Three new books delve into how Japanese politicians, military officers, and academics navigated the tumultuous transformations of the interwar period: their country’s rapid modernization, the revolution in Russia, the rise of Asian communist and anticolonial movements, and the efforts of American and European imperial powers to contain Japanese influence in Asia. Linkhoeva explores the many ways in which Japanese thinkers of the 1920s understood the Russian Revolution. Labor leaders and leftist social scientists adopted Marxism as a framework to analyze industrialized Japan’s newly emerging class system. Anarchists emulated the tactics of Russian radicals to engage in assassinations and other acts of violence. Members of the new Japanese Communist Party debated whether Japan could make a direct transition to communism or had to first pass through a stage of bourgeois democracy. A group of self-labeled “national socialists” saw Russia’s experience as an example of state-led national strengthening that Japan should follow. Some among the government and military elites saw the new Soviet regime as a potential ally in expelling American and European powers from Asia, whereas others perceived Soviet communism as a threat to stability at home and to the empire abroad. When the Diet adopted universal manhood suffrage in 1925, it also passed a law, grounded in loyalty to the emperor, that criminalized any leftist attempt to alter the “national polity.”
Person picks up the story in the 1930s with a philosophy professor and magazine publisher named Muneki Minoda, who attacked Marxist and liberal academics for not accepting the absolute primacy of the emperor and the complete subordination of the individual to the nation. Person probes the diverse roots in contemporary German and Buddhist philosophy of Minoda’s mystical theory of “Japanism,” which made the philosopher “the most feared right-wing polemicist of the 1930s.” Many of the scholars he targeted were physically assaulted by radical nationalists; others were fired, resigned, or went silent. Minoda’s polemics contributed to the ascension of a fanatical nationalism that blocked discussion of any foreign policy option other than war. Because of rising right-wing violence against government officials deemed insufficiently patriotic, the authorities brought Minoda and other radical nationalists under police surveillance and eventually forced his magazine out of business.
Melber offers a fresh, dramatic account of events in 1941, when Japan headed into a war with the United States that most Japanese policymakers knew their country was not likely to win. Up to two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese ambassador to the United States, Kichisaburo Nomura, was trying to explain to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull why the U.S. embargo on oil exports to Japan would provoke an unnecessary war. The chief of staff of Japan’s navy warned Emperor Hirohito that a protracted conflict offered no guarantee of victory. The official in charge of the attack, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, had long argued that Japan would lose a war with the better-resourced United States. But when the cabinet decided on war, Yamamoto developed a brilliant attack plan and executed it nearly flawlessly, in maneuvers that Melber describes in engrossing detail. Readers know how the story ends, but Melber’s just-the-facts narrative re-creates the tension of the events as they were lived.