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(The Other) Yoshida Shigeru and the Expansion of Bureaucratic Power in Prewar Japan

From: Monumenta Nipponica
Volume 67, Number 2, 2012
pp. 283-327 | 10.1353/mni.2012.0036

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Yoshida Shigeru 吉田茂 (1885-1954) was one of the most powerful and ubiquitous government officials of the interwar era-a period when the influence of the conservative political parties reached its zenith and was then overwhelmed during the "national emergency" (hijōji 非常時) of the 1930s by the resurgence of military and bureaucratic elite preeminence in directing the affairs of state. No friend of the notions of democratic government circulating in Japan after World War I, Yoshida was known among his contemporaries as a vigorous proponent of "japanist" values and ideals, a prominent architect of Japan's mobilization state in the late 1930s, and an unyielding proponent of the propriety of and necessity for bureaucratic leadership in shaping the fortunes of imperial Japan. The historical significance of Yoshida the bureaucrat has been obscured by the collapse of the wartime mobilization state, the discrediting of wartime japanist ideals in postwar Japan's democratic regime, and, to no small degree, by the transcendent postwar importance and fame of his namesake, the diplomat Yoshida Shigeru 吉田茂 (1878-1967), who served five times as Japan's prime minister between 1946 and 1954.

Nevertheless, the "other" Yoshida merits the historian's close attention in any analysis of Japan's interwar and wartime political history. In addition to leading the Home Ministry's shrines and social bureaus and serving as deputy mayor of Tokyo, he worked to pass Japan's first labor bill in 1931 and directed the semiofficial Kyōchōkai 協調会 (Harmonization Society) during the pivotal years of 1931 to 1934. As chief cabinet secretary in 1935 Yoshida oversaw the creation of the extra-ministerial Naikaku Chōsa Kyoku 内閣調査局 (Cabinet Research Bureau) and served as its first director, thereby facilitating the expansion of technocratic planning by civil and military bureaucrats. In the late 1930s and early 1940s he sat in the House of Peers, participated in the Shōwa Kenkyūkai 昭和研究会 (Shōwa Research Association), served concurrently as head of the Kyūshū Chihō Gyōsei Kyōgikai 九州地方 行政協議会 (Kyushu Regional Administration Council) and as governor of Fukuoka, and ran both the Health and Welfare Ministry and the Munitions Ministry. Given his resume and enthusiasm for japanist values, it is easy to see why Yoshida has been characterized as "the high priest of administrative japanism."

Despite being at the center of bureaucratic politics during the turbulent years of early Shōwa, Yoshida's presence in historical scholarship on this period is surprisingly small. As a consequence of his involvement in labor policy and in national planning organs, Yoshida appears primarily in discussions of social policy and the activities of reformist bureaucrats. He emerges in these accounts in a somewhat paradoxical form. There is Yoshida the progressive social bureaucrat working with like-minded party men on behalf of legislation to recognize the rights of labor vis-à-vis management. But there is also Yoshida the right-wing reformist bureaucrat promoting the unification of labor and management and joining hands with army staff officers to create the infrastructure for greater state planning and national mobilization. In both guises he has served to symbolize the "centrality of corporatist thought in the odyssey of the social bureaucrats." Meanwhile, although there is unanimous recognition by his contemporaries of Yoshida's belief in State Shinto and the unity of politics and religion, there is minimal scholarly consideration of the nature of his piety or of its implications for his administrative outlook.

As a leading member of the Kokuikai 国維会 (National Mainstay Society), Yoshida also receives regular mention in scholarship on an organization recognized then and since as the headquarters of reformist "new bureaucrats" (shin kanryō 新官僚). Comprehending Yoshida is closely linked to a better understanding of this group of officials, although contemporary commentators and historians disagree over their historical significance. Writers at the time explained the new bureaucrats in Rashomon-like fashion as everything from defenders of liberalism to avatars of fascism to champions of anticapitalist kakushin 革新 (renovation). Most commentators, however, tended to see in these reformist bureaucrats an army-dependent, opportunistic expansion of bureaucratic power in response to "party stagnation" in the wake of the Manchurian Incident of 1931. Even when recognizing that Kokuikai officials had long prepared and "watched eagerly" to strike against their "sworn enemies...

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