John Gunther’s Japan

In 1936 the world was on the brink of war. Americans watched Europe nervously waiting for the first domino to fall. And that year, a book hit the stands that fed everyone’s need to know about the growing tensions on the continent. Inside Europe (Harper & Bros., 1936) had, among other things, a country-by-country survey of Europe, an in-depth and gossipy look at their politics and a very long (and psychological) look at Hitler and the Nazi’s rise to power. Needless to say it was a phenomenal bestseller in both America and Britain, and the Gestapo banned it from circulation in 1937.

Its author, John Gunther, was a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, serving various positions in their European bureaux, but most prominently as their Vienna bureau chief.

Once the book came out, Gunther’s eight-year-old son Johnny suggested a similar book about Asia (according to the dedication). Gunther proposed the book to Harper & Brothers, calling it Outside Asia (Gunther had spent almost a decade in Europe reporting on its political situation before writing Inside Europe, and would be covering Asia with less experience). The publishers accepted the proposal, but retitled it Inside Asia, and in 1938, the book hit stores. By then, Japan and China were at war, with Americans watching. But they were not as familiar with Asian politics as they were with European politics (by the end of the 1930s more than 100 million Americans were of European descent and less than 1 million of Asian descent).


Gunther begins with a close look at Hirohito and the cult of the Emperor of Japan. One part of the leading paragraphs is reminiscent of the reports on Japan given centuries ago by travelers who returned to Europe and spent many pages contrasting the Japanese with Europeans.

The veneration, the indubitable awe, with which loyal and patriotic Japanese…hold the Emperor is a phenomenon unique in contemporary politics. To westerners it may be a baffling phenomenon. But most westerners, who inherit the tradition of Aristotle and Newton, who believe in the validity of scientific inquiry, in the free play of the free mind, in the rational characteristics of experience, will find a great deal that is baffling in the mysticism of Japan. By mysticism I do not mean self-delusion. I mean merely the instinct of a people to accept freely phenomena which cannot be accounted for by purely intellectual processes.

He goes on to describe the veneration of the Emperor of Japan, and how the Japanese go to great lengths to show their reverence, giving one example that when the Emperor travels, windows along the route must be covered. Time published a portrait of the Emperor in 1936 along with the Manchu Emperor Pu Yi, Joseph Stalin and Chiang Kai-Shek, and asked their readers not to handle the magazine upside down or place objects on it (Time also published a portrait of the Emperor in 1928). The Emperor is not allowed to touch money, and he never wears the same clothes twice – his worn clothes are given to advisers, members of the court and other honored guests as precious gifts.

Cover of Time Magazine, Feb. 24, 1936

When William Gropper caricatured Hirohito in 1936 for Vanity Fair, the Japanese Embassy in Washington protested, and the February 1936 issue of Fortune was suppressed because it depicted the Imperial Chrysanthemum seal (although Gunther correctly notes that the seal had 15 petals while the real seal had 16, and speculates they made this choice in order to avoid controversy by deliberate inaccuracy). When US Vice President John Nance Garner visited Tokyo en route to the Philippines in 1935, Gunther reports he told friends that when he was received by the Emperor, he was going to take an American dollar watch from his pocket and say “Your Majesty, here is one thing you folks can’t imitate and undersell!” His advisers told him to not do this, since if he did, the Emperor’s aides would have considered the Emperor insulted and would have committed suicide (in the end Garner did not do this after discovering Japanese were in fact imitating and underselling American watches).

William Gropper’s controversial caricature of Hirohito. Vanity Fair, August 1935

Gunther says the Emperor has received foreign journalists three times during his reign: Jules Sauerwein of the Paris Soir, Ward Price of the  Daily Mail and Roy W. Howard of Scripps-Howard newspapers. They got some amiable conversation out of him, but not much in the way of news. Gunther says “American editors offer a standing $100 bonus to any Tokyo correspondent who interviews the Emperor.” Hirohito was eventually interviewed by Frank Kluckhohn, the Pacific Bureau Chief for the New York Times in September 1945, in which he named Tojo Hideki as the man responsible for Pearl Harbor.


Gunther’s book is not written authoritatively, indeed it’s very gossipy. This makes some sense, as Gunther spent several years in Europe before writing Inside Europe, while he went to Asia specifically to write Inside Asia. After spending a few pages detailing the great lengths which the Japanese publicly revere the emperor, he’ll note that many learned Japanese people will say in private, out of anyone else’s earshot that they do not revere the emperor. He also gets a few minor details wrong like saying the word “Mikado” is a purely foreign word or that after the Emperor dies he is referred to as “Tenno.” (in fact “mikado” was once used to describe the Emperor, but fell into disuse among Japanese several centuries earlier, with foreigners continuing to use it regardless. And when an Emperor dies he is referred to by his era name, so when Hirohito died in 1989 he was thereafter referred to as “Emperor Showa”)

Even though Hirohito was crowned 12 years before Gunther visited, he describes the coronation ceremony well, including a section on the importance of the three symbols of the Emperor, the three gifts inherited by the legendary founder of Japan Jimmu from Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess: the mirror, Yata no Kagami, the sword Kusanagi and the jewel (Gunther says “necklace”) Yasakani no Magatama. He says the mirror is the most sacred of the three, “because in it one sees the soul of the sun; even the Emperor is supposed never actually to look at it,” and is kept at the Grand Shrine at Ise. The Emperor visits the Grand Shrine on important occasions, to report to the Sun Goddess important events. Gunther says “[Hirohito] went after his father’s death; both before and after his trip to Europe; after his marriage, and so on; if Japan should declare a war, he would go again.” Indeed, Hirohito visited the shrine on December 13, 1941 where he prayed for peace. He visited again in December 1942 and again prayed for peace. He visited on November 13, 1945 to report an end to the war.

The “trip to Europe” Gunther refers to is one that Hirohito took in 1921 while heir-apparent, and was something no Japanese princes had done in almost 2,600 years. Gunther reports that when the trip was announced “one hundred Tokyo boys offered to commit ‘hari-kiri’ jointly, if he would give up the trip. He went. Presumably the boys are still alive.” There was also an awkward situation on the London Underground when Hirohito didn’t have enough fare for a ticket, and as heir-apparent (continuing as Emperor) he was not allowed to touch money.

Like his grandfather Emperor Meiji, Hirohito wrote poetry, and each year the Imperial Household Agency held a poetry competition. The Emperor’s poem would be read first followed by the ten prize winners (chosen from among tens of thousands of entries – Gunther says the number of submissions doubled as the war against China got under way). Gunther reprints Hirohito’s poem in 1938:


Is morning in the shrine garden;

World conditions it is hoped

will also be


One of Gunther’s sources was George Sansom’s book Japan: A Short Cultural History, which came out the year Japan invaded Manchuria. Sansom noted the revival of Shintoism while he was there around the turn of the 20th century, and Gunther sees the results of that revival.

The Emperor, as head of the nation, was also head of a vast single family, if Shinto doctrine was to be believed; thus – to put it crudely, Shinto could be made to serve an extremely pertinent political aim, namely, the conception of indissoluble unity of the people. Japanese worship of the Emperor has existed since the earliest times, but it is extraordinarily significant that this worship has been latterly much enforced and reemphasized. For instance, the Emperor Meiji was the first recent emperor to pray on his accession at the Ise shrine.

Gunther concludes one section by saying “Thus we have reached a cardinal point. The divinity of the Emperor is a political weapon of great potency in the hands of those who rule Japan.”


The People

Almost right away Gunther dives into who the Japanese are, and how that might explain the push against China. He gives his conclusions quite early:

The enormous debt in culture and religion, in art and handicrafts, in language and philosophy, which Japan indisputably owes to China is almost certainly a dominant psychological reason for the discord between the two countries today…Their wars against China are the expression of a subconscious desire to prove to the Chinese that, despite the act that they owe them so much, they are better than them.

Like Western visitors before him, Gunther describes characteristics of Japan and the Japanese in order to contrast it with the outside world. But instead of contrasting them with the West, he contrasts them with the Chinese. The most interesting contrasts being that “The Japanese buy goods 90% made in Japan; Chinese buy goods 90% made outside China,” and finishes with “The Japanese are fanatics, the Chinese are almost indescribably reasonable.”

Some other characteristics Gunther notices are Japan’s abhorrence of a lack of discipline or displays of it – “Mutiny on the Bounty” was retitled “Heroes of the South Seas” and only screened after major cuts. And like earlier Western visitors he comments on the relatively practical treatment of prostitution in Japan – it is treated as a business, where a woman can save enough for a dowry, in which case she will return to her village and marry (Francis Caron in the 1600s said during financial difficulties, families will sell their daughters into prostitution that they may earn enough for a dowry).

Gunther has occasional witty turns of phrase throughout the book, but he is almost never hyperbolic, except when describing how Japanese view the war. He quotes Prime Minister Hiranuma saying the recent conflicts in Manchuria (emphasis original) “furnish examples of the desire to maintain peace (sic!),” and precedes it by saying “prepare to blink.” A few paragraphs later he mentions the Rape of Nanking, saying (again emphasis original) “When the Japanese took Nanking, forty thousand Chinese – many of them civilians – are said to have been executed, and several thousand women raped.” (the official estimates put the toll much higher)

And this fanaticism is not limited to the Chinese: Gunther says Japan has “spy fever,” with thought control police arresting thousands for “dangerous thoughts,” and a Danish man for a “suspicious photograph,” which turned out to be an X-ray of a broken rib. The Japanese are also willing to die themselves, often by their own hand. Gunther ends a section on seppuku by saying prophetically “I have heard several Japanese say that, rather than suffer defeat by China, they would deliberately attack a stronger foe – Russia for example – and perish in a really first class conflagration.”

Later on, Gunther has a chapter on Russia’s adventures in the Far East, beginning with a quote by New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty, quoted by Demaree Bess: “A war between Japan and Russia would be as popular as could be imagined. The whole world would be cheering for both sides to lose.” Gunther starts the chapter by saying almost every Japanese he met thought a war with the Soviet Union was “inevitable,” pointing out that Vladivostok, the main port of Russia’s Eastern Navy and Khabarovsk, with an important air base, are both 700 miles from Tokyo.

Russia and Japan eventually signed a non-aggression pact in April 1941, and the stronger foe Japan ended up attacking was the United States.

The Politicians

Gunther has a chapter on the politics of Japan, starting with a look at the then-Prime Minister Kiichiro Hiranuma, the founder and head of the Kokuhon-sha, which Gunther says is like a combination of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Legion. He calls Hiranuma the “Hitler of Japan,” but contrasts him with the führer, saying Hiranuma is “not a demagogue,” and a “facade” behind which the army works. He notes that Hiranuma sleeps only four hours a night, while Hitler “seldom gets up until noon.”

Gunther concludes Japan is a fascist state, even though Japan does not limit dissent as much as Hitler and Mussolini. He also says fascism encourages a totalitarian instinct, “which does not apply in Japan, since everyone is obedient anyway. The enormous disciplinary machine of Fascism is useless, since conformity is ingrained in Japanese nature. Army and emperor are enough.” Gunther says the roots of fascism in Japan is the 1938 National Mobilization Law, passed despite vigorous opposition from members of the Diet. It empowers the government to censor the media, make vocational censures, subsidize industry and later amended it to limit corporate profits to ten percent.

Gunther has a quick overview of Japanese politics, saying Toshio Shiratori, the then-ambassador to Rome, would be a fascist prime minister. Toshio was eventually hanged as a Class A war criminal and his ashes were among those secretly interred at the Yasukuni Shrine in 1978 (according to a secret memo, Hirohito refused to visit the shrine after this date because of Toshio’s internment).

He also has a profile of Prince Fumimaro Konoye, the former prime minsiter who reluctantly took the position in 1937, but left and took his hereditary seat in the House of Peers.

The House of Peers, at the time, was the upper house of the Diet, comparable to the House of Lords in Britain, and Gunther includes a description of the chamber as well. Members of the Imperial family sit in it, as do Fujiwara and Konoye, whose families are close to the Imperial family. Descendants of the Tokugawas (who ruled the country as Shogun for two centuries) also have a seat in the chamber. The man who now occupies it, Iyesato Tokugawa, served as President of the House of Peers for 24 years and was the chair of the Japan Olympic Committee. Gunther says when the 1940 Olympics (scheduled for Tokyo) were cancelled due to the war, his family at first withheld the news, fearing it would break his heart.

The February 26th Incident

Col. Saburo Aizawa

After giving an overview of the three pillars of Japan’s infrastructure: Its large financial houses, the armed forces and its politicians, he describes what was, up until then, the biggest clash between the three: The attempted coup of February 26, 1936. A precursor to the coup was when Colonel Aizawa asked General Nagata to change the army education methods. When Nagata dismissed him, Aizawa slashed him to death. Aizawa was court marshalled and during the trial he expressed the concerns of many junior army officers: “The world is deadlocked by capitalism, communism, anarchism, atheism…I came to realize that the elder statesmen, those close to the throne, the powerful financiers and bureaucrats were attempting…to corrupt the Government at the army…Internal conditions are becoming deplorable…Mah-jong and cafes are becoming a fad in the country.”

Many younger members of the Army had similar concerns about the direction of Japan. The Manchurian campaign was dying down and Korekiyo Takahashi, the Finance Minister, was pushing back against budgetary demands of the army. Many of them wanted to “purify” Japan in the name of the Emperor, an act they would call a “Showa Restoration.”

On February 26, officers invaded the homes of several prominent officials. Admiral Viscount Saito, the Lord Privy Seal and former Prime Minister, Korekiyo Takahashi (whom Gunther says was the most popular man in Japan), Prince Saionji and the heads of Mitsui and Mitsubishi were all killed. The Grand Chamberlain to the Emperor, Admiral Suzuki was gravely wounded, and Prime Minister Keisuke Okada escaped unharmed while his brother-in-law was killed instead. Three of those killed were Admirals in the navy, and Gunther says “The mutiny was made by the army, and the navy has not forgotten this.”

Troops marching through Tokyo on February 26, 1936.

Once the mutineers finished killing, 1,400 of them gathered in the center of Tokyo, handing out a pronouncement to civilian passers-by, which read in part:

The present time is a favorable moment for Japan to bring about a greater expansion of national power and prestige. In recent years, however, there have appeared many persons whose chief aim and purpose have been to amass personal material wealth, disregarding the general welfare and prosperity of the Japanese population…The imperial work will fail unless we take proper steps to safeguard the fatherland by killing all those responsible for impending the Showa Restoration and slurring Imperial prestige.

After 81 hours, the mutineers surrendered. 14 officers and 3 civilians were sentenced to death, with 15 of them executed. Five officers were sentenced to life in prison. One officer committed seppuku and Aizawa, whose trial did not stop, was found guilty and executed.

Despite all this, the army adopted many of the mutineers’ demands and instituted the reforms they asked for.


Foreign Policy

Gunther gradually moves out towards China as the book goes on, starting with a chapter on Japanese foreign policy, which he says is based on a trinity of factors: economic shortages at home, population pressure and political considerations.

For economic shortages, Japan has to import almost all of its petroleum, iron and steel. The US is the largest supplier of petroleum to Japan (they cut off this trade in October 1941, and it’s been argued that Pearl Harbor was attacked in retaliation). The tension here, according to Gunther is “[in] the event of a general conflict, a world war, sources of supply might be cut off,” which both justifies and inhibits Japan’s expansion.

For population, Gunther points out that Japan is roughly the size of California, 1/5 of the land is arable and has a population of 70 million people. It is the most densely populated country in the world and its birthrate showed no signs of slowing down: “By 1960 the population of Japan will be 90 million people if the present birthrate and death rate are maintained.” Sure enough in 1960, despite the devastation of World War II, the population of Japan was 92.5 million.

Part of the justification for its expansion is to relieve these pressures, but Japanese are “indifferent” colonizers, according to Gunther. Despite the territory gained in China, very few Japanese have moved into them, despite authorities encouraging and subsidizing emigration. Similarly, few Japanese have moved to older Japanese colonies like Formosa (a colony of Japan since 1895) or Korea (since 1905. Gunther later calls the Korean peninsula “a land of 20 million slaves”). In a later chapter, Gunther says only 10,000 Japanese have emigrated to Manchuria – fanatical patriots and extremely poor, the latter of whom could not resist the subsidy offered for going. The Manchurian Colonial Society says its goal is to resettle 1 million families (roughly 5 million people) to Manchuria by 1958.

Japan’s imperial adventures, Gunther points out, are nothing new, and Western powers have done everything Japan is doing before (emphasis original): “Japan was late to the imperialist feast, and perhaps her methods were more brusque, more brutal in direct. But in essence Japan did nothing that the other powers had not done.”


As Gunther’s look at Asia drifts to China, he looks at the Japanese in Manchuria, recounting familiar events like the Mukden incident, and how deposed Manchu Emperor Henry Pu Yi was installed as the leader of the puppet state Manchukuo (Gunther refers to him as “Henry” instead of his last name, and at one point calls him “Emperor Hank”).

Henry Pu Yi (right) with Chu Kudo, his Japanese-born Chamberlain and aide-de-camp

Gunther says of Henry Pu Yi: “Henry is a mild, amiable, and unfortunate creature, whose good qualities of modesty and intelligence have been obscured. As a political force he does not exist…it can be said with complete assurance that he is the least consequential monarch on earth.” Of his mother, he writes “More should be known of this wonderful old woman, who was a kind of Chinese Catherine the Great.”

Politically, Manchukuo is dominated by the Concordia Society, created by the Japanese government, which aims to bring back “Wang Tao” – the Kingly Way (not unlike the Showa Restoration rhetoric of 1936). It is recognized by only Japan, Italy and El Salvador. Germany said it would recognize an independent Manchukuo, but by the time the book came out, it hadn’t. Gunther says the recognition from El Salvador came by mistake – The Manchukuo Government sent out holiday greetings to every country and while most countries ignored them, a clerk in the El Salvador Foreign Office replied to the message by accident, which the Japanese took as a sign of recognition.

Gunther sees preparations for war with Russia in Manchukuo – the Japanese took over railroad lines from the Chinese and built additional tracks heading towards the Soviet frontier. In Korea, the Japanese built two ports, Seishin and Rashin for the purpose of “pour[ing] troops into North Manchuria, several days more quickly than would be possible via Dairen and the South Manchuria route.”


Inside Asia, like its predecessor, was an immediate bestseller, and is a monumental work of journalism. Due to its release just as the second Sino-Japanese War was starting, and three years before Pearl Harbor, it is just as important as a source document on that perilous time. The book also covers the rest of Asia with important reporting on the Indian Independence movement, the troubles in Palestine and elsewhere that serve as a prelude to the changes that took place across the continent over the following decade.


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