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Kokutai (Kyūjitai: 國體, Shinjitai: 国体, literally "national body/structure") is a politically loaded word in the Japanese language, translatable as "national identity; national essence; national character" or "national polity; body politic; national entity; basis for the Emperor's sovereignty; Japanese constitution". Historian John S. Brownlee gives this characterization:
The most original political idea ever developed in Japan was that of the Kokutai [National Essence]. It served from the Meiji Restoration to 1945 as an inspiring and unifying ideology, and provided the national political framework within which to place the system of constitutional monarchy borrowed from the West under the Meiji Constitution of 1889. It solves many of the puzzles of understanding that Constitution. However, unlike the idea of democracy which has universal appeal, the idea of the Kokutai was useful only in Japan, and contributed nothing whatever to the development of political ideas anywhere else in the world, even when imperial Japan tried to export it to subject countries. In addition, its fundamental irrationalism is appalling and offensive to many, though this is a characteristic shared by many other political systems based on religious ideas. (2000:1)
The most simple translation may be sovereign. For example, in the United Kingdom, the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Monarchy combine to form a sovereign, while in pre-war Japan, the Emperor alone was sovereign. The following will first trace the linguistic origins of the word kokutai and then outline historical changes in how Japanese political theorists framed this concept.
Kokutai originated as a Sino-Japanese loanword from Chinese guoti (Chinese: 國體/国体; pinyin: guótĭ; Wade–Giles: kuo-t'i, "state political system; national governmental structure"). This Japanese compound word joins koku < Chinese guo (國/国 "country; nation; province; land") and tai < ti (體/体 "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 BCE 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 CE Book of Han history of Emperor Cheng of Han uses guoti to mean "laws and governance" of Confucianist officials.
Edo period (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 scholarly arguments of Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801) 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 Omikami. Aizawa idealized this divinely-ruled ancient Japan as a form of saisei itchi (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"."
Meiji period (1868–1912)
Kokutai took on new significance during the Meiji Restoration. 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 (國體新論 "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 Shoguns, 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 1889 Meiji Constitution 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, more something cultural than positive. (2006:n.p.)
The Meiji Emperor had little to no involvement in the government. Unlike usual monarchies, he essentially served as a figurehead for the nation of Japan. Members of the Privy Council used the Emperor's name, often without his knowledge, in order to pass legislation.
Taishō period (1912–1926)
Japan made some democratic advances during the Taishō period. 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 any organization that altered the kokutai, effectively criminalizing socialism, communism, and other ideologies. The Tokko ("Special Higher Police") was established as a type of Thought Police to investigate political groups that might threaten Japan's Emperor-centered social order.
Shōwa period (1926–1989)
Minobe Tatsukichi (1873–1948), a professor emeritus of law at Tokyo University, theorized that under the Meiji Constitution, the emperor was an organ of the state and not a sacrosanct power beyond the state. 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.
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 (國體の本義, "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)
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 1889 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)
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."
The significance of kokutai diminished after the end of the Pacific War. In 1945, an official decree of the American occupation of Japan forbade circulation of the Kokutai no Hongi. The 1947 Constitution of Japan repealed the Peace Preservation Law. Nevertheless, some authors, including Miller (1982:95), believe that traces of Japanese kokutai "are quite as vivid today as they ever were."
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- Brownlee, John S. "Four Stages of the Japanese Kokutai (National Essence)", 2000.
- Daikichi, Irokawa. The Culture of the Meiji Period. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.
- Gauntlett, John Owen and Hall, Robert King. Kokutai no hongi: cardinal principles of the national entity of Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University press, 1949.
- Kitagawa, Joseph M. "The Japanese Kokutai (National Community) History and Myth," History of Religions, Vol. 13.3 (Feb., 1974), pp. 209–226.
- Valderrama López, Josefa. "Beyond words: the "kokutai" and its background". Història Moderna i Contemporània, 2006. ISSN 1696-4403.
- Miller, Roy Andrew. Japan's Modern Myth. New York: Weatherhill, 1982.