The Rise of the Militarists

Excerpted from the Library of Congress Country Studies


Ultranationalism was characteristic of right-wing politicians and conservative military men since the inception of the Meiji Restoration, contributing greatly to the prowar politics of the 1870s. Disenchanted former samurai had established patriotic societies and intelligence-gathering organizations, such as the Gen'yosha (Black Ocean Society, founded in 1881) and its later offshoot, the Kokuryukai (Black Dragon Society, or Amur River Society, founded in 1901). These groups became active in domestic and foreign politics, helped foment prowar sentiments, and supported ultranationalist causes through the end of World War II. After Japan's victories over China and Russia, the ultranationalists concentrated on domestic issues and perceived domestic threats, such as socialism and communism.

After World War I and the intellectual ferment of the period, nationalist societies became numerous but had a minority voice during the era of two-party democratic politics. Diverse and angry groups called for nationalization of all wealth above a fixed minimal amount and for armed overseas expansion. The emperor was highly revered by these groups, and when Hirohito was enthroned in 1927, initiating the Showa period (Bright Harmony, 1926-89), there were calls for a "Showa Restoration" and a revival of Shinto. Emperor-centered neo-Shintoism, or State Shinto, which had long been developing, came to fruition in the 1930s and 1940s. It glorified the emperor and traditional Japanese virtues to the exclusion of Western influences, which were perceived as greedy, individualistic, bourgeois, and assertive. The ideals of the Japanese family-state and self-sacrifice in service of the nation were given a missionary interpretation and were thought by their ultranationalist proponents to be applicable to the modern world. Japanese traditions that encouraged dociity and obedience to authoritarian rule also greatly contributed to the growth of the ultra-nationalism and authoritarianism.Japan did not have a tradition of conflcit and compromise as a way to solve problems, so may Japanese found themselves ill at ease under the liberal system. As one writer has observed, 'Without the strong influence surviving from the feudal past, it seems improbable that the reaction of the 1930's would have occurred at all." He further asserted that in the early 1930's the blatant militarism, fanatical nationalism and anti-liberal and anti-democratic prejudices of the younger army and the navy officers and other reactionary groups swept over Japan in sudden reversal of the dominant trends of the preceding decade. The Parliamentary coalition of the bureaucrats, big businessmen and politicians with more or less active support from the urban middle class, had been the first successor of Meiji oligarchy. Now it was pushed aside by the militarists with the noisy backing of ultra-nationalistic socie­ties and tacit support of the rural population."

The 1930s were a decade of fear in Japan, characterized by the resurgence of right-wing patriotism, the weakening of democratic forces, domestic terrorist violence (including an assassination attempt on the emperor in 1932), and stepped-up military aggression abroad. Many would say that a significant proportion of the Japanese people no longer had faith in the representative institutions and when military officers and rightwingers argued that the parties were corript and selfish, there was not a compelling counter argument. This resulted in the founding of a number of ultra nationalistic secret societies which carried on terroristic activities and virulent propaganda against their opponents These reactionary societies looked to the armed forces for leadership because the army officers who maybe represented the lower classes, or at least were seen as trained professionals who could not profit from corruption, could better champion the cause of peasants and members of other lower classes. These army officers were highly resentful of the political and economic domination of the businessmen, the zaibatsu. They also did not have faith in capitalismwhich seemed to be based on greed and favoured radical programs to better the economic status of the underprivileged peasantry.

A prelude to this state of affairs was Tanaka Giichi's term as prime minister from 1927 to 1929. Twice he sent troops to China to obstruct Chiang Kai-shek's unification campaign. In June 1928, adventurist officers of theKwantung or Guandong Army, the Imperial Japanese Army unit stationed in Manchuria, embarked on unauthorized initiatives to protect Japanese interests, including the assassination of a former ally, Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin. The perpetrators hoped the Chinese would be prompted to take military action, forcing the Guandong Army to retaliate. The Japanese high command and the Chinese, however, both refused to mobilize. The incident turned out to be a striking example of unchecked terrorism. Even though press censorship kept the Japanese public from knowing about these events, they led to the downfall of Tanaka and set the stage for a similar plot, the Manchurian Incident, in 1931.

A secret society founded by army officers seeking to establish a military dictatorship--the Sakurakai (Cherry Society, the cherry blossom being emblematic of self-sacrifice)--plotted to attack the Diet and political party headquarters, assassinate the prime minister, and declare martial law under a "Showa Restoration" government led by the army minister. As McClain quotes from their founding document, the Sakurikai believed that "top leaders engage in immoral conduct, political parties are corrupt, capitalists and aristocrats have no understanding of the masses, the farming villages are devastated, unemployment and depression are serious...The positive enterprising spirit of the Meiji Rstoration has completely faded away. The people are with us in craving the appearance of a vigorous and clean government that is truly based on the masses, and is genuinely centered around the Emperor." (414) Although the army canceled its coup plans (to have been carried out in March 1931), no reprisals were taken and terrorist activity was again tacitly condoned. Meanwhile, the world seems to be moving in a different direction: in 1928, The Kellogg–Briand Pact (or Pact of Paris, officially General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy was signed in which signatory states promised not to use war to resolve "disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them." Countries failing to abide by this promise "should be denied the benefits furnished by this treaty." It was signed by Germany, France and the United States on August 27, 1928, and by most other nations soon after. Sponsored by France and the U.S., the Pact renounced the use of war and called for the peaceful settlement of disputes. In 1927-28 PM Tanaka Gi'ichi was pushing for greater Jaapnese military involvement on the continent. As head of the Seiyukai, this was his party's policy--send in troops if Japanese lives or property are threatened. But Kwantung Army officers acting independently decided to take matters into their own hands.

The Manchurian Incident of September 1931, however, did not fail, and it set the stage for the eventual military takeover of the Japanese government. Kwantung or Guandong Army conspirators blew up a few meters of South Manchurian Railway Company track near Mukden (now Shenyang), blamed it on Chinese saboteurs, and used the event as an excuse to seize Mukden. One month later, in Tokyo, military figures plotted the October Incident, which was aimed at setting up a national socialist state. The plot failed, but again the news was suppressed and the military perpetrators were not punished. Japanese forces attacked Shanghai in January 1932 on the pretext of Chinese resistance in Manchuria. Finding stiff Chinese resistance in Shanghai, the Japanese waged a three-month undeclared war there before a truce was reached in March 1932. Several days later, Manchukuo was established. Manchukuo was a Japanese puppet state headed by the last Chinese emperor, Puyi, as chief executive and later emperor. The civilian government in Tokyo was powerless to prevent these military happenings. Instead of being condemned, the Guandong Army's actions enjoyed popular support back home. [See an interesting article from a few yeara ago looks atthe Manchurian Incident through the lens of the US invasion of Iraq].

International reactions were extremely negative, however. Japan withdrew from the League of Nations when its Lytton Commission investigated the circumstances of the Manchurian Incident and concluded that the operations of the Imperial Japanese Army following the Mukden incident could not be regarded as legitimate self-defense. Regarding the establishment of the country of Manchukuo, the Report concluded that the new State could not have been formed without the presence of Japanese troops; therefore, it had no general Chinese support; and that it was not part of a genuine and spontaneous independence movement. Therefore, neither the military action of September 1931 and the founding of Manchkuo could be regarded as legitimate and Japan should withdraw its toops from Manchuria. Clearly, the United States became increasingly hostile to Japan's activity as well and issued its "non-recognition" doctrine indicated that the US would not regard japan's actions or the state of Manchkuop as legitimate.

The Japanese system of party government finally met its demise with the May 15th Incident in 1932, when a group of junior naval officers and army cadets assassinated Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi (1855-1932). Although the assassins were put on trial and sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment, they were seen popularly as having acted out of patriotism. Inukai's successors, military men chosen by Saionji, the last surviving genro, recognized Manchukuo and generally approved the army's actions in securing Manchuria as an industrial base, an area for Japanese emigration, and a staging ground for war with the Soviet Union. Various army factions contended for power amid increasing suppression of dissent and more assassinations.

In the February 26th Incident of 1936, about 1,500 troops went on a rampage of assassination against the current and former prime ministers and other cabinet members, and even Saionji and members of the imperial court. The revolt was put down by other military units, and its leaders were executed after secret trials. Despite public dismay over these events and the discredit they brought to numerous military figures, Japan's civilian leadership capitulated to the army's demands in the hope of ending domestic violence. Increases were seen in defense budgets, naval construction (Japan announced it would no longer accede to the London Naval Treaty), and patriotic indoctrination as Japan moved toward a wartime footing. Factionalism within the army also played a role in this incident.

Choshu Faction (Control Faction)                              v.                        Anti Choshu Faction (Imperial Way Faction)

General Tanaka Giichi--Choshu--                                                Gen. Araki Sadao
            served as PM, FM, Seiyukai head                                    Gen. Mazaki Jinzaburo

General Ugaki Issei                                                                            believed in spiritual
            accepted reduced numbers of troops                        *power of Japanese troops
            in return for mechanization/modernization
            of Army                                                                        *value of proper indoctrination
                                                                                                *sacredness of Imperial institution
Colonels like Nagata Testuzan                                            *group, family v. individual
            Tojo Hideki                                                                        *kokutai/ strong state structure
            Yamashita Tomoyuki                                      *opposed Western, liberal values
                                                                                                *in favor of mystical notions
                                                                                    So they become known as the
backed by Generals like Komoto Daisaku                                               
become known as                                                                               Kodoha or
                        Toseiha or Control Faction                    v. the Imperial Way Faction


1929 the Isseikai formed including above men +                                  Sakuraikai 1930

                        Doihara Kanji                                                                        Gen Tatekawa
                        Itagaki Seishiro                                                                      Col. Hashimoto +
                        Ishiwara Kanji                                                links with civilian Right Wing
            [Itagaki & Ishiwara     were                                        or “Radical Nationalists”like
            central to Manchurian Incident 1931]
                                                                                                                        Okawa Shumei
                                                                                                                        Kita Ikki
                                                                                                                        Inoue Nissho


                                                                        Military/Rightwing “Incidents”
                                                                                    March Incident 1931
                                                                                    October Incident 1931
                                                                                    Blood Brotherhood League May 15, 1932
                                                                                                in which PM Inukai assassinated along with Baron Dan Takuma head of Mitsui zaibatsu.

In November 1936, the Anti-Comintern Pact, an agreement to exchange information and collaborate in preventing communist activities, was signed by Japan and Germany (Italy joined a year later). War was launched against China after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 7, 1937, in which an allegedly unplanned clash took place near Beiping (as Beijing was then called) between Chinese and Japanese troops and quickly escalated into full-scale warfare. The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) ensued, and relations with the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union deteriorated. The increased military activities in China--and the Japanese idea of establishing "Mengukuo" in Inner Mongolia and the Mongolian People's Republic--soon led to a major clash over rival Mongolia-Manchukuo border claims.

When Japanese troops invaded eastern Mongolia, a ground and air battle with a joint Soviet- Mongolian army took place between May and September 1939 at the Battle of Halhin Gol. The Japanese were severely defeated, sustaining as many as 80,000 casualties, and thereafter Japan concentrated its war efforts on its southward drive in China and Southeast Asia, a strategy that helped propel Japan ever closer to war with the United States and Britain and their allies. Under the prime ministership of Konoe Fumimaro (1891-1945)--the last head of the famous Fujiwara house--the government was streamlined and given absolute power over the nation's assets. In 1940, the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of Japan, according to tradition, Konoe's cabinet called for the establishment of a "Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere," a concept building on Konoe's 1938 call for a "New Order in Greater East Asia," encompassing Japan, Manchukuo, China, and Southeast Asia. The Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere was to integrate Asia politically and economically--under Japanese leadership--against Western domination and was developed in recognition of the changing geopolitical situation emerging in 1940. (In 1942 the Greater East Asia Ministry was established, and in 1943 the Greater East Asia Conference was held in Tokyo.) Also in 1940, political parties were ordered to dissolve, and the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, comprising members of all former parties, was established to transmit government orders throughout society. In September 1940, Japan joined the Axis alliance with Germany and Italy when it signed the Tripartite Pact, a military agreement to redivide the world that was directed primarily against the United States.

There had been a long-standing and deep-seated antagonism between Japan and the United States since the first decade of the twentieth century. Each perceived the other as a military threat, and trade rivalry was carried on in earnest. The Japanese greatly resented the racial discrimination perpetuated by United States immigration laws, and the Americans became increasingly wary of Japan's interference in the self-determination of other peoples.

Japan's military expansionism and quest for national self- sufficiency eventually led the United States in 1940 to embargo war supplies, abrogate a long-standing commercial treaty, and put greater restrictions on the export of critical commodities. These American tactics, rather than forcing Japan to a standstill, made Japan more desperate. After signing the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact in April 1941, and while still actively making war plans against the United States, Japan participated in diplomatic negotiations with Washington aimed at achieving a peaceful settlement. Washington was concerned about Japan's role in the Tripartite Pact and demanded the withdrawal of Japanese troops from China and Southeast Asia. Japan countered that it would not use force unless "a country not yet involved in the European war" (that is, the United States) attacked Germany or Italy. Further, Japan demanded that the United States and Britain not interfere with a Japanese settlement in China (a pro-Japanese puppet government had been set up in Nanjing in 1940). Because certain Japanese military leaders were working at cross-purposes with officials seeking a peaceful settlement (including Konoe, other civilians, and some military figures), talks were deadlocked. On October 15, 1941, army minister Tojo Hideki (1884-1948) declared the negotiations ended. Konoe resigned and was replaced by Tojo. After the final United States rejection of Japan's terms of negotiation, on December 1, 1941, the Imperial Conference (an ad hoc meeting convened--and then only rarely--in the presence of the emperor) ratified the decision to embark on a war of "self-defense and self-preservation" and to attack the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor.


For greater detail see an essay of "Japan's Dark Background 1881-1945"