We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: The Fascist Effect: Japan and Italy: 1915-1952, published by Cornell University Press. The book’s author is Reto Hofmann, who currently teaches at Monash University. In this book, Professor Hofmann uncovers the ideological links that tied Japan to Italy in the interwar period, drawing on extensive materials from Japanese and Italian archives to shed light on the formation of fascist history and practice in Japan and beyond. Moving between personal experiences, diplomatic and cultural relations, and geopolitical considerations, Professor Hofmann shows that interwar Japan found in fascism a resource to develop a new order at a time of capitalist crisis.
We thank Professor Hofmann for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project.
How did you become interested in the topic of the transnational exchange between Japanese thinkers and Italian fascists? What questions drove your research?
It was the result of a more or less coincidental meeting of Italy and Japan on Australian soil while I was an undergraduate. I had focused on Italian history but a creeping interest in Japan led to a thesis on diplomatic relations between Rome and Tokyo in the late 1930s. Interest in high politics subsided, not so the desire to study Japan through Italy. My familiarity with Italian fascism made me see fascist ramifications throughout prewar Japan. Existing histories of fascism in Japan, though, barely noticed the commonalities. Did contemporary Japanese notice them, I wondered. They did. Some basic research revealed a vast debate on fascism in general and Italian fascism in particular, from the 1920s to the end of the war. The question, then, was to examine how Japanese, ideologues, politicians, educators, and writers wove fascism into their political anxieties and aspirations. If, as I argue, fascism was simultaneously national and global, what was the effect of the encounter of fascisms?
What kinds of archives and sources did you consult in your research? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this subject?
Over the thirty years covered in this book, the debates on fascism unfolded on all kinds of levels—not just politics, but also mass culture, literature, philosophy, and international relations. This spectrum meant that I had to familiarize myself with a broad range of texts housed in libraries and archives in different countries. In my experience, Japanese government archives can be navigated effectively once one overcomes their bureaucratic quirks and aura. But the attempt to trace the relations that certain individuals entertained with Italians also meant conducting research in Italian archives. While one could hope for no archive that is more scenic or eccentric than that of Gabriele D’Annunzio overlooking Lake Garda, or more charming than a Neapolitan palazzo, or more evocative for this topic than the fascist architecture of the Archivio Centrale dello Stato in Rome, archives and libraries in Italy were often underfunded, messy, or simply closed.
Could you provide an example or two of ways in which Italian fascist ideas were transmitted (and possibly adapted) in Japanese intellectual and political circles? What made those ideas powerful in the interwar period in Japan?
Fascism was both national and global—and the relationship between the two was complex. In the 1930s we notice fascist movements, ideas, and regimes a bit everywhere, all of which emerged in relative independence from one another. I say “relative” because to the extent that fascism responded directly to the crisis of liberal capitalism, often trying to prop up liberal institutions of power, it emerged organically in different national contexts. But, as the book shows, Italian Fascism (capital “F”) played a globalized, ready-made role, presenting a set of motifs, aesthetics, and strategies that travelled around the world. As the globalized Italian version of fascism encountered other fascisms all kinds of things happened. In Japan, for example, we see attempts to appropriate selectively certain aspects of Italian Fascism. Shimoi Harukichi did precisely that, redeploying the Fascist narrative of heroism and its aesthetics of sacrifice in a Japanese patriotic register. Later, in the early 1930s, when Japanese fascism had come into its own, thinkers and activists negated Italian Fascism, but not so much in the sense of disavowing it as in trying to supersede it. Recognizing these entanglements and clashes of fascism means to move away from a straightforward notion of fascist influence and reception; we can focus on the limits and contradictions of fascism, explaining why it is that we often see fascism without recognizing it.
What findings surprised you most in the course of your research?
The gradual removal of fascism from the history and memory of twentieth-century Japan, and its demotion to a marginal problem the country faced in the 1930s. This view, consolidated after the war, jars with the sense so many Japanese had until defeat in World War II, namely that fascism was a problem of the present in which they were deeply involved. There was a consciousness that Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany were linked—for good or bad, that depended on the point of view.
How would you like your book to affect or complicate people’s understanding of the history of Japan and the history of fascism?
The evidence presented in this book reveals the multiple levels of engagement with fascism in Japan; it also shows that the ideological production and political praxis in interwar Japan was intertwined with those in Italy and Germany. In other words, Japan played a part in the global history of fascism. As far as fascism is concerned, the lesson from Japan is that it can be more open-ended than we previously assumed. There is a whole literature on fascism that relies on models and definitions taken from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. But if we look at the debates in Japan we understand that the goal of fascism was to restore social and political order and that there was no scripted way to doing so. Japanese tried out a variety of fascist strategies, some of which resembled those in Europe, others didn’t.