The Works of the Monster of Shōwa

Film Language blog/Kishi Nobusuke with his grandson Abe Shinzō, the future Prime Minister of Japan.

Kishi Nobosuke wasn’t always a Kishi. He was born to Sato Hidesuke and his wife Moyo, on November 13, 1896, into a family of Samurai origin that had lately come on hard times. As a child, Kishi was called Sato Nobosuke, inheriting his family name from his father. Growing up in the tiny city of Tabuse in southern Japan, he was an unlikely figure to rule both Manchuria and Japan, bridging the imperial and liberal eras of Asia’s political order.

Hidesuke, like many from his background, suffered from a case of big dreams that clashed with his material conditions. He desired to gain an education, but he had to put off those needs to take care of a growing family. After a brief but fruitless stint as a bureaucrat thanks to his father-in-law, Hidesuke quit and returned to being a sake merchant. It was an unhappy position for him, but he was at least content knowing that he was able to provide for his family.

A traditional practice, however, was to soon change the family’s course. Even today Japanese culture retains the practice of adult adoption. Sometimes it’s for business reasons, other times simply because a related family lacks an heir. Sato Nobosuke was adopted into the family of his father’s older brother, Kishi Nobumasa, because Nobumasa lacked a male son.

Sato Nobosuke was now Kishi Nobosuke. Now he had the resources to pursue what his father had only dreamed of.

Even at a young age, before he developed his ideology, the young Kishi knew he wanted to enter the bureaucracy. Given the choice in high school to become a bureaucrat or enter the military academy, he chose the former. With good fortune, he succeeded in entering Tokyo First High School, focusing on German law. In 1917, he managed to then enter the Imperial University of Tokyo.

Japanese universities at this time were, to put it lightly, a politically charged environment, with democratic, socialist, nationalist, and other student political groups vying for ideological control. After experimenting with but deciding against various nationalist movements for not fitting his ideological preferences, Kishi decided to align with Kita Ikki.

Kita was a Japanese socialist who, like a number of socialists during the early twentieth century, ended up exchanging most of his left-wing beliefs for nationalism. He wanted to strengthen Japanese resistance to outside influence by using the military to declare martial law and restore the power of the emperor.

In the economic sphere, this hypothetical revolution—known as the Shōwa Restoration by its advocates—served a statist agenda. Its supporters hoped that the new regime would expropriate a majority of private property. Industrial property would be under the primary control and maintenance of the state.

From Kita, Kishi received the inspiration that a state should be highly centralized and industrialized, instead of returning to the rural idyll envisaged by other nationalist movements like the agrarians that followed Gondo Seikyo. An ideology of conservative modernization informed the rest of Kishi’s life; how this ideology expressed itself depended on the political environment in which Kishi was working.

Once graduation came around, Kishi had a choice: he could join the usual path for prestigious graduates—the Home or Finance ministries—or he could take a different path. Through the suggestion of multiple of his peers and professors, he decided to aim for the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce, soon to be just the Ministry of Commerce.

While at the time seen as less prestigious, the Ministry of Commerce represented the goals that Kishi leaned towards. In the far future, its historic successor after the Second World War would be the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). This postwar ministry managed strategically important aspects of the economy, such as the stock market and Japan’s industrial policies.

When justifying his decision to join the Ministry of Commerce instead of more prestigious departments, Kishi responded that only trade could secure Japan’s modernization. A 1960’s English biography, Kishi and Japan: The Search for the Sun records his reasoning:

As for the future of Japan, in order for resource-poor Japan to maintain itself, it must establish itself through trade. In order to establish itself through trade, industrial technology needs to be developed, and through technological superiority, industry must be developed…I’m entering it so it will have more prestige.

Japan’s Reformist Ideology

During his time at the Ministry of Commerce, Kishi had the opportunity to travel across the developed world to study the economic systems of the United States, Germany, and the Soviet Union.

In 1926, Kishi arrived in the U.S. just as it was enjoying the high of laissez-faire Roaring Twenties capitalism. One of the tasks he had set himself was to figure out what exactly American “industrial rationalization” meant beyond a general mix of Taylorist and Fordist production methods. In the U.S., the phrase had ended up referring to both a focus on cost efficiency as a primary profit vehicle and a focus on corporate cooperation instead of competition. He did like the Fordist scientific management and production techniques, but he disdained the widespread tactics of dumping and price-fixing.

After moving on to Germany, Kishi learned about the German corporate organizational models that Japanese managers would later draw on to manage their own corporations. He grew to support the corporatist vision of economic development, in which society was seen as being made up of organic groups that should be in harmony with one another, as opposed to a society of classes in conflict. But he also saw advantages in the Soviet economic model, too. During his time in the USSR, he observed that the five-year plan was an effective tool for managing state-run economic development.

Upon his return, Kishi became affiliated with the “reform bureaucrat” faction within the Japanese state. They wanted the state to have a stronger role in the economy, though like Kishi their sources of inspiration were from across the political spectrum. The Austrian economist and soon-to-be Nazi ​​Friedrich von Gottl-Ottilienfeld, who brought the idea of “Fordism” to Germany, influenced Japan via reformists like Mōri Hideoto and Okumura Kiwao. Also influential were the works of Arisawa Hiromi, a Japanese Marxist scholar. Kishi himself read Karl Marx in his youth and was familiar with the major socialist currents of the early twentieth century.

Despite his dislike of laissez-faire economics, America inspired Kishi in other ways. Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means’s The Modern Corporation and Private Property, and the distinction of “separating ownership from management” it espoused, appealed to him and other reform bureaucrats. One of the ideological founders of the faction, Kiwao Okumura, took this idea to mean that public interest was more important than profits in the management of corporations. Retaining their private ownership, however, was seen as a better way to promote productivity compared to the bureaucratic overhead of the Soviet method.

Kishi’s travels served to refine and sharpen his ideas. Soon, he would get the chance to implement them—but not in Japan and its ministries. As the interwar 1920s drew to a close, events back home were setting the stage for Kishi to apply his lessons in a far more ruthless environment.

The Anvil of Manshū

Manchuria was a chaotic place even before Japanese intervention. The local Manchus had become minorities in their homeland due to the opening up of the region to Han settlement by China’s Qing dynasty in the late nineteenth century. It wasn’t just the Chinese who settled there—as European powers began to partition China, foreigners increasingly held sway in Manchuria. One of China’s largest cities in the northeast, Harbin, was primarily developed by Russians.

Japan took over control over Manchuria from Russia after its victory in the 1904 Sino-Japanese war. It used the transfers of Port Arthur and the southern branches of the Chinese Eastern Railway to assert economic influence.

After the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 and the beginning of China’s republican period, the region was ruled by Zhang Zoulin of the Fengtian Clique. In 1928, the Japanese Kwantung murdered Zhang during the Huanggutun Incident, the first of a string of “incidents” it engaged in to gain control over Manchuria and China. Zoulin’s son, Zhang Xueliang, succeeded him. Just three years later, the Mukden Incident—a false-flag operation on a Japanese-owned railroad—justified the full-on occupation of Manchuria by radical officers in the Kwantung army.

The “control faction” among the Kwantung officers had its own plans for the industrialization of what was now called Manchukuo. The Kwantung Army took a distinctly anti-zaibatsu bent in how they viewed the economy, opposing the family cartels that made up Japan’s capitalist class. The army did not want any investment from private companies in Manchukuo, desiring the creation of a “national defense state” where defense and public interest were put above profit-seeking. They envisioned all economic development and business being run by companies directly under the control of the government.

This vision differed from the agenda pursued by Kishi and other reform bureaucrats who supported collaboration with private industry. From 1937 to 1940, Kishi was made the army’s de-facto head of Manchukuo’s industrial economy by Hoshino Naoki, head of Manchukuo’s General Affairs Bureau. He ensured it was economically dependent on Japan, contrary to the Kwantung Army’s plans for an autarkic Manchuria.

An example of this shift in mindset can be seen with the development of Mangyō, the new primary development company of Manchukuo. Kishi worked with Nissan to finance the development of Mangyō so that 50% of the stake would be held by Nissan, with the other half coming from the Manchukuo government. The government was also to provide the corporation’s managers.

Manchukuo, by economic metrics, was richer compared to the rest of China. Even before the Japanese invasion of the region, Manchuria was roughly 16% richer than the rest of China in terms of GDP per capita. The gap only increased in the next ten years. The five-year plans are also reflected in the industrial makeup of Manchuria compared to mainland China. From 1936 to 1940, the manufacturing sector of Manchukuo grew roughly at a rate of ​​9.9% per year. Manchurian GDP from the industrial sector was nearly double the size of China’s in 1934 and kept this up in later comparisons.

But it came at a bloody cost. Four million Chinese people were used as forced labor for this operation, and more than 40% of them died industrializing Manchuria. The conscious brutality embraced by Manchukuo’s rulers in their policies was not inherent in the abstruse economic theories that made up their academic study. Its roots lay in the nature of the Manchukuo state and the Imperial military—and even in the personality of Kishi himself.

From the start, Kishi viewed the actual inhabitants of Manchukuo as pure resources to be used for industrialization. His wage policy was that they could fall below the level of “necessary social reproduction.” Replacement workers were constantly needed because of the astronomical mortality rates. The coal mines of Fushun display this point: from 1938 to 1944, over 20,000 new Chinese miners were needed per year because of how many deaths occurred on the job.

The nature of Manchukuo as an occupier state colored the implementation of any industrial policy. While an ideology of elite state-driven private development can successfully be seen in postwar Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and Park Chung Hee-era South Korea, Manchukuo was never a sovereign nation-state. Its origins in a military invasion and its initial military government gave it the character of an army with a country.

Despite outward pretensions to Pan-Asianism, Chinese bureaucrats received lower salaries and accommodations than bureaucrats imported from Japan. While each cabinet of the Manchukan state was led by a nominal Chinese minister, in practice a Japanese vice-minister made all the decisions.

Kishi’s own life and reputation in Manchukuo reflected his disdain for the colonial state he nominally served and contempt for its non-Japanese inhabitants. Across Asia, he gained a reputation for corruption and graft. He advised politicians how to “cleanse” their illicit funds to avoid prosecution and frequented the company of yakuza gangsters, whose services he also employed to keep Manchukuo’s laborers in line. Criminal groups like the Kokusuikai served as strikebreakers and a catch-all terror force. Kishi managed many of these relationships via his friend Kodama Yoshio, a Japanese spy and gangster.

His policies on Chinese laborers directly reflected his hardline stance on Japanese racial superiority; he frequently compared the local population to the Yangtze River, known for its extreme pollution with garbage and human waste. His social life was one of intoxication, sex, and gambling—all engaged in to degrees considered extreme even among the hedonistic officers and officials of Manchukuo.

Kishi’s time in Manchuria came to an end in 1939. After his work in the Manchukuo government, Kishi returned to Japan and floated between high-level positions in the Ministry of Commerce. He was fired in December 1940 due to infighting within the Japanese bureaucracy. Kishi’s economic control measures against the powerful zaibatsu upset one of their allies in the Commerce Ministry, Kobayashi Ichizo. Despite this setback, a collapse of the Konoye cabinet led to Hideki Tojo taking power, who then appointed Kishi as Minister of Commerce and Industry in 1941. He was high enough in rank that he was one of the signers of Japan’s declaration of war on the United States.

Kishi stayed on until 1943 when the Tojo cabinet collapsed. After the surrender of Japan in 1945, he was arrested, classified as a “Class A” criminal, and sent to the Sugamo Prison in Tokyo.

Interlude at Sugamo

One of the few longform English works on Kishi, titled Kishi and Japan, the Search for the Sun, contrasts him with the kind of person Sugamo typically hosted:

Before the surrender, this prison had been occupied by thieves, rapists, murders. Now he, Nobosuke Kishi, top student in his class, builder of Manchuria, designer of Japan’s war economy, had been placed in a cell intended for common criminals.

The truth is that Kishi had managed to fit all three categories during his time in service to the Shōwa emperor. The journalist Iwami Takao would later give him the nickname that would stick to him all throughout his postwar career: Shōwa no yōkai—the Monster of Shōwa.

But despite Kishi’s past, shifting political tides in America would soon send him to new heights.

With the start of the Cold War, the United States realized it needed a strong ally in the Pacific to counterbalance Mao’s China. A rebuilt Japan would be the obvious choice. The creation of a strong Japanese ally required several forms of political engineering.

Joseph Dodge, the economic czar of Japan during the occupation, implemented an economic vision similar to that of Kishi. This time, developmentalist policies were implemented to bolster a democratic regime that espoused very different norms. The idea of strong bureaucracies remained, with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) being formed in 1949 from the prior Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Much like its predecessor, it was responsible for setting the industrial policy of Japan. But geopolitically, Japan now had to cooperate peacefully with its neighbors. Japan’s American governors learned from Kishi’s model but set it to very different goals.

The new order did not even require a sweeping change in personnel. The United States, realizing that it needed local politicians who were staunch anti-communists, was slow to prosecute those who had been deemed war criminals. The International Military Tribune for the Far East freed multiple suspected war criminals who were housed in Sugamo before they were ever brought to trial—including Kishi Nobosuke.

In the years prior, Kishi had accumulated various American supporters. These included Joseph Grew, who had been the ambassador to Japan just before the Second World War and had been imprisoned during the start of the war. During this time, Kishi let him out to play golf. The gesture led to a lifelong friendship between the two, and Grew would return the favor by assisting in his rehabilitation. Other American supporters included members of Newsweek like Harry Kern and Compton Packenham.

Kishi’s release was initially conditional on his being barred from politics. But the United States, spurred by the Korean War, renegotiated parts of the peace treaty it had with Japan on April 18th, 1952. Kishi was de-purged from Japanese politics and was able to enter Japanese political life once more, which he did with gusto.

Initially, Kishi worked with the Japan Reconstruction Federation with his friend Miyoshi. But the 1952 election proved disastrous for this faction, with only one member of the party winning district elections.

Kishi then went over to Yoshida Shigeru to ask for party membership in his Liberal Party, but Yoshida strongly disagreed with the idea, until Kishi’s money and a maneuver to temporarily send Kishi to West Germany in the guise of a tour of its reconstruction convinced Yoshida.

Kishi spent the time admiring Adenauer’s Germany, which was beginning to see the benefits of the Marshall Plan. He also spent time visiting friends in West Germany such as Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, the president of the German central bank during the Third Reich. Much like Kishi, he had been considered “rehabilitated” and had returned to political life.

Kishi’s trip got cut short when the Liberal government collapsed in Japan. He hurried back to Japan to run as a Liberal in the Diet elections, winning handily the election. Through backstabbing and electioneering, he started to climb the Japanese political hierarchy once again.

Apex and Anpo

Kishi’s re-entry came with constraints. American power now set the norms and rules that Japan’s rehabilitated imperialists would have to follow. According to postwar CIA Director Allen Dulles, the United States was getting requests from Japanese politicians for money, but Dulles himself first desired a unified conservative political scene before he would provide funds. Kishi, likewise, understood that the United States desired an ally that was staunchly anti-communist.

In 1954, Kishi formed the Democratic party. With the support of both the right and left factions, and of the wealthy politician Hatoyama Yukio, he backstabbed Yoshida. His party managed to seize 185 out of 467 seats in the Diet. As secretary-general in 1955, Kishi realized he needed to create a broad conservative coalition if he wanted to defeat the socialists. After a series of negotiations, the Liberal Democratic Party was formed in October 1955. It has held political dominance in Japan for most of Japanese history since then. Kishi became prime minister with the LDP in February 1957.

However, in that election year the socialists did well too. The U.S. decided to support Kishi to ensure American dominance in Japan, and his 1957 visit to Washington won him CIA financial support and a promise that the security treaty would be revised. In the aftermath of the election, the LDP kept the majority of its seats and the socialist party collapsed into bickering, making the LDP the only major faction left in Japanese politics.

Kishi’s reputational whitewashing was complete. In a demonstration of how geopolitical requirements can make history fade away, then-Vice President Richard Nixon said in 1957 that Kishi was “not only a great leader of the free world, but also a loyal and great friend of the people of the United States.”

With this victory, Kishi and the LDP began to work on changing the defense relations Japan had with the United States. For example, Kishi modified the laws that governed the Self-Defense Forces and the Defense Agency of Japan so that Japan would be able to have more personnel. Ambassador Douglas MacArthur II, the grandson of Douglas MacArthur, collaborated with Kishi to revise the security treaty.

During his time at the heights of power, postwar Kishi remained consumed by his goals to secure Japan’s political and military independence once more. With the U.S. taking the lead in Japanese redevelopment, Kishi’s radical economic ideology had to take a backseat, mainly cropping up in his attempts to convince other regional powers to sign onto the concept of an Asian Development Fund. But the naked attempt to re-establish Japanese economic influence held little attraction for most of Asia, with fresh memories either of direct colonial rule or of narrow escapes from its influence.

Only two years after his successful negotiations, one of Kishi’s next triumphs would lead to his downfall. On January 19th, 1960 Kishi flew to Washington to sign a new U.S.-Japan security treaty with President Eisenhower. Before the trip, controversy had emerged due to the underhanded way he passed it through—calling police officers into the Japanese Diet to remove opposition lawmakers. Socialists and other opposition figures were outraged. By June 15th, hundreds of thousands of protestors marched in Tokyo and managed to storm the Diet. The majority of these protesters were members of the Zengakuren, a student left-wing league specifically founded to protest against fascists in the postwar Japanese military. It soon became a general catch-all student leftist group that, among other causes, protested against postwar militarization in Japan.

While Eisenhower had planned to travel to Japan to celebrate the ratification of this treaty, the student protests meant Eisenhower had to cancel the trip. More importantly, Kishi’s political popularity cratered. Though the security treaty was ultimately passed, his political apex had ended almost as soon as it began. He would go on to resign on July 15th, though he remained in the Diet as a senior advisor for the LDP until his retirement in 1979. His squandered political capital meant his economic development plans would go unrealized.

Kishi’s successor, Ikeda Hayato, focused on economics with a vision of his own: the Incoming Doubling Plan. While still a state-driven project, it had more focus on equality and living standards rather than raw economic growth. Ikeda’s plans included things like a more progressive tax code and social welfare spending, something that the reform bureaucrats had never focused much on. Additionally, Ikeda’s cabinet motto was “forbearance and tolerance,” a change of pace from the strident Kishi government and the mass protests it had caused.

Kishi’s squandered political capital meant his economic development plans would go unrealized. However, a figure from Kishi’s past would realize his ideas in South Korea.


Politically speaking, it would have been impractical for most of Asia’s postwar statesmen to admit to learning significantly from the Empire of Japan. But many of its prominent figures—from Mongolia and South Korea, to China and the DPRK—drew on direct or indirect experiences from the imperial period. Perhaps the most open and unapologetic case was South Korean leader Park Chung-hee.

While Kishi was ruling Manchukuo, the future president of South Korea was serving in the Manchukuo army as an officer. Decades later, a 1961 coup launched him into power in South Korea. Afterward, General Park took a visit to Japan seeking the economic and political advice of a recently-deposed Kishi, where he even managed to shock the elderly imperialist with his unabashed admiration for Japan.

Park Chung-hee’s policies were the opposite of “forbearance and tolerance.” Soon after the coup, Park ordered the arrest of many leading Korean businessmen. While the charges of corruption pressed by the junta were valid, the point of pressing charges wasn’t to prosecute them. Instead, Park used this as an opportunity to organize relations between the state and the chaebol, with the state setting the terms for their existence.

While not as brutal as Manchukuo, Park’s economic and political policies had similar authoritarian streaks. While South Korea did not work its workers to death, the government did not have a minimum wage, workdays were 12 hours long, and the South Korean government suppressed labor movements.

Politically, the executive branch held the most power. At the start of Park’s regime, he created economic bureaucracies like the Economic Planning Board that had control over the South Korean economy but were dependent on Park for power. Later on, the Yushin Constitution created the authoritarian Fourth Republic of Korea that centralized even more power in the Korean executive branch. Park’s admiration for Japan was even expressed in the constitution’s name: Yushin was an allusion to Meiji—both words mean “restoration.”

But despite these lingering sympathies—despite even the direct complicity of many postwar Asian leaders in Japanese imperialism—the influence of the U.S. as the lynchpin of the postwar order refined how these ideas were implemented. East Asia went on to achieve a remarkable economic miracle throughout the 1960s and ‘70s. Rather than an extractive model of development, East Asia became an industrial superpower; instead of benefiting only the imperial homeland, most of the region’s population rose out of poverty by participating in national economies.

Politically, this development ultimately strengthened the political norms preferred by the U.S., with South Korea moving to regular elections in the 1980s and Taiwan doing so in the 1990s.

Decades before, Kishi had formed his model by drawing on opposed, even hostile factions set on using developmentalism to outdo their political enemies. Ultimately, he would watch the region he once hoped to colonize turn his own lessons against that vision—and even oversaw huge parts of the reversal himself. Imperial Japan and the U.S. were both countries with clear goals and beliefs about what kind of societies they were building—and so, both were unusually capable of learning from their enemies.

The technocratic ideology Kishi had embraced saw itself as a scientific, modern force liberated from the petty prejudices and rivalries of generations past. But whatever their success in material results, this pretense may have been its fatal error. The mechanisms of Kishi’s model were, in fact, malleable. The psychologies, ambitions, loyalties, and hatreds of Japan’s imperialists were inescapable realities that shaped what kind of society this program could create. The rising continent promised by the Pan-Asianists did come to pass—but only under the sway of a very different set of rulers.

Lars Erik Schönander is a software engineer and writer based in Washington, D.C. You can find him on Twitter at @LarsESchonander.