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A Brief Case Study of Germany and Japan: Emotions and Passions in the Making of World War II


Competing interests among big powers played a role in the making of World War II. But, and not separated from this, another element had a serious impact: the sense of psychological insecurity experienced, each in its own way, by Germany and Japan in the context of their quest for recognition by other major powers – Great Britain, France, Russia, and the United States – and the implications this had internationally. In connection with their material conditions (internal and international) compared to other great powers, this pushed Germany and Japan to embrace policies that were ultimately self-defeating. It led them to see and assess themselves, others, and the international environment in conflicting terms and, faced with the unwillingness of other big powers to accommodate them to the extent they wanted, to overplay their hand, with lethal outcomes as a result.

This article follows two previous articles published in this journal.1 It is a case study that focuses on Germany and Japan, and the making of World War II. In the first section, it begins with highlighting the overall relevance of this case study in the context of the analysis of emotions and passions in international politics. In the second section, it shows that both for Germany and Japan a sense of psychological insecurity regarding their international status and their urge to catch up and compensate, put them on a collision course with the great powers of the period. In the third part, the article explains how, in time, this contributed to the fact that Germany and Japan embraced negative and exclusionary political emotions and passions that translated into belligerent policies. In the fourth section, as a way to conclude, the article touches upon how a better understanding of the nature and role of emotions and passions in international affairs can encourage a psychology of peace, and international peace altogether.

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1 Coicaud, Jean-Marc, ‘Emotions and Passions in the Discipline of International Relations’, Japanese Journal of Political Science, 15 (3) (2014): 485513 and‘Towards an Integrated Theory of Emotions/Passions, Values and Rights in International Politics’, Japanese Journal of Political Science, 15 (4) (2014): 603–34.

2 Dower, John W., War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1986, p. 3.

3 Coicaud, ‘Emotions and Passions in the Discipline of International Relations’.

4 For an overview of recent publications on emotions in international affairs, refer to Jean-Marc Coicaud, ‘Emotions and Passions in the Discipline of International Relations’.

5 Ibid. and Coicaud, ‘Towards an Integrated Theory of Emotions/Passions, Values and Rights in International Politics’.

6 The analysis from the emotions/passions and psychology standpoint we offer in this article does not pretend to be all there is to say on the emotions/passions and psychology issues in the context of World War II. It is a more the exploration of one of the possible angles on the question.

7 For an analysis of the Tokugawa society, Jansen, Marius B., The Making of Modern Japan, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000, pp. 32–3. For an excellent overview of Japanese political thought and the context in which it developed between the early seventeenth and late nineteenth centuries, refer to Hiroshi, Watanabe, A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600-1901, translated by Noble, David, Tokyo: International House of Japan, 2012.

8 Robert, N.Bellah indicates that this did not exclude the existence of a spirit of intellectual openness during the Tokugawa period, in Bellah, Robert N., Imagining Japan: The Japanese Tradition and its Modern Interpretation, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003, pp. 26–8.

9 Matsui, Yoshiro, ‘Modern Japan, War and International Law’, in Ando, Nisuke (ed.) (on behalf of the Japanese Association of International Law), Japan and International Law: Past, Present and Future, The Hague: Kluwer International Law, 1999, p. 9.

10 Jansen, Marius B., The Making of Modern Japan, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000, pp. 333–70.

11 Gluck, Carol, Japan's Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985, p. 17.

12 Haas, Ernst B., Nationalism, Liberalism, and Progress. Volume I: The Rise and Decline of Nationalism, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997, pp. 226–7.

13 Ibid., p. 229.

14 Ibid., pp. 230 and 231.

15 Pyle, Kenneth B., The New Generation in Meiji Japan: Problems of Cultural Identity, 18851895, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969.

16 Pyle, Kenneth B., Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose, New York, NY: Public AffairsTM, 2007, p. 127.

17 Sōseki, Natsume, And Then, translated by Norma Moore Field, Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2011, pp. 64–5.

18 Peter Stern, John, The Japanese Interpretation of the ‘Law of Nations’, 1854-1874, Charleston, SC: Book Surge Publishing, 2008.

19 Conrad, Sebastian, Globalisation and the Nation in Imperial Germany, translated by O'Hagan, Sorcha, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 43–4.

20 Korinman, Michel, Quand l'Allemagne pensait le monde: grandeur et décadence d'une géopolitique, Paris: Fayard, 1990.

21 Mommsen, Wolgang J., Max Weber and German Politics 18901920, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1984, p. 71.

22 Wesseling, Henri, Le partage de l'Afrique 1880-1914, translated by Grilli, Patrick, Paris: Denoël, 1996, pp. 204–30.

23 Mearsheimer, John J., The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001, pp. 183–8.

24 Ibid., p. 188.

25 Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, New York, NY: Random House, 2001, pp. 463–71. Also, on the continuity of German war aims in the context of WWI and WWII, see Fritz Fisher, Germany's Aims in The First World War (New York, Norton & Company, 1967).

26 Matsui, ‘Modern Japan, War and International Law’, pp. 10–11.

27 Nish, Ian H., The Anglo-Japanese Alliance: The Diplomacy of Two Island Empires 1894-1907, London: The Athlone Press, 1966.

28 Kupchan, Charles A., How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010, p. 136.

29 Pyle, Japan Rising, p. 139.

30 Kupchan, How Enemies Become Friends, p. 146.

31 Pyle, Japan Rising, p. 143.

32 Ibid., p. 144.

33 Ibid., p. 147.

34 With this clause, the Japanese intention, however, was not to assert a principle of universal applicability: ‘The Japanese delegation proposed a racial equality clause for inclusion in the League of Nations Covenant that would state that members of the League would accord to “all alien nationals of states, members of the League, equal and just treatment in every respect making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality”. [This proposal was] . . . to assure Japan of its own great-power status in the new world organization . . . The most careful student of this proposal, the historian Naoko Shimazu, wrote . . . [that] . . . the Japanese sought a declaration that Japan, as the nonwhite great power, would be treated without discrimination. Shimazu argued, “They were themselves also guilty of a racially discriminatory attitude towards Chinese and Koreans. . .” Shimazu bluntly concluded that “the Japanese sought to gain the status of honorary whites and nothing more”’, ibid., pp. 155‒6. For more on the topic, Naoko Shimazu, Japan, Race and equality: The Racial Equality Proposal of 1919, London, Routledge, 1998.

35 Iriye, Akira, Pacific Estrangement: Japanese and American Expansion, 1897-1911, Harvard, MA, Harvard University Press, 1972, p. 233. In complaining about the Act of 1924, Japan, ignoring its own unequal treatment of others, was overlooking the fact that it was not hospitable to immigrants – a situation that has not changed much today.

36 Pyle, Japan Rising, p. 203.

37 Ersnt Nolte's interpretation of the interactions between Communism and Nazism, in the context of which he sees a causal nexus making the former a reason for the latter, has been accused of such revisionism. See Ernst Nolte, La guerre civile européeenne 1917‒1945: National-socialisme et bolchevisme, translated by Jean-Marie Argelès, Paris: Ed. des Syrtes, 2000, for example pp. 24, 146‒9, 186‒7, 240, 599‒600, and 622. Consult also the exchange of correspondence between Francois Furet and Ersnt Nolte, in Francois Furet and Ersnt Nolte, Fascism and Communism, translated by Katherine Golsan, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. The author is in agreement with Francois Furet's interpretation of Ersnt Nolte's thesis and the problems it entails.

38 The notion of ‘proper place’ has been long used in Japan to legitimize inequitable relationships in Japan itself. In the context of World War II, it was mobilized by Tokyo to justify the hierarchical regional order it envisioned in Asia and the top position it reserved for itself in it. See Dower, War Without Mercy, pp. 9-11, 205-06, and 264-6.

39 Eisenstadt, S. N., Japanese Civilization: A Comparative View, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 44.

40 Ibid., p. 35.

41 Bellah, Imagining Japan, p. 34.

42 Dower, War Without Mercy, pp. 215–16 and 231-3. For a nuanced approach of the matter, Keene, Donald, So Lovely a Country Will Never Perish: Wartime Diaries of Japanese Writers, New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

43 Maruyama, Masao, Thought and Behavior in Modern Japanese Politics, edited by Morris, Ivan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969, p. 14.

44 In the Constitution of the Empire of Japan promulgated in 1890, commonly called the ‘Meiji Constitution’, and in force until May 1947, the army and navy were to report directly to the emperor, and not to the prime minister or the cabinet.

45 Maruyama, Thought and Behavior in Modern Japanese Politics, p. 19.

46 Eisenstadt, Japanese Civilization, pp. 93-4.

47 Smith, Helmut Walser, The Continuities of German History: Nation, Religion, and Race across the Long Nineteenth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

48 Conrad, Globalisation and the Nation in Imperial Germany, p. 72.

49 Burrin, Philippe, Ressentiment et apocalypse: Essai sur l'antisémitisme nazi, Paris: Seuil, 2004, p. 41.

50 Ibid., p. 49 (translated from the French by the author).

51 Ibid., p. 33. See also the recent book by Johann Chapoutot. La loi du sang. Penser et agir en nazi (Paris, Gallimard, 2014).

52 Pyle, Japan Rising, p. 136.

53 Gann, L. H., ‘Reflections on the Japanese and German Empires of World War II’, in Duus, Peter, Myers, Ramon H., and Peattie, Mark R. (eds.), The Japanese Wartime Empire, 1931-1945, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996, p. 352.

54 The notion of ‘manifest destiny’ refers to the nineteenth-century American belief that the expansion of the United States was readily apparent (manifest) and inexorable (destiny).

55 For Japan, Eri Hotta, Japan 1941. Countdown to Infamy, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

56 Nazism and Japanese fascism, as well as other various fascisms of the pre and World War II period, shared a cult and culture of death comprising a whole palette of emotional intensity and a variety of modalities that would be worth exploring.

57 For Japan, Pyle, Japan Rising, p. 204. For Germany, Burrin, Ressentiment et apocalypse, pp. 75-6.

58 For Germany, see Schmitt, Carl, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, translated by Ulmen, G. L., New York: Telos Press Publishing, 2006.

59 On Japan for this issue, refer for instance to Hotta, Eri, Pan-Asianism and Japan's War 1931-1945, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

60 Burrin, Ressentiment et apocalypse, pp. 91-2.

61 Ibid., p. 76.

62 Conrad, Sebastian, The Quest for the Lost Nation: Writing History in Germany and Japan in the American Century, translated by Nothnagle, Alan, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010, chapter 3. It is generally considered that Germany has done better than Japan in this area. The author is not convinced of this. See Coicaud, Jean-Marc, ‘Apology, a Small yet Important Part of Justice’, Japanese Journal of Political Science, 10 (1): 93124. On Japan's victim mentality and evasion of responsibility, for instance refer to Kushner, Barak, Men to Devils, Devils to Men. Japanese War Crimes and Chinese Justice (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2015), especially chapter 6.

63 In the field of law, recent attempts to rehabilitate and stress the need to factor in emotions and passion in the understanding of law mechanisms and dynamics include Sajὀ, Andrảs, Constitutional Sentiments, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011; Karstedt, Susanne, Loader, Ian, and Strang, Heather (eds.), Emotions, Crime and Justice, Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2011, and Rossner, Meredith, Just Emotions: Rituals of Restorative Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

64 Coicaud, Jean-Marc, ‘Legitimacy, Socialization, and International Change’, in Kupchan, Charles A., Adler, Emanuel, Coicaud, Jean-Marc, and Khong, Yuen Foong (with the assistance of Jason Davidson and Mira Sucharov), Power in Transition: The Peaceful Change of International Order, Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2001, p. 70.

* The author thanks Thomas Arndt and Lynette E. Sieger for language editing the text, as well as Helyett Harris for helping with some of the research on Germany and Japan.

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Japanese Journal of Political Science
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  • EISSN: 1474-0060
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