Kanji Ishiwara: Huntington Before Huntington
Many who have taken an undergraduate political science or international relations course may recall American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s work The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996) in which the author postulated that future international conflicts will be defined along cultural and religious lines instead of the ideological conflicts which carried an enduring presence in most of the 20th century wars.
Huntington first used the term ‘clash of civilizations’ in a lecture delivered in 1992. This date, a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, indicates that most of Huntington’s academic life was spent in the days of the Cold War, and these had a formative impact on his theory. The latter half of the 20th century was dotted with instances where the Cold War had gone hot, particularly in the Islamic world. Huntington had found evidence in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East during this period to support his prediction that wars of the future would not be rivalries between national polities, but ‘peoples’, an ideologic descendant of General Ludendorff’s ‘total war’ concept. Here Huntington divided and grouped the world into ‘civilizations’ which he predicted would band together in the hypothetical future war.
For many (good) reasons, Huntington’s theory fell widely out of favor among academic circles, for its failure to anticipate the rise in number of multinational organizations, the widening reach of western neoliberal media influence in the non-western world, and of technology closing the gap between the distinct ‘civilizations’.
“Clash of civilizations” as a phrase had been used a century before Huntington, but by the pen of Kanji Ishiwara, devout Buddhist of the Nichiren sect, and General in the pre-war Imperial Japanese Army, the same idea took a more ominous wording, “The Final World War Theory”.
Much like Huntington, Ishiwara’s witnessed during his career both periods of major conflict and tense peace. Touted early as a “strategic genius”, Ishiwara rose rapidly through the ranks of the Imperial Japanese Army and was known for his passionate lectures on military theory and quirky nature. He is perhaps most well known for his role in organizing the 1931 Mukden Incident, a staged attack on a Japanese railway in Manchuria to fabricate a casus belli against China. While this event is credited as the beginning of the Second World War in Asia, ironically Ishiwara would spend much of the conflict in retirement, his military career being cut short when his political nemesis Hideki Tōjō ascended to Prime Minister.
Ishiwara’s magnum opus is the Saishū Sensō-ron, or Final War Theory, published in 1940. His work, speckled with strong Buddhist language and imagery, predicted a “final global war”, in which Japan and the East-Asia League (Tōa Renmei) comprising of India, China, and various Asian states would eventually overcome the Western powers and eternal peace would prevail. The general was a devout believer of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, named after the charismatic 13th century Japanese monk who supposedly invoked the ‘Divine Winds’ that repulsed the invading Mongol fleet. In his writings, Nichiren prophesied that a global conflict of hitherto unknown proportions would devastate the world of sin — and following it would be the blossoming a ‘Golden Age’ for Mahayana Buddhism.
Like Huntington, Ishiwara had a knack for dividing the world according to civilization lines — predominantly religion and culture. Ishiwara uses Japanese readings of Ancient Confucian terms, hadō-shugi and ōdō-shugi (or kōdō-shugi). The former, which he assigned to the Anglo-Saxon-led West, roughly translates to “hegemonist way”, and describes those who settle issues through power and treachery. The latter, under which Japan and the Asian nation are confined, refers to the “royal/imperial way”, those who hold justice, righteousness, and religious devotion at the centerpiece of decisions. Ishiwara, in Final War Theory, while priding in the observation that Japan hadn’t yet lost its “religious-spiritual traditions” which were lost to the West during the Industrial Revolution, laments Japan’s contemporary expansion into China as “even more hegemonist than the Westerns”. It must be remembered that nine years earlier, it was the author himself who had been the architect of Japan’s Chinese expedition.* Ishiwara argued that this Final War would prove the deciding match between the two ways.
“Whereas the hegemonist nations actively use treaty-politics to assert a relationship of right with the powerless nations, we of the royal way, in conducting diplomacy, must advance with heartfelt understanding as the first priority” — Kanji Ishiwara, Final War Theory
The war itself that would manifest Nichiren’s prophecy of the Buddhist and ōdō-shugi golden age, would be ready to be waged once Japan had made several preparations. The final chapters of Final War Theory are a ‘checklist’ to this end: to firmly establish the East-Asia League as a working apparatus, Japan must reconcile with China and allow her self-government; it is only then that India and other Southeast Asian colonies could be wrested from the Europeans and become members of the League. However, Manchukuo (Japanese-controlled Manchuria) had to be a separate national polity. Ishiwara claimed that the “Japan-Manchukuo-China (日満支)” Axis would be the core of the East-Asia League. In addition, Japan must create a control-economy where a government organization actively patronizes and rewards research and development in the area of national defense (echoed later by the Cold War Defense Production Act in the United States). A separate ministry would control the various industries, giving priority to “essential industries” for national expansion and defense — here, Ishiwara basically anticipated the infamous postwar bureaucracy of MITI, which is credited with Japan’s high-speed growth economy of the 1960s. Once Japan’s military, industrial, and financial preparations were in order, a quick blow would render the Europeans impotent and the real “final game” (決勝戦) would take place in the Pacific (the “battleground of the future global war”) between Japan and the United States, where according to Ishiwara, the epicenter of Western civilization had moved after the First World War. When all was said and done, Ishiwara scheduled the Final War to take place “20 to 30 years in the future”, i.e. in the 1960s or 70s.
While his ‘ETA’ was wildly off (Yamamoto’s fleet would attack Pearl Harbor the next year), Ishiwara made several prognoses about the military aspects of an upcoming global conflict which did prove accurate. The rising dominance of aerial forces in the battle order, and especially the use of bombers to target civilian areas and break the will of the population was emphasized by Ishiwara as well as the importance of aircraft carriers to this end. Japan’s high command would not heed these warnings, as they opted to create a fleet centered on battleships which had won them previous wars. By the time the battleship-centered Imperial Japanese Navy had met the carrier-centered American Navy on the high seas, the awesome power of air cover proved itself with destruction and bitter defeat.
Ishiwara was aware of the recent discoveries in atomic fission through visits by physicists Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein to Japan in the 1920s and predicted that the creation of a weapon which harnessed this power would create instantaneous devastation able to wipe out entire cities. In order to close the material gap with the West, Ishiwara claimed that the fate of Japan’s future rested on her ability to create a unique weapon of mass destruction through patronizing young ‘talents’.
“Gone are the days when a single nation could alone proceed to rule over the masses of the world; the current issue resides on how many nations, how many races a nation can consolidate and how their collective ardor can be displayed. Above all, the nature of control will necessarily increase in strength.” — Kanji Ishiwara, Final War Theory
One final prediction from Ishiwara that is of note to the postwar world is his assertion that the evolving nature of national power will cause nations to achieve global dominance through the apparent or clandestine control of other nations through alliances and client-state relationships. The Cold War alliances and ensuing European economic cooperation verified Ishiwara’s claim. Even to this day, wars are rarely fought between nations, but between coalitions.
While Huntington, whose life aligned with the timeline of the Cold War could justly clarify that his theory was not a forecast for any actual future war, Ishiwara did not live to witness the irony that the Cold War came closest to the great East-West standoff which he predicted, and even then it didn’t amount to a titanic global conflict, instead progressing through proxy wars which turned hot on occasion. As the center of international political power slowly but surely moves eastward and populism rises in a Western world which feels its civilization threatened, Ishiwara and Huntington’s works may deserve another look.
*This anecdote may be dismissed as hypocrisy, perhaps regret, but it certainly demonstrates the conviction among contemporary Japanese politico-military theorists that Japan’s destiny was her own mission civilisatrice in Asia and eventual ascendance to the defender, and representative of Asia against the West. Just as the European mission civilisatrice was largely based on themes of Christian destiny, so too did Nichirenism and state-Shintoism have their role in creating this ‘destiny’ legend among the Japanese.