Shifts in Political Culture across 20th-Century Japan

AHA Session 71
Conference on Asian History 1
Friday, January 6, 2017: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Centennial Ballroom A (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Adam Bronson, Durham University
Stefan Tanaka, University of California, San Diego

Session Abstract

In the twentieth century, Japan underwent a series of dramatic changes associated with imperialism, total war, military occupation, and rapid economic growth. Scholars have connected the different moments of this history to changing political views, pointing out, for example, that many former supporters of militarism during World War II abruptly turned to offer vocal support for democratic reforms after 1945 in the context of the Allied Occupation. In response, contemporary intellectuals argued that the meaning of “democracy” had changed, and that the word was invoked with the sole purpose of winning favor from Occupation authorities. This debate concerning the meaning of democracy hinged upon different assumptions concerning the topic of this panel, the mutability of political culture in Japan before, during, and after World War II.

The panelists pay close attention to change at the level of the practices, categories, and languages that make up political culture. Although such changes are more difficult to measure and quantify than changes in public opinion, attention to them opens up a way to better integrate the history of Japan with a global history that encompasses international movements, the circulation of scientific and bureaucratic expertise, and the transformation of the state in response to economic crises and war. Such integration entails more than showing that the political history of Japan intersected with globally relevant events or processes, or that political elites drew upon global developments for local purposes. It requires a dynamic approach that considers the mutability of the relationship between the local and global dimensions of political culture.

This dynamic approach is on display in four papers that consider the history of political culture in Japan at the scale of a specific event, a connected series of political cycles, the transwar frame of midcentury history, and the twentieth century as a whole. Robin Kietlinski examines popular, elite, and diplomatic motives behind Japan’s successful bid for a seat on the International Olympic Committee in 1909. By situating the effort to attain this seat in the context of Japan’s long history with the Olympic Movement, she shows how different actors came together to construct an international stage for new forms of political performance in the Japanese Empire. Reto Hofmann shows how Japanese conservatives reinvented themselves after World War II by promoting nuclear energy development. Through the early career of future Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro, he provides a window into the range of options available to Japanese political elites as they struggled to regain power during the US Occupation and while under pressure from the internationalist Left. Max Ward directly confronts questions pertaining to the mutability of political culture by considering the entwined histories of juvenile reform, ideological conversion, and criminal rehabilitation from the 1910s to the 1950s. Finally, Adam Bronson explores the history of rumors in order to map out changes in political culture across the entirety of a century repeatedly punctuated by crisis events.

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