colonial activists to their “rehabilitation” and ideological conversion, known as "Tenkō" (literally "falling over" or "changing direction") where tens of thousands of activists renounced revolutionary politics and declared their support for Japanese imperialism and fascism as loyal imperial subjects, while reinforcing the image of the imperial sovereign’s supposed benevolence towards its wayward subjects.  He challenges the claim that this seemingly benign use of ideology to rehabilitate political criminals suggests a “janus faced” character of the prewar criminal justice system. Rather, it shows that power operates through both coercion and manufacturing of consent, as many converts supposedly chose to convert on their own volition through guidance and assistance by community groups like the Imperial Renovation Society which acted as what Louis Althusser calls Ideological State Apparatuses. By citing a similar program used against a group of Somali American men in the mid-2010's, he argues that how the PPL was applied is by no means unique to Japan, but universal in how power operates through both repression and ideology. 

We discuss how the notion of “Japanese Spirit” and the supposed uniqueness of Japanese culture were mobilized in the mass conversation of JCP activists.  We ask whether the party grappled sufficiently with the national question, as shown in the conversion of its leaders Sano Manabu & Nabeyama Sadachika into “socialism in one country,” an appropriation of Stalin’s argument for defence of the Soviet Union into a type of national socialism, as well as how some historians reproduced this discourse.  We discuss how the law was applied in the colonies, what its history tells us about the rise of fascism in Japan and its relationship with liberalism, and how the Japanese state sought to popularize tenkō as part of the mass mobilization during WWII 

We conclude our interview by discussing topics such as how the legacy of thought policing influenced the development of police power in post-WWII Japan, the representation of tenkō in Endo Shusaku’s novel Silence and its film adaptation by Martin Scorsese, the similarity between tenkō and the rightward drift by former leftists today as seen in the online discourse about “red patriotism,” and how the emperor system works in contemporary Japan.

Intro Music: Cielo by Huma-Huma

Outro Music: Parabola Divanorium by Paraj Bhatt

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