Sabu Kohso, Japan’s Actual and Virtual Fascism — Reading Archaism and Actuality by Harry Harootunian

What does it take to keep company with the social formation of a distant nation by closely examining its internal discourses striving to evaluate the course of capitalist modernization that imposed catastrophic changes on the lives of inhabitants? What does it mean to grasp their dispositions with a language capable of comparison and introduce them to the global arena of critical thinking? Answers to these questions are what Harry Harootunian has shown us through his life-long dedication to history. His research field is the nation-state called Japan and his comparative language is global Marxism. His recent book Archaism and Actuality —Japan and its Global Fascist Imaginary (Duke University Press, 2023) is a pivotal achievement in the encounter he sets up between the two. Fully employing his philosophy of historical time, Harootunian reveals an unspoken mechanism internalized in Japan’s national mobilization, functioning throughout  the capitalist development that formed both authoritarian and liberal regimes of the past and of today.


Archaism and Actuality assembles three phases of Japanese modernity that have been  cornerstones of Harootunian’s efforts in reading and decoding internal discourses: the Meiji Restoration (1868), the interwar years (1920s and 1930s), and the post-WWII era (after 1945). The assembly traces his intellectual formations in a concentrated manner. These are also the critical junctures that rendered a radical regime change in different registers, but equally marked a return of a zeitgeist affected by archaism. It is important to stress that the regime changes always came along with massive violence — of civil war, imperialist expansion, and world war. As the embodiment of his critical stance towards the linear view of history, Harootunian refuses to arrange the three phases into a chronological narrative, but treats them as independent layers of events, coming to the surface in resonance like “palimpsests” with his gaze cast from our present, namely, this dark time of permeating genocidal war, authoritarian governance, institutionalized discrimination, and environmental degradation.

The problematic kernel that experiences of archaism internalize is fascism — its discursive formation from premonition to apparition, from virtual to actual forms. For Harootunian, fascism is “the measure by which capitalism saves itself from the crisis it causes”; for opportunistic resolution, the agency of crisis ridden-capitalism — be it totalitarian state or dictator or mercenaries — seeks to mobilize the populace around nation’s mythological origin toward a regime of fanatical worship and submission. In its universal definition, “fascism is a total rejection of history by archaism.” In this sense, archaism functions as an internal device of capitalist nation-states to modify themselves into authoritarian states at any moment they confront irresolvable fissures. As far as Japanese experiences are concerned, the archaism cannot be thought of without the emperor system and variant ways it was made to return in three phases for unequivocally compelling the divine authority for national amalgamation.

Thanks to Harootunian’s exceptional passion in reading the Japanese écriture that radically shifted during modernization, the actualizations of archaism are vividly traced through the local texts of a number of late Tokugawa scholars and activists, such as prewar philosophers Hasegawa Nyokanzen, Miki Kiyoshi and Tosaka Jun, and postwar thinkers such as Maruyama Masao, Kobayashi Hideo and Takeuchi Yoshimi — in reference to the theories of Karl Marx as well as prominent Marxist philosophers such as Lukács, Gramsci, Benjamin, and several contemporary theorists. In this way, the book provides the English-speaking world with Japanese archaism as an unconventional reference for confronting rising fascism across the world today.


Harootunian employs Japan as an intellectual weapon with a double-edged sword, as it were. This Japan embodies a singular disposition of problems it developed during its hasty modernization that was necessitated to counter the interventions of Western colonialism; the singularity is then introduced as attestation to undo the universalized progressivism of a Western master narrative. At the core of the progressivism reigns the linear view of history — to see progress of historical time in stages that  all nations are destined to follow in their course of becoming a mature capitalist society that would also conceive a socialist revolution. The historical fatalism is inherent in modernism or more precisely modernization theory, that affected not only liberalism but also Marxism and haunted revolutionary movements in developing countries including Japan. As Harootunian refers to in this volume as well as elsewhere, there was a series of debates on the status of Japanese capitalism among local Marxist scholars and revolutionaries roughly between 1927 and 1937, that had been triggered by the Comintern’s directive insisting on the need for a two stage revolution: first a democratic revolution to oust feudal landowners (and the emperor as their epitome) and then a socialist revolution to overthrow the bourgeoisie. The debates contributed little to the benefit of popular struggle even if they prepared an enrichment of sociological analyses of the nation amid capitalist development.

Discourses on Japan tend towards its culture rather than socio-political struggle. Harootunian has been an adamant critic of this trend. For him, the nation is nothing less than a site of historical disquiet like any other, that is the actuality glossed over by cultural representation. Beginning from the bubble economy of the 1980s, the country conspicuously became an object of strange attraction as a hotbed of cultural commodities — from Zen temples to fanatical consumerism to anime imageries. It was perceived as a fantasy world where archaic remnants, urban sophistication, and dystopian futurity could coexist. The postmodernism debates in Euro-American academia selected the nation as an epitome of “post-historical society” (Alexandre Kojève), wherein an endless game of signs would continue without the interference of historical events. In such a reception, Japan is reduced to an aestheticized and mystified object rather than treated as an ethico-aesthetic field of inquiry. What this reception overlooks are the fangs inherent in the seemingly pacified nation-state. And if there is an inclination of Japanese society itself that encourages this reception, that is precisely a trickery of what the book tackles in terms of archaism as a spiritualization of the political, whose most enduring embodiments have been the emperor and imperial family that today play a symbolic role to sustain an implicit nationalism in the highly commodified society by repetitiously appearing in the media with their pacified and mysterious presence.

Harootunian’s critical stance against the hegemony of the linear view of history and the culturalist view of Japan resonates with his doubts about a major trend of Western Marxism. A wide range of cultural analysis has flourished in Euro-American Marxism, beginning from the generalized influence of the Frankfurt School and most explicitly in the boom of cultural studies. This trend has been reinforced by a view of the world centered on the observation of developed countries, that considers commodification of the world as having been completed and insists on the reality facing real subsumption rather than formal subsumption. In the relationship between the two modes of subsumption, although the former could be surpassing the latter in an overall tendency, the relationship varies according to place and situation. When the tendential analysis is made into a manifesto, the strategic precedence of movement tends to be given to the domains of urban culture (information, representation, and intellect) rather than those of body, place, and everyday life in the periphery. For Harootunian, the determinism of real subsumption is “complicit with capital’s own representation.”


Archaism and Actuality provides a panoramic view of the conflicting discourses that arose during Japan’s much troubled modernization, which, Harootunian argues, invited apparitions of archaism in three modes. The panorama of palimpsest depicts three present-times or conjunctures that consist of their own layers of events, which are seen also through the discourses that appear in other phases. Such multi-referential assemblage is based on Harootunian’s philosophy of historical time, that begins with a reconsideration of formal subsumption, that is, the structural relation between the direct and indirect commodification of labor, or between life and nature in varying modes and degrees according to geographical and temporal orders. His point is in the fact that “capital takes whatever it can use” for its reproduction and expansion, therefore the everyday life of commoners — the basis of all — consists of a complexity of overlapping effects of equivalent form, from workplace to home to public space. Incorporating Marx’s “uneven and combined development” and Benjamin’s “now-time,” Harootunian shifts strategic attention for grasping the world from a chronological linear time to a multiplicity of present times.

The power of the book largely derives from the historian’s expertise on the late Tokugawa discourses, that developed with the impetuses toward the Meiji Restoration (1868) as a complexity of events. What Harootunian’s readings of the discourses reveal is almost a state of overdetermination by numerous contingencies, that led to the end of Tokugawa Shogunate with the opening of ports to global trade after three hundred years of the closed-nation policy, and finally the Meiji Constitution (1889) with the Emperor’s absolutist rule —of a human god — as a restitution of the archaic, which established the matrix of virtual and actual fascism for the following regimes of modern Japan. The constitution was unique in that it relied on a mythic origin, instead of appealing to a concrete historical past as a guide to the present, like the Roman Empire for ”the West”. It was the beginning of unfinished processes, that set the ensuing courses of Japan’s modernization, wherein numerous impetuses that created this event disappeared from the political stage; and some of them, once submerged, survived and reemerged in the newer contexts. One of the most crucial lessons we learn from the book is a trick of the complexity of historical time.

The factors that gradually drove out Tokugawa rule included the emergence of manufacturing or industrialization, the pressure of Western colonialism, the rising power of southern domains, the subversive acts of lower class samurai, and the popular rebellions such as peasants’ uprisings, urban riots, mass hysteria (street dancing and pilgrimage), millenarist movements (new religions and communitarian withdrawals), and so forth. Harootunian presents these events that led to the Restoration almost as a festival of molecular movements—of militant scholars, fanatical patriots, and popular insurgencies—rather than sagas of heroes who sacrificed their lives for the realization of present democratic nation, a narrative that dominates the common view of the Meiji Restoration among the Japanese today. For Harootunian, these conflicts have  not ended, but rather, they persist in ongoing problems of the capitalist nation-state. Most importantly, he considers the popular rebellions as a creation of “new subjectivation” that ensured unprecedented calls for equality and placed a new value on the land to be cultivated by the peasants themselves — whose distant trace would come to be seen in the Sanrizuka farmers’ struggle against the Narita Airport construction in the late 20th century.


Harootunian’s analyses of the political events of the three phases is guided by Antonio Gramsci’s concept: “passive revolution,” that is, for the historian, the form of political practice corresponding to economic “unevenness.” When an attempt to change a regime does not have a hegemony as powerful as the Jacobins in the French Revolution (1789~1799) — that was in fact an exceptional case that realized a total destruction of the regime — the agency has to rely more on itshistorical inheritance (institutions of the past) than their new arrangements, and the process of change tends to be gradualist or reformist or possibly captured by a setback of authoritarianism. In other words, any revolution must borrow certain experiences from its own context, but this process always involves dangers to stall, or in the worst case, it would be taken over by the group that desires the outright retrogression of time — the advent of fascism. Harootunian thus emphasizes the temporal dimension in his conceptualization of passive revolution and develops interpretations of the three phases as processes of borrowing the temporalities of the past — each of which nurtures the moment of anachrony or the mythological time of archaism at its core.

During the interwar years (the 1920s and 1930s), Japan mutated from being a victim of colonialism to a colonizer at large. Amid imperialist expansion across the Asian Continent, the nation-state was experiencing accumulating  internal problems. While enjoying a cosmopolitan atmosphere in the flourishing urban culture of the 1920s, global trade served only capital and the state, while endangering commoners’ subsistence and ways of life. In the 1930s, commodification saturated Japanese society; capitalist developments threatened the integrity of rural communities and the traditional family. As Harootunian points out, the everyday lives of populations were now determined by the repetitious time of the workday and lost the concrete time they had long sustained. In this atmosphere, the archaic that emerged from the recesses of a noncommodified precapitalist era provided a hedge against alienation in a broad sense.

In his analyses of this phase, Harootunian renders discursive conflicts that occurred among varied tendencies (communists, socialists, liberals, conservatives, and fascists) and categories (philosophy, history, sociology, and literature) as a complex scheme of interactions. The discourses, from left to right, sought to make sense of their present problems derivative of the capitalist modernization that had begun with the Meiji Restoration. While the right tended toward a realization of national integrity and empowerment as the unfulfilled mission of the Restoration, the left hoped for a realization of progressive modernization by ousting feudal remnants. Importantly, Harootunian is keen to point out the areas of their overlap. In other words, these discourses relied on or were captured by the linear view of history — either to push it forward or retrovert it — both being motivated by their antagonism against the enlarging influence of financial or oligarchic capitalists. In this mode, Harootunian proposes critical readings of the discursive conflicts among the positions in a spectrum of passive revolution. Highlights in his readings are the singularity of Japanese archaism as fascist ideology and the theory of the Marxist philosopher Tosaka Jun.

The ideology of Japanese fascism (called “Japanism”) tended toward the nation’s divine origin —  mythic time— in contrast to the historical time of Mussolini’s Romanness or Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. The difference was that the archaic as a reference to a distant time was mutated —or primitivized — into the archaism as a timeless ideology without history or place. In this way, the ideology of Japanism attempted to conceal the contemporary temporal order of capitalism by installing an ideal image of primitivistic family system epitomized by the imperial household. Thus, the primitivization of the archaic functioned as “an ideological masquerade” that circulated “like the commodity form and penetrates every nook and cranny of society and culture.” Meanwhile, the political goal of Japanese fascism (toward “the Showa Restoration”) was technically to promote the imperialist expansionism driven by a monopoly capitalism of large industries, but paradoxically its discourse advocated a re-feudalization toward farming communities. It sought to establish the authority of a fusion of soldiers and farmers with the slogan of recovering rural community and family integrity of lower and middle classes — of folk but not proletariat.

The philosophy of Tosaka Jun appears as an immanent critique of the discursive arena of this phase. His project of dissecting “Japanese ideology” was, for Harootunian, “an abstraction capable of encompassing the entirety of social formation.” This was also an attempt to grasp the materiality of history, namely, “how the present was situated in a historical time contemporaries were living.” Here “the historical” meant the lived reality of the time of the proletariat, the principal agent of history. The central concern in this formulation was “the everyday which was being left behind by the failure of capitalism to fulfill the aspirations of the present and change its course.” Harootunian’s analyses of Tosaka’s philosophy synchronize the historian’s own conviction of practicing history, wherein the everyday is “a microcosm representing the whole of history.” With Tosaka, Harootunian believes that “the present as the realm of necessity must be the starting point for the rehistorization and actualization of all pasts in the present moment.” Thus, the everyday is the starting point of our struggles for liberation. 


The postwar era began with Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces, ending WWII in 1945. The original planning for the postwar constitution was initiated with the intervention of American ambition to create a democratic society, that Harootunian associates with “Dr. Moreau’s island laboratory,” but America’s own problems and the war in Korea prevented fulfillment of this ambition. As a consequence, a large part of the power that had driven fascist Japan, including the emperor, was exempted from the trial for war crimes and resuscitated by the judgement of the American Occupation. This was necessitated by its strategy to confront the new enemies in Asia by making the Japanese Archipelago a frontline base. Without the participation of the people in the country, the postwar constitution was thus established putting the emperor back on his throne — though no longer as absolute monarch but national symbol. This speaks to the fact that the American Occupation had a clear recognition of his role for national amalgamation.

In this way, the use of the emperor as archaic apparatus was restored yet again in the third phase. In citing the words of the critic and sinologue Takeuchi Yoshimi, Harootunian stresses: now the emperor functioned as “a kind of metonym of Japan calling attention to the totality.” In the new society which would become an economic giant, “miniature emperor systems were embodied in every blade of grass and tree-leaf of Japan.” In liberal capitalist society, too, the emperor continued to be an ideal tool for an imaginary recovery of all that is lost in the process of capital’s accumulation. Which means that the emperor system continued to play archaism as a virtual form of fascism that could actualize itself at any critical juncture.

For the analyses of this phase, Harootunian summons two discourses, both of which exemplify the postwar return of archaic thinking. One is the political scientist Maruyama Masao’s concept of “archaic stratum.” This means a subterranean rhythm that directed Japanese society since ancient times, by varying its intensity between moments of openness (or change) and those of closure (or withdrawal). With the recognition of the two opposing impetuses, Maruyama seemed to wish for a new beginning of modernization that would transform a folk socialized into feudal and hierarchical conformism into a modern, rational, and informed citizenry. Another discourse Harootunian draws upon is the literary critic Kobayashi Hideo’s “language spirit,” that he invoked from the 18th century nativist scholar Motoori Norinaga. In this notion, Kobayashi emphasized the nation’s possibility of change while keeping its essential identity like the mechanism in the Japanese language itself. While paying respect to these efforts to recontextualize the national body in the postwar society, Harootunian nevertheless considers that both “evoke the unchanging figure of remote antiquity in a society in which the noncontemporary still prevails over the contemporaneous.” Precisely in this way, “the archaic had become a political unconscious of modern Japan, a legacy of the Meiji Restoration that had been transported well into the postwar years.”


Living in the dark time with crises on all fronts, we can hardly sustain our trust in the world that had once given us promises of progress and happiness. All problems from the past seem to be accumulating in the present, instead of being resolved on a higher ground, and expressing themselves in increasingly vicious manners. Their complex relations do not follow a historical development by the dialectic synthesis of contradictions in stages toward a unification of human and nature. In this situation, Harootunian’s philosophy of historical time could give us hints for developing a new practice of history, that is necessary for a reconsideration of the world for our struggles of survival, justice, and happiness. It suggests shifting our strategic attention from the narrative of power centers, that is, the view of world history as a synthesis of national histories, to those of omnipresent peripheries, whose ground is “the everyday” of us the people, that is, the battleground between the temporalities imposed on us and those we seek (the real agent of history). In this way, Harootunian’s philosophy provides us with implications to reconsider the idea of revolution. Even in this dark time, we continue to observe varied modes of oppositions, among which taking the power of a nation-state to replace it is but one – be it by violence or election. We are observing forms of popular struggle to decompose the regime, for their self-empowerment and autonomy, in reverberation across the world — as a spectrum of practices. What we could envision from the spectrum is a multiplicity of liberations instead of one for all at once. I believe that Harootunian’s philosophy of historical time reminds us of a richness in this tragic world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *