By Thomas Furse

When the high command of the Imperial Japanese Army fired Ishiwara Kanji as a senior commander in northern China in 1937 it must have provoked a mortifying spiritual pain for a man used to chronic physical illness. The reason for his dismissal was a stubborn insubordination to continue fighting amidst a war against Nationalist China. But he was not appealing for peace. He was not even thinking of his career. For Lieutenant General Ishiwara his removal from the General Staff meant that Japan would lose the looming apocalyptic war with the United States that would soon engulf the world. This grand prediction came from his amalgamated thinking on politics, religion, political economy, and military history. It gave him harrowing visions where the victor would lead humanity for eternity.

Investigating the life and intellectual work of army officers invites us to think that, despite their constant vows of being eminently practical, they frequently hurl themselves into situations because of their ideas. John Maynard Keynes wrote at the end of General Theory: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back” (383). This angle provides an invitation to study the intellectual history of those who we might think at first blush are practical non-intellectual men, or maybe just madmen in authority.

Ishiwara joined the army aged 20 and was one of the five best graduates at Japan’s elite Army War College (Rikugun daigakkō) in 1918. He left with a senior rank and was essentially destined to be a significant leader of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA). He grew up amongst a generation of officers born in the late 19th century. These men believed in a prosperous Japan that was on course for regional dominance after the triumph of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. As a generation they were self-confident and so, they thought, Japan ought to be too. They took the country’s deference to the West as a personal stain. Many were from samurai or military families who encouraged them to believe they were the true guardians of the state.

To consolidate power, the officers of the IJA worked with a rousing mix of ideas often from the public square. The thought of the nation going into a ‘total war’ against adversaries provided thrilling mental images akin to epic stories. Ideas about economic national self-sufficiency, not free trade, became the ascendant route for national security. Shinto and Buddhist spiritualism gave appealing coordinates for turning Japan into a revisionist state and defining it against the West. The romanticism of rural life jostled with methods of industrial production for war. Many officers had geopolitical fears of the Soviet Union’s military expansionism and communism among the university students, but others advocated a Japan-Soviet alliance to fight Anglo-America and China.

Many of these young officers joined factions and cliques in the IJA. Sadao Araki led the most radical faction, the Imperial Way (Kōdōha), which claimed that the Soviet Union posed the biggest threat to Japan and argued for a Northern Strike Strategy (Hokushin-ron), as opposed to the Southern Strike Strategy (Nanshin-ron) that favored a push into Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. The Imperial Way Faction advocated a totalitarian state geared for spiritual and material warfare and full mobilization of the population. The other main group was the Control Faction (Tōseiha), although called moderate, they too advocated a spiritual renewal of Japan that would make it a one-party militaristic state. These factions, among other cliques, such as the Young Officer’s Movement, the Cherry Blossom Society, and Kokuhonsha caused the army almost insurmountable intellectual and strategic division.

There was a series of assassinations and coups d’état: March Incident (1931), Imperial Colors Incident (1931), the May 15 Incident (1932) the November Incident at the Military Academy (1934), and the Aizawa Incident (1935) where members of the Imperial Way assassinated Tetsuzan Nagata, a leader in the Control Faction, among others. The end of the Imperial Way faction, however, was their coup, the February 26 Incident (1936). They lost momentum on the day and the government executed the ring leaders. Despite Ishiwara’s agreement with them that the Soviet Union was a major threat to Japan and his cult-like status among some of its members, he wasn’t involved in the coup. He led the government forces against the rebels during the 3 days of fighting and then helped purge the army of Imperial Way sympathizers.

To an extent, the IJA was an odd career choice for Ishiwara who was often sick with several chronic health conditions and suffered tympanitis (inflamed eardrums). Yet this didn’t stop his energy; during his periods of rest, he read on all topics from Buddhism, state-led economic policies, Social Darwinism, military thought, the potential of airpower, and a genuine desire of East Asia to be free from Western colonial power. He held almost paradoxical ideas; on the one hand, he strongly advocated invasions of Korea and Manchuria in 1910 and 1931. In 1929, he drafted a memorandum, “A Kwantung Army Plan for the Occupation of Manchuria and Mongolia,” which outlined a policy of military expansion to contain the Soviet threat (214). On the other, he was cautious about continuing wars in northern China because he wanted to start economic plans to achieve self-sufficiency.

Ishiwara gave the good years of his life to the IJA, but he couldn’t be easily described as an ultranationalist or fascist. He felt a genuine shock when he saw how Japanese civilians living in China treated the Chinese, and his idealistic argument for the East Asian League would have allowed Asian states national sovereignty. In his mind, regions were eventually going to supersede nation-states. But he wasn’t a starry-eyed egalitarian or democrat; he remained an elitist who disliked consumerism and modern cities preferring the serenity of rural life.

The start of his serious intellectual growth was in 1922 when he went to Germany to study history and strategy at the Kriegsakademie in Berlin where Hans Delbrück taught. Ishiwara arrived at a time of deep division about military strategy between those who supported Vernichtungsstrategie (similar to a strategy of annihilation) and Ermattungsstrategie (strategy of attrition/exhaustion). Military staff tended to favor the former, while civilians preferred the latter. This debate, known as the Strategiestreit, was almost entirely based on European historical case studies, from ancient Greece to the Burgundian Wars to Fredrick the Great’s Seven Years’ War. Delbrück had remarkably little to say about the US, despite the Civil War, or about Japan, despite the Russo-Japanese War, yet Ishiwara could see the writing on the wall: After the attrition of the First World War the world was to have a dramatic war of annihilation next.

When he returned to Japan in 1925 as a lecturer at war colleges, he began to synthesize this military thinking with interpretations of Nichiren Buddhism, Nichirenism and anti-Western ideas in political economy about self-sufficiency. Nichiren Buddhism was a branch within Mahayana Buddhism that emphasized the inner resources of individuals and the suppression of earthly desires on the path to salvation. It also had an apocalyptic character that centered around how an age of turmoil could lead to a ‘golden age’ in Japan. Nichiren himself was a 13th Century priest who took aim at orthodox thinking in religious and secular life. It had a revival, called Nichirenism, in the early 1900s under Tanaka Chigaku who made it into a religious justification for ultranationalism. Japanese fascists flocked to it, and Ishiwara joined Tanaka’s organization, Kokuchūkai, even though he disagreed with its nationalism. It is not a massive leap to see, as Mark Peattie does, that this religious thinking guided Ishiwara’s view on Japan’s apocalyptic future.

This religious underpinning helped sustain his view that regional blocs would supersede nation-states, and that if Japan won the Final War, Buddhism could spread across the world. The East Asia League Movement (EAL) (Tōarenmei undo) connected Ishiwara and his military friends with politicians, priests, and academics. It was a religious and political movement that called for Asia’s regional unity and prosperity. In 1941, under Ishiwara’s leadership, the EAL almost turned into an anti-war movement, at least concerning fellow Asian states (242). This group combined a religious base with ideas from political economy.

The belief in an impending war against the United States and the necessity for self-sufficiency presented a horrendous dilemma: Japan needed resources and a massive industrial capacity to fight wars, yet once the fighting started its resources would drain away and foreign navies would attack its overseas supply chains. It could not fight any long war. There was a kind of fatalism in his thinking where the world was heading closer toward this war and no one could not do much about it. Japan’s ally, Nazi Germany, had a similar problem where it was constantly beset with resource insecurity and knew that time was running out for it to conquer Europe and achieve the industrial power necessary to fight the Allies. For Ishiwara, the EAL offered an opportunity to unite Asia to gain regional self-sufficiency in oil, coal, metals, rubber, foodstuffs, and textiles to fight the West.

Ishiwara didn’t fight in the Second World War because of his dismissal from active service. He led the EAL and synthesized his ideas into his magnum opus, Saishū Sensō-ron or Final War Theory in 1940. It was a work of military history, development, philosophy, and politics. Here, he stated that war had a historical cyclical pattern that switched between annihilation and exhaustion. The First World War was exhaustion—each side wearing the other down in a spiral of attrition. The next war, therefore, would be annihilation—huge decisive battles that would define the war’s outcomes. We can see that Ishiwara’s account was contributing to a global discussion about the potential effects of America’s rising power after the First World War. Many political leaders and commentators—Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky, Lenin, Gramsci, and Leo Amery—interpreted this phenomenon from different angles, but they all noted that America’s rise was a world dynamic shift that threatened European power.

Ishiwara concluded that a war against the United States would be an epic story of decisive battles filled with military machinery. As he put it: “Japan must be victorious, not for the sake of her own national interest, but for the salvation of the world.” He was wrapped with the visions from a 13th century monk, anxieties over war production, and apocalyptic predictions about humanity. In Keynes’ words, this might look like a mad man in authority hearing “voices in the air.” He was, however, in the context of his class being entirely practical in reflecting on the survival of Asian culture against the gigantic power of the US.

How much influence did he have in his time? His eccentric personality gave him an aura of a strategic genius. He wasn’t imprisoned during the war because of his popularity. But his career, strategic thought and leadership of the East Asia League also created his worst enemy: Prime Minister Tojo. The two of them had a history when Tojo helped remove Ishiwara in 1937. During the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, the American judge Lewis Popper interviewed Ishiwara about war crimes, but the conversation soon moved to his relationship with Tojo. He told Popper: “Tojo has no ideas. He only has policies. I never knew him to have ideas of any kind… Tojo ran the war. Tojo was simply a dangerous mechanic… He believes only in mechanics. All life comes down to simplicities. If life can be well organized, that is all he wants. Organization, not ideas, that is the true foundation of his behavior. Tojo has no real ideas because he believes all ideas are worthless. His is truly a corrupt mind, a mind that denies itself” (309). Ishiwara clearly defined himself as an intellectual against Tojo, the pragmatic bore. But Keynes’ point holds water, Tojo did in fact have ideas; a war between Japan and the US was inevitable and that the IJA could operate almost like ideal Weberian bureaucracy of rule-bound hierarchical administration and meritocratic progression. But perhaps these were not as colorful as Ishiwara’s ones.

By 1946, Ishiwara was almost sanguine about the war because it ultimately seemed to prove his worldview right. He said to Popper: “You Americans believe the world should belong to you… You have your empire, and it is growing, flourishing, I might say. You deny to others the right to do what you have done… You did start it. You started it well before 1941. You started it with your diplomacy, with your immigration laws, with yo ur embargoes, with your League of Nations” (310). In this reading, Pearl Harbor was a defensive strike, not an offensive one. Even in this interview about war crimes, Ishiwara was quite droll: “IK: … How convenient for the Allied Powers to have these courts. Official murder can be made legal. What a wonderful idea! LP [Popper]: You are hardly in a position to be sarcastic, you know. IK: I am in the best position of all to be sarcastic. I am dying.” (311). He faced no charges and died three years later aged 60.

Thomas Furse is a primary editor at the JHI Blog and a PhD candidate at City, the University of London. He researches the connections between strategic thought, the social sciences, management theory and political economy. His interests include war, international relations, and revolutionary political thought. 

Edited by Isabel Jacobs

Featured Image: Ishiwara Kanji towards the end of his life. Creative Commons.