Home Others Questions and answers about the WEAI author: John Persons 'Arbiter of Patriotism'

Questions and answers about the WEAI author: John Persons 'Arbiter of Patriotism'


We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Arbitrators of Patriotism: Right-wing scholars in Imperial Japan published by the University of Hawaii Press. The author of the book, John Person , is Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Marxist academics and others interested in liberal political reform often found themselves accused of treason by nationalist critics. in the Referee of patriotism, John Person examines the lives of two of the most notorious right-wing intellectuals responsible for leading such attacks in pre-war and wartime Japan: Minoda Muneki (1894-1946) and Mitsui Kōshi (1883-11953) of the Genri Nippon (Japan Principle ) Society.

Ardent advocates of Japanism, the ethno-nationalist ideology of imperial Japan, Minoda and Mitsui appointed themselves judges of correct nationalist utterances. They built careers by publishing polemics condemning Marxist and progressive academics and writers, ruining dozens of livelihoods. Person traces the rise of Japaneseism to literary and philosophical developments in the late Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) eras, when vitalistic theories championed emotion and willpower over reason. The Japanese based their conceptions of nationalism on the amorphous regions of the human psyche and labeled liberalism and Marxism as misunderstandings of the national peculiarities of human experience.

For more than a decade, government officials and politicians used Minoda and Mitsui's publications to eliminate their political enemies and advance their own agendas. But over time, they saw both men and other nationalist intellectuals as potential thought criminals. Whether they collaborated with the government to suppress the voices of the class struggle or became the target of police surveillance themselves, Minoda and Mitsui embodied the paradoxically hegemonic but arbitrary nature of nationalist ideology in imperial Japan. In this thorough examination of the Genri Nippon Society and its members Referee of patriotism provides a sharply argued and convincing account of the cosmopolitan roots and unstable networks of Japanese ethno-nationalism and its self-destructive development.

We thank Professor Person for taking the time to review his book with us.

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Q: First of all, can you imagine your research background and how you are interested in radical nationalism in Japan?

As a student, I attended Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota and was very fortunate to meet Abe Masao, a great religious scholar trained by figures from the famous Kyoto School of Philosophy, while visiting our campus for a semester. I went to the University of Chicago with the vague idea that I wanted to study Nishida Kitarō and the Kyoto School, but I struggled to develop a unique research topic in an area already filled with excellent scientists and studies. As I read Nishida's letters from the war years, I discovered that he was quite preoccupied with a man named Minoda Muneki, a philosopher whom Nishida clearly viewed as a third-rate thinker. Minoda was a philosophy professor whose vicious polemics contributed to the ruin of many academics. Basically, he would use a highly acrobatic argument to accuse his fellow academics of traitor to the nation. When I first read Minoda's works, I was overwhelmed by how dense and almost impenetrable his writing is. There are so many references to nationalist slogans, emperor poems, and other details that only passionate nationalists can read that contemporaries understandably called it a fanatical salivary gibberish. As I read more of Minoda and his enemies, I became interested in how such a person came to have such immense influence in the Academy.

Q: Could you briefly explain right-wing radicalism in imperial Japan? What are the similarities or principles that are shared with other right-wing groups, and are there special characteristics?

One of the concerns that guided my research was the history of the concept of the right wing. As I looked for examples of people using the word correctly to denote political ideology, I discovered that it began in the late Taisho era around the same time that people like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were gaining traction in Europe , and it referred to a kind of anti-establishment ideology that appealed to a sense of primitive nationalism rather than class struggle. Japaneseism, or Nihonshugi, refers to the idea that a Japanese person's being Japanese is something that is innate in that person's life and that shapes the way they speak, think, and feel. Japaneseism was anti-communist in the sense that Japanese believed that communists relied on terms such as class, which they considered to be unnatural and spurious products of modernity. At the same time, the Japanese were against the establishment in that they were deeply critical of government and finance officials who they believed were blocking the natural development of the Japanese state through their selfish clinging to power and wealth. Japanese police authorities were deeply suspicious of the Japanese movements, and there was good reason for this, as there have been many killings of society's elites by nationalists fueled by a sense of patriotism. In my book, I argue that it was the police bureaucrats who normalized the use of the right wing to refer to nationalist radicals. Japanese rarely referred to themselves as right-wing because they believed they embodied orthodox nationalism - they are not right-wing; you are the center! But for police bureaucrats trying to prevent terrorist attacks against the elite, the right-wing denoted a type of extremism that set them apart from their other ideological enemy, the left, and state-sponsored nationalism. I think it is helpful to remember that the right wing is a directive word that, on its own, does not denote any type of ideology. It is helpful because it helps us pay attention to what is taken for granted as the center that labels ideas associated with right and left as extreme or unorthodox.

Q: Who were Minoda Muneki and Mitsui Kōshi, the people you focus on? Referee of patriotism ?

Both were highly educated intellectuals who were trained and worked in established academic and media institutions. In fact, that was one of the first things that intrigued me when I started researching their organizations. While Minoda and Mitsui were viewed by their contemporaries and post-war historians as dangerously eccentric fanatics on the fringes of intellectual culture, both emerged from mainstream academic and literary currents. Both graduated from Tokyo Imperial University and Mitsui was a leader of the Negishi Tanka Society after the death of founder Masaoka Shiki, a giant in the history of modern Japanese poetry. Mitsui was also a longtime contributor and poem editor at Nihon oyobi Nihonjin ( Japan and the Japanese ), an institution among conservative opinion magazines. Today there is a growing library of excellent studies by nationalist intellectuals and organizations, but when I began my research as a PhD student it seemed like scholars largely ignored a powerful and important segment of intellectual culture simply because they loathed their ideas.

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Q: With the introduction of Referee of patriotism , go into great detail on the labeling of Minoda Muneki and Mitsui Koshi as fanatics. What makes a fanatic? At what point does a nationalist or ideologist enter fanatical territory?

The fanatic label can sometimes be used as an excuse not to investigate further. When we formulate something as fundamentally outside of our logical reasoning ability, we can get away from figuring out what people like Minoda thought and did. While I don't think Minoda and Mitsui's ideas are necessarily that interesting as ideas, I hope my exploration of their careers will help us understand the characteristics of nationalist ideas and how they can be used for various political purposes. I think the fanatic's label can get in the way of productive work at times.

At the same time, it is difficult to hold contemporaries of Minoda and Mitsui responsible for dismissing them as fanatics. In the opening chapter of my book I quote a sentence from Minoda that takes up seventeen lines on the page. Seventeen! Commitment! There Minoda railed furiously over the academic elite, whom he accused of being the root of all evil in Japanese society. Back then, authors placed dots next to words they wanted to emphasize, much like we use italics. Minoda clearly wanted to emphasize different ideas in different ways, so he used multiple forms of dots (comma-like dots, circles, double circles, etc.) and emphasized basically everything. So when you open a book by Minoda, the visual impact of the text may surprise you. And the guy was dangerous. If you were an academic caught in the crosshairs of Minoda and friends, you could lose your job. Who could blame them for not wanting to deal with them? However, since it was Minoda's contemporaries (and targets) who wrote the first accounts of the intellectual history of those years, a more rigorous account of nationalist thought must have come from a different generation of scholars.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from this? Referee of patriotism , and are there lessons that can be applied in characterizing the radical nationalist groups or individuals of today?

There are self-appointed arbitrators for patriotism everywhere. What is sometimes less obvious is the fact that the very content of patriotism is arbitrary. I think one of the things my book effectively shows is that while many different political actors (such as politicians, bureaucrats, cops, intellectuals, and the like) have called for a more patriotic society, there was little consensus on what it meant. Usually these calls were made to political enemies, but of course everyone has different political enemies. In the end, patriotism is nothing more than rhetoric intended to scare people into coming up with the program. It is precisely its emptiness that makes it so useful and effective for demagogues.

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