WEAI Author Q&A: Tatiana Linkhoeva’s “Revolution Goes East: Imperial Japan and Soviet Communism”

May 11, 2020

We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Revolution Goes East: Imperial Japan and Soviet Communism published by Cornell University Press. The book’s author, Tatiana Linkhoevais assistant professor of Japanese history at New York University.  

Revolution Goes East is an intellectual history that applies a novel global perspective to the classic story of the rise of communism and the various reactions it provoked in Imperial Japan. Tatiana Linkhoeva demonstrates how contemporary discussions of the Russian Revolution, its containment, and the issue of imperialism played a fundamental role in shaping Japan’s imperial society and state.

In this bold approach, Linkhoeva explores attitudes toward the Soviet Union and the communist movement among the Japanese military and politicians, as well as interwar leftist and rightist intellectuals and activists. Her book draws on extensive research in both published and archival documents, including memoirs, newspaper and journal articles, political pamphlets, and Comintern archives. Revolution Goes East presents us with a compelling argument that the interwar Japanese

 Left replicated the Orientalist outlook of Marxism-Leninism in its relationship with the rest of Asia, and that this proved to be its undoing. Furthermore, Linkhoeva shows that Japanese imperial anticommunism was based on geopolitical interests for the stability of the empire rather than on fear of communist ideology.

Thanks to Professor Linkhoeva for taking the time to discuss her book with us.

Q: First, could you introduce yourself and your research more generally?

I am assistant professor of Japanese History at New York University. I am originally from Republic of Buriatia, Russia. After graduating from Moscow State University, Faculty of Philosophy, I received a master’s degree from the University of Tokyo, and I obtained my PhD from the University of California at Berkeley.

As a historian of modern Japan, I focus on four research issues: left- and right-wing Japanese radical political thought and movements in the twentieth century; Japanese empire and imperialism; Russo-Japanese intellectual and political engagements; and the competition and cooperation of these two countries on the Asian mainland.


Q: At the beginning of Revolution Goes East, you raise a question–“Was socialism a means to promote national unity and wealth, or was its goal to achieve global human liberation from both capitalism and imperialism?”–and note that the answer was “neither obvious nor uniform” in imperial Japan. Were there any in imperial Japan who were both supportive of imperialism and sympathetic to socialism?

My chief claim is that because of Japan’s status as an empire, geopolitical and ideological factors played equally important roles in Japanese responses to the Russian Revolution. The book is a combination of international and intellectual histories that revisits the classic story of communism and reaction to it in Imperial Japan. English-speaking scholarship has long attributed great significance to the liberal-democratic and nationalist/fascist movements in imperial Japan. In contrast, Revolution Goes East argues that during the 1920s the Russian Revolution of 1917 and international communism offered new social and socialist visions and potentialities of how to organize society and the state, and as such played a fundamental role in shaping Japan’s interwar society and politics. The book also demonstrates how the debates about Soviet Russia and its communist ideology were entangled with contemporary anxieties about the foundations and future of the modernized imperial state and the ongoing empire-building project.

By examining the relationships between the Soviet Union and the Japanese empire during the 1920s, and by questioning the category of “anticommunism” in the contemporary context of East Asian politics, the book challenges Eurocentric understandings of Japanese anticommunism and corrects important misconceptions about Japan’s imperial policies in East Asia. I argue that both Japanese political and military policy makers, as well as the Japanese Left and Right, responded not simply to the events in Russia but more so to the revolutionary ferment these events caused in colonial Korea and China. Concerns for the empire’s security and stability, rather than any anticommunist ideological convictions, determined the relations of Japanese political and military leaders with the Soviet state and communist ideology. Drawing from diverse sources such as memoirs, Army and Foreign Ministry reports, and newspaper articles, the book demonstrates that the Japanese ruling elite considered the Soviet state to be the heir to Tsarist Russia and its interest in East Asia, and therefore they often found it more advantageous to cooperate with the Soviet leadership, especially during Stalin’s rule, in order to secure Japan’s control in Korea and China.

Q: Can you introduce the different groups within Japan dealing with the rise of communist ideology? Who were the main anticommunists? Who advocated for adopting socialism?

On the level of political and military elites, I have looked at the various groups within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Home Ministry, Ministry of Justice, and the Army. As I mentioned above, their responses were largely conditioned by and evolved according to the unfolding situation on the Asian continent, i.e. how successful or not was the Soviet penetration, both ideological and political, of Republican China and colonial Korea. The Home and Justice Ministries were largely concerned with the domestic communist and proletarian movements. I discuss in depth the suppression of leftist groups, and the Peace Preservation Law of 1925 in particular. However, I argue, domestic anticommunist agitation did not define Japan’s foreign policy which followed its own logic.

Another objective of my book was to analyze the debates and transformations that the Russian Revolution spurred among Japanese liberals, anarchists, socialists, nationalists, and pan-Asianists between 1917 and 1931. The Russian Revolution transformed socialism from a vaguely defined notion of social equality on which many Japanese could agree, into an urgent drive for social revolution and mass politics. Making extensive use of Comintern archives and contemporary Japanese periodicals and articles, Revolution Goes East traces the transformation of left- and right-wing groups into mass movements with aspirations of seizing power through revolution, and explores the intense competition between them for the right to shape the future of the Japanese nation and empire. I conclude that, by 1930, against the backdrop of economic depression, escalating siege mentality, and intensifying competition between Japan and the Soviet Union over China, the anti-Bolshevik Left in Japan had chosen national focus (i.e. the argument for the uniqueness of Japanese modern development) over international politics, while the radical Right, which initially sympathized with the Bolshevik anti-Western imperialist message, embraced imperial anticommunism. The book therefore addresses critical issues concerning the nature and trajectory of radical opposition to Japan’s authoritarian state in the interwar period.

Q: Ultimately your book addresses imperial Japan’s rejection of communism. Can you outline your arguments briefly? What was the impact of Soviet communism?

In fact, I do not argue that imperial Japan rejected communism out right, or that it turned ultimately anticommunist. By discussing various groups within the establishment and the Left I demonstrate that there was no agreement among them about what was communism and what to make of Soviet Russia. Each of these groups pursued its own agenda, and Soviet Russia and communism ultimately became instruments in their mutual competition to shape the future of the nation and the empire. True, there were anticommunist military and civilian groups that thought that the existence of communist Russia left the entire East Asian region vulnerable to the social disease of Marxism. But there were other political groups that advocated a rapprochement with communist Russia and creation of a geopolitical Eurasian alliance in order to counter Anglo-American capitalist imperialism.

The Japanese Left of the 1930s was predominantly under the spell of the Comintern. In my book, however, I looked at the early Japanese leftist debates about Soviet communism in the 1920s. The members of the Japanese communist party continued to be communists; they just did not agree that the Russian Revolution model, or communism as it was interpreted by Lenin and later Stalin, was universal and applicable to everywhere. They rejected the Russian Revolution, but they did not reject communism per se.

Q: Finally, can you speak about your methods? How did you conduct research for this book?

I worked with diverse sources such as memoirs of Japanese politicians and military officers, Army and Foreign Ministry reports, archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and newspaper articles. I have read writings by prominent Japanese socialists, anarchists, and communists that are published usually in thick collected works volumes. In Russian language, I have read Comintern published documents, as well as various reports, letters, and documents by communist envoys in East Asia, which I obtained in the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History in Moscow.    

Originally, the book was planned to be an intellectual and institutional history of the Japanese Left. But as my argument developed, I had to incorporate international and diplomatic histories. The challenge was to combine these different approaches and weave the two sides – intellectual and geopolitical – of the story into one coherent narrative.