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The Rise of the Militarists

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.

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. 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 the Guandong Army, the Imperial Japanese Army unit stationed in Manchuria, embarked an 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. 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.

The Manchurian Incident of September 1931 did not fail, and it set the stage for the eventual military takeover of the Japanese government. 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. International reactions were extremely negative, however. Japan withdrew from the League of Nations, and the United States became increasingly hostile.

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.

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.

Data as of January 1994

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