|The Predominance of Confucian Martial Culture over
Western Influence in the Far East
by Holly Senatore
Consider a society where equality among men is a foreign concept. Consider a state where democracy is firstly established through removing a military threat through war and reestablishing a viable working government. Lastly, consider a situation where asking the post- war populace to embrace democracy is also asking them to rid themselves of their own centuries long cultural values. This article does not address the invasion of Iraq in 2003, an event in which the military goals were readily accomplished yet the cultural goals of instilling democracy among a hostile people are yet to be seen. Instead, this article examines a similar instance that unfolded during the mid twentieth century when Japan surrendered to United States military forces on September 2nd, 1945. This date marked the end of World War II but established the beginning of a new chapter in Anglo-Japanese relations whereby democracy was grafted upon a stratified and hierarchal civilization ruled by the military class since the Yorimoto Shogunate in the 12th century A.D.
Since the turn of the twenty-first century, United States military forces have primarily been engaged in unconventional warfare against insurgent military forces who use every available facet of power- political, social, economic, and military to convince their opponent’s decision makers that their strategic goals are either too costly or are unachievable in lieu of the perceived benefit. However, policy-makers, diplomats, and military officials alike must still maintain a constant awareness of the plausible threats posed to the United States by conventional foreign military forces, especially those that have been based upon the western example.
In the late nineteenth century, most Westerners believed that the greatest threat that emanated from Asia was the military power of China. The attention of the West was not focused on Japan, considered the “underdog,” in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), or its potential military prowess. Japanese military leaders understood that in order to gain recognition by the western powers, who dominated International affairs, the Japanese military would need to behave as they did. Such conformity to international law, as Tadashi Tanaka argued, was nothing but a smoke-screen to conceal Japan’s true intentions. ‘Japan manipulated international law as a tool for realizing its ambition, not as a norm to always be observed.’  When the Japanese military became strong enough to challenge the western powers though, and its military strength supposedly matched its political ambition, it attacked its western allies, launching World War II in the Pacific Theater. World War II was the first war that the empire of Japan lost since the 7th century A.D.
The focus of the following article will firstly examine the immediate post World War II state of Japan in congruence with its current military capabilities. The article will then juxtapose this environment within the context of the Confucian Japanese cultural tradition of Just War Theory. This article will lastly propose the future threat that the Japanese state, still influenced by Confucian culture, will possibly have to the western powers that defeated their military culture in 1945.
Starting in the sixth century, Chinese Confucianism influenced the Japanese view of just war. Within the context, a just war was any undertaking that the ruler sought to fulfill since the sovereign represented an “…earthly agent and custodian of the cosmic order.”  One could not question the valor and the legitimacy of any martial undertaking unless it was in retrospect. The success and victory of a military action itself though, was proof of its legitimacy and a
just cause. If a force was victorious in warfare, it was because it had been in accord with the cosmic order, by default making any means of attaining victory just. If the Japanese had won World War II, they would not have denied their actions because they would have been defended from the purview of fulfilling a
just war. Because the Japanese lost the war though, their behavior and their action within the war, which did not lead to victory, became too shameful to record. Many Japanese servicemen, even directly after the war, did not understand the alleged brutality of their actions nor did they understand the concept of individual responsibility as seen in the following statement. “Because the Japanese Military Forces are under strict discipline…originating from the emperor, the primary duty of every man is absolute submission to an order. Among thousands of Japanese servicemen, has there ever been one person who thought that he could be charged with his own acts which he has committed pursuant to an order? It is beyond the understanding of the Japanese that such things could be penalized.  Responsibility for any cruelty thus emanated down the hierarchy of command from the emperor, and the morality of the action itself could not be considered when carrying out orders. Conversely, if a martial force became defeated, their goal, intent, and behavior during a war, in retrospect, was deemed as unjust and their behavior was judged as criminal action.
Strategically, Medieval Japanese warriors focused only on the most efficient means to bring about the desired result, with the ends justifying almost any means. The notion that certain tactics might be fair or unfair was not only inappropriate to such deliberations, it was superfluous to bushido culture. 
This focus on the end- result and not the way by which a force attained victory, is important to understand because in the sixteenth century, Tokugawa Ieyasu encouraged the dissemination of Confucian values throughout Japan. The study and influence of Confucian values remained an integral component of Japanese culture up through 1945. The Japanese notion of just warfare taught that just or ethical conduct in warfare was flexible and was amenable to the interpretation of the emperor. These beliefs still play an active role in Japanese military, diplomatic, and social thought.
Most U.S. military and political officials view the current Japanese state, an ally, with no real suspicion. Instead, more temporary yet dangerous military threats distract military officials. Therefore, any military, political, or strategic ambitions that the Japanese have had, have been allowed to mature until they reach the strength of the military that matches the ambitions of its political leaders. A direct correlation is apparent in the early to mid- twentieth century as the Japanese served fist as allies in World War I and then fought the western powers as enemies in World War I.
Samuel P. Huntington, who wrote The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order and who was the director of security planning for the National Security Council for the Carter administration stated, “As their power and self-confidence increase, non-Western societies will increasingly assert their own cultural values and reject those “imposed” on them by the West.”  In Medieval Japan, alliances were nebulous and short- lived, only lasting while they served the military and strategic interests of the participating belligerents. Conceptually, the Japanese have viewed the basis of alliances with other martial powers as vertically organized structures in many ways reflecting the basis of their own stratified and hierarchal society. The Japanese revere military strength, equating it as moral and just, and traditionally, the Japanese have ‘ridden on the coat-tails’ on who they perceive to be the current dominant power. In 1945, such a description matched that of the western Allied nations.
The Japanese defeat by the Allied nations in World War II marked the end of a centuries-long aggressive military tradition, rich with victories against any belligerent that challenged the Japanese. For the Confucian Japanese culture, which spanned the sixth century through 1945, World War II represents the first
unjust war that they have fought since the seventh century. After their defeat in World War II, the Post-War Constitution was created in 1947. Article 9 of the Constitution stated that, “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”  This proclamation was not the organic creation of the Japanese people or even of the Japanese state but of the Allied nations who defeated Japanese Imperial Forces. The Constitution specifically stated that the Japanese could never again maintain a standing navy, army, or an air force. The Constitution did state that the Japanese state would maintain a Self Defense Force (JSDF), in the form of Air, Land, and Maritime Defensive bodies, but that these martial bodies would be prohibited from using nuclear weapons or other forms of offensive action.
However, there is a current debate in Japan as to whether or not Article Nine of the 1947 Constitution should be revised. The first clause of Article Nine, which states that Japan will not go to war, will not be altered, while the second clause, which is subject to change, might lawfully allow the JSDF to participate in overseas peacekeeping operations or operate in a collective defense capacity with other Allied forces. However, the choice of words is construed, the flexibility and the leeway allotted to the JSDF amounts to their participation in warfare even though the first clause of Article nine states that they will forever renounce war. In the current strategic and militarily tumultuous environment, where Japan faces threats from both China and from North Korea, the thought to revising Article Nine of Japan’s constitution is gaining considerable support among Japanese politicians.
Initially, the Japanese populace viewed the capability and the power of the JSDF with great suspicion in the late 1940’s and through the 1950s giving them incentive to place strictures on its strength. Defense planning remained limited until 1976. The 1976 National Program outline stated that Japan would rely on the nuclear deterrence of the United States if Japan were threatened with nuclear weapons. By this time, the harsh memories of Japanese militarism during the World War II era had subsided drastically. The veterans who experienced the cruelty of World War II were becoming older making the impact of their experiences less valuable. The Japanese populace of the following generation renewed the conviction that Japan’s military capability should reflect its growing economic strength. While the previous generation lived under the terms of the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, whereby, the United States would provide troops and armed strength in the event of an attack on the Japanese, the coming generations appear to have grown resentful at having to rely on this western power. Through the 1980’s and the 1990’s, the JSDF increased in strength, although slightly at times, with conventional weapons capabilities. In fact, in 1989, the martial strength of the JSDF ranked as the third strongest military in the world! 
Current Japanese military spending for the Japanese Self Defense Force amounts to close to $50 billion dollars annually. The Japanese SDF is also nearly 240,000 men strong, making it ostensibly an armed force. Although Japanese military expenditures amount to 1% of the GDP, their military is still stronger than those of the majority of the nations in the world, even superseding military spending by Great Britain.  With considerable conventional weapons capabilities as of the current date, the Japanese state remains in a defensive pose towards its current greatest threat, North Korea. Yet, the Japanese have not stuck to a unilateral policy of self-defense towards North Korea in previous years. Threats by North Korea, such as the 1998 case in which Pyongyang launched a missile over the Japanese mainland and the clash in late 2001, where the Japanese Navy torpedoed and sank a North Korean spy ship that was operating in Chinese waters, has led the Japanese to strengthen its military capabilities.
Now, generally agreed upon conclusions state that the most current and immediate threat emanating from the east, is North Korea. Years of intentions and warnings have proved such a fear to be quite substantial. In previous years, and especially during the administration of President George W. Bush, many neo-Conservatives pushed for the “nuclearization of Japan.” The greatest advocate of such an armament policy was former Bush speechwriter, David Frum. He asserted, “A nuclear Japan is the thing that China and North Korea dread the most.” 
If the Japanese view North Korea or China as a threat, which they do, the Japanese state will seek the deadliest weapons that it can attain to defend itself against such threats and hostilities. Western nations must remember that in supporting the Japanese against North Korea though, that the Japanese have historically expanded militarily once they gained the ability to do so. Currently, U.S. forces are spread too thinly around the globe and are committed to too many foreign affairs to provide sustained superior and overwhelming support to the Japanese should a conflict break out in East Asia. How will the Japanese interpret such an event?
Another fact to the puzzle is that in 2008, Shintaro Ishihara, the Governor of Tokyo argued that since the end of World War II, the Japanese people have lost their own identity and more importantly, their national pride. His view was that the only event that would bring about a common resurgence of Japanese national “self” would be a nuclear attack by North Korea. Governor Ishihara also made his hopes known concerning the Western powers when he said that he hopes Japan’s military strength will be continually built up so that it can eventually free itself from dependence on the United States. When such Japanese military strength is achieved, Ishihara elicited, the Japanese will make it impossible for the U.S. to hold the bases that they do in Japan.  Militarily and economically, Japan is in a position to make such a goal a reality. In the late 1990’s, Japan’s economy grew at a steady pace therein giving the JDSF greater flexibility and allocation of funds.
With the World War II generation passing away by the day, all that the current generation and future generations have in terms of lessons from the “Greatest Generation” are what has been written in the texts and taught in schools. The so-called ‘Westernization’ of Japan however, is a farce and the Japanese populace of the late 1940’s did not develop a democratic society through internal measures but had one imposed on their culture through warfare. The only “democratic” element of the post-World War II Japanese state is the civilian-run government. Culturally, Japan is still the same force that it has been since the seventh century and is thus, still a world power that must be watched. The motives and capabilities of the future Japanese state must be watched, especially considering that their country holds no feelings of ‘war guilt’ from the atrocities the World War II generation committed.
Apologist Western authors who seek to describe the systematic Japanese brutality in World War II do so either by claiming it was a singular and isolated period in their history and a corruption of a greater warrior ethos. Alternatively, other authors claim that it was a continuation of this same warrior ethos, bushido. I ask, “If the Japanese truly are a Western country as many would like to believe, why they not readily admit the wrongdoings of the World War II generation so as to teach and educate future generations?” “Why do the Japanese not engender a sense of war guilt?” The answer is because the Japanese are still heavily influenced by the Confucian ideals of honor, reverence to one’s ancestors, and shame.
A poll that was taken in Japan 1994 substantiates the basis of this claim. The question, “Which nation will have the greatest influence in Asia in the 21st century?” was posed to a random sampling of the Japanese populace. Nearly half of the Japanese populace (44%) stated that it would be China, while 30% of the Japanese stated the greatest influence would be the United States, and only 16% of the populace answered ‘Japan.’ The essence of Chinese Confucianism is reverence for past traditions, rejection of democracy, viewed as selfish, soft, and particularistic. The Japanese have not taught the post World War II generations about the systematic brutality their ancestors committed in World War II. It is the first war that the Japanese have lost since the seventh century A.D. and thus, their actions and behaviors have only been judged from the perspective of what was effective, and what led to victory. Because they have established a premise of
just war, their honor, valor, and virtue have been maintained. Yet for them, their action was
just because it was effective, not because it was moral. The loss of World War II was the first time that their actions and decisions had been called into question as being dishonorable and immoral by a superior military foe. With the current world state of affairs, as non-western martial bodies increase in strength and in resolve, will the Japanese be less likely to ally itself with the west?
Because the Japanese have refuted all allegations of cruelty during World War II, or simply not taught them in academia, one is firstly only able to deduce from such a deeply ingrained cultural denial that the notion of Confucian just and unjust action still resides within their culture. Just as the losing martial forces were judged as criminals and their cause viewed as unjust in retrospect, in Medieval Europe, as were the Japanese during the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, held from 1946-1948.
Without any feelings of ‘war-guilt’ and without the truth of the events of World War II being taught in Japanese schools, combined with the government’s gradual yet consistent building up of the JSDF, the Japanese have held true to their own cultural heritage of Confucian Just warfare. It is also true that countries and militaries remain allies because, first and foremost, the alliance is mutually beneficial but secondly because the allies have deep cultural similarities that unite them. During the early 20th century, the Japanese were allied with the Western powers, which also helped to build up their military, only when it served their temporary and strategic goals and until the proper moment for them to make an aggressive martial attack.
Today, in 2009, Japan has a Self- Defense Force that is the fourth strongest military in the world, monetarily speaking, devoting forty billion dollars to their self - defense forces.  Since 1945, the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces, has risen to become a first rate world navy,  consisting of 45,000 officers, 20 submarines, and 53 destroyers, and ships of other classes. While the JMSDF does not yet have nuclear submarines or aircraft carriers, ‘in terms of ship-based air defense and anti-submarine capabilities, only the United States Navy outranks the JMSDF in superiority. Lastly, although the Japanese have agreed that they will not use atomic or nuclear weapons for offensive or aggressive purposes, they very easily could under the guise of
self-defense. To date, the Japanese have already spent five billion dollars on their missile defense program.
In 1881, only thirteen years before the Japanese launched a surprise naval attack against China in 1894, Aritomo Yagamata defined Japan’s goal of national defense and security in terms of planning for territorial expansion in case the need arose for Japan to exert its power to maintain its territorial integrity. Yet, Japanese motives for building a military of such sophistication and ability were clearly so that it could operate both offensively and defensively. The Japanese justified any offensive operations though, under the guise of national defense.
In 1895, foreshadowing future military and political aggression, the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tadasu Hayashi, prophesized, “During this time, the foundations of national power must be consolidated and we must watch and wait for the opportunity in the Orient that will surely one day come. When this day comes, Japan will be able to decide her own fate, put in their place the powers that seek to meddle in her affairs and possibly even, meddle in their affairs.”  In the years that directly preceded Hayashi’s prediction, the Japanese built up their military so as to rival other martial powers. Starting in 1896, the Japanese constructed a Ten Year military building plan. A readily apparent parallel was expressed in 2008. Shintaro Ishihara, the Governor of Tokyo spoke in the same cool, calculating manner as Tadasu Hayashi in regards to the future military ambitions of the Japanese culture. In the current military and political global climate, the Japanese understand that United States military forces would most likely not ensure their sovereignty against North Korea. U.S. Military forces are spread too thinly for such a commitment to take place.
For the Japanese, this gives further reinforcement to the idea that any Western military strength offered to them is of less value than their own cultural roots concerning Just and Unjust War. The difference in cultures, and approaches by which western nations seek to resolve international conflicts as opposed to non-western nations may very well prove to be problematic. Western nations, such as the United States have first sought peaceful methods such as economic sanctions or diplomatic measures in resolving international conflicts. The repercussions of such a method would have dangerous consequences. If the Japanese perceive a lack of US support or involvement in Asia to reflect the attitude of a “morally flabby, retreating hegemon…,” that will only solidify Japan’s cultural reliance on Chinese Confucian values. In the modern era, the state of Japan has consistently allied itself with the military and economic powers that it considers to be the most dominant and stable. Currently, this is Confucian China.  Confucian culture espouses authority, order, hierarchy, and the collective will over the selfish demands of the individual.
The current environment in Japan however, after 64 years since their defeat in World War II, may foreshadow the cultural regression that will have taken place in the Middle East in the next 60 years if the United States is distracted by other world military threats. The forgetfulness and apologetic nature of others is the greatest underlying strength of the military power with malicious intentions. While the United States currently embraces Japan as an ally, we must be wary of a nation without any ‘war guilt’ for their conduct in World War II, one that has built up the world’s fourth strongest military against the terms of the 1947 Constitution, and most importantly, considers
Just Warfare to be that which suits the specific needs of a certain situation with no concern for the morality of its conduct.
Show Footnotes and
. Antulio Echevarria II, Fourth Generation Warfare and Other Myths. November 2005. 1
. Philip Towle and Margaret Kosuge, Japanese Prisoners of War (New York, New York: Cambridge University Press Inc. 2000): 138
. Karl Friday, Samurai, Warfare, and the State in Early Medieval Japan (New York, New York: Routledge Publishing Inc. 2004): 98
. Lord Russell of Liverpool, Knights of Bushido: A History of Japanese War Crimes During World War II (New York, New York: Greenhill Books Inc. 1958 and 2006): 109
. The Ethics of War in Asian Civilizations: 171
. Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (New York, New York: Simon and Schuster Inc. 1996) : 28
. Council on Foreign Relations: “Japan and its Military” Accessed July 1st 2009
. GlobalSecurity.Org/ Japanese Defense Budget. Accessed May 27th 2009
. Global Security.Org. Japanese Defense Budget. Accessed May 27th 2009
. During the early twentieth century, two authors, Homer Lea, who wrote The Valour of Ignorance in 1909 and Hector Byewater, who wrote The Great Pacific War in 1925, foresaw a coming conflict between the United States and the empire of Japan when very few other people did. Each man knew how much most Americans underestimated the capabilities of the Japanese. The main proof that each man used was past historical precedent and Japan’s own martial culture of aggression.
. International Press Service News Agency/ Politics/ “U.S. Neo-Cons Call for Japanese Nukes” Accessed May 27th 2009
. Ishihara is viewed as an extremist by some people and hence his views are discounted. Placed into the proper perspective though, the Japanese militarists of the World War II generation, were also right wing extremists. Similarly, the terrorist groups in the Middle East are also extremist in nature. The extremists are the ones who galvanize the moderates into action.
. GlobalSecurity.org/ Japanese Defense Budget. Accessed May 28th 2009
. GlobalSecurity.Org/”Ministry of Defense: Japanese Self Defense Force.” Accessed May 27th 2009
. Council on Foreign Relations: “Japan and its Military” Accessed July 1st 2009
. Meirion Harries, Soldiers of the Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army (New York: New York- Random House Inc. 1991): 65
. Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (New York, New York: Simon and Schuster Inc. 1996) : 237
. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order: 237
Copyright © 2009 Holly Senatore
Written by Holly Senatore. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Holly Senatore at:
About the author:
Holly Senatore was born and raised in San Francisco, California in a military household. Her goal is to teach U.S. Naval History or
Modern Japanese Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD after she finishes her PhD in History.
She has always had a passion for World War II in the PAC theater and in recent years, that interest has expanded to include
relations between America and Japan since the mid-nineteenth century.
Published online: 11/01/2009.