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  • Monster of the Twentieth Century: Kōtoku Shūsui and Japan’s First Anti-Imperialist Movement by Robert Thomas Tierney
  • Stephen Filler
Monster of the Twentieth Century: Kōtoku Shūsui and Japan’s First Anti-Imperialist Movement. By Robert Thomas Tierney. University of California Press, 2015. 280pages. Hardcover $70.00/£48.95.

Robert Tierney’s Monster of the Twentieth Century is an analysis of Japan’s first anti-imperialist movement, centering on Kōtoku Shūsui (1871–1911), followed by a translation, amply annotated, of Kōtoku’s 1901 work Teikokushugi: Nijisseiki no kaibutsu (Imperialism: Monster of the Twentieth Century). Kōtoku is best remembered as Japan’s first major anarchist intellectual and for his unjust execution in the so-called High Treason Incident of 1910–1911. Tierney, however, notes that before becoming an anarchist, Kōtoku was “the undisputed leader of the political movement” opposing imperialism and argues that his contribution to that movement was his most enduring legacy (p. 2).

To begin at the end, in the epilogue Tierney asks: “Is Kōtoku’s Imperialism still relevant?” He answers in the affirmative with an extended commentary on the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ongoing “war on terror.” Despite the contemporary perception that imperialism is a discredited ideology, Tierney finds that Kōtoku’s critique of twentieth-century imperialism anticipated the causes and effects of twenty-first-century American-led campaigns. While there are obviously fundamental differences between the military activities of the two time periods, Tierney does convincingly demonstrate the relevance of Kōtoku’s arguments. Among the phenomena noted by Kōtoku: undeclared wars fought to bring “civilization” to less-enlightened societies; the enrichment of the military and industrial sectors at the expense of the general population; the deadening of public outrage over war atrocities; and the degrading of civil liberties at home.

Monster of the Twentieth Century focuses largely on Kōtoku’s anti-imperialist thought; readers who want more information on his anarchism or on the High [End Page 421] Treason Incident, or who seek detailed accounts of other Japanese anti-imperialists, will have to look elsewhere. What Tierney has accomplished with his analysis and translation is to help free Kōtoku from the shadow of his final fate, thus normalizing him and bringing him back to life as a Meiji intellectual in his own right rather than as a predecessor to someone like the anarchist Ōsugi Sakae (1885–1923), who was also murdered by the Japanese state but had ample time to develop his anarchist views. In this way, the book makes clear the importance of Kōtoku’s contribution to socialist thought, not only in Japan, but, thanks to the speedy translation of his major works into Chinese, in China and beyond.

The first section of the book, “Kōtoku Shūsui and Anti-Imperialist Thought,” traces the development of pro- and anti-imperialist discourse, and of Kōtoku’s own views on imperialism, in the early and mid-Meiji periods. The first chapter provides a historical overview. Many Meiji intellectuals shared with Kōtoku a belief that the revolutionary promise of the Restoration had been betrayed by the ruling political elite. As a mere teenager during the 1880s Freedom and Popular Rights Movement, Kōtoku pursued a political career as a militant (sōshi) for the Liberal Party. He then became a disciple of Nakae Chōmin, promoter of democratic thought and author of the influential A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government (1887). In the 1890s, as a writer first for the newspaper Jiyū shinbun and then for the influential Yorozu chōhō, Kōtoku gained an understanding of the essential role played by imperialism in the world order, and he emerged as an intellectual leader of the “radical opposition” to the Meiji regime.

The identity of Meiji Japan was tied to imperialism and colonialism from the very beginning, with aggressive, expansionist activity in Hokkaidō, Okinawa, Taiwan, and Korea. Advocates of democracy and socialism at home, including the young Kōtoku, often supported a strong Japanese military presence abroad. An early anti-imperialist movement for Asian solidarity was soon replaced by a consensus...


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pp. 421-425
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