Japan History Lab

Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu (Special Higher Police)

By Birinder Poonian


In May 1910 Miyashita Takichi and three other men were arrested for manufacturing explosives. The following month, Kōtoku Shūsui was arrested and accused of being the lead conspirator in a plot to assassinate the emperor. The police then discovered, upon further questioning, a nationwide conspiracy against the Japanese monarchy. This is now referred to as the High Treason Incident. The incident created a shift in the late Meiji Period towards a more controlled period of elevated repression of ideologies considered potentially subversive. In response to this shift, the Special Higher Police (Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu) was established in 1911. Often shortened to Tokkô, the police force was established specifically to control political groups and repress ideologies that were regarded as a threat to the government and the public order. Roughly equivalent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States of America, in terms of its role in counter-espionage combined with criminal investigation, the Tokkô was a civilian counterpart to the Kempeitai and Tokkeitai, the military and navy police corps of the time. Over the course of the years leading up to and including the Second World War, the Tokkô were also known as the “Peace Police” (Chian Keisatsu), or more commonly known as the “Thought Police” (Shiso Keisatsu). The police force was established in order to serve the government by keeping the population at bay during a time of high crisis, war. In examining the departments and sub-bureaus of Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu, the passing of the Peace Preservation Law of 1925, and the “rule by law” during the 1930’s, the effect of the Tokkô on the people of Japan in the interwar and war period will show how the police used propaganda and laws to control the people of Japan into being submissive to the Japanese Government.

Thought Police

The Special Higher Police was made up of six different departments: Special Police Work, Foreign Surveillance, Koreans in Japan, Labor Relations, Censorship, and Arbitration. However, the most important department was the sub-bureau created in 1927, the Thought Section of the Criminal Affairs Bureau, also known as the “Thought Police.” During the early 1920’s there was concern from both government and intelligence circles “by a certain amount of social and industrial unrest in Japan which was mainly the result of revolutionary propaganda from abroad” (Richard, 1982). Although a significant amount of this propaganda came from China and India, the most significant was that from the Soviet Union, which was gaining a lot of attention after winning the civil war. In July 1922, a band of Japanese people accepted Russian aid and formed the Communist Party. From December 1941 to early 1944, the Thought Police found many anonymous revolutionary Marxist doctrines spread throughout private and public places, such as universities, increasing communist subversion. An example of this is a writing discovered in December 1941:

Kill the emperor
Japan is losing in China
Why does out fatherland dare to commit aggression
Ask the leaders why they’re waging aggressive war against China
Communism. Communism.
Workers of the world
Revolution now
… including the emperor
Look at the pitiful figures of the undernourished people.
Overthrow the government.
Shoot former Prime Minister Konoe, the traitor.1(156)

This resulted in Communism viewed as posing “a far greater danger to Japan than capitulating to the Americans”1, and the party being made illegal. This also led to the creation of the Thought Section. “The purpose of this was twofold: first, to counter the growth of what was regarded as subversive radicalism and communism, and, secondly, to make a serious study of the various new political philosophies and revolutionary sentiments being propagated”2(157). In other words, they were tasked with seeking out and fighting “dangerous thoughts” and in due time prosecutions were made for these “thought offences”. The “Thought Police”, to obtain evidence for these prosecutions, sought the help of general Special Higher Police agents and spies working in systems of espionage in schools and colleges reporting on professors and teachers as well as their fellow students. The effect this had on the everyday lives of Japanese citizens then multiplied when the policy encouraged ordinary people to spy. This made it impossible for people to know who they could trust, denying them of their right to speak or think freely. At the age of three Comrade Ogilvy refused all toys except a drum, a sub-machine-gun and a model helicopter. At six he had joined the Spies…at eleven he denounced this uncle to the Thought Police – George Orwell2(156).

Peace Preservation Law of 1925

Another reason for the expansion of the Tokkô and the creation of the “Thought Police” was the Peace Preservation Law of 1925. Created to act against socialism, communism, and anarchism, it was one of the most significant laws created during pre-war Japan. At this time, Japan was modernizing very quickly which led to social disorganization, leaving much of the population to believe that “stable institutional patterns were crumbling and that their own personal stability was in jeopardy”3(318). However, the law was based on the politics and ethics of an ideology known as Kokutai, a “society for the Maintenance of National Prestige”2(44). An extremely vague, subjective term Kokutai, translates roughly as a “system of government” or “national identity.” This was an emperor system that controlled and maintained the balance of the ruling and working classes. “One could explain…[it] as the ‘magic cloak’ of class oppression donned by the elite” 4(248) . However it is also important to note the “the idea of the Kokutai had long since entered the popular mind, defining the very categories of thought and culture” 4(249) , thus making it a useful aid for the Thought Police and the Tokkô. This resulted in the possibility that any political opposition could be branded as “altering the Kokutai”, thus making it outlawed. The first use of this law was in late 1925 when a group of thirty-eight students “belonging to the Kyoto branch of the radical national student organization Gakuren presaged its use against not only organized and direct revolutionary activities, but also activities including discussions, meetings, and propaganda”5 (23) This showed a significant shift, especially for the lives of students whose radical ideas had previously been scrutinized by the local police but rarely interfered with, even off campus. The emergence of the law, along with the Thought Police, stunted the idea of traditional, radical student life for fear of imprisonment for committing thought crimes, or speaking against the Kokutai.

Japanese Communist Party Logo

Japanese Communist Party Logo6.

That being said, the first large-scale application of the Peace Preservation Law against communism didn’t come until a few years later at the March 15 Incident of 1928. In the time leading up to this incident, the “Thought Police”, as well as the Tokkô on the whole, were investigating all activities that could be related to the rebuilding of the communist party in Japan. In 1927, Inspector Môri Moto of the Keishicho department of Tokkô received an anonymous call concerning rumors of an important meeting that took place in December 1926 at the Goshiki Hot Springs in Yamagata. With a number of other Tokkô officials, Moto began investigating this meeting and was able to confirm the formation of the second Japanese Communist Party and saw March 15, 1928 as the opportunity needed to make the arrests. “References made to the mass arrests in popular songs suggest its widespread impact on the pubic mind”5 (23). Beginning at 5 am, the Tokkô raided over 100 places and made 1,586 arrests. During the raids they also obtained a list of the 406 members of the Second Communist Party; this was over four times the number they had initially predicted.

Rule By Law

The mass raids and arrests of the March 15 Incident of 1928 led to the number of arrests multiplying, as well as the police banning of “the Labour-Farmer Party, the All-Japan Proletarian Youth League and the Council of Japanese Labour Unions” 5(24) . Over the course of the next decade as up to 63,000 people were arrested due the Kokutai system, and general abuse of the law, not solely the Peace Preservation Law. The actions of the police failed to convey to ordinary citizens a perception of the legal justice system working with their interests in mind, particularly in matters pertaining to the state. Various laws were created relating to the censorship and control of public meetings. The Publication and Newspaper Laws included lists of things that were “relatively prohibited” as well as “absolutely prohibited”, which meant that they needed permission to be published. The police also “set up a system of issuing warning notices to newspaper publishers against publication of specific news. This system had no statutory basis, but it worked effectively because the Home Minister would almost automatically ban distribution of any newspaper that disregarded the warning”5 (24). There were three types of warnings issued from the Home Ministry, which differentiated according to whether or not the violation would result necessarily, possibly, or not at all in a ban. However the Tokkô officials justified this wide interpretation by emphasizing that social conditions change, and therefore the interpretations of the law must also change with the times. The Tokkô is not a reactionary police like Bismarck’s… the Tokkô promotes strong points of social movements, corrects weak points and encourages those truly useful to the development of society and the state. In this sense the Tokkô is a guiding police - Aoki Sadao 19375(67).


The Tokkô was abolished in October 1945 by allied occupation authorities after Japan’s surrender. Although it played a significant role in aiding the government and the Kokutai, in it’s thirty-four year history the Special Higher Police also made a significant impact on the people of Japan by widely interpreting laws and repressing many ideologies, they inflicted a lot of fear in the interwar and war period. The Tokkô, in particular the Thought Police section of the Tokkô, were known and remembered for the number of mass arrests made, especially during the time of the Second World War. Although they were successful in protecting the war effort, it was at the cost of the Japanese populations general human rights. Rather than telling people what to think, the Tokkô enforced what people, in particular students, were not able to think or believe. In many ways, the Thought Police effected younger people more, in particular college and university students. University is about thinking and acting radically before going on to “real life”, the Thought Police and Tokkô stole this right and experience. In looking at the Peace Preservation Law of 1925, the “Thought Police”, and the “Rule of Law” in the 1930’s, it is made clear that the Special Higher Police worked with government in mind, not “who they were protecting”, the people of Japan. For “if you say Tokkô, even a crying baby child falls silent” 5(134).