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Session 184: The Vision Thing: Japanese Bureaucrats and the Ideas of Wartime Empire

Organizer: Daqing Yang, George Washington University

Chair: John W. Dower, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Discussant: Hideo Kobayashi, Waseda University

The popular perception of Japanese bureaucrats has changed drastically within the span of a decade: the "architects of the miracle" in the 1980s have been turned into the villains blamed for various problems in the Japanese economy and society in the 1990s. However, bureaucrats still appear in most works as the faceless agents of the Japanese State, serving institutional interests but often lacking visions of their own.

Our panel brings together three historians who examine leading Japanese bureaucrats during the war, a period when the postwar bureaucratic predominance is said to have begun. Moving beyond the institution-centered approach, we focus on these individuals as political actors and visionaries in their own right. Janis Mimura analyzes the process by which the Reform Bureaucrats returning from Manchukuo adapted their ideas and policies to manage Japan’s wartime economy. Daqing Yang focuses on a group of bureaucrats with engineering backgrounds, revealing that these politically active "Technology Bureaucrats" were also creators of a new ideology of empire. Finally, Sumio Hatano demonstrates how another group of bureaucrats rallying behind the policy of a "New Deal" for Asia tried to assert influence over Japan’s foreign policy, with mixed results.

Taken together, these case studies show that ideas—visions of empire among them—provide a valid level of analysis of wartime Japanese bureaucracy. They also serve as a reminder that ideas could not be translated into policy without institutional power.


From "Manchukuo" to Japan’s "New Order": Bureaucratic Visions of a Totalitarian State

Janis Mimura, University of California, Berkeley

The years between Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and its surrender in 1945 are commonly viewed as the period of "militarism," in which the military took over the reins of government and dragged the country into war. Considerable attention has been devoted to the role of the military, but less is understood about their partners in this enterprise, the "reform bureaucrats." This paper examines the ideas and policies of the so-called "Manchurian clique" of reform bureaucrats, which included such figures as Kishi Nobusuke, Shiina Etsusabur˘, Minobe Y˘ji, and Mori Hideoto. These bureaucrats established a planned economy in Manchuria in the mid 1930s and later drew upon this experience in designing Japan’s wartime system in the early 1940s.

Manchuria served as a social laboratory in which the reform bureaucrats tried to implement their own vision of a totalitarian state. Drawing upon the model of Soviet Russia and later of Nazi Germany, Manchuria’s planners attempted to create a reality they believed more suitable to the needs of Japan and its empire. Their ideas would then be modified and applied in the movement to create a totalitarian "New Order" in Japan. Although the reform bureaucrats were unable to fully realize their vision at the time, the extensive experience in planning and organization they gained would serve as an important but controversial legacy of Japan’s wartime empire.


An Empire of Technology: Engineers as Visionaries and Political Actors

Daqing Yang, George Washington University

In March 1932, the same month as the Japanese-sponsored Manchukuo declared independence, an engineer in the Ministry of Communications named Matsumae Shigeyoshi proposed a new type of long distance communications cable technology. Within a few years, as Japan embarked on building an empire-wide communications network that would first link the puppet state with Japan through such a cable, Matsumae emerged as a leading champion of "Japanese-style technology." Miyamoto Takenosuke, also a government engineer with extensive experience in Manchukuo and occupied areas in China, would propose a new "technology of Asia development" based on the resources of Japan’s autonomous sphere in Asia.

Emphasizing the importance of technologies as a separate dimension in policy-making, Matsumae and Miyamoto represented a new breed known as the "technology bureaucrats." Through organized political action, these engineers in various ministries challenged the dominance of bureaucrats educated in disciplines of law or economics. Arguing that technological leadership provided the key to establishing Japan’s "New Order" in Asia, they paved the way for the creation of Japan’s first Technology Board. Thus, just as technology was a major component of Japan’s war effort, technological hegemony was elevated to be a crucial part in the ideology of empire. Although the quest for technological autonomy in Japan can be traced back to the Meiji period, it is the task of building a new empire in Asia in the 1930s that gave technology bureaucrats their place in the sun.


Japan’s "New Deal" for Asia: Bureaucratic Influence on Asia Policy in 1943 and Beyond

Sumio Hatano, University of Tsukuba

After the tide of war began to turn against Japan, a handful of bureaucrats around Shigemitsu Mamoru came to the realization that the political issues of war and peace now centered on decolonization. Though mostly career diplomats, their ranks also included sympathizers in other ministries. They proposed a program that called for the approval of Wang Ching-wei regime’s "voluntary self-independence" as well as promotion of "Independence, freedom, and mutual equality" in occupied areas such as Burma and the Philippines. Such "New Deal" policies would serve as peace maneuvers towards the Allied Powers, they reasoned, since if Japan could moderate its Asia policy in accordance with those of the Allied Powers, there would be no more reasons for Japan to continue fighting the United States, Great Britain, and China.

Although these bureaucrats were able to enlist some support from the Army, they ran into strong opposition from the Navy, which insisted on retaining control over areas with rich oil resources such as the Dutch East Indies. Aoki Kazuo, a former Ministry of Finance bureaucrat who would serve as minister of the newly created Greater East Asia Ministry, also took such a position. As a result, the proponents of the "New Deal" achieved only limited success in translating their vision of empire into official policy. It was only after Japan’s defeat that the original architects of the "New Deal" reasserted leadership over Japan’s foreign policy.