Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien nav lang search
Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien
Sven Saaler

Sven Saaler

Sven Saaler
Modern Japanese Political History, History of Foreign Relations
(Researchers, November 1, 2000 - April 1, 2005)

 1. Military and Politics in Modern Japan

In view of recent developments in Japan’s politics and society, civil-military relations have been again receiving increasing attention. This research project aims to re-examine the historical backgrounds of the role of the Japanese military in pre-war politics.  The focus of the study is the role of the military during the Taishō era (1912-1926), an important turning point in Japan’s modern history, which so far has not yet received much attention in historical studies. Interpretations of the period usually focus on the currents of ‘Taishō-democracy’ (Taishō-demokurashii), overlooking fundamental changes that laid the groundwork for Japan’s development in the 1930s and 1940s. This is particularly true of the role of the Imperial Army in politics and society.
In spite of democratic tendencies during the Taishō era, the Imperial Army not only defended and secured the special political privileges that it had acquired during the Meiji era; but also, for the first time, made practical use of its privileged status to directly interfere in politics. By successfully defending its instruments for the exertion of political influence, demonstrating the will and the ability to use these instruments and expanding its own influence into new spheres like economy and education, the Army provided itself with a framework that allowed it to direct Japan’s political development after 1931 toward some kind of military “dictatorship”.

2. Pan-Asianism in Modern Japanese history

Since the “opening” of Japan 1853/54, the question of whether Japan’s future should be Asian or Western, stood in the centre of political debates. How much “modernisation” along European lines was necessary to secure national independence; and how much Westernisation was possible without losing Japan’s identity? Fukuzawa Yukichi’s call to “Leave Asia, Enter Europe” (Datsu-A nyū-Ō), that argued for a complete Westernisation of Japan, was harshly criticised by some influential intellectuals, politicians and ideologues, who were already demanding a return to Asia (Ajia-kaiki) during the Meiji period.
In the course of events, intellectual discourse on national identity and political discussions on national security proved to be closely interconnected. The most obvious manifestation of this was the growth of the ideology and the political movement of Pan-Asianism. Asianism, as an ideology shaping in the last decades of the 19th century, is still an influential force, but has not received much attention in historical research. This project aims at exploring how Pan-Asianism was adopted into politics during the Meiji and Taishō periods, how it developed into a political movement and finally how it became Japan’s foreign policy. Central concern will be directed at early Pan-Asian ideologues like Sugita Tei’ichi and Tarui Tōkichi, and Pan-Asian societies such as the Tōa-Dōbunkai and the Kokuryūkai, with their respective leaders Konoe Atsumaro and Uchida Ryūhei.

3.  Japan 1867/68: Coup d’état, Restoration or Revolution?

The so-called ‘Meiji Restoration’ was one of the key-events in Japanese history. It ended the era of feudalism and was the starting point for Japan’s modern nation-state. But why was the change of government in 1867/68 called a ‘Restoration’ (ishin)? Was it necessary to recall pre-Tokugawa traditions to legitimise the ‘movement to overthrow the Bakufu’ (tōbaku undō)? If so, the movement, as well as the change of government in 1867/68, must undoubtedly be called revolutionary since an invocation of pre-revolutionary traditions has always been an important feature of revolutionary movements. Or were there really some restorative elements in the policies of the Meiji leaders that were based on pre-Tokugawa or even pre-Bakufu traditions; the ideals of 14th century Kemmu Restoration or even 7th century Taika reforms? By analysing the propaganda of the Meiji leaders before 1868 and comparing it with their politics after they grasped power, the project aims to contribute to a better understanding of the character of the events in 1867/68 in a Japanese and an Asian context. The project also will work toward a clearer definition of historical terms like restoration (ishin, isshin, chūkō), reform (kaikaku), revolution (kakumei) and coup d’état (kūdetaa).

4. The Recent Textbook Debate

In contrast to earlier chapters of the “History Textbook Debate” in Japan, the renewed discussions since early 2001 have developed into a fully-fledged debate about history writing, historical memory, state and society in Japan, Japan’s place in the world and Japanese identity as a whole.
This project aims to explore the role of the military in Japanese history, in present society and within the political system; a dimension of these discussions  that has probably not been given enough consideration in recent research. The project will not only analyse debates on the history of the Japanese military and Japanese military expansion in Asia, but also other aspects that are closely connected to this historical questions, such as the discussions on Japan’s foreign policy, the revision of the constitution, and the role of the individual and civil society in present-day Japan.

Current DIJ Projects

Completed DIJ Projects

Assertions of Cultural Uniqueness in Asia

Japan in Asia