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The February 26th Incident: A Window on the Samurai Soul

It is sometimes puzzling to the casual observer how very caustic the attitudes of the samurai leadership of Japan were before 1945.  Most non-Japanese would meet the February 26th incident with either blank stares or some attempts at putting the event on some bridge in China or a railway in Manchuria.  Though these events are distantly related, they are not, ultimately, what happened on 26 February 1936.
It was on that day that a faction of the Japanese Army attempted to eliminate their rivals in the military and the government.  The faction, called the Kodo-ha or “Righteous Army” (sometimes, Kokutai Genri-ha, or “national principle”), was composed primarily of company grade and junior field grade officers who were convinced that the country had strayed from the traditions of the Meiji Restoration of 1876, and that the Emperor should return to direct rule, instead of governing through a constitution or a parliament.  This would restore national prosperity, return Japan to its rightful and natural place in the scheme of the world, and enable Japan to purge itself of all evil western influences.
It was easy for the rest of the Army to oppose this movement, partly on the basis that many of the “western influences” that enabled Japan to even get a seat at the table of negotiations with the United States and Great Britain were not on the list of “evil” that the faction decried.  Like many radical movements, parts of it simply don’t make any sense.  But others, like ensuring the Emperor’s peace of mind, carried the seeds of samurai arrogance that wished to spread beyond the bounds of the Home Islands.
The attempted coup failed after some four days of tension and violence, but not before the murder of two former prime ministers, Takahashi Korekiyo and Saitō Makoto, and a number of others.  The secret trials took eighteen months.  Nineteen of the conspirators were executed.  But rather than have any thought of a Showa Restoration be extinguished, it became what could be called today a meme, if a false one.  The Army would use the idea that everything they would do right up to 1945 was in the name of, and for the well being of, the Emperor.  Unfortunately, Hirohito was more than willing to go along with whatever they wanted, aware that there was not a lot he could do to stop it.  If provoked, the samurai leadership would either assassinate or imprison him, name his young son emperor and place some general in place as regent (as had happened to his father, the Taisho).  It would be 1945, under the direct threat of invasion of the home islands, before Hirohito would cast caution aside and stop the militarists by withdrawing his support for their actions.
What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan At War, 1941-45 examines the consequences of an isolated society dominated by a subgroup that saw themselves as “moderates” if they only wanted to exterminate one neighbor, as opposed to the “extremists” who wanted to dominate a third of the world.  Available in hardbound, paperback or PDF.
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