Kokutai — The Perils of Japanese National Essence

“If we regard the State as a ‘form’ or ‘container’, the content that fills this ‘form’ or ‘container’ is the reality of a state, that is the kokutai.” (Motohiko Anzu in Kitagawa, 1974)

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Kokutai is the embodiment of Japanese national polity or essence: it is a vague and malleable concept that has been reshaped based on needs across different time periods. Kokutai is also a term that is synonymous to the system of government, imperial sovereignty, identity or Japanese spirit. First invented in the Meiji Restoration as a unifying spiritual force in the formulation of a new social identity against the fears of Europeanisation, it was then propagated to invoke ultranationalism and expansionism in the Empire of Japan.

When Japan surrendered in 1945, the occupying Americans made sure to extinguish any reminiscence of kokutai in Japanese civic society. This included prohibiting the circulation of kokutai-related materials in education and society as with the Emperor’s renunciation of imperial divinity. The Americans recognised the dangerousness of the concept and needed to prevent a resurgence of such beliefs from manifesting into militaristic and ultranationalist movements that would dismantle postwar peace.

Hence, in many respects kokutai is still largely significant today in understanding East Asian political dynamics. This philosophical treatment will examine the origins and development of kokutai within an intellectual and historical context. It will then inspect how the concept functions in terms of constructing a Japanese identity. Finally, it will look at the consequences of kokutai embodiment in the Empire of Japan (1937–45).

Development of kokutai

The Meiji Restoration saw to the end of a two-century-long isolationist foreign policy known as sakoku (‘closed country’) under which Japan was left secluded, impregnable from foreign influence and unknowing of Western advancements. Against this background was the aftermath of the Opium Wars that shattered the myths of the ‘invincible’ hegemon, China was left humiliated after signing a series of unfair treaties that jostled this once-formidable power into its twilight. Realising that it was behind the West, Japan was presented with a ‘fight or flight’ choice: to modernise and preserve its ‘Japanese spirit’ or suffer colonialism.

The birth of kokutai was hence, a contradictory phenomenon: on one hand, it sought to modernise its state apparatus which took upon Western influences yet it was done through a fear of ‘being forcibly Europeanised’. This suggested the coexistence of both competition and inspiration between the West and Japan during the reformation period. The restoration welcomed reforms on Japanese governance and social architecture which were heavily influenced by the West i.e., parliamentary system, constitutional monarchy, compulsory education etc.

Parliamentary democracy had a huge impact on the Japanese politics of identity as many viewed the restoration as an opportunity to reinvent Japan as a regional power. Whilst the reformation saw a renewed concentration of centralised political power, Japan was not culturally united. Noting the importance of reconstituting the state from a feudal system to a centralised one, men started exploring national ‘characters’ to attain strength and unity as means of reasserting Japan into the world order.

The Japanese understood the utility of religion as a means of domination. They were aware that Western imperialism invoked Christianity in their colonies and had the potential to turn natives against their rule. (Hardacre, 2016: 358) For example, persecuted Christian communities known as kakure kirishitan posed a challenge to the integrity of the shogunate rule prior to the Meiji Restoration. Through a rhetoric of admiration, Japanese scholars understood the utility of Christianity as a means of mobilising political force in the West and sought to replicate the West’s toolkit to produce a similar function in cementing national unity through religion. The government, in line with a theocratic belief of saisei itchi (‘the unity of government and religion’), set about institutionalising and weaving Shintoism into Japanese society. Laws were passed that empowered the government to assume control over shrines, enact religious policies and disband any religious sects whose doctrines did not align with kokutai.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that while there were ongoing conversations with Europe about modernisation, tensions remained between the old and new which materialised through foreign mistrust and national identification. Through two centuries of sakoku, ‘imported’ thoughts were deemed ‘dangerous’ that obscured and degraded kokutai, western thoughts were viewed as an impurity that overwhelmed Japanese unique ways and customs. (Gluck, 1985: 19). Hence, constructing identity through western influences was done in a precarious way that satisfied the ‘uniqueness’ of kokutai.

Intellectually, scholars attempted to pick western ways that aligned with this newly formed kokutai. Drawing back to Anzu’s metaphor, while the Japanese and Western ‘contents’ that filled the ‘container’ were similar, Japanese contents were packaged differently to provide a Japanese ‘flair’. For example, kokutai took upon Japan’s emphasis on family units in the idealisation of a nation-state by comparing society-at-large to a large family with the Emperor as a divine patriarch and benevolent guiding hand.

Within the development of kokutai, there are two pieces of literature that this treatment will reference in the explanation of the concept’s malleability in its development. Kokutai no Hongi (‘Cardinal Principles of National Structure’) was the first government publication in 1937 that formalised the qualities that made the Japanese ‘Japanese’. This document became a convenient medium to indicate ways in which the Japanese nation was imagined to be. Qualities like loyalty, self-sacrifice and unquestioned obedience to the Emperor became the heart of Japanese identity. Like the Christians, the Japanese used religious and spiritual allegories to invoke national pride and credibility. For example, spiritual myths were re-represented as historical facts: the Emperor was described to be a descendant of Amaterasu-Omikami, the Sun Goddess.

Shinmin no Michi (‘The Subject’s Way’) published in 1941, was a pamphlet that was distributed across the Empire to “explain in clear terms what was expected of them as a people, nation and race”. (Dower, 1986, 24) It denounced Western value systems for its dispositions in greed and self-indulgence as well as proclaiming its ‘rightful’ duty to “propagate the ideals of the Empire throughout East Asia”. This went on to justify the invasion of Manchuria as a “step towards the construction of a world of moral principles by Japan”. (Ibid.)

Mechanics of kokutai in forming identity

Kokutai formally embedded Japanese nationalism, religion and identity together. By uniting government and religion, it had inculcated an attitude of unquestioning obedience to the state. Through religious characterisation, the Emperor was proclaimed to be holy and the virtues he embodied were immutable. Thus, failing to display loyalty to the state alone would amount to an act of treachery against the Emperor and by extension, the peoples of Japan. Nonetheless, despite heavy Shinto influences, the observance of kokutai was nonreligious, it was however naturalised as a social norm.

One of the embodiments of kokutai was the removal of individualism from society — it sought to personify a ‘family’ conception of nationhood. Individualism was perceived as a ‘foreign impurity’ that impaired Japanese progress and traditional character. Historically, groupism has been deeply entrenched within the cultural background of Japan’s social fabrics. Conformity to societal norms brought reciprocal benefits of recognition, rights and power. As a consequence, harmony is maintained by having each subject fulfil his inherent duty as part of the state and could not dissociate himself from it. (Gluck, 1985: 22) Collective unity was therefore reinstated to propel civic consciousness and achieve harmony. This was also an attempt to draw all peoples within the state to subscribe to Japanese nationalist thoughts.

Kokutai also inaugurated a new thinking in citizenship: birthright was no longer a sufficient basis for nationality, citizens needed to actively affirm their nationhood. The prerequisite for citizenship was a sound ‘sense of nation’ which included the embodiment and embrace of kokutai. Social conformity was thus the binding principle of national loyalty on top of compulsory education, state-sanctioned religion and social expectations.

As embodying kokutai was perceived as a choice, the simultaneous construction of an insider-outsider identity came to force: the lack of ‘Japaneseness’ became politically charged with allegations of disloyalty and contempt against the Emperor. Through a rhetoric of fear, kokutai was constructed to capitalise upon unquestioned obedience and chauvinism. This was coupled by the incessant claims that the sense of nation was in perpetual danger. (Gluck, 1985: 36) For example, the need to embody kokutai in promoting national unity was characterised by an 1885 pamphlet which described “the wind of westernisation was inevitable and will spread like measles”. (Yukichi, 1885) Decades on, Imperial Japan continued to portray “the developments in the West [to show] great concern for oriental culture and spirit”. (Shinmin no Michi, 437)

Implications of kokutai on imperialism

There are broad-reaching implications of the malleability of kokutai. Following the Meiji Restoration, it was constructed to harness national unity through spiritual means. Kokutai was then transformed into a manifesto for Japanese exceptionalism of which expansionism and ultranationalism was ‘justified’. As aforementioned, the Meiji period saw an ingress of Western thought into Japanese conception of kokutai, particularly the works of Francis Galton and Ernst Haeckel on Social Darwinism. This is evident in the early works on kokutai which argued that “there were racial differences among East Asians, Japanese were more successful because they were genetically superior”. (Yukichi)

Eugenics provided both the stature and modernity of Western scientific positivism as well as the familiarity conferred by traditional feudal social hierarchies. (Cross, 1996: 2) Kokutai was also characterised as something that was not exclusive to Japan: each state had one, which may exist, evolve and disappear. (Brownlee, 1947: 12) This line of thought eluded to the fact that there were different strengths and states had to compete for survival.

The imperialists had attempted to hyperbolise the importance of kokutai in Kokutai no Hongi, stating that a need to understand true Japanese national polity was not only of national importance but for the entire human race. By articulating the need to understand kokutai as the basis of understanding the world, it viewed its model of governance as superior. As a result of a proud nationalist sense of self, sentiments of Japanese exceptionalism had materialised in an aggressive form Japanese jingoism. This was an imitation of European colonialism: utilising the narrative of ‘white man’s burden’ to bring all states under the benevolent rule of the Emperor to embrace kokutai. Ultranationalism in this period was an extreme transformation and self-indoctrination of kokutai. Through allegories and myths of Shintoism, the imperialists sought to eventuate hakko ichiu, an idealised state fanaticism which sought to ‘bring all eight corners of the world under one roof’.

Kokutai, served a two-way relationship between the State and its citizens: given the grandeurs of Japanese superiority, Japan acquired the ability and desire to lead and rule over Asia. Indoctrinated by kokutai, imperialists saw it within their divine and moral prerogative to bring all nations under its hegemony so that humanity can live under the benevolence of the Emperor. Most importantly, by helping to spread the benevolent rule, citizens are actively embodying kokutai, fulfilling their tasks and affirming their nationhood.

This philosophical treatment examined the concept of kokutai and its utility for studying Japanese nationalism. It first provided the historical and intellectual context in the Meiji period of which Japanese identity became forefront in the need to unify and modernise against ‘Europeanisation’. Nonetheless, nationalist ideology in this period was an uneasy ‘tug-of-war’ as it sought to preserve Japanese spirit while modernising through western influence.

Conscious of not offending Japanese orthodoxies, it was an attempt to ‘repackage’ Western norms to fit with Japanese ‘uniqueness’. As this treatment attempted to illustrate, the Japanese had attempted to selectively embrace western conceptions of religion as means of control. The language of kokutai was primarily aimed to fuse nationalism, religion and identity to formulate civic consciousness and unity. The impact of the concept was so powerful that imperialists became convinced by its uniqueness and superiority which traversed into Japanese imperialism and war in the early twentieth century.

Kokutai as a theoretical notion is instrumental in comprehending how Japanese nationalism emerged and developed, especially in the formulation of a Japanese identity. It also underlines the perils of a vague concept that can be misconstrued and repackaged to serve different aims.