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Reviewed by:
  • The Culture of Japanese Fascism
  • Bill Mihalopoulos
The Culture of Japanese Fascism. Edited by Alan Tansman. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009. 496 pp. $99.95 (cloth); $27.95 (paper).

The Culture of Japanese Fascism is a multidisciplinary collection of essays dealing with the relation between aesthetics—as a critique of experience and "the true situation of the present"—and political action. The common thread among the diverse collection of essays is the starting point of analysis: Japan's fascist turn was a product of efforts to come to terms with "modernity." Japanese intellectuals experienced the shock of rapid change as a fundamental homesickness for a past when the world was fully accessible, and the transparency in human relations safeguarded Japanese civilization from outside corruption. In an effort to overturn the forces of modernity responsible for the present-day corruption and degenerate forms of life, Japanese thinkers, rural leaders, and social reformers turned to culture and community as a solution. Culture and tradition were conceptualized as the storehouses of an unchanging, transhistorical Japanese essence. In terms of aesthetics, culture and tradition were the elixir to prevent Japan turning into an inferior copy of the West. Politically, culture and the tradition held the key for Japan's quest to liberate Asia from Western colonial hegemony.

More or less, each essay deals with a core issue in Japan's fascistic turn: how to revert to the premodern unity of ethics, politics, and economics. Capitalist development brought a rupture from the past. Precapitalist Japan was organized around direct interpersonal relations. Capitalism (re)organizes society impersonally, by means of the market, transforming labor power into production power. Capitalist modernity also undermined existing bonds of solidarity. Politics and economics no longer constituted a coherent whole. The intensification and spread of commodity relations from the mid 1900s transformed the outer and inner life of Japanese society. After the Russo-Japanese war, the Japanese economy shifted from state-sponsored projects aimed at beefing up military and technological infrastructure to commodity production. The transformation to a higher level of capitalist production brought [End Page 893] about a significant transformation in social agency, as the wealth of objects and the knowledge and aspirations that constituted the lived world became subsumed under the capitalist principle of money begetting more money. The multiple new forms of life unleashed by the forces of commodity production transformed simultaneously the mind and material world: human social relations were objectified into things, and consciousness (the realm of judgment and value) was subjected to the principles of rationalization that constitute the world of commodities. That is to say, capitalist development involved the concurrent transformations in relations of production and subjectivity. This transformation led to a crisis of government. Namely, Japanese leaders had to invent new ways of governing to coordinate a whole field of new realities and multiplication of interests that threatened to tear Japan apart. What each essay reveals is a snapshot of how Japan's fascist turn is the gradual evolvement of heterogeneous forms of government, often conflicting, that intervened deep in everyday life, aiming to constitute a uniformed subjectivity. The vapor-like quality of fascism was due to the micro-level alignments of everyday choices and personal investments to the power circuits of the state.

The Culture of Japanese Fascism is enriched by a tension between three distinct strands in analyzing fascism. Kevin Doak, Aaron Gerow, Noriko Aso, and Aaron Skabelund attempt to situate fascist ideals as a cultural manifestation of ethnic ultranationalism. Harry Harootunian, Michael Baskett, and Angus Lockyer are more interested in fascist aesthetics as a transnational movement where Japan's turn to ethical and cultural exceptionalism is an effect of capitalism. This approach posits an important point of debate that needs clarification. In this approach, fascism does not refer to the state fascism of Mussolini but to a generic authoritarian propensity immanent in capitalist societies. This propensity, or force, comes to the fore in times of crisis. During times of danger, diverse institutions in capitalist societies, such as school, family, police, and religious institutions become despotic and limit individual and collective action by demanding that one and sundry act and behave like "responsible" citizens, or, in the...