- Constructing East Asia: Technology, Ideology, and Empire in Japan’s Wartime Era, 1931–1945 by Aaron Stephen Moore
The dynamics of Japanese politics and overseas expansion between 1931 and 1945 continue to spur controversy. Central issues revolve around the reasons for the erosion of apparent progress in Japan during the 1920s toward a more democratic government and the rise of an increasingly authoritarian regime along with the rejection of a foreign policy of “cooperation” with Western powers in favor of military expansion in China. Starting with the Tokyo War Crimes Trials of 1946–48, Western historians and other observers placed initial blame largely on Japanese military leaders and more broadly on the rise of militarism and the growing influence of extreme rightwing ideologues. Gradually scholars broadened the scope of responsibility for the nation’s policies of domestic oppression and territorial expansion to include other groups, such as civilian politicians, the media, and intellectuals. Japanese scholars have often referred to the period from 1930 to 1945 as a peculiar “dark valley” of irrationality and extreme nationalism from which the nation had to recover after 1945. Recent Western studies have both re-emphasized the important impact of nationalistic right-wing thought on Japanese policies1 and stressed the prevalent theme of Japan’s rational modernity in the nation’s propaganda which claimed that Japan deserved to lead the liberation of Asia from Western colonialism because the Japanese had, somewhat ironically, become powerful by mastering Western technology.2
Aaron Stephen Moore’s Constructing East Asia provides important new insights into wartime Japan by examining the various manifestations of the concept of “technology” and its meanings in different contexts. His study, as he acknowledges in the introduction, appears shortly after two other works on topics pertaining to technology in Japan during the interwar and wartime periods, Janis Mimura’s Planning for Empire and Hiromi Mizuno’s Science for the Empire.3 One innovative aspect of Moore’s work [End Page 407] is its analysis of not only aspects of the discourse about technology among intellectuals and civil servants but also the concrete applications of theoretical concepts about technology by engineers. He illustrates the influence of the “technological imaginary” (p. 3) that emerged and the limits of its impact by examining its operation in elite councils that deliberated on national policies and particularly in specific projects literally on the ground in Korea, Manchuria, and China. Moore also emphasizes the development of a concept of technology as a new “mode of power” that sought not to use force to impose change but to motivate people’s creativity and vitality (p. 9).
Overall, the author argues against viewing the period from 1931 to 1945 as a “dark valley” of irrationality and reactionary politics in Japan. Instead, he emphasizes that technology, as “modernization’s most visible product,” then served as an “ideology for wartime mobilization and colonial rule” (p. 4). This stress on technology, broadly conceived, continued after Japan’s defeat in 1945 and influenced Japanese policies in the postwar period in significant ways.
Moving from an analysis of abstract ideas to specific policies, the book begins with an examination of the efforts of a prominent intellectual, Aikawa Haruki, in the late 1930s and early 1940s to interpret the significance of technology. A Marxist, Aikawa believed deeply in the goal of creating a more equal and just society. He came to view technology as much more than the application of science to the capitalist means of production. Technology, as he gradually realized, pertained to economic, social, and cultural developments as the nation mobilized for war. While prospects for a class-based uprising by the proletariat waned, Aikawa and other Marxists increasingly viewed war mobilization as an agent of change. To Aikawa, this process promised to eliminate “semifeudal elements” in the economy and improve life for everyone by making “national life” more “scientific” through emphasizing the values of rationality and efficiency and increasing technical knowledge (p. 40). His growing...