Violence, Masculinity, and Fascism in 1960s Japan

Zac Fairbrother | 28 July 2023

Modern History | Asian History | Social History  | Political History

On 12th October, 1960, Japan Socialist Party chairman Asanuma Inejirō was assassinated during a live, televised election debate. That year, Prime Minister Kishi had forcefully removed socialist lawmakers from the legislature to pass the controversial US-Japan Security Treaty, prompting the largest protests in postwar Japanese history. The atmosphere was heated – Asanuma was first drowned out by members of the ultranationalist Greater Japan Patriotic Party (Dai Nippon Aikokutō). The moment the noise died down, 17-year-old Yamaguchi Otoya rushed onto the stage and fatally stabbed Asanuma.[1]

On 1st February, 1961, another 17-year-old visited the home of Shimanaka Hōji, who was head of the Chūō Kōron publishing house. Chūō Kōron had been embroiled in controversy after publishing a story depicting the imperial family being beheaded, and rightist groups had called for the company’s closure. The visitor, Komori Kazutaka, had decided to take matters into his own hands; Shimanaka wasn’t home, but his wife was stabbed, and his maid killed.[2]

Both Yamaguchi and Komori were followers of European fascism, and both had been members of Dai Nippon Aikokutō, led by Akao Bin, an open admirer of Hitler – Yamaguchi himself was an avid reader of Mein Kampf. However, both had quit Aikokutō, feeling that Akao, by avoiding actual violence, hadn’t gone far enough.

Alongside their fervent support for European fascism, they also relied on an ultranationalist interpretation of Japanese tradition which revered the samurai. Yamaguchi’s murder weapon was a samurai sword, and on 2nd November, 1960, he was found dead in his cell with ‘long live the emperor’ and a poem by a famous samurai written in toothpaste on the wall. Similarly, Komori turned himself in carrying a handkerchief inscribed with ‘long live the emperor’ and a traditional waka poem.[3]

Many historians reject the label ‘fascism’ in Japan’s case because they feel that far-right emphasis on particularly Japanese culture, myth, and history is too different from European fascism. Yet, as revealed by their multiple political inspirations, neither Yamaguchi nor Komori had any trouble fusing international fascism with samurai myth; they seemingly viewed fascism as embodying the same violent masculinity as their samurai heroes. Masculinity was thus key to how the Japanese far-right embodied fascism.

Historians of fascism count among its core characteristics an idolisation of masculine violence and action. During Japan’s ‘fascist’ wartime period, calisthenics, sport, and military fitness exams all cemented the idea that strong, fit men would make a pure nation.[4] This paralleled Nazi Germany, where the Aryan body and fascism generally were eroticised.[5] Fascism, youth and vitality go hand in hand, so it is unsurprising that two outright fascists who exercised violent direct action were both seventeen and male.

They were not alone. During the late 1960s, campuses across Japan were paralysed by leftist students erecting barricades. Administrations called on young, right-wing sports students alongside rightist gangs to attack. It was no coincidence that sportsmen were likely to ally with far-rightists; both groups idolised strength and revered tradition. Tellingly, at Nihon University, it was student practitioners of Kendō (bamboo sword-fighting) who were called in to violently disperse a peaceful protest. Kendō and other martial arts are largely modern constructs, but participants appeal to mythic history to present themselves as arbiters of tradition and strength.[6] In idolising mythic history and strength, some sport clubs allied with outright fascists; Sasakawa Ryoichi, the self-proclaimed ‘world’s wealthiest fascist’, helped spread karate globally and counted amongst his affiliates numerous martial arts and sword-fighting groups.[7]

In 1961 the liberal author Ōe Kenzaburō, inspired by Asanuma’s murder, published Seventeen and its sequel, The Political Youth Dies. For the protagonist, modelled on Yamaguchi, ultranationalism, sexuality, and masculinity are inseparable – he is a chronic masturbator, at one-point picturing the emperor during climax. His sword, which otherwise is only a historic weapon, is rendered phallic; his actual murder of a politician becomes both an appeal to samurai myth, and a moment of sexual penetration, a quintessentially masculine act. Yamaguchi’s suicide note attempted to portray him as a samurai, and for Ōe this identification was sexual, as the political youth seems to receive pleasure from his own death. Ōe thus argues that masculinity, eroticism, and youth are central to Japanese fascism.[8]

Ōe’s novels drew on overlaps between masculinity, ‘tradition’, and fascism, but nobody embodied his political youth quite like ultranationalist author Mishima Yukio. In 1960, Mishima published Patriotism, whose protagonist, an army lieutenant, decides to kill himself after failing to participate in a 1936 coup inspired by fascist Kita Ikki. Patriotism emphasises the ‘purity’ and vitality of the lieutenant and, overtly mixing traditionalism and sexuality, he and his wife sleep together under portraits of the imperial family.[9] In a 1966 film adaptation, the lieutenant was played by Mishima himself. Like the lieutenant, Mishima embodied a combination of fascism, masculinity, and eroticism. Throughout the 1960s he engaged in bodybuilding, displaying his body in photographs and glorifying his strength and virtue. Simultaneously he slid further into fascistic politics. In 1968 Mishima wrote the play My Friend Hitler, in which Hitler’s genocide is equated to an ‘aesthetic project’ just like Mishima’s own pursuit of beauty. Like Yamaguchi and Komori, Mishima admired the Nazis, especially Ernst Röhm, for embodying samurai masculinity.[10] He formed a militia, the Shield Society, seemingly modelled on the Nazis’ own paramilitary. Mishima presented himself as a samurai, too – during an unsuccessful 1970 coup attempt, he committed seppuku, samurai ritual suicide.[11]

Mishima’s militia was comprised of students. So was the Youth Ideology Study Association, trained in military tactics by nationalist mob boss Kodama Yoshio, a friend of Sasakawa and Prime Minister Kishi from their time imprisoned for war crimes.[12] These examples reveal that, in 60s Japan, reverence for ‘tradition’ was rendered fascistic through gender. By presenting samurai as mythic icons, and eroticising violence, rightists embodied a fascistic reverence for vitality, youth, and masculinity. Their reliance on Japanese culture does not disqualify them from the fascist label – that reliance is exactly what makes them fascist.[13]

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Zac Fairbrother is entering his third year as a student in the History Department at the University of Sheffield. He hopes to pursue postgraduate study of Japanese history and gender. 

[1] Nick Kapur, Japan at the Crossroads: Conflict and Compromise after Anpo (Harvard, 2018), 252-254.

[2] John Whittier Treat, ‘Beheaded Emperors and the Absent Figure in Contemporary Japanese Literature’, PMLA 109/1 (1994), 100-101.

[3] Kapur, Japan at the Crossroads, 254.

[4] Ikuo Abe et. al., ‘Fascism, sport and society in Japan’, International Journal of the History of Sport 9/1 (1992), 1-28; Teresa A. Algoso, ‘Not Suitable as a Man? Conscription, Masculinity and Hermaphroditism in Early Twentieth Century Japan’, in Sabine Frühstück and Anne Walthall (eds.), Recreating Japanese Men (California, 2011), pp. 241-261.

[5] Elizabeth Heineman, ‘Sexuality and Nazism: The Doubly Unspeakable?’, Journal of the History of Sexuality 11/1-2 (2002), 22-66.

[6] William Andrews, Dissenting Japan: A History of Japanese Radicalism and Counterculture from 1945 to Fukushima (C. Hurst and Co., 2016), 90-92; Oleg Benesch, ‘Myths of Masculinity in the Martial Arts’, in Jennifer Coates et. al. (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Gender and Japanese Culture (Routledge, 2019), 261-270.

[7] Eiko Maruko Siniawer, Ruffians, Yakuza, Nationalists: The Violent Politics of Modern Japan, 1860-1960 (Cornell, 2008), 166-167; David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro, Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld (California, 2003), 69-72. Shockingly, the only book length treatise I could find on Sasakawa describes him as a ‘warrior for peace’ – his time in Sugamo Prison as a war criminal is described as if it were a character-building exercise, and his fascist sympathies are unmentioned. Paula Daventry, Sasakawa: Warrior for Peace, Global Philanthropist (Pergamon, 1987).

[8] Hosea Hirata, Discourses of Seduction: History, Evil, Desire, and Modern Japanese Literature (Harvard, 2005), 121-137.

[9] Mishima Yukio and Geoffrey Sargentt (trans.), Patriotism (New Directions, 1995); Hosea Hirata, Discourses of Seduction: History, Evil, Desire, and Modern Japanese Literature (Harvard, 2005), 121-137.

[10]David G. Goodman, ‘An Aesthetic of Destruction: Mishima Yukio’s My Friend Hitler’, in Hiroshi Nara (ed.), Inexorable Modernity: Japan’s Grappling with Modernity and the Arts (Lexington, 2007), 151-162.

[11] Sophia Ho, ‘Flex Your Muscles: The Aesthetic, Apollonian, Appeal of Fascism’, The Macksey Journal 2/80 (2021); Andrew Rankin, Mishima: Aesthetic Terrorist: An Intellectual Portrait (Hawaii, 2018). It is possible that Mishima planned to fail at his coup and commit suicide – his work constantly suggests that beauty is most radiant at the moment of death or destruction, hence his admiration for Hitler’ ‘aesthetic project’, and he apparently believed his failure would reveal the weakness of modern Japan.

[12] David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro, Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld (California, 2003), 72.

[13] Reto Hofmann, The Fascist Effect: Japan and Italy, 1915-1952 (Columbia, 2015), 63-88. In prewar Japan, lots of Japanese ‘nativists’ openly rejected international fascism in favour of Japanese ‘tradition.’ Hofmann argues that their search for an authentic national essence, unsullied by corrupt foreign influences, was itself fascist, even as they rejected the label.