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Japan in the 1920s was a nation caught in a cultural vise. Pressure on one side came from its hermit heritage, based on complex ancient religious, military and political ideas alien to the West. On the other side there was a strong urge to rapidly modernize. That squeeze, intensified by nationalism, led first to an internal clash between moderates and radicals and, ultimately, to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The radicals, calling for the rejection of Western ways and direct imperial rule, wanted a militaristic government based on national socialism, an Oriental echo of the Nazi movement in Germany. The Japanese radicals looked to, and arose from, the armed forces. Their opponents were those who wanted to lead the country along a democratic, capitalistic path–the Western-oriented urban bourgeoisie and intellectuals. The extremist tide gave rise to often-interconnected ultranationalistic military and civilian secret societies that believed only an army-led revolution could return Japan to its “true character and values” and spread its “imperial way” throughout the East.

Japan’s military had a number of advantages over the civilian government and did not hesitate to exploit them. Despite its factions and intrigues, the military possessed an overall unity of purpose based on centuries-old xenophobia, a distaste for civilian rule, and modern Asia’s first victories over Western imperialist powers.

Another military advantage was the fact that Japan had made its army and navy ministers more powerful than the rest of the cabinet. Co-equal with the prime minister, they had iaku joso, direct access to the throne, in an emperor-worshipping nation. By simply refusing to name a minister, the military could force the dissolution of any civilian government it disapproved of. And, of course, the military had the organization and weapons to impose its will.

Two events led to a violent confrontation–the appearance of a nationalist government in China in 1928 and the onset of the Great Depression the following year. The new Chinese government threatened imperialistic interests on the Asiatic mainland. The depression intensified Japan’s need for raw materials and markets to assure self-sufficiency.

While the army unilaterally instigated armed clashes in China’s Manchuria region to justify full-scale intervention, Prime Minister Osachi Hamaguchi worked to revive Japan’s flagging economy. One way was to cut military expenditures. That, coming after the prime minister’s concurrence with the London conference that limited Japan’s naval power, was seen by the radicals as akin to treason.

On November 14, 1930, as he was boarding a train in Tokyo, Hamaguchi was shot in the stomach by a young member of the Aikokusha (Patriotic Association). It took the prime minister nine months to die. His assailant subsequently was pardoned and remained politically active even after World War II.

With the civilian government frightened, and in any case limited in power, it looked as if only the emperor could rein in the freewheeling extremists. Emperor Hirohito, who had acceded to the throne in 1926, was not up to the task. Although he disapproved of the army’s overseas escalations and the internal violence, he allowed traditional imperial constraints and his own personality to deter him from meaningful action. In late 1930, Lt. Col. Kingoro Hashimoto, who seven years later would try to trigger war with Britain by shelling a Royal Navy gunboat in Chinese waters, formed the Sakurakai (Cherry Society). Consisting mostly of midlevel officers, it was dedicated to establishing a military-controlled social structure in Japan. The Cherry Society planned a March 1931 coup d’état that was aborted because of internal disagreement. Six months later, the Japanese army invaded Manchuria without its own government’s consent. Tokyo’s efforts to halt the aggression were ignored by the army.

In October 1931, Hashimoto’s Cherry Society masterminded another coup, which fell apart when the general chosen to head the new government refused to cooperate. Despite the fact that the arrested ringleaders escaped punishment on the grounds of alleged “sincere motives,” the plot’s failure indicated that there still was a chance to check Japan’s march toward totalitarianism and war.

Enraged by the failure of the October coup, a radical Buddhist priest named Nissho Inoue organized a terrorist group called Ketsumeidan (Blood Brotherhood). He recruited chiefly young peasants who took an oath to assassinate national leaders they felt had either betrayed Japan or exploited the farmers. Their motto–“One man, one death.”

Ketsumeidan’s first victim, banker and former finance minister Junnosuk Inoue, was fatally shot by a 22-year-old youth in February 1932. Twenty-five days later, Takua Dan, a member of a samurai family and manager of the vast Matsui business conglomerate, was murdered as he arrived at his office by a 21-year-old Blood Brotherhood member.

Whereas civilian societies attacked individual enemies, military conspirators aimed at nothing less than instant revolution. On Friday, May 13, 1932, five plotters met in a restaurant in the naval base town of Tsuchiura, a two-hour train ride from Tokyo. Two naval officers, an army cadet, a student and a teacher from the agricultural Native Land-Loving School put the finishing touches on plans to terrorize the civilian government and force the country under martial law; thereupon, the army could take over in the name of the emperor. At 5 p.m. on Sunday, May 15, nine young naval and army officers visited Tokyo’s sacred Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to the country’s war dead, then piled into two taxis and drove to the prime minister’s official residence. One group easily entered the front door and located the prime minister’s suite, while the other went around to the rear.

Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai, 77 years old, small, goateed and wearing a kimono, addled the revolver-wielding intruders by calmly asking them to sit down and talk. Suddenly, the second group of officers burst in. Their leader, a lieutenant, snapped, “No use talking. Fire!” The others obeyed. The fatally wounded Inukai slumped to the matted floor. On their way out, the killers shot a truncheon-armed policeman who challenged them. Abandoned by the taxi-drivers who had brought them, the nine found two more cabs. Their next target was central civilian police headquarters, but they found the building empty. One carload then drove on to military police headquarters and surrendered, and the second followed suit after detouring to toss a grenade at the Bank of Japan building. There were other explosives-throwing incidents in the capital that night.

Twenty-one naval officers and army cadets and 20 civilians were tried for the May 15 violence. Surprisingly, they received light sentences, none of which they fully served. It was felt that, while the extremists’ actions had been objectionable, their motives had been “pure and patriotic.”

Initially, the rebelling officers had planned to murder not only the prime minister but also the world famous Hollywood comedian Charlie Chaplin, who was visiting Japan. Lieutenant Seishi Koga, the plot leader, later explained: “Chaplin is a popular figure in the United States and a darling of the capitalist class. We believed that killing him would cause a war with America.” The plan to assassinate Chaplin was discarded because “it was disputed…that it could bring about war with the United States and increase the power of the military.”

Although senior officers refused the rebels’ request to order the army to move against the government, the May 15 incident had far-reaching effects. Civilian leaders were cowed into silence. Party government was replaced by a “cabinet of national unity” consisting of eight military officers and three civilians and headed by Admiral Makoto Saito as prime minister. This lopsided group soon recognized the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, which replaced Manchuria, and withdrew Japan from the League of Nations.

The next three years saw no easing of the country’s inner turmoil. The army itself was roiled by vicious in-fighting between two major factions. The more dominant and conservative Kodo (Imperial Way) faction championed international reconstruction and preparation for war with Russia. The Tosei (Control) faction wanted a wartime economy and expansion southward into China. The 1936 elections, almost the last time the public could express its desires, were won by moderates.

Young Kodo officers, impatient that their revolutionary goals were not being met and facing transfer from the capital, planned a wave of high-level assassinations and occupation of the centers of government, including the imperial palace. During the early morning darkness of February 26, 1936, as a snowfall carpeted the capital, about 1,400 troops from the 3rd Guard Regiment and two regiments of the 1st Division marched into downtown Tokyo to take over the key buildings. Meanwhile, truck-borne killer teams hurried to scratch names from their hit list.

They struck almost simultaneously at 5 a.m. Three lieutenants and 150 men of the 3rd Infantry Regiment stormed into the bedroom of Makoto Saito, who only hours before had attended a diplomatic dinner at the U.S. Embassy. The emperor’s 77-year-old Lord Privy Seal and former prime minister was riddled with 47 bullets. Part of the group then sped to the home of 71-year-old Inspector General Jotaro Watanabe and gunned down the Tosei faction general in front of his wife and daughter.

Another hit squad, let by a captain, barged into the bedroom of Grand Chamberlain Baron Kantaro Suzuki, the head of the imperial household, who also had been at the U.S. Embassy dinner. They shot him in the head, shoulder, lung and groin. The assailants, at the request of the grand chamberlain’s wife, left without administering the traditional coup de grâce. Suzuki lived to become the prime minister who surrendered Japan to the Allies in 1945.

The 300-strong group given the task of killing Prime Minister Keisuke Okada had to shoot four guards before gaining access to the official residence across the street from the parliament building. Hearing the shooting downstairs, Okada’s brother-in-law hid Okada in a bathroom and faced the assassins alone. His resemblance to the 67-year-old prime minister proved fatal. Okada remained undiscovered.

The 3rd Guards Regiment assaulted Finance Minister Korekiyo Takahashi’s house. Dashing into the master bedroom, the lieutenant in charge pulled the covers off the 82-year-old official, yelled “Traitor!” and fired his handgun. A second officer then used his sword on the prostrate old man. In the meantime, eight men ran into the Itoya Inn 60 miles from Tokyo, where 74-year-old Count Nobuaki Makino, the emperor’s chief adviser, was staying with his wife and granddaughter. The ultranationalists shot Makino’s bodyguard and nurse but could not find their prey. Infuriated, they torched the hotel and machine-gunned men, women and children who fled into the swirling snow. Makino escaped with his family.

Most of their immediate objectives attained, the young rebel officers now appealed to the army. The response essentially was congratulations, but no thanks. Even their attempt to take over the imperial palace to have possession of the emperor, who considered them “brutal mutineers,” failed. The military high command did little more than declare martial law and wait to see how the wind blew. Ships of the 1st Fleet, their guns trained on the parliament building, anchored offshore. On February 28, when it became obvious that the coup lacked significant outside support and after an imperial edict was issued, the army finally positioned troops to restore order the next day. The young rebel officers were arrested; 124 were tried. Thirteen officers and four civilians were sentenced to death.

Once again, in 1937, the Japanese majority showed its desire for peace in a national election. Prince Fumimaro Konoye, the new prime minister, tried indirectly to freeze the nation’s aggressive foreign policy, but instead found himself presiding over the invasion of China.

Each new effort to avert a confrontation with the West was feebler than the preceding one, especially after another series of mostly abortive assassination plots in 1939-1940. When the bellicose war minister and most powerful man in Japan, Army General Hideki Tojo, became prime minister in October 1941, there no longer was a chance of avoiding war with Britain and the United States. *