Weird Japan: two fascist monuments in the samurai city of Aizu-Wakamatsu

[content warning: historical suicides]

In Rome or Wakamatsu?

[My main historical sourcing for this post comes from Reto Hofmann’s 2015 book The Fascist Effect: Japan and Italy, 1915-1952 and Michael Lucken’s chapter “Remodeling Public Space: the Fate of War Monuments, 1945-1948” from the 2008 anthology The Power of Memory in Modern Japan. For the sake of convenience, I’ll cite them both by last name only (since you can search both on Google Books) and link any other sources when necessary. Aaand… ugh, stricken by inadequacy again. I regret that I cannot read Japanese better; I would have liked to learn more in the nearby museum. But eh, maybe it wouldn’t have mattered: the displays focused on the Boshin War, not the fascist connection]

It’s “Golden Week” in Japan, this year extended by some extra public holidays for the coronation Emperor Naruhito to usher in the new Reiwa era. So, I’ve been playing the tourist again with some short trips in Tohoku, including one to Aizu, a volcanic mountain basin in western Fukushima Prefecture best known today for its proud history celebrated in the small “samurai city” of Aizu-Wakamatsu. I’ll keep my disclaimer from last time — I describe weird things in Japan, not weird things about Japan. This is not a country profile. But ohhhhh my god, I found something really weird: two memorials dedicated to fallen samurai children …donated by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany!

Before heading up into the mountains for some hiking, I decided to stop by Iimoriyama, a graveyard tucked into the foothills above Aizu-Wakamatsu where, in 1868, 19 teenaged samurai of Aizu Domain’s “White Tiger” Byakkotai unit committed seppuku (ritual suicide, the tour guides will reenact it…) when they saw smoke rising from the local fortress of Tsuruga Castle. Aizu had just lost the last major siege of the Boshin Civil War, and with it their role as the chief supporter of the 250-year-old Tokugawa Shogunate, collapsing against the restoration of imperial rule under the young Emperor Meiji. To punish the domain for its resistance, the new Imperial government ruined the city and allowed proud Aizu to slip into ignominy for several decades to follow. But the Byakkotai became national heroes, revered for their patriotic loyalty to their clan in the face of defeat.

The Byakkotai in uniform. They are children!

But there’s another but… in one of those strokes of historical irony, the Byakkotai killed themselves for no cause: the smoke had come from the towns-buildings outside of the castle instead of from the main tower like they had feared. Though more than 200 other men, women, and children of the samurai class would also kill themselves in Wakamatsu’s inner walls, Aizu Domain held firm against the siege for a whole month. The Byakkotai died before they had even lost, 19 pointless child suicides born of Aizu’s famous martial tradition.

Anyway, that’s the story. When I first arrived, Iimoriyama didn’t strike me so much for its solemn observation of the tragedy of the Byakkotai as for a paid 250 yen escalator to skip the hundred-ish steps up to the actual graves. I took the free stairs, but even when you reach the top, the Byakkotai again fade into peripheral vision to the left against the dominating image to the right: a red-granite column capped by a soaring patinated eagle on Italian marble bearing the inscription S.P.Q.R. with some platitudes about “Rome, mother of civilization,” dated year of the lord, 1928.

Oh, and then there’s that other date: “VI ERA FASCISTA — year of the fascist era, 6.”

See the appendix for a transcription of the full text

I held back my giggles at the escalator’s goofy commercialism because even graveyards have to make a living, but this time I laughed. What the hell is an Italian fascist monument doing in the “samurai city” of Aizu-Wakamatsu, in the rural reaches of Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture?

The story starts with Harukichi Shimoi, an early Japanese fascist who collaborated with Mussolini’s movement and regime from the late 1910s through the 1930s. As described by Hofmann, Shimoi first traveled to Italy to study literature. However, in 1917 he paused his scholarship to volunteer for the Italian army during WW1 and serve in an elite Arditi shock trooper unit where he taught his comrades karate. Many Arditi veterans would later become key supporters of fascist paramilitary groups, most notably during Gabriele D’Annunzio’s 1919 attempt to declare the independent Italian city-state of Fiume in direct opposition to the League of Nations. During the Fiume crisis, Shimoi helped his Arditi friends by exploiting his neutral Japanese passport to shuttle messages between D’Annunzio and Mussolini. For his efforts, D’Annunzio gave him the nickname “the samurai of Fiume.” Upon his return to Japan, Shimoi worked to mobilize youth for nationalist aims by localizing fascist principles to a fictionalized imagining of bushido and later tried to stop Japanese diplomatic support for Ethiopia during Mussolini’s invasion of the country in 1935.

The Roman column in Aizu-Wakamatsu originated in a conversation between Mussolini and Shimoi in 1928. Again according to Hofmann, Shimoi “moved” Mussolini with the story of the patriotic dedication of Byakkotai samurai, prompting the dictator to declare his intention to send a gift to the people of Aizu to commemorate the event. However, Mussolini did not seem to have any real desire to do so, causing a minor diplomatic incident between the Japanese and Italian foreign ministries when local Aizu notables began to clamor for a serious celebration. Mussolini had a permanent falling out with Shimoi over the embarrassment, but caved in late 1928 when he agreed to send a genuine column excavated from Pompeii. The column raising at Iimoriyama became a national spectacle in Japan, attended by the Prime Minister Giichi Tanaka, Tsuneo Matsudaira (ambassador to Britain and son of the last daimyo of Aizu), and even the imperial Prince Takamatsu in what the Italian ambassador Pompeo Aloisi called “‘a special act of deference from the emperor’ to Mussolini.” Onlookers shouted the Fascist Party slogan “alala” and waved Italian flags, according to one Japanese observer, the first time anyone had flown a foreign flag in isolated Aizu.

After World War 2, the column became caught up in American efforts to destroy symbols of Japanese nationalism and militarism. Lucken explains how during the post-war occupation, SCAP/GHQ (the Allied forces) directed the Japanese government to destroy war monuments as part of the broader demilitarization program. In practice though, many of those outside of the country’s largest cities escaped scrutiny because local officials considered the directives unclear and the Allied administration lacked sufficient Japanese specialists (read: people that could read Japanese) to identify pieces that might have violated the demilitarization guidelines. However, plenty of Americans could read Italian and the literal red-lettered word “fascista” glowed on the marble plinth. Occupation soldiers destroyed the decorative fasces on the column’s base and ordered the Japanese government to remove the fascist inscription. But because the demilitarization directives only applied to Japanese symbols, not Italian ones, no one did. As a result, the column joined hundreds of other monuments that survived even the most fervent period of American reformism through early 1947, though like the column, some suffered minor alterations.

By 1948, the demilitarization program softened as geopolitical competition with the Soviet Union prompted the occupation regime to rehabilitate former nationalist officials in an attempt to build a new center-right, anti-communist coalition (see John Dower’s classic Embracing Defeat). When occupation ended in 1952, Japanese politicians sometimes simply returned the banned monuments to their old positions. Precisely that happened with the other fascist monument at Byakkotai graves of Iimoriyama. When the Americans destroyed the Italian fasces, they also removed a less impressive black granite block featuring an Iron Cross, gifted to Aizu by the Nazi diplomat Hasso von Etzdorf in 1935. However, fitting Lucken’s pattern, locals replaced the German memorial in 1953. Today it sits next to a “May Peace Prevail on Earth” pole stuck behind in the corner, maybe aware of its dark bit of historical irony.

Ironic much? Again, I have a transcription in the appendix.

Befitting that irony, it’s worth addressing the severe inadequacy of the information boards near the two monuments, which give short histories in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean. The Italian sign mentions fascism because it cannot avoid a word chiseled into marble, but makes no mention of the fact that the column came as a personal gift from Mussolini himself. Instead, it calls the memorial “a gift … from the people and government of Rome” along with a bizarre translation of the inscription (see appendix below). In an avoidant style common to so many Japanese war memorials, it’s not a lie, but still a stunning omission.

The German monument has even worse signage. To begin with, it somewhat absurdly calls the Iron Cross “the symbol of ancient Germany” even though it originated in 19th century Prussia. But that’s just a nitpick. Most surprisingly, it makes no reference to the gift’s origin in Nazi Germany. Instead, it offers the odd translation “to the young samurai, from one German man” when even with my nonexistent German, I can plainly see that it says “A German, to the young knights of Aizu.” The odd emphasis on “one German man” might be a mundane case of awkward Japanese translation, but in context it badly diminishes the connection between Japan and Nazi Germany because of course, von Etzdorf was not just “one German man.” Instead, he was a lieutenant colonel in the Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA, “brownshirts”) and even before his Nazi activity, he belonged to the fascist paramilitary organization Der Stahlhelm.*

* (making me skeptical of claims that his participation in Ernst von Weizsäcker’s anti-war conspiracy amount to anything more than the German Foreign Office’s attempts to escape prosecution at Nuremberg during the Ministries Trial. But the strategy seems to have worked: many foreign ministry officials received reduced sentences or early releases in 1950/51 while von Etzdorf himself would go on to serve as West Germany’s ambassador to Canada and Britain.)

I think the sign should have mentioned the Nazi connection…

To me, the two fascist monuments testify less to the tragedy of the Byakkotai than to the uncomfortable compromises made during Japan’s demilitarization, which still leave awkward historical ripples today. But even beyond Japan, the Italian column stands as a reminder of the failure of defascisation in Italy itself, where modern fascists continue to make pilgrimages to Mussolini’s tomb and the Duce’s own descendants run for far-right political parties. And, to a lesser degree, von Etzdorf’s monument speaks to similar limitations of the denazification of Germany, where thousands of Nazi bureaucrats like von Etzdorf himself escaped prosecution to continue successful careers in government.

By now, I suppose it’s been so long that the two memorials serve more as historical curios than genuine fascist symbols and the obscurity of Aizu prevents them from doing any real harm. But given ideology’s emphasis on youth mobilization for the fascist struggle and the Byakkotai’s own status as child soldiers, with Iimoriyama honoring the remains of samurai as young as 14, I have to ask a question:

Is it really appropriate to leave two fascist monuments overlooking the active graves of 19 child suicide victims, celebrating the militaristic ethos that led to their deaths on that very spot?

Ohhhhh my god, that’s weird. Maybe the Fascists and Nazis belong in the museum down the hill… let the Byakkotai rest.

The Byakkotai were children

Appendix: Inscriptions and Translations

The inscription on the Italian column reads:

S.P.Q.R. / nel segno del littorio / Roma / madre di civiltà / con la millenaria colonna / testimone di eterna grandezza / tributa onore imperituro / alla memoria degli eroi di Biacco-tai / Anno MCMXXVIII – VI era fascista

The information signage gives this …generous translation:

With undying respect, Rome, the mother of modern civilization, dedicates this timeless tribute to the Byakkotai warriors, under the authority of ancient Rome, that this pillar may stand as proof of the greatness of fascism for thousands of years

I don’t understand where they got words like “modern” and “timeless” and “ancient” and that last clause about proof of the greatness of fascism baffles me, so more literally by my lazy high school Latin:

By the authority of the lictor (symbolic of the Fascist regime, referring to the ancient Roman official who carried the fasces), Rome, mother of civilization, with this millenial column, a testament to eternal greatness, offers respect everlasting to the memory of the heroes of the Byakkotai. AD 1926 — [year] 6 of the fascist era

The back of the column says “allo spirito del bushido” or “to the spirit of bushido.” However, the information sign gives the imaginative translation “To the ‘Flower of Bushido,’ From the City of Rome.”

And finally, von Etzdorf’s memorial, by the original German, the official translation with its excessive emphasis on the singular, and my own:

Ein Deutscher / den jungen rittern von Aizu / 1935

To the young samurai, from one German man

A German, to the young knights of Aizu, 1935


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s