Kokutai (国体, "national body/structure of state") is a concept in the Japanese language translatable as "system of government", "sovereignty", "national identity, essence and character", "national polity; body politic; national entity; basis for the Emperor's sovereignty; Japanese constitution" or nation. The word is also a short form of the (unrelated) name for the National Sports Festival of Japan.
Kokutai originated as a Sino-Japanese loanword from Chinese guoti (Chinese: 國體; pinyin: guótǐ; "state political system; national governmental structure"). The Japanese compound word joins koku (國, "country; nation; province; land") and tai (體, "body; substance; object; structure; form; style"). According to the Hanyu Da Cidian, the oldest guoti usages are in two Chinese classic texts. The 2nd century BC Guliang zhuan (榖梁傳; 'Guliang's Commentary') to the Spring and Autumn Annals glosses dafu (大夫; 'high minister; senior official') as guoti metaphorically meaning "embodiment of the country". The 1st century AD Book of Han history of Emperor Cheng of Han used guoti to mean "laws and governance" of Confucianist officials.
The historical origins of kokutai go back to pre-1868 periods, especially the Edo period ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1868).
Aizawa Seishisai (会沢正志斎, 1782–1863) was an authority on Neo-Confucianism and leader of the Mitogaku (水戸学 "Mito School") that supported direct restoration of the Imperial House of Japan. He popularized the word kokutai in his 1825 Shinron (新論 "New Theses"), which also introduced the term Sonnō jōi ("revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians").
Aizawa developed his ideas of kokutai using the idea that the Japanese national myths in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki were historical facts, believing that the Emperor was directly descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu-ōmikami. Aizawa idealized this divinely-ruled ancient Japan as a form of saisei icchi (祭政一致 "unity of religion and government") or theocracy. For early Japanese Neo-Confucian scholars, linguist Roy Andrew Miller (1982:93) says, "kokutai meant something still rather vague and ill defined. It was more or less the Japanese "nation's body" or "national structure".
Katō Hiroyuki (1836–1916) and Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835–1901) were Meiji period scholars who analyzed the dominance of Western civilization and urged progress for the Japanese nation.
In 1874, Katō wrote the Kokutai Shinron (国体新論 "New Theory of the National Body/Structure"), which criticized traditional Chinese and Japanese theories of government and, adopting Western theories of natural rights, proposed a constitutional monarchy for Japan. He contrasted between kokutai and seitai (政体 "government body/structure"). Brownlee explains.
The Kokutai-seitai distinction enabled conservatives to identify clearly as Kokutai, National Essence, the "native Japanese", eternal, and immutable aspects of their polity, derived from history, tradition, and custom, and focused on the Emperor. The form of government, Seitai, a secondary concept, then consisted of the historical arrangements for the exercise of political authority. Seitai, the form of government, was historically contingent and changed through time. Japan had experienced in succession direct rule by the Emperors in ancient times, then the rule of the Fujiwara Regents, then seven hundred years of rule by shōguns, followed by the allegedly direct rule of the Emperors again after the Meiji Restoration. Each was a seitai, a form of government. In this understanding, the modern system of government under the Meiji Constitution, derived this time from foreign sources, was nothing more than another form of Japanese government, a new seitai. The Constitution was nothing fundamental. (2000:5)
Fukuzawa Yukichi was an influential author translator for the Japanese Embassy to the United States (1860). His 1875 "Bunmeiron no Gairyaku" (文明論の概略 "An Outline of a Theory of Civilization") contradicted traditional ideas about kokutai. He reasoned that it was not unique to Japan and that every nation could be said to have a kokutai "national sovereignty". While Fukuzawa respected the Emperor of Japan, he believed kokutai did not depend upon myths of unbroken descent from Amaterasu.
The Constitution of the Empire of Japan of 1889 created a form of constitutional monarchy with the kokutai sovereign emperor and seitai organs of government. Article 4 declares that "the Emperor is the head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty", uniting the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, although subject to the "consent of the Imperial Diet". This system utilized a democratic form, but in practice was closer to an absolute monarchy. The legal scholar Josefa López notes that under the Meiji Constitution, kokutai acquired an additional meaning.
The Government created a whole perfect new cultural system around the Tennou [Emperor], and the kokutai was the expression of it. Moreover, the kokutai was the basis of the sovereignty. According to Tatsukichi Minobe, kokutai is understood as the "shape of the Estate" in the sense of "Tenno as the organ of the Estate", while the authoritarians gave the kokutai a mystical power. The Tennou was a "god" among "humans", the incarnation of the national morals. This notion of kokutai was extra-juridical, something more cultural than positive. (2006:n.p.)
This stemmed from drafter Itō Hirobumi's rejection of some European notions as unfit for Japan, as they stemmed from European constitutional practice and Christianity. The references to the kokutai were the justification of the emperor's authority through his divine descent and the unbroken line of emperors, and the unique relationship between subject and sovereign. The "family-state" element in it was given a great deal of prominence by political philosophy. Many conservatives supported these principles as central to Nihon shugi (Nihon gunkoku shugi, Japanese militarism), "Japanism", as an alternative to rapid Westernization.
From the Xinhai Revolution to the enactment of the Peace Preservation Law (1911–1925), the most important pre-World War II democracy movement "Taishō Democracy" occurred. During the Taishō Democracy, the political theorist Sakuzō Yoshino (1878–1933) rejected Western democracy minshu shugi (民主主義 lit. "people rule principle/-ism") and proposed a compromise on imperial democracy minpon shugi (民本主義 "people based principle/-ism"). However, as Japanese nationalism grew, questions arose whether the kokutai emperor could be limited by the seitai government.
The Peace Preservation Law of 1925 forbade both forming and belonging to any organization that proposed altering the kokutai or the abolishment of private property, effectively criminalizing socialism, communism, republicanism, democracy and other anti-Tenno ideologies. The Tokkō ("Special Higher Police") was established as a type of Thought Police to investigate political groups that might threaten Tenno-centered social order of Japan.
Tatsukichi Minobe (1873–1948), a professor emeritus of law at Tokyo Imperial University, theorized that under the Meiji Constitution, the emperor was an organ of the state and not a sacrosanct power beyond the state. This was regarded as lèse-majesté. Minobe was appointed to the House of Peers in 1932 but forced to resign after an assassination attempt and vehement criticisms that he was disloyal to the emperor.
Great efforts were made to foment a "Japanese spirit" even in popular culture, as in the promotion of the "Song of Young Japan."
The national debates over kokutai led the Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe to appoint a committee of Japan's leading professors to deliberate the matter. In 1937, they issued the Kokutai no Hongi (国体の本義, "Cardinal Principles of the National Body/Structure," see Gauntlett and Hall 1949). Miller gives this description.
The document known as the Kokutai no Hongi was actually a pamphlet of 156 pages, an official publication of the Japanese Ministry of Education, first issued in March 1937 and eventually circulated in millions of copies throughout the home islands and the empire. It contained the official teaching of the Japanese state on every aspect of domestic policy, international affairs, culture, and civilization. (1982:92)
It clearly stated its purpose: to overcome social unrest and to develop a new Japan. From this pamphlet, pupils were taught to put the nation before the self, and that they were part of the state and not separate from it. It also instructed them in the principle of hakkō ichiu ("eight cords, one roof"), which would be used to justify imperialism.
Brownlee concludes that after the Kokutai no Hongi proclamation,
It is clear that at this stage in history, they were no longer dealing with a concept to generate spiritual unity like Aizawa Seishisai in 1825, or with a political theory of Japan designed to accommodate modern institutions of government, like the Meiji Constitution. The committee of professors from prestigious universities sought to define the essential truths of Japan, which might be termed religious, or even metaphysical, because they required faith at the expense of logic and reason. (2006:13)
The Ministry of Education promulgated it throughout the school system.
By 1937, "election purification", originally aimed at corruption, required that no candidate set the people in opposition to either the military or the bureaucracy. This was required because voters were required to support imperial rule.
Some objections to the founding of the Taisei Yokusankai or Imperial Rule Assistance Association, came on the grounds that kokutai already required all imperial subjects to support imperial rule. Conservative thinkers voiced concerns that the establishment of an empowered class of aides to the emperor was akin to the creation of a new shogunate.
For the leaders of Japan's "fascist-nationalist clique", writes Miller (1982:93), "kokutai had become a convenient term for indicating all the ways in which they believed that the Japanese nation, as a political as well as a racial entity, was simultaneously different from and superior to all other nations on earth."
This term, and what it meant, were widely inculcated in propaganda. The final letters of kamikaze pilots expressed, above all, that their motivations were gratitude to Japan and to its Emperor as the embodiment of kokutai. A sailor might give his life to save the picture of the Emperor on a submarine.
During World War II, intellectuals at an "overcoming modernity" conference proclaimed that prior to the Meiji Restoration, Japan has been a classless society under a benevolent emperor, but the restoration had plunged the nation into Western materialism (an argument that ignored commercialism and ribald culture in the Tokugawa era), which had caused people to forget their nature, which the war would enable them to reclaim.
"Japanist" unions endeavoured to win support by disavowing violence and pledging support for nation and emperor. Nevertheless, because of the mistrust of unions in such unity, the Japanese went to replace them with "councils" in every factory, containing both management and worker representatives to contain conflict. Like the Nazi councils they were copying, this was part of a program to create a classless national unity.
Because many religions had figures that distracted from the central emperor, they were attacked, such as the Oomoto sect condemned for worshipping figures other than Amaterasu, and in 1939, the Religious Organization authorized the shutting down of any religion that did not conform to the Imperial Way, which the authorities promptly used.
Hirohito evoked the Kokutai in his surrender broadcast, which announced the Japanese acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration (unconditional surrender).
By the surrender of Japan in 1945, the significance of kokutai diminished. In autumn 1945, GHQ forbade circulation of the Kokutai no Hongi and repealed the Peace Preservation Law (15 October 1945). By the enactment of the Constitution of the State of Japan (3 May 1947), Tenno's sovereignty and the lèse-majesté were repealed.
Nevertheless, some authors, including Miller (1982:95), believe that traces of Japanese kokutai "are quite as vivid today as they ever were".
In the 21st century, Japanese nationalists, such as those affiliated with the Nippon Kaigi lobby, have begun using the phrase "kunigara" (国柄, "national character").
Japanists further circumscribed the permissible limits of political discourse. From the middle of the Meiji period, some conservatives had begun to advocate Nihon shugi, or Japanism, as an alternative to rapid Westernization. In particular, they wished to preserve traditional values and what they saw as Japan's unique national polity, or kokutai. For many conservatives in the Meiji era, the concept of the kokutai revolved around two principles. A divine line of emperors had ruled from time immemorial, and intimate familylike ties united the benevolent sovereign with his loyal subjects.
At the same time that [the government] approved universal manhood suffrage, the Diet passed the Peace Preservation Law of 1925. Drafted by bureaucrats within the Ministry of Justice, the measure stipulated that anyone "who organizes a group for the purpose of changing the national polity (kokutai) or of denying the private property system, or anyone who knowingly participates in such group" could be jailed for ten years, or even executed after the law was amended three years later.
In the 1930s, however, Japanists singled out Minobe for intense criticism. Battle was joined in 1934 when rightwing organizations, including the Imperial Military Reservists' Association, published accusatory books and pamphlets charging that Minobe's thoughts amounted to Ièse majesté.
Besides hushing its critics, the government sought to inculcate good citizenship among schoolchildren by introducing a new textbook, Kokutai no hongi ("Cardinal Principles of the National Polity"), published by the Ministry of Education on March 30, 1937, as an official statement of the government's concept of the kokutai. The purpose of the text, according to its own conclusion, was to overcome social unrest and "develop a new Japan by virtue of the Way of the Empire which stands firm throughout the ages at home and abroad, and thereby more than ever to guard and maintain the prosperity of the Imperial Throne which is coeval with heaven and earth." Following a historical overview that paid special honor to the divine origins of the imperial line, a series of overtly nationalistic essays explored the vlrtues of Japan's "special and unique" customs, culture, religion, morality, and way of life. Throughout the volume, the prose sang the praises of the national achievements of the past, credited those accomplishments to the wisdom of the imperial house, and called upon the Japanese of the 1930s to prepare themselves to make any sacrifice necessary to preserve the integrity of the emperor and nation.
Konoe and Matsuoka added to the allure of a geographically extended coprosperity sphere by wrapping it in imperial shrouds. Any move south, they averred, would be accomplished "peacefully" and in accordance, as Konoe so carefully phrased it in his radio address, "with the lofty spirit of hakko ichiu." It was another skillful rhetorical flourish by the veteran wordsmith. As every Japanese schoolchild who had read Kokutai no hongi knew by heart, hakko ichiu meant "eight cords, one roof" and first appeared in the eighth-century chronicle Nihon Shoki to describe how the legendary first emperor Jimmu extended his dominion over the other clans of the early Japanese islands, which subsequently enjoyed unparalleled prosperity and security thanks to his imperial benevolence. Superimposed upon Asia in 1940, the resuscitated ideal pictured a quasi family of nations led by Japan and its patriarch-emperor; the "Imperial Way," Matsuoka intoned, would permit "every nation and every race" to find "its proper place in the world."
Conservatives such as Hiranuma Kiichiro, who served as prime minister for eight months in 1939, objected that the proposed totalitarian IRAA was nothing but a "new shogunate" that would usurp the power of the emperor's government, and Japanists declared that the national polity, the hallowed kokutai, already united the emperor with subjects who naturally fulfilled their sacred obligation to "assist imperial rule." On a more mundane plane, senior officials within the Home Ministry feared the loss of bureaucratic turf and complained that the proposed network of occupationally based units would interfere with local administration at a particularly crucial time in the nation's history.
The growing sense of national emergency prompted many groups that earlier had assumed an oppositional stance toward the state to reassess their goals and tactics. One expression of that tendency came in the early 1930s, when thousands of workers joined so-called Japanist unions whose leadership hoped to improve working conditions by disavowing violent confrontations and demonstrating their loyalty to nation and emperor. Kamino Shin'ichi, originally a foreman at the lshikawajima shipyards, organized one of the more influential Japanist unions. In concert with other members of the conservative right, he and his followers ridiculed the political parties as being corrupt, condemned liberalism and democracy as the failed ideologies of a decadent West, and sought to build a new industrial order, premised on the "unity of emperor and subject," in which laborers and capitalists would be "of one mind and spirit, fused in an inseparable solidarity."
No group experienced more severe suppression than the new religions as Home Ministry bureaucrats embarked upon a crusade "to eradicate evil cults" for the crime of propagating Iese majeste. As manifested in such works as kokutai no hongi, the government in the 1930s fostered the growth of an official orthodoxy centered upon a sacrosanct emperor who stood both as the head of state and as the benevolent father of the family of Japanese citizens. Although not overtly antiemperor, many of the new religions espoused doctrines that threatened the centrality of the imperial figure; prosecutors, for instance, condemned the Omoto sect for revering deities other than the Sun Goddess. The most dramatic moment in the government's campaign against "quack religions" came on December 8, 1935, when hundreds of police stormed Omoto headquarters, smashed the main shrine building, dynamited an auxiliary hall, decapitated religious statues, and arrested nearly a thousand sect members. Four years later the Diet passed the Religious Organizations Law empowering the government to disband any religious organization whose teachings did not conform with "The Imperial Way," and officials promptly suppressed other unorthodox religions. An aversion for social disorder and a desire to "unify the will of the people" around national goals prompted bureaucratic officials in the 1930s to suppress or to co-opt the support of organizations that opposed government policies. Some of the associations, notably the Omoto sect, preferred to break rather than to bend, but most tempered their demands, shifted to less contentious goals, or even dissolved themselves.