Total Military Politics: The Rise of Japanese Fascism

Written by: Jack Bennett.

The execution of Kita Ikki, the so-called ‘Father of Japanese Fascism,’ in 1937, whose ‘Outline Plan for the Revolution of Japan’ (1919) emphasised principles of nationalistic socialism, reveals the violent descent of Japan into a totalised political and economic system of control from 1925 through to 1945. 

Rising ultranationalism, militarism, and state capitalism under the early reign of the Showa Emperor Hirohito, defined Japanese politics and society as ‘statist’ from the 1920s through to the 1940s. The reverberations of global events and shifting economic and political dynamics during the 1920s and 1930s directly influenced the domestic character of Japan. 1920s Japan was a decade of transition and contradiction, with limited democracy and freedom. Despite the General Election Law in 1925 introducing universal suffrage for all men, in the same year the Peace Preservation Law simultaneously introduced strict parameters on political speech and behaviour, enforced by the Special Higher Police, who rooted out communists and later anti-war elements throughout Japan. 

Following the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the onset of the global depression, Japan slumped into the Showa Depression period from 1930-32, with WPI (Wholesale Price Index) falling by 30 per cent, agricultural prices by 40 per cent, and textile prices by nearly 50 per cent. From 1931, rural impoverishment became manifestly severe and widespread, exploitative regimes of landlordism throughout Japan resulted in the 1934 Tohoku famine. The response to which was a rural radicalisation in pursuit of economic justice, with popular criticism of government and industry. This economic and social dissolution produced an upsurge in military and right-wing political power through the public disillusionment towards traditional political governments. Consequently, developing into a period known as the ‘Politics of Assassination.’ Most notably, the May 15 Incident of 1932, in which young naval officers assassinated Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi, as well as the later February 26 Incident in 1936 saw a failed coup by the Japanese Imperial Army towards the government of Prime Minister Keisuke Okada. In the aftermath of these events, military influence over the civilian government grew significantly. This allowed for the transition away from economic liberalism and towards greater state economic control and management. These increasingly fascist modes of organisation and thought during the 1930s, emphasised the virtues of cooperation, and the suppression of individual needs or wants to further the goals of the collective, in particular, economic development and industrialisation within all areas of Japanese society. 

Consequently, greater totalitarian, militarist, and aggressive foreign expansionist ideals were espoused by the imperial politico-military leadership of Japan. From the 1920s onwards, the Japanese were becoming increasingly entrenched on mainland Asia, through the control of former Russian railroads in Manchuria and Outer Mongolia. This was economically vital and underpinned Japan’s strategic influence in northern China. Through a constant Japanese military presence in Chinese lands and a weapons trade with local warlords, the Japanese functioned as an imperial power in the region. However, the Chinese nationalist threat continued to expand during this period, weakening Japan’s influence over the Manchurian warlords. This resulted in the Jinan Incident of 1928, between the Northern Expedition and the Imperial Japanese Army, underscoring Chiang Kai Shek’s proclamation of Japan as the main threat to China at this time. Therefore, within the political-military dual government of Japan there developed vehement criticism of the ‘Shidehara Diplomacy’ for being too soft on China amidst an expanding sphere of Japanese imperial assimilation. 

The culmination of these rising military tensions was the 1931 Manchurian Incident and the formation of the Japanese-controlled satellite state of Manchukuo. It was motivated by total war economics and forward national defence of the Japanese archipelago. In response, the Chinese military attempted to utilise international law, upheld by the League of Nations, contributing to the Lytton Committee investigation of 1932, which concluded Japan’s invasion was unjustified. In response, Japan left the League of Nations, effectively became a ‘rogue state,’ in opposition to Anglo-American interests.  This proved a major turning point in the progression of Japan into a fully-fledged fascist state. With the ramping-up of military engagements in China in the same year and with an unsuccessful invasion of Shanghai, forcing the Tanggu Ceasefire the following year. Then, in 1936, Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, providing an early link with Nazi Germany and the fulfilment of globally connected fascist ideological frameworks. 

Mirroring these increasingly aggressive and totalitarian expansionist foreign policy objectives, through the Second Sino-Japanese war of 1937-41, a fascist economic model was introduced in Japan with total military mobilisation under the National Mobilisation Law of 1938, allowing for control of the zaibatsu to fuel the ever-growing war machine of Japan. This included extreme direct investment in the new state of Manchukuo, with the construction of new cities, mines, and railroads. Interestingly, these autocratic socio-economic modes of development were both imported and exported between Japan and mainland Asia during this period. Alongside, the development of both a Central Price Committee and Central Planning Board directed national and private enterprise energies towards the enemy. Then, in September 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Italy, simultaneously establishing closer connections with Germany, in order to separate them from assisting China, preventing Soviet expansion Eastwards, and dissuading the United States from entering the war. 

Under Prime Minister Kanoe Fumimaro, between June 1937 and January 1939 and again from July 1940 to October 1941, there was an increased focus on the mollification of military men, alongside the expansion of Japanese influence across Asia and preparation for the future race war. This is elucidated through the creation, in August 1940, of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere by Japan, emphasising Japan’s imperial unification and pursuit of Pan-Asianism. While, political totalitarian control was extended into the depths of Japanese society. Crucially, Japan became a single-party state following the dissolution of political parties and the creation of the Imperial Rule Assistance Association (IRAA). Numerous state-controlled social organisations were created, including: the Neighbourhood Association, to police people’s behaviour on a local community level; the Great Japanese Women’s Association, which cooperated with the IRAA to provide grass-roots, family-oriented management; as well as the Youth Association, controlling education and military development. Between December 1937 and February 1938, the Imperial Japanese government violently suppressed subversive members of society, in what became known as the Popular Front Incident. Additionally, in July 1940, the politician Saito Takao was evicted from the Diet due to this criticism of the Japanese war effort. Thus, through authoritarian methods of manipulation, violence and control, the Japanese state became increasingly invasive throughout the late 1930s and increasingly more-so during World War II. 

It is intriguing to compare the fascism of Japan with that of its Nazi German and Italian counterparts during this period. Distinctly, Japan did not experience a mass movement or cult of the supreme leader, but instead a heavy stress on agrarianism and a central role for military officers in national control. Further to this, a high degree of consistency, through the political culture, was tacitly assumed. However, despite the extremely homogeneous nature of Japanese society, there were wide variations in values and behaviour, founded in geographical or class differences. Ultimately, from initially balancing limited democratic values with elements of control and regulation in the 1920s, to external expansion throughout the 1930s, and the protracted war across the Asia-Pacifc region until 1945, Japan progressively developed ever-greater fascist modes of social, economic, and military state-controlled, authoritarianism throughout this period. 


Berger, Gordon M, “Politics and Mobilization in Japan, 1931–1945,” in The Cambridge History of Japan, ed. Peter Duus (Cambridge, 1989).

Duus, Peter; Okimoti, Daniel I., “Fascism and the History of Pre-War Japan: The Failure of a Concept,” The Journal of Asian Studies, 1 (1979): 65-76.

McCormack, Gavan. “1930s JAPAN: Fascist?” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, 5/6 (1980): 125-43.

Tansman, Alan, The Culture of Japanese Fascism, (Durham, 2009). 

Yoshimi, Yoshiaki, Grassroots Fascism: The War Experience of the Japanese People, (New York, 2015).

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