(JAPANESE POLITICS and SOCIETY, to 1927 – continued)

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JAPANESE POLITICS and SOCIETY, to 1927 (9 of 9)

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Economic Depression and Power for Hawkish Soldiers

Emperor Taisho died late in 1926, and a year later his son Hirohito ascended the throne. By then Japan's prosperity was in decline again. The Americans were buying less from Japan, especially in textiles. Some Japanese factories were closing. Unemployment was rising. Falling silk and rice prices hurt Japanese farmers, and starvation became a real threat to millions of people in Japan's rural areas. A banking crisis arose. Banks had been making unsound investments again, while production was outstripping the ability to consume. Thirty-one banks folded, with terrified depositors trying to withdraw their money.

Fear of unrest and subversion led Prime Minister Baron Tanaka Giichi to aggressively pursue more campaigning against "dangerous thoughts." Eight socialists elected to the Diet were denied their seats. Some Communist Party leaders were sent to prison. Professors were dismissed from universities.

To counter the economic recession, Tanaka's government increased military expenditures and began to look for recourse in business within Japan's empire and with China. Some around the Emperor, and the emperor himself, continued to favor peace and cooperation with China, while Tanaka, the military, Privy Council, and many members of the House of Peers had decided that a policy of cooperation and non-intervention in China was too weak. Chiang Kai-shek's march northward toward Beijing was taking place, and Tanaka and his allies were concerned about Japan's position in northern China, in Beijing and nearby Tianjin, where their ally, the Chinese warlord Zhang Zuolin, had been ruling since 1924. The Japanese were also concerned about Chinese Chiang Kai-shek's threat to Japan's interests in Manchuria, where Japan had industries and was acquiring oil, soybeans and other commodities.

Japan's military moved to overcome public opposition to intervention in China by claiming that three hundred Japanese residents in Shandong had been massacred. Actually, only thirteen Japanese in Shandong had been killed – people whom the Chinese believed were smuggling opium. Newspapers in Japan stirred public opinion into favoring intervention. Tanaka sent an additional division of soldiers to Shandong. The commander of Japanese troops in Shandong sent troops to the city of Jinan to block the advance of Chiang's forces toward Beijing, and Japanese forces in Jinan killed and injured thousands of residents there.

With Chiang Kai-shek winning recognition and making treaties with foreign powers other than Japan, Prime Minister Tanaka withdrew troops from Jinan and recognized Chiang Kai-shek's Guomindang as the legitimate ruling power of China.

With Chiang Kai-shek and the Guomindang in power in Beijing, Zhang Zuolin withdrew his troops back into Manchuria, where his rule had originated. This displeased Japan's army command in Manchuria, who distrusted Zhang Zuolin. The army command there wished to disarm Zhang Zuolin's army, but Prime Minister Tanaka saw such an attempt as foolish, and he refused the army permission. Instead, frustrated army officers in Manchuria hatched a plot to murder Zhang Zuolin. They believed that the death of Zhang would induce disturbances in Manchuria by Chinese and that they could respond with a show of preserving peace and order, giving them an excuse to extend their authority into areas beyond what had been agreed to at the Washington Naval Conference. A railway car in which Zhang Zuolin was riding during his retreat to Manchuria was blown up. Zhang was killed, and the Japanese attributed the killing to Chinese nationalists.

The expected disturbances among the Chinese in Manchuria did not occur, but Japan's army moved as planned. Hirohito and those others who favored cooperation with China were upset. So too was the international community. Britain and France moved for sanctions against Japan based on Article 16 of the League of Nations. Prime Minister Tanaka was also upset, and he wished to have those responsible for Zhang's assassination court-martialed. Many in the army and in Parliament, including Tanaka supporters, opposed this. Knowledge that Zhang's assassination had been committed by army men was not published, and army leaders were successful in having the assassination treated as an internal army matter.

Tanaka held the institution of the emperor in great awe, and Hirohito granted him a meeting, at which Hirohito expressed displeasure with Tanaka's failure to punish the assassins. Tanaka responded by resigning, which disappointed Hirohito. Hirohito regretted having intervened, later blaming his action on his "youthful vigor." Hirohito retreated to the more passive role expected of him, deciding to remain neutral regarding the prime minister and his cabinet. Considered connected to Japan's god, Hirohito remained a figure of great awe and respect in Japan, and Japan's military remained an independent force, in favor of pursuing empire. The army's ranks were soon to be filled with young recruits from the countryside – ready and willing material for indoctrination about the evils of big city deviations from Japan's divine tradition.


Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, chapters 1 ~ 4, by Herbert P. Bix, 2000

A History of Japanese Economic Thought, Tessa Morris-Suzuki, 1998

Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.