“Prof, can you talk about fascism at a students’ gathering?”
I was surprised to receive such an invitation from a student last month, which I happily accepted. I am not an expert of theories of Fascism, but I have many things to say about various fascist movements in the 1930s and early ’40s, especially those in East Asia. The student body was diverse in their origins, with many exchange students. They were politically and demographically very similar, however: liberal, cosmopolitan, well-educated, and young. I soon discovered that this gathering was organized not because of their academic interests in political ideologies per se, but their everyday fear of the rise of “fascism,” so to speak. One by one, students asked for practical strategies to fight fascism in contemporary society. The room was filled with anxiety.
I felt sympathetic. But at the same time, discussing what might constitute “fascism” appeared misdirected for the purpose of addressing their concern. More urgent is to examine why pseudo-fascism—xenophobia, racism, or exclusive nationalism—resonates so widely today. How could such a violent thought (with detrimental historical baggage) capture people’s hearts? This is also a chance for liberals to step back and question what we take for granted. What specific experiences made liberal ideas convincing and sacred in our own lives?
These questions, or in short, how and why people internalize an ideology, motivate my research on the Japanese empire. It is well-known that wartime Japan had a totalitarian character in many ways, with the wide swaths of people worshipping the emperor and willing to sacrifice their lives. It might be less known that it conducted similarly fervent totalitarian rule over its colonies, Taiwan and Korea. Youth mobilization appeared particularly successful—During World War II, hundreds of thousands of colonial youth applied to Japanese army recruitment each year. Scholars typically depicted this colonial “volunteer fever” as a product of relentless government coercion, persuasion, and brainwashing without much giving thought to the causal mechanism.
My book, Nation-Empire: Ideology and Rural Youth Mobilization in Japan and Its Colonies, takes a different angle. Instead of assuming the state directly influenced individuals’ behavior, it focuses on thick layers of local social relationships that determined the value of state directives from the viewpoints of people. It offers a fine-grained analysis of twists and turns of social dynamics in four villages across the empire since the late nineteenth century up to the immediate postwar period—how the popularity of urban modernity and the emphasis on agrarianism shaped the mental worlds of young villagers, how the “cult of youth” affected family politics, what the shifts in landlord-tenant relationships meant to young people, how youth programs unexpectedly changed youth’s future prospects, and how these youth survived the postwar chaos, for example. Local battles generated strong emotions, and whatever they were, these emotions were often expressed as a firm belief in the imperial cause. Seen in this way, Japan’s ideological mobilization both in the metropole and colonies was a much more complicated process than previously assumed, but also had a distinct pattern.
Again, it is not the definition of an ideology (Japanese nationalism) that explains the widespread acceptance most persuasively. It is the social complexities that made people emotionally attached to that ideology.
This means that it would take deep investigative work to make an analogy between politics of the 1930s and that of today, far more than merely reviewing what the fascist ideology was. But I hope this would provide a pointer to students who are earnestly trying to account for and confront the rise of pseudo-fascism—go find out social dynamics and emotions at the local level!
About the author of this blog post: Sayaka Chatani is Assistant Professor of History at National University of Singapore, and the author of Nation-Empire: Ideology and Rural Youth Mobilization in Japan and Its Colonies.