(JAPAN and EMPEROR HIROHITO, TO 1936 – continued)

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Emperor Hirohito Asserts Himself

Japan's super-nationalists were offended by a leading academic on constitutional law at Tokyo Imperial University and a member of the House of Peers, Tatsukichi Minobe. Minobe was the leading opponent of the military expanding into government. In opposing Minobe's views on constitutional law, the super-nationalists saw the divinity of the emperor at stake. They accused Minobe of supporting democracy and committing treason. Among the complaining super-nationalists were Japan's Military Reserve Association and its Army Officers' Association. The Army turned the debate into an attack on moderates in general, with Hirohito quietly trying to support Minobe's position. Hirohito did nothing to support Minobe, and in September 1935 Minobe was forced to resign from the House of Peers.

Minobe's critics repeatedly invited him to commit suicide. The government gave Minobe police protection after two attempts to kill him failed. In February 1936 another attempt left Minobe wounded, and Minobe's assailant was celebrated by fervent nationalists as a hero.

Lyrics to Japan's most popular song, written by a navy lieutenant, spoke of those in power as being "swollen with pride" and the rich flaunting their wealth and caring nothing for the welfare of Japan. It spoke of "brave warriors united in justice," cherry blossoms and a day when "our swords will gleam with the blood of purification."

Elections were called by the new prime minister, another retired admiral, Okada Keisuke. Small leftist parties and the larger of the moderate parties, the Democratic Party, gained seats in Japan's House of Representatives. The rightist parties lost seats. Rightists despised parliamentary democracy, and some of their supporters may have stayed away from the polls, holding elections in contempt. Japan's House of Representatives, at any rate, had little influence. Only a minority of the new membership in the House of Representatives was opposed to military men dominating the government's cabinet or against continuing military aggressions. But some among the rightists were alarmed by the loss of seats in parliament and decided it was time to act to save Japan.

In late February, 1936, came the biggest coup attempt. It began with a Shinto fundamentalist, Lieutenant Colonel Saburo Aizawa, killing with his sword the chief of the Military Affairs Bureau. Lieutenant Aizawa was responding to the dismissal of a director of military education whom he had admired. He stood trial for the killing, and firebrand defense lawyers turned the trial into a spectacle, with the courtroom filled with off-duty army men supporting Aizawa. Young army officers believed there was a plot to transfer them to Manchuria to remove them from Tokyo during the trial. These officers responded by leading about 1,500 soldiers in an attempt to overthrow the government.

In Tokyo, in the early morning hours of a snowy day, they took control of the streets around the royal palace and capital buildings. They distributed leaflets that spoke of the divinity of Japan being grounded "in the fact that the nation is destined to expand." The leaflet spoke of a "blood brotherhood of martyrs" and of Colonel Aizawa's "flashing sword" having no effect on "evil imperial advisers." Their leaflet spoke of self-seeking men encroaching "on the royal prerogative" and obstructing the true growth of the people, people who had been driven to the utmost depths of misery, making Japan an "object of contempt." The leaflet spoke of the Soviet Union, Britain and the United States wishing to crush "our ancestral land." And it concluded with the purpose of the coup: to "remove the villains who surround the Throne."

The soldiers murdered several persons including the former prime minister, Saito, firing forty-seven bullets into him and then giving three cheers for the emperor. They believed they had also killed the existing prime minister, Okada Keisuke, but they had killed his brother-in-law instead. The prime minister survived by hiding under a pile of laundry for a couple of days. The insurgents burned down one building, turned a hotel into a command post and occupied various other buildings. They sent a note to General Shigeru Honjo, the army's aide-de-camp to the emperor, announcing their coup and requesting reinforcements, and General Honjo learned that one of the coup leaders was his son-in-law.

The Emperor learned of the plot soon after sunrise. Enraged, he told General Honjo that the coup had to be crushed as quickly as possible. Hirohito dressed in his military uniform, and he ordered the navy to mobilize the fleet. He summoned the Minister of War, and the minister angered the emperor by reading him the rebel's leaflet, as he had promised the rebels he would do. Hirohito summoned his family to join him in the palace, including Prince Chichibu, who had been friends with some of those leading the coup. Hirohito exacted a pledge of loyalty from his entire family. By the end of the day, Hirohito began sleeping dressed in his military uniform on his camp cot in his office.

The rebels stayed in the streets into the second and third days of the coup attempt. Hirohito's aide-de-camp, General Honjo, presented the emperor with the army's point of view, referring to the rebels as "activists" and speaking of them as acting "for the good of the nation." And he told the emperor that in his opinion the "activists" – men filled with emotion for Japan's glory and spirituality – should not be condemned. Hirohito would have none of it. He called the "activists" brutal criminals and reminded Honjo that they had murdered aged and venerable men.

On the third day of the crisis, after waiting for dithering generals to act, Hirohito issued an edict ordering the rebels to "speedily withdraw." He told General Honjo that if they did not withdraw he would personally lead the Imperial Guard Division against them. Facing what they perceived to be their failure, some of the rebel officers wished to commit suicide in the presence of an official representing the emperor. Hirohito refused. "If they want to kill themselves," he said, "let them do as they please."

Coup participants were taken to an army jail. Coup leaders surrendered, some of them hoping for more show trials at which they could make speeches and win leniency.  Hirohito was determined to make examples of them. There were to be no public trials and no speeches. Over one hundred officers and under-officers were charged with treason and tried in a series of courts martial secluded from public view. Fifteen were executed by firing squad.  No dates were given for the executions, and no ashes were returned to their relatives.

The attempted coup brought shame to that faction in the army that had wanted a spiritual reformation and the restoration of a pre-industrial and non-Westernized Japan – a faction called the Kodoha, consisting mainly of younger officers. A rival faction became dominant in the army. It consisted of older military men who saw that industrialism was needed in making the military strong, and these were leaders willing to work with government bureaucrats and leading industrialists.  Among them was General Hideki Tojo, destined to become Japan's wartime prime minister.

Hirohito's relatives looked upon him with a new respect, while Hirohito wished to demonstrate to the military that he was kind to them as he was to all his subjects. He saw the military as having been chastised, and in demonstrating his kindness he would now allow the military to pursue the goal of Japan's leadership in East Asia.


Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, chapters 5 ~ 8, by Herbert P. Bix, 2000

Chiang Kai-shek: His Life and Times, by Keiji Furuya, 1981

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

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.