by Kilian Fitzgerald
The war crimes committed against Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Russians by Imperial Japan during the Pacific War have been well documented and acknowledged, unfortunately mostly outside of Japan. What is discussed less frequently is the McCarthy-like era Japan underwent in the 20th Century.
A key difference in Japan’s McCarthy-like era and the United States’ McCarthy era, that followed more than a decade later, is the manner and degree to which those accused were punished. McCarthyism in the United States entailed a series of hearings led by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy against American leftists and liberals accused of connections to communism and the Soviet Union. In the United States, while there were obvious elements of a kangaroo court, there was at least a thread of legal precedent. Imperial Japan however, was much more brutal in it’s crackdown of the left, arresting thousands of its citizens, particularly those from academia. Many citizens were injured or killed by Japanese police and the military during protests. In contrast, the U.S. Senate hearings chaired by Senator McCarthy mostly resulted in the blacklisting of actors and other principals in the motion picture industry. The more brutal approach to the suppression of communism and subsequently the Japanese left, was fostered by the relationship the Japanese military had with its government.
Having been formed during the tradition-ending Meiji period (1868-1922) that witnessed the end of the Samurai class and the Shogunate system in favor of a Western style system of government, the modernized Japanese military and the right wing nationalist Japanese government were largely in sync. Japan was forced out of isolation by the United States and the effects of the Great Depression. After witnessing China’s humiliation during the Opium Wars with Britain, it embarked on a program of expansion, both economically and territorially. This expansion resulted in a unification of Japan’s government and military. The unifying desire of growth led to Imperial Japan’s imperialistic domestic policies, cultivated by its invasion and occupation of countries such as China, Korea, the Philippines and more.
Conversely, Imperial Japan’s expansionist goals also impacted it’s domestic policy. The unification of Imperial Japan’s government and the military and it’s tight control over Japan’s civilian population was often enforced with violence. Most famously, the February 26th incident of 1936 involved a group of young army officers assassinating both military and government personnel who opposed their goals. Dissent and criticism was also discouraged, due to the stronghold the Japanese military had over the Japanese government. In the wake of the Nanjing Massacre where Japanese soldiers massacred and raped thousands of Chinese, the Imperial Japanese government sought to stifle and control coverage of the atrocity, following an international outrage. Due to the alliance of the Japanese right and military, the Japanese left was essentially powerless. Thus, Japanese journals and newspapers covering the Nanjing Massacre were censored. Journalists were also imprisoned without trial. Textbooks that described the Nanjing Massacre were prohibited in favor of the propaganda released by the government which usually ignored the horrors or claimed that outside influences (either the Chinese or Western countries) lied about or manipulated the facts around the event. Many journalists were arrested by the Kanagawa Special Higher Police, dubbed the “Thought Police” by those it attempted to silence, were accused of having Communist sympathies, much like the McCarthy hearings that would occur almost a decade later. Journalists accused of being communists often had their publications shut down. On January 29th, 1944, Chuo Koron (Central Review) magazine editor Hatanaka Shiego and many of his colleagues were arrested. During his interrogation, Shigeo was accused of having communist sympathies and for the crime of using Chuo Koron to spread and popularize a system of Japanese communism that would force Emperor Hirohito out of power. Given that Emperor Hirohito was considered the son of the Japanese Sun God, this wasn’t just treason in the eyes of Imperial Japan, this was blasmephy. Following Shiegio’s arrest, Chuo Koron was shut down by the Japanese government, but eventually restored after the war.
The silencing of journalists also extended to the ways Imperial Japan oppressed the broader Japanese left. Many Japanese liberals and leftists were opposed to or disagreed with the western inspired state of modernity that Japan had adopted during the Meiji Restoration and its military policies. Due to the political power divide, they were often harshly persecuted or censored for dissenting from the nationalist military state Japan had become. One such figure was Taoka Reiun, a Meiji-era literary critic and early feminist thinker who criticized the westernized form of modernity (bunmei) that Japan had adopted for not caring about people in favor of capitalism, and for creating a society of self-centered individuals. Why Imperial Japan felt it necessary to censor and oppress critics and journalists for its actions and policies is expressed in Reiun’s writing: “Critics must lead society, they must be a friend to society, they must become its guide; they must improve society; they must do their best to educate and enlighten it. If there are flaws in society, they must be pointed out, and critics must call for their rectification. If there are transgressions, they must warn of these. And it is up to them to address those issues in society that lie outside the direct purview of the law. They must be supporters of social morality. If society is imperfect then they, too are imperfect. But can we reallys say that todays critics and newspaper reporters are fulfilling ehri obligations to the best of their ability? Today the occupation of newspaper reporter has become something of a glory position, a prestigious occupation. But isn't this an insult to the dignity of the profession? Reports and critics must be independent and not submit to pressure from the authorities; they must not give in to the interests of the rich and power.”
The importance of Japan’s Fourth Estate and the necessity of dissent in society is powerfully stated here. Unfortunately for Reiun, the path Japan would go down, with its focus on modernity, did not favor criticism. Reiun’s criticisms of Japanese modernity and the state, as well as his support for a variation of socialism, resulted in many of Reiun’s writings being censored and his career suffered. Due to the oppression Reiun endured and the blacklisting and censorship of his writings, he died in poverty in November 1912.
The 20th Century saw numerous atrocities committed by Imperial Japan in foreign countries. Internally, the state of Japan silenced journalists, censored publications and terrorized its citizens, all under its attempts to eliminate dissent and purge itself of undesirable elements, such as communism. While the censorship and oppression Imperial Japan committed against journalists and the Japanese left pales in comparison to its actions and cover-ups in countries such as China, Korea and the Philippines, it should nonetheless be publicized and confronted. The continuation of censorship and efforts to erase history in Japan, seen most recently in its attempt to force San Francisco to remove a “Comfort Women” statue in Chinatown, deserves exposure.
1.Loftus, Ronald P. The Turn Against the Modern: The Critical Essays of Taoka Reiun (1870-1912). Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Asian Studies, 2017.
2.Cook, Haruko Taya, and Theodore F. Cook. "Thought Criminal." In Japan At War: An Oral History. New York, NY: New Press, 1992.