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.
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
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]
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
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
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"