Review Essay: An Imperial Path to Modernity: Yoshino Sakuzo and a New Liberal Order in East Asia, 1905-1937 by Jung-Sun N. Han Harvard University Asian Center

An Imperial Path to Modernity: Yoshino Sakuzo and a New Liberal Order in East Asia, 1905-1937. Jung-Sun N. Han. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2012. ISBN: 9780674065710

Yoshino Sakuzo is understood  to be  one of the most influential liberal intellectuals of Taisho Japan (1912-1926). As a professor in the Faculty of Law of Tokyo University, the most prestigious Japanese university, Yoshino’s influence extended beyond the circle of students and academics, to the audience of magazines of general interest (sogozasshi), political parties, and NGOs. This influence, both direct and indirect, is examined in Han’s work An Imperial Path to Modernity:Yoshino Sakuzo¯ and a New Liberal Order in East Asia, 1905-1937. The book “attempts to illustrate the Japanese struggle to acquire membership in an imperialist world order prefigured by developers of Euro-American societies and sustained by the tendentious distribution of liberal ideas and practices to promote the privileges and interests of these societies” (p. 3). Its focus is two-fold: first, it examines the development of Yoshino’s conceptions of liberalism in the context of his education, travels, and political opinions, and within the framework of the international political developments of his time. Second, Han seeks to disentangle the complex and sometimes outright contradictory and ironic conceptions of imperialism and international politics which formed the basis of liberalism yet which ultimately carried it ad absurdum, by failing to oppose the rise of militarism and ultra-nationalism, in the 1930s. What is remarkable about Han’s approach is her emphasis of the links between liberalism and imperialism, which allows her to look beyond the Japanese domestic sphere and place liberalism in its East Asian context. As Han points out, “the political and cultural developments of modern Japan become unintelligible … if one ignores the eventful international factors that shaped the ‘imperial’ transformations of modern Japan” (p. 6). In addition, the author stresses the role of liberal intellectuals in general and of Yoshino in particular in shaping Japan’s new middle class by demonstrating how ideas of empire and of a political liberalism were projected on it by way of the press.

Han’s book is divided into six chapters, which address the topic chronologically. The first chapter, The Origins of a New Liberal Project: Yoshino Sakuzo in Context,begins with an anecdote of the famous public debate between Yoshino and four members of the right-wing organization Roninkai in Tokyo 1918. The story of the debate serves as an entry point into Yoshino’s political conceptions, but also as a vehicle to explain the “social matrix of Yoshino Sakuzo’s public influence” (p. 20), that is, the significance of the new middle class as a target for liberal ideas and the ways in which it  could be mobilized. Yoshino’s activities as a professor and as a writer for print media illuminate facets of “modernity,” in which the emerging middle class and intellectual conceptions of a modern society influenced and shaped each other. Han outlines all of the concepts central to her book—the new middle class and mass media, culture and education, the growing polarization of politics between the left and the right, international relations between states, imperialism, relations between government and society, and political leadership—in this first chapter, before briefly describing the Yoshino’syouth and the foundations of his political and intellectual views.

Chapter 2, Genealogy of the New Liberal Project: Japanese Imperialism in Context, continues to explain the underlying political situation of Japan, domestically and internationally, and the ways in which they influenced the development of Yoshino’s political theories. Han places Yoshino’s ideas firmly in the context of the realities of Meiji political developments and joins together themes such as modernization and Westernization, Christianity, progress, the nation-state, imperialism, and the relations between a government and its people. She particularly emphasizes the concept of “Japanese Christianity,” a term coined by EbinaDanjo, leader of the Hongo Church between 1879 and 1920 and one of the most important influences of young Yoshino, in explaining Yoshino’s grasp of modern Japanese society and Japan’s place in East Asia during the Meiji Era. She also explains the political notions that Yoshino developed during his studies at university, which revolve around the nation-state and society and are based on British and German political philosophy, and discusses that Yoshino’s conceptions were the product of both personal connections and the context of the politics of Meiji Japan: “Two seemingly contrary forces were formative in Yoshino’s new liberal project. One was the internationalist outlook shaped by late Meiji liberal discourse; the other was the state-centered political theory formulated through formal higher education and the imperial university” (p. 57). As a result, Yoshino was able to construct the idea of the “organic state,” which was based on the ideas of progress toward freedom, equality, and prosperity, and which justified Japanese imperialist expansion into East Asia by recognizing a “world trend” of expansionism. The inner developmental logic behind this trend lay in the “evolution from arbitrary rule by privileged classes to rational rule by enlightened and autonomous individuals” (p. 59) and in the role of the nation state as the sole rational actor on the international level (p. 60).

Han’s third chapter, Envisioning a Liberal Empire in East Asia, ties Yoshino’s political theories to the actual situation in East Asia. Against the backdrop of Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War, Han explains that Yoshino’s stay in China as the tutor of Yuan Shikai’s son and as an instructor for international law in Tianjin between 1906 and 1909 allowed him to transmit modern social science to the future Chinese elite and at the same time made him “acutely sensitive to the ongoing competition among powers in China to gain cultural hegemony over Chinese youth” (p. 64). Seeing the opportunity to exert Japanese influence over China, he advocated for more Japanese engagement with China in order to create a Chinese modernity modeled after the Japanese; however, his (and other politicians’) vision was betrayed when the Chinese revolution of 1911 rejected Meiji Japan as a model. As a consequence, “politicians and the leading opinion-makers were deeply disturbed by the events in China, which raised the question of whether the Japanese model of civilization was valid in the region” (p. 70). As a specialist on China, Yoshino rationalized the Chinese revolution for a Japanese audience in his publications and came to the conclusion that it remained Japan’s task to increase her influence on China in order to support Chinese modernization after the Japanese model, but that the Japanese polity had to reform and modernize in order to achieve this goal. Only by winning the goodwill of the Chinese people could Japanese expansion on the continent, so essential in modernizing China, be successful. Yoshino argued for a form of imperialism that should be less militaristic than the slogan “rich country, strong army” (fukokukyohei), seeking to take into account the difficult international financial situation of Japan. He also developed a political model that accommodated for the specific circumstances of Japan as a latecomer to the scene of international politics, still modernizing yet already expanding to secure resources and influence beyond her own borders. It was in this context that Yoshino developed his notion of minponshugi, a particular form of democracy “which emphasized the political processes of exercising sovereignty for the welfare of the people” (p. 82). Tyingpolitical leadership to education, morality, and discipline, Yoshino defended the political leadership of the “wise few” who had sufficient character and knowledge, and thereby cementing socio-political hierarchies and fundamental inequalities. It was the duty of the state, then, “to harmoniously integrate every national subject into a national community by institutionalizing democratic procedures of representation” (p. 86). It was pressures from outside of Japan which necessitated minponshugi in order to secure Japan’s international standing, both present and future. The necessity of integrating the nation into a harmonious and organic state emerged from the international political situation of the Russo-Japanese War and its aftermath, as well as the Chinese Revolution of 1911, because earlier strategies of Meiji Japan had proved obsolete (p. 88).

The following chapter,Tensions of Empire, focuses on Yoshino’s efforts to assert Japan’s place among the powers, and to model Japanese society and politics in a way to sustain this place. Han examines the fundamentally conservative international order established by the United States, Britain, and France after the First World War, and outlines the difficulties that Japan encountered in Korea and China due to growing nationalism. These challenges to the Japanese empire prompted Yoshino to acknowledge the impossibility of assimilating Korea into the empire, and instead realize the need to abolish discrimination. He is credited by Han with a “genuine sensitivity to Asian nationalism [that] was rather exceptional” (p. 108). Following the example of the United States, he now advocated a policy of political integration without cultural assimilation, opposing the term “amalgamation” (yuwa) to the existing notion of “assimilation” (doka). The significance of these issues in the practical implementation of the imperial project as well as in public opinion about it can be seen in the creation of the Japan Society for Amalgamation (Nihonyuwakai) and the personal communication between Yoshino and colonial bureaucrats. In this sense, the political theorizing about the politics of empire is placed in the practical realities of governing the empire, with “Yoshino and other liberal intellectualscontribut[ing] to the shift in colonial policy from military rule to cultural rule” (p. 112).

Chapter five, Tensions within the Nation, outlines Yoshino’s shift toward different political ideas and different ways of communicating them. The political realities of the 1920s, in particular the increased curtailing of freedom of speech and his disillusionment with party politics, brought him closer to progressive political views; he became a counselor and leading figure in the Friendly Society of Greater Japan General Foundation of Labor (Dai Nihon RodoSodomeiYuaikai) and the Social Democratic Party. Retaining his views about the paternalistic role of the state, Han argues, Yoshino recognized the peaceful and internationalist potential of the working class while maintaining his earlier point about the “vanguard role of the educated class” (p. 135). Yoshino’s goals of stabilizing the empire and asserting Japanese imperialism did not change; what he altered was his target group and the means of attaining this goal. The integration of Japanese society remained the focal point of Yoshino’s liberal ideas, butthey seem to have become more progressive and more inclusive over time. That said, Yoshino’s turn toward the labor movement ultimately undermined the political arguments of the left, because his approach was integrative rather than politically divisive. Nothing changed, however, about his goal of unifying domestic society in order to sustain Japan’s expansion overseas.

In 1924, Yoshino left Tokyo Imperial University to assume a more lucrative full time position for Asahi shinbun; however, due to political pressure, he was forced to resign from this job only months after starting it. Although he returned to the university as a lecturer, he lost his financial security. By the end of the 1920s, his health deteriorated. Han argues that the change of Yoshino’ personal situation contributed to the modification of his political views, and that his realization of the difficulties of the Japanese empire prompted him to develop his positions further. Throughout the 1920s, Yoshino advocated the supremacy of civilian over military control in Far Eastern affairs because of the destabilizing effect that military intervention had (p. 141), clearly realizing that parliamentary politics at home were failing and providing an opening to more radical forces such as the military. Han notes the conspicuous absence of economic factors in Yoshino’s writings.

In the final chapter, An Ambiguous Legacy: “East Asia Cooperative Community” in Prewar Japan, Han’s focus shifts away from Yoshino Sakuzo, and to one of his students, RoyamaMasamichi. As an expert of China and international relations and a member of theShowa Research Association(Showakenkyukai), the author portrays him as the intellectual successor of Yoshino.She implies that the legacy of Yoshino’s intellectual approach to the Japanese empire can be found by “readdress[ing] one of theenduring questions of prewar Japanese society: why did the variety of efforts to create a pluralist and internationalist society in the 1920s in the end converge in the 1930s in the logic of ultranationalist militarism and the assertion of a mythology of Japanese uniqueness?” (p. 154)As in previous chapters, Han examines the intellectual environment and understandings of international law and international politics to assess how Yoshino and later Royama addressed the issue of Japanese imperialism. The issue of the nation-state as the supreme international agent was at the center of the liberals’ argument for the Japanese imperialist endeavor in China, because in Japanese understanding, China had not yet reached the developmental stage of the nation-state, which permitted Japan to deal with China outside of the framework of international law. Replicating Yoshino’s earlier argument in favor of Japanese involvement in East Asia, Royama argued for the benefits and benevolence of Japanese engagement in Manchuria in the 1930s. The lack of decisive action by Western countries in the face of Japanese military aggression in East Asia and the hypocrisy of the League of Nations, Han argues, were instrumental in encouraging the Japanese military advance into Manchuria and China (pp. 179-180). Unlike in the 1910s and 1920s, however, when Yoshino was able to reach a wide audience through publications, liberal intellectuals in the 1930s were not organized and vocal enough to shape public opinion; they “shied away from making a concerted effort to check the resurgence of narrowly focused and emotionally charged popular nationalism” (p. 179). While Han acknowledges state efforts to curb the freedom of speech as an important underlying cause for this, she also contends that their “deeply rooted sense of elitist individualism” was more significant in liberal intellectuals’failure to support international organization and cooperation (pp. 179-180). Han briefly explains Royama’s engagement in the Japan Council of the Institute of Pacific Relations, an international, non-governmental body for international cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region, and finally turns to the idea of the East Asia Cooperative Community, which was developed as an instrument of Japanese imperialism in East Asia but rationalized in terms of regional cooperation and development, transcending narrow-minded nationalism and bringing regional economic progress to all of East Asia.

The brief conclusion restates, rather pointedly, the different stages of development that Yoshino’s political thinking underwent, in the different political situations in which Japan found herself. While the issues of Asian nationalism, the Japanese political community, and the engagement in the empire are readdressed briefly and concisely in this short chapter, the sheer irony that the project of the liberal empire was turned onto itself by the very militarism that Yoshino had opposed since the end of the Russo-Japanese War is not explored fully.

As a whole, Han’s book accomplishes a number of very different things. It is located at the intersections of political philosophy, diplomatic history, and intellectual history, addressing issues of Japan, her empire, and the Western powers. At the same time an intellectual history of Japanese imperialism and a political biography of Yoshino Sakuzo, the book’s complexity stems from its ability to combine such disparate themes into one coherent narrative. The author analyzes over 130 books and articles by Yoshino Sakuzoand over twenty by RoyamaMasamichi, which allows her to paint a very concise picture of the development of their political thinking and their perceptions of everyday politics. In addition, her extensive use of written sources by other contemporary thinkers and politicians allows her to place Yoshino and Royamafirmly into their political and intellectual context. Her work also reflects a thorough engagement with secondary sources, both in the fields of Japanese history and Western political philosophy, using the “classics” as well as more recent scholarship to support her arguments. At times, however, the author’s commitment to Yoshino’s writings leaves her somewhat too focused on what he wrote rather than on what he achieved with these writings. The legacy of Yoshino Sakuzo is unquestionable; however, readers might have enjoyed more references to the reception of his writings and to the practical effects that they had on policy-making. One example for this is the Chinese Revolution of 1911, when political events in China betrayed the idea of Japanese leadership in the “modernization” of East Asia, by not following the Japanese model of constitutional monarchy. Although Han describes the disappointment of Japanese intellectuals and their “general sense of insecurity about the validity of the Meiji polity” (p. 70), the reader is left with the impression of a disconnect between Japanese intellectuals’ ideas and these ideas’ resonance within regional political circles of the time. This in turn exposes the Japan-centric nature of Yoshino’s and other intellectuals’ approach, and their lack of earnest engagement with the rest of East Asia. It also, ultimately, contradicts Han’s focus beyond Japanese borders because her focus is a replication of the intellectuals’ thinking about East Asia; because this thinking is centered on Japan, her book is, too. These are two related points of criticism, both resulting from the fact that Han’s work strongly focuses on Yoshino’s writings: on the one hand, readers gain little understanding about the influence of Yoshino’s concepts on actual policy-making and on people’s ideas; on the other, despite their outlook on East Asia and the world, Japanese liberals’ ideas remained firmly rooted in Japan. Korea, China, and Manchuria are portrayed to have re-acted, rather than acted, in this book. To offer an impression of Chinese and Korean liberals’ views of modernity and the international community would have immensely broadened the outlook of the book and made it less biased toward Japan (althoughthis may not have been feasible or practical). As a consequence, the book seems to replicate Japanese thinkers’ focus on, and conceptions of, the Japanese Empire.

Being a historical analysis of Yoshino Sakuzo’s writings, Han’s book would be an excellent tool for any graduate-level course on imperialism. It demonstrates how historians can combine political philosophy, diplomatic and intellectual history, and issues of empire in a large argument, while basing this argument strongly on work with historical sources.The complexity of the writing and the use of Japanese sources, but more importantly the constant references to developments in Japanese, international, and intellectual history, however, mean that the book might be difficult to comprehend for undergraduates.

An Imperial Path to Modernity is a valuable addition to the shelves of any historian who is working on Taisho Japan, imperialism in Asia, or Japanese intellectual history. Connecting the dots between political theory, intellectual concepts of state and society, and Japan’s role in Asia (perceived and actual), the book helps its reader understand an important and pervasive aspect of Japanese modernity: the quest for empire. It describes Yoshino’s intellectual approach to empire, and how he adapted his project of empire to the changing domestic and international realities, finding solutions to problems both at home and overseas. Although initially, liberalism and Japan’s expansion into East (and later on Southeast) Asia appear to contradict each other, Han demonstrates that the two constitute two sides of the same coin. Yoshino’s and other Japanese intellectuals’ understanding of the modern world rested on the premise of inequality. The “rationalization of internationalist liberalism” (p. 155), the logical conclusion to which RoyamaMasamichi and others brought Japanese liberalism, therefore was already present inYoshino’smore inclusive notions of liberalism and enabled, and ultimately supported, imperialism’s extension into militarism.

Reviewed by Birgit Schneider, University of Hong Kong
Edited by Dhara Anjaria

(c) 2014 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 8, Spring, 2014. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]