Traversing the history of an island country located on the opposite side of the world may seem counterintuitive to sparking new discussions about police power in modern America. Yet, this is exactly what a Middlebury College professor is doing this spring semester.
Max Ward, a history professor at Middlebury, is currently traveling in Japan to conduct research for his second book, Police Power in Modern Japan, (1870-1970). His research has involved reading memoirs, reviewing public records and correspondences, as well as studying works by historians, such as Sumio Obinata and Fujio Ogino. It has involved collaborating with local educators at Waseda University, such as Professor Naoyuki Umemori, as well.
However, what makes this specific endeavor unique is that Ward is not only sharing a broad perspective on how police power changed throughout Japan’s personal history. Instead, he is also using his research to catapult new questions within contemporary debates about policing in other countries, such as the United States, Hong Kong, Chile, and France.
“Police were central to almost every important development and event in modern Japanese history,” explained Ward. “I believe they can be a useful lens to consider how a population starts to identify as a ‘nation,’ the forms of power that underlie colonialism and imperialism, and how the police are reimagined in different political idioms, including during periods of militarism and democratization.”
Ward’s research is supported by an awarded grant from The Japan Foundation, an international institution headquartered in Tokyo, Japan. The Foundation’s mission is to foster international friendships and mutual understanding by establishing and supporting worldwide cultural exchange programs. Ward was awarded his grant in 2022.
His grant was to support his research for Police Power in Modern Japan, (1870-1970). This book is built upon Ward’s first book, Thought Crime: Ideology and State Power in Interwar Japan (Duke University Press 2019). Thought Crime focused on the Japanese state’s efforts to suppress political radicalism in the 1920s and 1930s. It explored the Peace Preservation Law, an antiradical law that eventually was used to convert thousands of thought-crime criminals, such as communists and socialists. Additionally, Thought Crime detailed nationwide efforts, such as how the Japanese government enlisted nonstate actors (monks, family members, and community leaders) to enforce the law.
Police Power in Modern Japan, though, expands beyond the 1930s. It explores the different forms of Japan’s police power since the initial translation of the concept in 1870. It shares how the concept of the police changed through reforms from 1950 to 1960 and how it became a police force celebrated by foreign scholars in the 1970-1980s.
“[In Thought Crime] I was interested in the administrative policies that the Japanese Justice Ministry developed to assess the degree of danger a political radical ostensibly posed. I wanted to know whether they were “converting” by discarding their earlier political beliefs and exploring the degree they were able to reintegrate back into the national polity,” explained Ward. “However, the police were involved at all stages of this process, including contributing to post-parole social reintegration. So, I continually came across the police in my research. Once that project was done, it felt natural to turn my attention to policing, and to expand the question beyond just the policing of politics, to the centrality of police in Japan’s modern experience.”
Although centuries old, Japan’s rapid implementation and use of police power are still relatively young. In fact, according to Ward, before the 1870s there was no agency like the police, to manage order and enforce the law across all social classes. Rather, between the 1600-1860s, Japanese society was highly decentralized. There were hundreds of semi-autonomous feudal domains which were ruled by their own feudal lords (daimyo). Each social group – samurai, peasants, artisans, merchants, etc. – maintained their own internal socio-cultural orderings.
For instance, if a commoner (merchant, artisan, or peasant) committed a “crime,” often it was up to their social group (neighborhood, guild, or village) to determine the punishment. If it was severe, the perpetrator was handed to the samurai for specific punishment (ex: tattooing). This was an entirely different rule for samurais, who had their own unique set of rules and publishments.
Later, the concept of police was translated during the collapse of feudalism in the 1870s, when Japan was forced into unequal treaties by Western powers. Samurai officials were sent to Europe and the United States to study the different governments and came back to Japan with reports about an agency whose task was to “enforce the law” and “prevent crime.” This led to a domino effect of positive and negative changes and challenges to police power in Japan that foreign scholars celebrated. The latter was particularly true for U.S. police officials in the 1970s and 1980s, who were impressed by how Japan quickly developed after the Pacific War, but without producing similar social problems that the U.S. was experiencing.
“The new Japanese government saw police as central to developing a wealthy country that could defend itself from, and compete with western imperialism, and they turned specifically to the centralized French Police which gave the police a broader mandate than solely ‘crime prevention,’” explained Ward. “They saw the police as the primary lever to create a society which would labor for capitalist development and to be loyal to the new imperial state.”
In more recent times, Japan continues to be lauded as one of the “safest countries in the world.” Yet, its crime rate has slightly increased since 2021, encouraging new questions and debates about what is considered a crime, how crime is reported, and how police are trained and empowered in Japan. Some details even surprised Ward throughout his research.
“Perhaps the biggest surprise about Japan’s police force was the sophistication with which higher-level police officials wrote about their function and place within the world,” said Ward. “Many of the officials were graduates of the elite Tokyo Imperial University (later, the University of Tokyo), and drew on a wide literature of philosophy, economics, political science, sociology, and history to discuss policy developments and their roles within the agency.”
As one might suspect, studying Japan through a historical lens has been Ward’s ongoing passion for years. He has a bachelor’s in history from the University of California (1999). He earned Japanese language certifications from Senshu University and the Inter-University Center in Yokohama, Japan. (2004, 2007). He also received a doctorate in Modern Japanese History at New York University (2011). Additionally, he’s been a visiting researcher and scholar at Waseda University and has reviewed, co-edited, and published books and articles in international, scholarly journals, such as the International Journal of Asian Studies and Japan Forum.
“Japan’s history condenses many of the processes that took decades or even centuries to develop in Europe,” Ward explained when asked about why he is specifically fascinated by Japanese history. “[For example] the development of capitalism, creation of a modern state system, cultivation of national identity in the population, and creation of a colonial empire.”
Ward has been a Middlebury professor since 2011. At Middlebury, Ward combines history, literature, films, and essays to teach engaging courses, such as Postwar Japanese History in Film and Literature, Police Aesthetics in Japanese Film, and Tokyo: Between History and Utopia. Ward will be continuing to offer such insight in his new history courses starting in the Fall of 2024. These courses are inspired by Ward’s current grant research.
One course will be an upper division reading seminar “Police Power: Theory and History,” which introduces students to competing theories about the origin and function of police, and then explores the development of police in different national contexts. The other will be “Police Aesthetics in Japanese Film,” where students will consider the portrayal of police in Japanese films and how film can be used to consider general questions about police and policing.
“I learn a lot from my discussions with students,” added Ward. “Teaching provides me the opportunity to stay abreast of new scholarships, as well as to learn from the students and their differing perspectives on important topics. It influences how I think about my research questions and ultimately shapes the arguments I put forth in my publications.”