Friday, May 15, 2015

May 15, 1932 – Japanese Civil War Begins

Eleven young officers in the Japanese Navy approached the home of Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi to replicate the assassinations by the League of Blood from two months before. Japan was at a turning point with the populace frustrated by a struggling economy, and extreme-nationalists determined that it was time to purify the nation of the weak liberal-leaning civil leaders that had been in power since the beginning of the Taisho Democracy, when the emperor was ailing and political parties moved the Diet into authority.

Since being opened to the West by American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853, Japan had undergone radical change. The Meiji Period saw the restoration of the emperor as the central source of power, ending the local control of the shogun. Industrialization brought new technology, and the Japanese market was flooded with commercially produced goods. The flow of foreign ideals upset many, especially as communism trickled over the border from the Russian Revolution.

Even more resentful than the radical changes in the country and the inflow of alien culture was Japan’s treatment by other world powers. Despite its participation in World War I where the Japanese Navy seized German colonies in China and the Pacific, Japan was treated as an outsider in the agreements. The Five Power Naval Limitation Agreement in Washington, D.C., in 1922 promoted disarmament in Pacific, creating a ratio of 5 to 5 to 3 for the United States, United Kingdom, and Japan for major ships. In 1924, the United States closed off immigration with the Japanese Exclusion Act, even though it enforced open markets. The final straw for Japan came when its own colonial ambitions in China were frowned upon after the invasion of Manchuria after a Chinese attack on a Japanese railway in 1931, even though that proved to be a hoax.

Conservatives grew in power throughout the 1920s. The first base came as a reaction against the communists, leading to the Peace Preservation Law in 1925 that ensured private ownership and sentenced anyone trying to undermine Japanese cultural spirit with ten years’ imprisonment. The populace grew restless as the war-time boom in the 1910s turned into a general recession, only made worse by the collapse of exports in the Great Depression. Nationalism, which had been strong in the country for centuries, was especially strong in the military, which enjoyed successes against Russia and China. Some believed that the disciplined military, not elected officials, should be in command of the country under the authority of the emperor.

Secret societies grew up among the ambitious young officers of the military, which had become stunted by spending cuts. The Army had its Sakurakai (Cherry Blossom Society), which attempted coup d’etats in March and October of 1931, which ultimately led to the society disintegrating in exchange for light punishments. Instead of cooling the flames, the light punishments proved to encourage others to act. In February of 1932, the “League of Blood,” formed by mystic Buddhist Nissho Inoue, who had previously served as a Japanese informant in Manchuria and was given a vision that he was to be the reformer of the country. He instructed a team of twenty followers with the motto “one person, one kill,” planning a wave of assassinations of politicians and businessmen that would rock the Japanese status quo. Only two of the assassins actually acted, and Nissho turned himself in, becoming exalted as a patriot. Another group from the Navy readied to carry through their own coup d’etat in May, planning to strike right after actor Charlie Chaplin arrived from America.

The assassins were slow in assembling on a strangely rainy evening, which proved fortunate to their cause as Chaplin and Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi’s son attended a sumo wrestling match before the reception at Inukai’s home. They arrived shortly after Chaplin, charged inside, and gunned down Chaplin and Inukai Takeru, who threw himself in front of his father. The Prime Minister was wounded but survived, while the eleven went on a string of assaults later that night. In the end, they turned themselves in to the Kempeitai military police, expecting similar awe as Nissho had seen.

Instead, the Prime Minister ordered their trial for executions the next morning. The military balked, saying that the officers were under their authority and should be court-martialed. Inukai, who had been customarily diplomatic over his life, was hardened, saying that if the officers were acting under military authority, then the military was treasonous. He ordered civilian police to re-arrest the officers out of Kempeitai custody. The resulting firefight was considered the second battle of the civil war.

Desperate for support, the Diet appealed to the League of Nations. This turned the majority of Japanese against them, but the nations of Europe (particularly Germany) were eager to act. What might have been a short war in the military’s favor turned into a long and violent international occupation. Britain and France eventually dropped out of the effort, although Germany carried on to create a fascist client state by holding the emperor. Hitler’s attention was focused on the Pacific, which he seemed determined to reach through the USSR, strong-arming Japan’s Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto into striking Vladivostok with a sneak attack.


In reality, the civil government of Japan did little to stem the rising tide of militarism. The officers assassinated Inukai Tsuyoshi, who yet tried to reach out to them with his last words, “If I could speak, you would understand.” They replied, “Dialogue is useless.” The sensational trial furthered national zeal, which prompted Japan to walk out of the League of Nations after censure over Manchuria. Charlie Chaplin and Inukai Takeru avoided assassination by attending the sumo match.

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