“Leaping Patriotic Autumn,” a Japanese poster promoting patriotism. Source: Wikipedia at https://tinyurl.com/yd7w7lml.
Kokutai: Japanese national identity on the eve of World War II
Estimated time: fifty minutes
The national identity of Japan and the Japanese people during the Meiji, Taisho, and Showa periods was in a state of flux. With the selective embrace of Westernization, new economic and cultural ideas clashed with traditional Japanese and East Asian norms. During the years leading up to the 1937 invasion of China and a broader entry into World War II, the Japanese government sought to crystalize a concept of Kokutai, translated to English alternately as “national polity” and “national essence.” The nationalism of the period generated a rejection of many of the same liberal democratic values the totalitarian and authoritarian regimes of Europe spurned. Japanese exceptionalism became a key component of nationalism and justified the military expansion of the empire against its Asian neighbors and engagement with the broader world in World War II.
To establish a framework for understanding the concept of a national character, explore the question of nationality with students. Present the following questions and ask students to discuss their responses briefly in small groups:
What truly defines you as an American?
Can others that are defined differently still be Americans?
After students have a chance to discuss with their groups, gather the class as a whole and solicit some key takeaways from each question. The discussion is likely to generate a wide variety of responses, but highlight certain non-negotiables that arise in both questions (rule of law, egalitarianism, freedom, etc.). Transition and ask students if other nations can define themselves as they have just attempted to do for the United States. Steer the discussion toward nations that may have a much longer history than the U.S. and have more homogenous cultural, ethnic, and religious traditions, including Japan.
Author’s notes on students’ responses
Most students identified shared values that reflected the ideals enshrined in our founding documents. Students made multiple references to “freedom,” “liberty,” “equality,” “the American dream,” and “the Constitution,” and, with some prompting, connected these concepts to many of the Founding Fathers’ Enlightenment principles. Although a few mentioned cultural elements that are often associated with American identity (e.g., the Christian faith, European cultural legacies), students mostly said that these are not as necessary to be an American as is the case with the founding principles they identified. When I asked students to look at other nations, elements of national character came quickly, and I had to be cautious, as some were offensive stereotypes. Nonetheless, students noticed the same problems they had defining an American character. Fortunately, the notion of an ethnic state arose quickly when a student referenced Germany—both in dealing with the current immigration issues in Europe and concepts of German identity pushed by the Nazi regime. The transition to Japan produced a similar discussion (a student referenced the state of Korean minorities within Japan) and a natural transition to the primary source reading.
Have students read excerpts (pages 3–5) from the 1937 Kokutai no hongi (Fundamentals of Our National Policy) by Asia for Educators at Columbia University. As they read, answer the same three questions from the introductory discussion, but for Japan in 1937 according to the document. Students should cite specific textual evidence from the piece to support each of their answers.
What defines the Japanese, according to the document?
Does the document allow for a wide or malleable definition when it comes to this identity?
How does the document characterize a common Japanese identity?
Author’s notes on students’ responses
Most students were unfamiliar with the terms “Occident” and “Occidental,” and asked about these terms. The notion of the Japanese as a historical people and the contrast with the Western and American concept of individualism arose quickly. Students noticed that the criticism of individualism and Enlightenment ideals was squarely a criticism of how they defined essential American characteristics in the opening discussion. Students highlighted the symbol of the emperor, a Confucian-like approach to social cooperation and harmony, and dedication to the good of the nation rather than one’s own ego as key to Japanese identity. Many students drew comparisons to both Fascist Italy and Germany regarding the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the state. As for the inclusion of non-Japanese elements adopted by Japan, students emphasized that ideas from China and India had many centuries to be adapted to the Japanese character, rather than mere decades.
Culminating activity: Japanese nationalism and prewar identity
Estimated time: twenty-five minutes
The three preceding readings detailed key factors leading to Japanese nationalism and the definition of Japanese national identity prior to World War II. Students should have access to the documents and their earlier work for this activity. Divide students into working groups (four or five individuals) and have each group create a chart to summarize their findings. Ask the groups to create:
A list of the five most important features of Japanese national identity as expressed by the authors of these documents
Textual references to the sources that best support and define each of these five identified features
An analysis statement that answers this question: How did nationalism and identity as defined in your summary contribute to Japanese militarism and aggression?
Once the groups have completed their individual charts, gather as a full class and compile a list together that represents the common contributions of the group. Have each group read their analysis statement and create a common statement for the full group. Responses will likely address Japanese willingness to adapt to new cultures and concepts, dedication to the emperor and other national symbols, a shared and proud history, a history of military success and expansion, and importance of community and nation over individualism. As you discuss the summary statements, students will likely draw parallels to the militarist aggression of Fascist Italy and Germany. While these are essential, also challenge them to think more broadly about nationalism and generalize these concepts to other instances of militarism. European imperialism and jingoism, as well as American westward expansion, are contemporary democratic counterpoints to the authoritarian examples, although students may address other examples from earlier periods.
References and Resources
http://tinyurl.com/hbpb4wh: This is the link to Fukuzawa Yukichi (popularly attributed), “On Leaving Asia (Datsu-A Ron),” Jiji shinpō, March 16, 1885. This document is provided by Kazumi Hasegawa, lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Washington.
https://www.fpri.org/article/2017/04/nations-prosper-case-north-south-korea/: This is the link to Lucien Ellington and Tawni Ferrarini, “Why Some Nations Prosper? The Case of North and South Korea,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, April 26, 2017.
https://new.utc.edu/sites/default/files/2020-12/reading8.pdf: This is the link to “Reading 8: Exclusion and Humiliation” from Fran Sterling et al., The Nanjing Atrocities: Crimes of War (Brookline, Massachusetts: Facing History and Ourselves National Organization, 2014), 111 –114.
http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/japan/kokutai.pdf: This is a link to selections from the Kokutai no Hongi (Fundamentals of Our National Polity), 1937, Asia for Educators.