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Imperial Japan and Soviet Communism in the 1930s

Joseph Stalin: “The European problem can be solved in a natural way if Japan and the Soviets cooperate.”

Matsuoka Yōsuke: “Not only the European problem! Asia also can be solved!”

Joseph Stalin: “The whole world can be settled!”

—Joseph Stalin and Matsuoka Yōsuke at the Moscow Yaroslavsky railway station, April 13, 1941

Who were the Bolsheviks? What did they want and what would they settle for? Could they be trusted? The shifting balance of power in the aftermath of World War I, the new opportunities for enrichment, the increased interdependence of nations (coupled with real or imagined external threats), as well as domestic agitation for political reforms, were decisive in the way that the Japanese state and public answered these questions. This book shows that there was no agreement in the 1920s, either among factions of the government and bureaucracy, or among members of socialist and rightist movements, about the significance of the Russian Revolution and what to make of Soviet Russia. Each of these groups was pursuing its own agenda, and Soviet Russia and communism ultimately became instruments in their mutual competition to shape the future of the nation and empire.

This is not to say that communism was not perceived as a genuine threat. There were extensive debates in the mainstream media, academic publications, rightist gatherings, university halls, and corridors of power about whether communist propaganda might harm the Japanese national community, state, and empire by influencing the “unstable minds” of Japanese imperial subjects. Although generally focused on the protection of the ephemeral kokutai, anticommunism in interwar Japan was, however, multifaceted. In this book I have identified two strands: a liberal-conservative anticommunist alliance preoccupied with the coherence of domestic society, and the anticommunism of the army absorbed with the defense of the empire. If the former was inadvertently responsible for the emergence of a police state in the 1930s to the 1940s, the latter became the driving force behind the army’s imperialist expansion into Asia.

Liberals and conservatives outside and inside the government and bureaucracy were united in their concern over the threat of communist ideology. If one has to discern the main tenet of communism that propelled the ideological reaction to it, it would be the Marxist notion of class struggle. The sudden political activity of rioting peasants, striking workers, rebellious students, outcasts, feminists, homegrown socialists, and other previously marginalized groups in the post–World War I period unnerved the political, economic, and intellectual establishment as the sign of the coming of class conflict to Japanese shores. Both liberal and conservative commentators realized that Meiji imperial orthodoxy was no longer capable of dealing with the requirements of the post–World War I age—namely, the demand for a more egalitarian mass politics and the rise of nationalism in the metropole, colonies, and in the whole East Asian region. They agitated for a reworking of state ideology, offering various programs ranging from liberal paternalistic to traditionalist conservative to fascist. However, it is important to note that communism always had been considered as foreign and alien thought, the movement of which could be prevented or regulated by the state and police apparatus. Despite the many voices inside and outside the government that doubted the necessity of such regulation and the state’s ability to do so, they were unable to limit the institutional development of the police state.

It was, however, the anticommunism of the army that had a direct impact on Japan’s foreign policy in the 1930s. The components of it are complex and multilayered. I have traced the emergence of the army’s anticommunism to the direct clash of the Russian Bolsheviks, the Japanese army, and the Korean and Chinese national liberation fighters during the Siberian Intervention. The concern of the army was, however, less with communist ideology (which they initially did not take seriously) but more with the geopolitical reconfiguration of the area after the end of the Great War. The disappearance of imperial Russia, rise of Chinese nationalism, arrival of US business interests in Asia, and the new opportunities to solidify the political and economic power of Japan in the region—all were factors that greatly complicated the outlook of East Asian geopolitics in 1917–19. Finally, as the Soviet regime emerged victorious from the Russian Civil War and claimed the old tsarist possessions in Outer Mongolia and northern Manchuria (the CER), the long-standing competition with imperial Japan for its sphere of influence on the Asian continent was renewed. In this sense, anticommunist sentiments developed in the army during the Siberian Intervention as the result of brutal fighting with the communists, mixed with old anxieties over the northern neighbor, which dated back to the late nineteenth century.

The army’s anti-Bolshevik sentiments were driven by ideological matters once communism became a political force in colonial Korea and China—even more so as the military understood that the revolutionary upheavals in Korea and China were spurred by the anti-imperialist message of the Russian Revolution and disseminated in the region by Comintern agents. Therefore, the “red scare” for the Army was the danger Bolshevism presented to the stability and unity of Japan’s empire in Asia. Russian communism threatened not only the Japanese national community but more importantly Korea and China, on which (according to the military) the survival of that national community depended. The events that presented the military with constant, unabating concern were the Russian-backed Korean anti-Japanese guerilla fighting, Korean communist parties, the communist-led provisional government of independent Korea (1920), the establishment of the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924, the Sino-Soviet agreements and subsequent Soviet control of the CER (also in 1924), Soviet active interference in Chinese domestic affairs, the strengthening of the Chinese Communist Party, and finally the outbreak of the Chinese Revolution in 1925.

The army’s fears were shared by some members of the Foreign Ministry corps, the South Manchurian Railway (SMR), and some members of the Seiyūkai party. Matsuoka Yōsuke, then a director of the SMR (in office between 1921 and 1926), warned of the communist threat to Japan’s interests and promoted the notion of special relations between Japan and China. The SMR, the Foreign Ministry, and finally the cabinet under the Kiyoura Keigo premiership (1924) agreed with the General Staff’s proposal that the only solution able to address the Soviet communist threat, as well as the threat of revolution in China, was to support the northern Chinese warlord Chang Tso-lin.1 Driven by concern over the Bolshevization of China, by 1926 Japan’s decision to support Chang became the most crucial factor in his ascendance to power in northern Manchuria. Few in Tokyo anticipated the disastrous consequences: considering Chang Tso-lin a liability, the Kwantung Army officers assassinated him in 1928, thus precipitating the takeover of Manchuria in 1931.2 This assassination also marked the moment when the Foreign Ministry lost control over the Kwantung Army.

The army’s plan to create a buffer zone against the Soviet Union and thus prevent the Bolshevization of China and Japan had been entertained since the mid-1920s. Two documents prepared by the General Staff were most revealing: “Situation of the Strong Advance of the Workers-Peasant Union in China” (Shina ni okeru rōnō reimei no seiryoku shinten no jyōkyō, November 1925), and “About Plans for the Bolshevization of Japan” (Nihon sekka keikaku ni kansuru ken, February 1926).3 The Intelligence Bureau of the General Staff reported that the CER and the Soviet consulate in Harbin were the headquarters of Bolshevik operations. Moreover, Japanese intelligence indicated that the Chinese Revolution was the result of concerted efforts by the Soviet leadership, and Chinese and Russian communists’ agitation on the ground. Soviet Russia sponsored not only Chinese communists and nationalists but also Japanese communists. The Comintern, it was alleged, still hoped to bolshevize Japan and implement a proletarian revolution aimed at overturning the Japanese kokutai. This was in direct violation of the Japanese-Soviet Basic Treaty (article 5), and the General Staff urged the government to take measures to stop the Comintern’s activities. Finally, taken together the two documents essentially argued that in order to protect Japan, the army’s duty was to eliminate Soviet influence in China, specifically in northern Manchuria. Some of the detailed proposals included instigation of unrest among ethnic minorities in Asiatic Russia, Koreans, and white émigrés in Manchuria; sabotage on the Trans-Siberian Railway and of telecommunication lines; and the dispatch of intelligence agents disguised as Japanese fishermen.

To stop the Bolshevization of China, Minister of War Ugaki Kazushige (in office 1924–27) had already voiced plans for the takeover of Manchuria in 1926. Ugaki was especially indignant at the failure of his civilian colleagues to appreciate the scale of the communist danger in China and Japan. Russians, Ugaki warned in 1927, had a “habit of expansion” (shinryaku kuse), and were implementing “red imperialism” in northern Manchuria by converting the Chinese to communism. Japan must attack first and occupy the whole of Manchuria and Inner Mongolia.4 This anticommunist cause was fully appropriated by the frontier Kwantung Army. In 1929, Ishiwara Kanji, a chief strategist of the Manchurian campaign, drafted a memorandum “A Kwantung Army Plan for the Occupation of Manchuria and Mongolia” (Kantōgun Man-Mō ryōyū keikaku). He claimed that as long as Russian power and influence existed in northern Manchuria, Japanese safety was threatened. To solve the “Manchuria problem,” the Japanese must penetrate the whole of Manchuria, establishing there a self-defense zone. In the future, Ishiwara insisted, the whole Russian maritime region would have to come under Japanese influence.5 While acting as minister of war (1932–34), General Araki Sadao, veteran of the Russo-Japanese War and the Siberian Intervention, member of the conservative Kokuhonsha organization, and probably the most hardened anticommunist in the military establishment, declared that as long as the USSR existed, all nations—and Japan in particular, as its cities were within bombing range of Vladivostok—were under threat of Bolshevization.6

The military’s anticommunist thinking thus ranged from creating a buffer zone to a declaration of war on the Soviet Union. For the military and their supporters in the civilian political establishment, the existence of communist Russia left the entire East Asian region, including imperial Japan, vulnerable to the social disease of Marxism—an illness that threatened to weaken domestic society and the Asian community, exposing it to Soviet proletarian and/or Anglo-American capitalist imperialisms.

This anticommunism was, however, countered by the opposite trend within the establishment. There were political realists at the other end of the spectrum who recognized that Japan’s interests in China could not be secured without cooperation with the Soviet Union. That was the same understanding that governed Japan’s foreign relations with imperial Russia between 1905 and 1917 and forced it to recognize communist Russia in 1925. The navy, party politicians, and some members of the Foreign Ministry (Shidehara, Shiratori Toshio) were more concerned with the encroachment of Anglo-American white economic domination and the rise of Chinese nationalism, and advocated a Soviet-Japanese alliance. In some versions, China was included (e.g., Gotō Shinpei’s advocacy and Prime Minister Tanaka Gi’ichi’s support of a Sino-Soviet-Japanese alliance), while in later ones Nazi Germany also was considered as part of the Eurasian bloc. Matsuoka Yōsuke, who in the 1920s declared Soviet Russia as the main threat to Japan’s empire, as foreign minister in 1940–41 proposed that the Soviet Union join the Tripartite Pact. Considerations about communist ideology were put aside in favor of a geopolitical Eurasian alliance against the North Atlantic alliance of Great Britain and the United States. Neither Stalin nor Hitler took this proposal seriously, but the fact remains that the Japanese political establishment was ready to overlook whatever ideological disagreements they might have had vis-à-vis Soviet communism.

Moreover, to combat Chinese nationalism, even the military was ready to cooperate with the Soviet Union, when necessary. In early 1929, Chang Hsüeh-liang, son of the slain Chang Tso-lin, tried to wrest control of the CER from the Soviets. In the ensuing Sino-Soviet military conflict in late 1929, the Japanese government signaled its approval of the Soviet Union’s military actions in northern Manchuria and was more in sympathy with the Russians than the Chinese.7 This incident indicated that the Japanese government, including the military (specifically, the so-called control faction, or tōsei-ha) was willing to accept the traditional division of the sphere of influence. In fact, whereas the Peace Preservation Law was revised in 1928 to make “alteration of the kokutai” punishable by death, foreign-policy makers did not shy away from striking a deal with Russian communists. Domestic and foreign policies diverged, in which the former’s anticommunist stance did not alter the foreign policy focused on securing Japan’s position in China by way of rapprochement with communist Russia.

The Manchurian Incident in 1931 greatly complicated the situation, mainly because there was no longer a buffer zone between the Soviet Union and the Japanese Empire. The focus of tension moved to the borders between Soviet Outer Mongolia and Manchukuo, where in 1935–39 there was a continuous series of minor frontier incidents. The Soviet government initially adopted an appeasement policy, unsuccessfully offering to conclude a nonaggression pact with the Japanese and selling the CER to Manchukuo in 1935. Simultaneously, the USSR hastened its buildup of military strength in the Far East, increasing the number of troops, double-tracking the Trans-Siberian Railway, and establishing the Pacific Fleet. The Soviet government also pressured the United States and the League of Nations for diplomatic recognition, which the United States gave in 1933. In September 1934, the USSR was accepted into the League of Nations. At the same time, the Soviet Comintern leadership also went into offensive mode, issuing the 1932 Theses on Japan—which, for the first time, called for the destruction of the absolutist state power exemplified by the figure of the emperor.

In November 1936, Japan concluded the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany, which despite its name did not have much substance. The pact itself was anodyne and stated that the signatories would be on guard against the Comintern. Both the Foreign Ministry and the army were careful not to antagonize the Soviet Union. The Japanese government communicated with the Russians two days before publication of the pact, providing assurances that it was against the Comintern but not the Soviet Union!8 The Japanese inverted the traditional argument used by Soviet officials during the negotiations over the recognition of the USSR: that the Soviet Union had nothing to do with the Comintern, which was an international organization composed of many foreign communist parties. In fact, many understood that the Anti-Comintern Pact was anticommunist in form but anti-British in fact. It was a running joke that “Someday Stalin may join the Anti-Comintern Pact.”9

Nevertheless, the Russians were offended and adopted a hard line over fisheries and various minor issues in Soviet-Japanese relations. After the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the Soviets concluded a nonaggression pact with China and began to provide military aid to sink Japan deeper into its war with China. Recurring border disputes since 1933 increased in intensity after 1936 and resulted in two small wars. In 1938 in the Changkufeng Incident (known in Russia as the Lake Khasan Incident, at the convergence of the Soviet, Korean, and Manchukuo borders) and the Nomonhan War of 1939 (known in Russia as the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, on the Manchukuo–Outer Mongolian border), the Soviet Union defeated Japan.10 The Japanese government chose not to provoke the Soviet Union any further and adopted a policy of “keeping peace and status quo” (seihitsu hoji).11

Since 1938, the New Order in East Asia movement advocated by then prime minister Konoe Fumimaro had aimed at preventing US, British, and French interference in Asian affairs. Importantly, it did not conceive of the Soviet Union as a force to be kept out of East Asia. Revolutionary Russia, it was understood, would support Japan’s own “revolutionary” challenge to Anglo-American world dominance. In the spring of 1941, both the Soviet Union and Japan faced grave international challenges and thus more vigorously pursued mutually conciliatory relations. The Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact of April 1941 once again confirmed the traditional division of influence. The treaty stipulated that the Soviet Union would respect the territorial integrity and inviolability of Manchukuo, and the Japanese made an identical pledge with regard to the Mongolian People’s Republic.12 During negotiations in Moscow in March 1941, Matsuoka declared that it was Britain and the United States who tricked Japan into intervening in the Russian Revolution in Siberia in the summer of 1918. In doing so, they prevented Japan and the Soviet Union from becoming close partners, as they always should have been. Matsuoka further claimed that he was the true heir to the ideals of Gotō Shinpei and a true friend of the Russian communists.13 This was not the first time that Matsuoka declared his friendly attitude. In November 1932, on his way to the League of Nations meeting over the Manchurian Incident, where the Japanese delegation famously walked out in protest, Matsuoka stopped in Moscow for five days. While never affirming the tenets of communism, Matsuoka praised the Soviet Union for “conducting a great experiment for human beings, whereas western civilization is in decline.”14

In a way, the Russian Revolution ended in 1943, when Stalin dissolved the Comintern, publicly abandoning the program of world proletarian revolution. The Soviet-Japanese status quo, reminiscent of the division of the spheres of influence in East Asia between imperial Russia and imperial Japan before 1917, remained intact until the summer of 1945. The anti-imperialist and anti-Japanese declarations and actions of Russian and Asian communists determined the responses of the Japanese political, military, and bureaucratic establishment in domestic and foreign policies. However, apart from the radical anti-Soviet and anticommunist faction within the military (especially the Imperial Way faction under Araki Sadao), the government and military taking a pragmatic approach were confident that communism, while still an ideological threat, could be contained and that the domestic society and its unique nature, exemplified in the term kokutai, were secured by various institutional and ideological measures. More often than not, Japanese policy makers chose the path of peaceful coexistence with Soviet Russia because of the apparent advantages for the Japanese Empire and the whole East Asian region.

The Russian Revolution did not have the same meaning in Asia as it did in Europe or Russia itself. Moreover, it was understood differently in Japan than in the rest of Asia because Japan was not a colonized country but rather a colonizer. Asian revolutionaries outside Japan adopted the Leninist critique of capitalist imperialism and, as an alternative path to modernization, followed the communist program. But to contemporary Japanese commentators it was already obvious that although in colonial (Korea) and semicolonial (China) Asia the Russian Revolution merged with the goals of national independence and modernization, in Japan it had to answer to different goals. In Japan, the Russian Revolution overlapped with domestic agitation for reforms that aimed to extend political rights to outsider groups, rein in the exercise of arbitrary power, and find a solution to the colonial problem. The Russian Revolution happened at a time when the Japanese public began to question the historical foundations of their modernized imperial state and its future in the new post–World War I global context. The period between 1918 and 1924 was the most unstable and turbulent for the imperial government since the Meiji Revolution in 1868. The Meiji order, which had established an emperor-centered constitutional system, promoted a capitalist, industrializing economy, and recognized expansion in Asia as an essential part of “national defense and well-being,” was being challenged by new political and social forces. The Russian Revolution provided a model for organization and tactics to achieve what Japanese nongovernmental groups and activists had always sought: participation in national politics in order to improve social and economic conditions. Viewed from this perspective, the arrival of communist ideas heralded the revival of a long-standing current in Japanese oppositional thinking, and the emergence of a new theoretical framework for resisting the increasingly authoritarian state.

Marxism had been known and studied in Japan since the late 1890s, but it was not until the Russian Revolution and subsequent domestic unrest—specifically the Rice Riots of 1918 and numerous labor strikes—that Marxism became the ideology of the Japanese revolutionary movement and the guiding principle of social science in Japan. These domestic and international upheavals validated for many in Japan the Marxist understanding of social structure based on social classes. They seemed to give credence to the notion that class conflict—which was fundamentally international in character and transcended state boundaries— was at once society’s essential problem and the key to its liberation. The Japanese state took the threat of proletarian internationalism seriously and, beginning with the implementation of the Peace Preservation Law of 1925, devised a mechanism to bring leftists back to the national community. Class conflict was also an issue for the state, the police, and the conservative and radical Right; but distinctly in the Japanese case, anticapitalist rhetoric was largely tolerated and even shared by members of these groups.

The government, however, did not have to worry about domestic leftist opposition because Japanese communists in the 1920s came to regard the international anti-imperialist struggle as a secondary goal. As Japanese leftist intellectuals struggled to make sense of their world and their aspirations for their people and country, they devised a revolutionary program that diverged from the Russian model and the Comintern’s recommendations. Japanese socialists produced three main interpretations of the Russian Revolution: national socialism, anarchism, and communism (of the early JCP variety), and all three of them failed to exclude the trappings of national rhetoric. Each had different motives for its preference of national causes over internationalist objectives but, as I have argued, at its root was their deep preoccupation with and “protest against the quality of political life,” which ultimately resulted in their rejection of the universality of the Russian revolutionary model and Marxist-Leninist communism.15 The breakup of the previously united Japanese socialist movement started with the departure of the newly established national socialist group. The emergence of this group revealed a larger pattern within Japanese leftist political thought: it was inspired in its anticapitalist critique by Marxism but ultimately driven by the interests of national and bloc self-sufficiency. Referring to the example of the Russian Revolution, national socialists concluded that the only agent of historical change was the nation as a whole, not a particular social class. In this way, they rejected internationalism in favor of nationalism as a means for ensuring the prosperity of the state and empire. On the political level, national socialists found it more befitting to side with fascists, the conservative Right, and the establishment, rather than with “traitorous” Japanese communists.

Taishō anarchism and early communism maintained their internationalist orientation because they had an institutional referent in the Comintern (this was true for anarchism until 1923). The Kōza-ha, the dominant school of Japanese communism in the 1930s, was blamed by post–World War II Japanese Marxist historians for taking for granted the exceptional character of the Japanese nation-state based on its distorted analysis of Japan’s historical development. In contrast, the Rōnō-ha and its original leader, Yamakawa Hitoshi, were commended for regarding Japan as one of the capitalist powers rather than insisting on its exceptionalism.

But as I have argued, Japanese communists, regardless of what faction they belonged to, were not immune to the power of nationalism. While resisting the Russian Marxist framework of “advanced Europe and backward Asia,” Yamakawa differentiated between “advanced Japan” and the rest of “backward Asia,” prioritizing the former over the latter. If we look at how the Rōnō-ha treated Japan’s proletarian engagement with the colonial struggle in Asia, it becomes obvious that they replicated the Orientalist outlook of Marxism-Leninism and inverted it. Yamakawa and the early JCP came to believe that the Japanese socialist movement, due to its more progressive character, occupied a superior position in relation to socialist movements in Korea and China. Caught between domestic social issues, on one hand, and the international anti-imperialist struggle, on the other, the Japanese Left ultimately chose the former as the more urgent of the two fronts. With its internationalist tendencies muted, the national communist movement in Japan was poorly equipped to withstand the pressure of the militarized state in the 1930s. When, in the late 1920s, Japanese communists placed their hopes in the Chinese Revolution and attempted to form a united anti-imperialist front with their Chinese counterparts, their efforts remained abortive. After the outbreak of war in China in 1927 and subsequent mass arrests of leftists, and especially after the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, there was far less room to mount a meaningful opposition to military expansion abroad.

Did leftist internationalism in interwar Japan have a chance to succeed? Most probably not. The reason for this is not that the state was too powerful, nor that police repression was too thorough, but that leftist thinking from the start included a fatal flaw that would prove to be its undoing—namely, the belief that Japan was exceptional and/or superior to the rest of Asia, and even to revolutionary Russia. Japanese leftists might not have been able to stop the war in China, but they might have altered the course of those tragic events had their response to the Russian Revolution’s supranational vision been different.

. Hattori Ryūji, Higashi Ajia kokusai kankyō no hendō to Nihon gaikō, 1918–1931 (Tokyo: Yūhikaku, 2001), 149–52; David J. Lu, Agony of Choice: Matsuoka Yōsuke and the Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1880–1946 (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002), 46–49.

. Edward J. Drea, Japan’s Imperial Army: Its Rise and Fall, 1853–1945 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009), 163–66.

. Tomita Takeshi, Senkanki no Nisso kankei: 1917–1937 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2010), 268–69.

. Ugaki Kazushige, Ugaki nikki (Tokyo: Asahi Shinbunsha, 1956), 48–49; Sakai Tetsuya, Taishō demokurashī taisei no hōkai: Naisei to gaikō (Tokyo: Tokyō Daigaku Shuppankai, 1992), 174.

. In contrast, central army headquarters in Tokyo did not plan any military action north of the South Manchurian Railway, since intrusion into a region considered to be within the Russian sphere of influence might provoke a Soviet military response. See Mark R. Peattie, Ishiwara Kanji and Japan’s Confrontation with the West (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), 97–100.

. George A. Lensen, The Damned Inheritance: The Soviet Union and the Manchurian Crises, 1924–1935 (Tallahassee, FL: Diplomatic Press, 1974), 480–83.

. Chong-Sik Lee, Revolutionary Struggle in Manchuria: Chinese Communism and Soviet Interest 1922–1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 96.

. Ian Nish, Japanese Foreign Policy in the Interwar Period (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002), 109.

. Vassili Molodiakov, “The Tripartite Pact and the Soviet Union,” Proceedings of the International Forum on War History (National Institute of Defense Studies, 2010), 146.

. Jonathan Haslam, The Soviet Union and the Threat from the East, 1933–1941: Moscow, Tokyo and the Prelude to the Pacific War (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992).

. Yukiko Koshiro, Imperial Eclipse: Japan’s Strategic Thinking about Continental Asia before August 1945 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013), 17.

. Hattori, Higashi Ajia kokusai kankyō no hendō to Nihon gaikō, 1918–1931, 230.

. Lu, Agony of Choice, 199–205.

. Koshiro, Imperial Eclipse, 39–40.

. On the disintegration of Meiji ideological orthodoxy, see Tetsuo Najita, Japan: The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 102–48.

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