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Imperial Japan and the Russian Revolution

Tatiana Linkhoeva

Strangely enough, Japan’s ruling elites initially viewed the Russian Revolution favorably — until radical ideas started spreading to their colonies.

Wikimedia Commons

Interview by
Arvind Dilawar

As the largest force among the foreign armies that invaded Russia after the 1917 October Revolution, as well as a principal member of the Axis powers during World War II, Imperial Japan’s opposition to Soviet Russia may seem like a foregone conclusion. But it was hardly so.

Initially, many in the Japanese government viewed the Russian Revolution favorably, seeing in it similarities to Japan’s 1868 Meiji Restoration, which had put the country on the path to modernization.

Only when radical winds began to drift into Korea and China, threatening their colonial rule, did Imperial Japan really embrace anti-communism. Similarly, many Japanese leftists, like the Japanese Communist Party, came to break with the Russians over the latter’s focus on Korea and China.

Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar spoke with Tatiana Linkhoeva, author of Revolution Goes East: Imperial Japan and Soviet Communism, about the seemingly contradictory views of Japanese political leaders, military commanders, and even leftists towards the Russian Revolution and Soviet Russia. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.


AD

What was the relationship like between Japan and Russia prior to the Russian Revolution?

TL

One of the main arguments of the book is that one cannot understand Japan’s relations with Soviet communism and the Soviet Union without considering Russian-Japanese relations in the long term. Since the eighteenth century, Japan considered Russia to be a Eurasian empire in possession of vast Asian populations and territories, and a long, tightly connected history of relations with the Mongol and Chinese empires. Russia was a curious case for Japan: It was a European empire state, but its history, politics, and economy depended a lot on its relations with the rest of Asia.

Russia’s perplexing cultural and geographical position split Japanese attitudes toward it essentially into two opposing camps: those who conceived of the Russian state and society as aggressive and expansionist, and therefore a direct threat to the Japanese nation; and those who considered cooperation with a powerful Russian state to be vital for the stability and prosperity of Japan and East Asia in general. Prior to 1917, Russia and Japan divided East Asia into “spheres of influence” and shared a mutual desire to stop a third party — mainly the United States — from advancing in the region. In my book, I show how these two attitudes have continued after the Russian Revolution up until the present day.

Many educated Japanese people were powerfully attracted to the critique of Western modernity and capitalism developed in Imperial Russia. The Japanese astutely recognized that Russian anti-Westernism derived from its peculiar cultural, historical, and geopolitical position, which for many Japanese resembled its own country’s peculiar position vis-à-vis the West and the rest of Asia. This long-standing Japanese interest in Russia’s cultural and intellectual production, especially in Russian populism, socialism, and other revolutionary thought, paved the way for the favorable reception of ideas and ideologies, including socialist and communist, originating in Russia.

AD

Many in Japan viewed the Russian Revolution as comparable to Japan’s own Meiji Restoration in 1868. What were the parallels?

TL

In 1918, Japan celebrated the fifty-year anniversary of the Meiji Restoration. The memory of it was still fresh, and the participants of the Meiji revolutionary events were still alive. The anniversary became an opportunity for the Japanese public to reckon with whether the Meiji Restoration delivered on its promises and what those promises were, in fact.

The Japanese government and general public had positive views on the February Revolution in March 1917, which resulted in Nicholas II’s abdication. The February Revolution was understood as a popular and democratic uprising of the people against a corrupt, autocratic government and its bureaucracy.

The most interesting issue is what the Japanese public thought of the Russian monarchy, considering that Japan had its own emperor. At first glance, it would be more natural to compare the Romanov imperial house to the Japanese imperial dynasty.

However, after the February Revolution, the Romanov rule was compared to the Tokugawa shogunate, the samurai military government that was deposed by the Meiji revolutionaries. For modern Japan, both the Romanov and Tokugawa were obsolete, feudal, autocratic. In short, both were destined to disappear.

The perceived backwardness of the obsolete Romanov monarchy explains why the Japanese and the rest of the world reacted with relative indifference to the execution of Nicholas II and his family in summer 1918. The Japanese government and media dismissed the murder as simply another consequence of the ongoing violent revolution.

The October Revolution caused initially a lot of confusion in Japan. The Bolsheviks were seen to be lacking a political mass base — a power-hungry, militant group doomed to collapse soon. Their success was deemed largely accidental, and in no way an epoch-changing event.

Not unlike their Western counterparts, Japanese media condemned Lenin and the Bolsheviks for their egoism, the selfishness of their anti-Allied actions, and their lack of patriotism, while at the same time hysterically predicting the imminent arrival of German troops at Japan’s door via its new Russian colony.

As months passed and the Japanese learned more about the Bolsheviks and their program, the opinion changed. The October Revolution was deemed a people’s revolution, a lower-class revolt against incompetent authorities, and as an ideological solution to the problems of Russian political and social backwardness.

Ultimately, the Japanese interpretation of the Russian Revolution was heavily influenced by their own understanding of the Meiji revolution. In other words, the Japanese understood the Meiji revolution as a revolution of modernization — as nationalist — and aiming to stop the advancement of foreign powers.

The Russian Revolution, in their view, struggled for the same objectives: to modernize and to build a strong nation-state. Remarkably, in bringing together the Meiji and October revolutions, the communist ideology came to be considered less important.

AD

Japan ultimately played the most active role in the foreign intervention against the Russian Revolution. Was this opportunistic empire-building or sincere anti-communism?

TL

The short answer is that Japanese imperial policies in Russia evolved from pure opportunism for land and resources to genuine concern over the arrival of communism in East Asia. I want to stress the last point: Japan was concerned not with communism in Russia per se, but with the growing popularity of communism in colonial Korea and China, which jeopardized Japan’s empire.

As Imperial Russia was disintegrating in 1917, the Japanese Army and Ministry of Foreign Affairs insisted on taking advantage of the power vacuum in East Asia to expand Japan’s colonial control — both formal and informal — into Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Once Woodrow Wilson made a decision in the summer of 1918 to intervene, that enabled the Japanese general staff, the army, and the foreign ministry to proceed with their own agenda. There was cheerful confidence in Tokyo that the Bolshevik regime would not survive the intervention and that Japanese plans for the region certainly would be realized.

The most curious fact is that the declaration of intervention never identified the Bolshevik regime as the enemy. It was presumed that the Japanese troops were in Russia to “save” it, yet no one in the government publicly identified from whom or from what Russia must be saved. The declaration promised withdrawal once order was restored and renounced any desire to infringe on Russian territorial sovereignty and Russian internal affairs.

In reality, however, the Japanese government was busy exploring new economic opportunities. A new special commission for Siberian economic aid was created “to establish a basis for Japanese economic activities in opposition to the acquisition of concessions by the United States and other countries.” The Russo-Japanese Trading Company, the Far East Business Development Corporation, and the Russo-Japanese Bank were organized for the purpose of entering the mining, oil production, forestry, fisheries, and related transport industries.

All major players of the day, including the business conglomerates Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, Kuhara, and Furukawa, were involved in the activities of the commission, injecting a large amount of money into Siberia and fully cooperating with the Army.

However, by 1920, the Japanese government seemed to have become genuinely concerned that the revolution was spilling beyond Russian borders into China and Korea, thus directly jeopardizing the security of the Japanese empire. Several thousand radicalized Koreans and Chinese in the Russian Far East joined Bolshevik-led partisan groups.

Recent Korean immigrants with knowledge of the Japanese language served as translators, agents, and informants, providing invaluable help to the Bolsheviks. Chinese and Korean anti-Japanese resistance fighters volunteered in the thousands, with the internationalist divisions of the Red Army. The Japanese imperial government was extremely concerned with these developments and with reports of increasing military skirmishes on the borders of their empire.

Nevertheless, the Siberian Intervention was a strange war. No clear enemy was identified, Bolshevism and communism were never mentioned. Although it was an obvious war against Russia and its people, as the violence became indiscriminate, the Japanese government tirelessly and cynically pronounced its friendship with the Russian people and insisted it was acting in their interest.

Any mention of the Soviet state, either positive or negative, was carefully omitted in official documents. The Japanese government never publicly stated its opposition or fundamental disagreement with the ideological principles of the new Soviet state.

AD

Various factions of the Japanese state had different responses to Soviet Russia, depending on whether they believed Soviet Russia and the Communist International were distinct entities. How did Soviet Russia and the Comintern approach Japan differently?

TL

There were two organizations responsible for Soviet foreign policy: the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and the Comintern. They had different goals, however. The bloody Russian Civil War was exacerbated by the foreign intervention, when more than ten countries occupied various parts of Russian territory. This was the first modern, multi-national intervention into a foreign territory, and the survival of the new Bolshevik regime was under grave threat.

In order to keep the integrity of its territory and ensure its own survival, the Soviet government chose the policy of appeasement and collaboration with Imperial Japan. The Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly proclaimed that they would not encourage any communist activities in the territory of the Japanese empire, and it also publicly agreed with Japan’s aggressive interference in Chinese politics and economy.

The Comintern, on the other hand, was an international and global organization with devoted foreign communist members and, up until the late 1920s, maintained some degree of independence from the Soviet government. Its fundamental goal was to bring about a world socialist revolution. Part of the Comintern’s job was to create foreign communist parties and bring to power pro-socialist parties.

After their hopes for socialist revolutions in Europe did not materialize, the Comintern turned to Imperial Japan as the most industrialized country in Asia, deeming the Japanese workers ready for a proletarian takeover. The Japanese Communist Party was established as a Comintern branch in 1922, and various pro-communist activities were sponsored and facilitated.

In the end, the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Comintern were doing opposite work in Japan. The former conducted conventional diplomacy and signed treaties with capitalist countries, including Japan. The latter continued to destabilize Imperial Japan, especially in the territories in colonial Korea and northeast China, until the Comintern was finally dissolved by Stalin in 1943.

AD

How did internationalism, especially in regards to the Korean and Chinese independence movements, shape Japanese leftists’ perspective on Soviet Russia?

TL

Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910, and it was accompanied by the general discourse of Korea’s cultural and political backwardness. Ironically, Japanese leftists fell into the same nationalistic trap. Despite the fact that it was Korean radicals who were a vital link between the Japanese leftists and the Bolsheviks, and that the Korean resistance movement — communist or not — was the most consistent, forceful, and unapologetic, the Japanese left, in general, did not side with them.

The Japanese communists considered colonial Korea, and later China, to be on a different developmental stage compared to the more advanced, industrialized Japan. The Japanese communists also considered the Korean and Chinese independence movement too nationalistic, that their struggle for national independence obscured the more profound internationalist and proletarian message of Marxism.

When Soviet theoreticians, such as Nikolai Bukharin, suggested that the Japanese communists help the Chinese revolution first, that the destruction of the Japanese empire and the authoritarian state would originate only in the colonies, the Japanese leftists disagreed. In their view, in Asia, it was only the Japanese industrial proletariat that had attained an advanced level of proletarian and internationalist class consciousness, and it alone was capable of leading and representing other colonial workers.

AD

Japanese liberals supported the state in its crackdown against communists, anarchists, and other socialists in the 1920s. How did this set the stage for Japanese fascism in the 1930s?

TL

Japanese prewar liberalism was characterized by its commitment to the state — its belief that, in Japan, it was the responsibility of the imperial state to ensure the well-being of its subjects. In other words, liberals were those who promoted representative government under the umbrella of the monarchy, the dominance of mass-based parties, reduced bureaucracy, and a responsible military. Japanese liberals believed that democratic politics ultimately served the goals of national unity and social harmony.

It is not surprising that Japanese liberals united with conservatives in their concern over Soviet communism, especially its call for class struggle, as the main ideological threat to Japan’s national polity. At the same time, liberals pursued their own agenda. Waging its own battle for democratization of Japanese politics, Japanese liberals used the Red Scare to convince the government and the public that only the implementation of universal suffrage would stop the “Bolshevization” of the Japanese nation.

Without getting deep into the long-standing debates about whether we can speak of “fascism” in Japan and in East Asia, I can say for sure that in wartime Japan, no outside fascist or radical right-wing party or group took political power. The modern state and its apparatus was just too powerful in Japan, so no outsider could contest its authority.

Here lies the main difference between Imperial Japan, on the one hand, and Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, on the other. What happened in prewar Japan is that the continuous suppression of the leftist opposition by the state — with support from liberals and conservatives — resulted in a certain “fascisization” of an otherwise deeply conservative and neo-traditionalist state.

AD

What do you think is worth keeping in mind about this period of foreign relations between Russia and Japan, especially for leftists today?

TL

It often has been assumed as a given in Western scholarship that the interwar Japanese political and military elite were naturally anti-communist. Projecting on Imperial Japan their own assumptions about communism and anti-communism, and reading history back from a Cold War perspective, Western readers have missed the point that Soviet-Japanese relations followed their own logic.

Geographical proximity, long-term relations prior to the Russian Revolution, mutual economic and political interests in China, anxiety over the interference of the United States, shared recognition that the political and the social should take precedence over the economic, as well as mutual cultural and intellectual attraction — all these are the key elements of Soviet-Japanese relations.

I guess my main contention with leftist development in prewar East Asia was that they did not organize a region-wide united front. Each national left was preoccupied with their own countries. Despite recognizing that alone they could not alter the imperial state — that only in coalition and concerted effort with Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Mongolian, Indonesian, and finally Russian communists, anarchists, and socialists could change be possible — the Japanese left was not able to become truly internationalist. But I do not want to pass judgements. I do not know if this was even possible.