Thought Crime: Ideology and State Power in Interwar Japan, by Max W. Ward

In: Fascism
Carlos Manuel Gonçalves Pereira Martins Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa Portugal Lisboa

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Max W. Ward, Thought Crime: Ideology and State Power in Interwar Japan (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).–294 pages.–ISBN 9781478001652.

Max W. Ward is an Associate Professor at Middlebury College, and his book Thought Crime offers a new approach to the Japanese Peace Preservation Law that can be useful to students of Japanese history and to those interested in studying state power. The said Law was enacted in 1925, when Japanese authorities identified foreign ideologies such as communism and anticolonial nationalism as a main political threat and were looking for an efficient way to deal with them. However, Ward’s goals are rather ambitious since he intends to analyse the transformations through which the Law passed over time, mainly its mutation from an instrument of repression into a system of ideological rehabilitation and conversion. Furthermore, the author aims to show how this law and its practical policies provided a model for the mobilization of the population in Japan during the war of the 1940s (p. ix).

In order to achieve his goal, Ward analyses the Law by making use of a critical-theoretical approach that aims to understand the articulations of the ideology of the imperial state and modalities of state power across time and space in the Japanese Empire. Thus, he uses the metaphor of the ‘ghost in the machine’ to refer to the ideology that animated the state apparatus and which included the divinity of the omnipresent emperor and the existence of a ‘Japanese Spirit’ (p. 9). According to the author, the institutional practices of the Japanese state were inevitably influenced by these two components and this was visible in the Law. Both the repression of enemies (destined to protect the imperial state) and their rehabilitation (destined to transform them into ideal imperial subjects) were accompanied with invocations of the ‘ghostly presence’ of the emperor. Furthermore, in order to analyse the institutional practices of the state, Ward also makes use of a sophisticated theoretical framework that draws on Althusser and Foucault. From the former, he uses the theory of the Ideological State Apparatuses, which allows him to approach the Law as a practice embedded in an apparatus that functions not only by violence but also by ideology and involves a range of institutions. From the latter, he uses the tripartite schema of power (sovereignty-discipline-government) in order to access the different modalities of state power that were at play when the Law was put into practice (p. 13).

After having clarified this and making use of an extensive archive of primary sources, Ward is able to provide an interesting picture of the transformations of the Peace Preservation Law. Thus, the author first shows how the passing of the Law, during a phase in which repression was still its goal, was justified with the necessity of defending imperial sovereignty (pp. 37–46). He then argues very convincingly that the transformation of this Law into a system of rehabilitation was in line with what happened in nineteenth-century penal discourse, as previously noted by Foucault, when the criminal came to be seen as someone who needed reform (pp. 74–75). This transformation also represented an interchange between the two modes of power of sovereignty and discipline and was, in the case of Japan, mediated by the ideology of the ‘ghost in the machine’, which could now both relate to the defence of imperial sovereignty (with repressive measures) and to the creation of an ideal imperial subject (with rehabilitation measures). In the chapters that follow, Ward also shows the reader how semi-official support groups played a very relevant role in the rehabilitation of political criminals that, while involving the wider community in the process, was in line with Althusser’s theories about the ideological state apparatuses (pp. 77–111). In addition, the author convincingly argues that the ‘ideology of conversion’ started to be applied to the whole population during the war and that the transformation of ex-criminals into model imperial subjects was presented as an example of a spiritual awakening that should be followed by all Japanese (p. 160).

One of the strengths of Ward’s book is that his critical approach enables him to go beyond some of the first simplistic interpretations of the Japanese Law, which tended to see it as a mere manifestation of repression by a powerful state. Ward thus recognizes that both repression and rehabilitation were a part of the practices of imperial Japan and is able to grasp its complexity. By analysing the different modes of state power, the author is also able to go beyond cultural approaches that interpreted the Law as a manifestation of specific features of Japanese culture, and rather shows us an articulation of modes of power that can have similarities with the practices of other states. In this context, the metaphor of the ‘ghost in the machine’ is a particularly fruitful one, as are the choices of Althusser’s and Foucault’s theories.

Lastly, it is important to note that this book might be of great use not only to those interested in Japanese history, but also to students of historical fascism. This is so because, as already noticed, Ward’s theoretical approach does not treat the Japanese case as unique and acknowledges its similarities with processes that happened in other countries. Many of the articulations of state power and ideology that the book points out can thus shed some light on state practices which were replicated elsewhere. Furthermore, both the metaphor of the ‘ghost in the machine’ and the theories drawn from Foucault and Althusser can inspire further studies which use a similar theoretical framework in order to study other fascist regimes. After all, it is known that the Nazi regime, in spite of the violence with which it repressed its political enemies, also left the door open for ex-leftists to be somehow rehabilitated. Moreover, the ideology of the emperor at first glance seems to resonate with the notion of ‘working towards the Führer’, which Ian Kershaw has argued was the main idea driving the Nazi regime. This may be an indication that what Ward describes was not a feature exclusive to Japan but rather a wider phenomenon that deserves a thorough examination in other countries as well.

Ideas are oftentimes seen as dangerous because of the practical consequences that they can have and some governments and regimes, like the Japanese regime, put a lot of effort in order to mitigate or annihilate what they see as an actual ideological threat. That such effort can be more complex than one might think, and that it can include a mixture of both repression and rehabilitation, is a reality that Ward’s book is quick to recognize and study with an accuracy that can bring fruitful insights to those interested either in interwar regimes or in the actual practices of state power in general.

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