The prolific British historian Niall Ferguson contends that the Second World War began in July 1937, when, after an “incident” at the Marco Polo Bridge on the outskirts of Beijing, Japan sent five divisions to Northern and coastal China. By the end of the year, more than 800,000 Japanese troops occupied 150,000 square miles of Chinese territory, and the Chinese capital of Nanking had been literally raped and pillaged by Japanese forces.
Six years earlier, Japanese troops had staged another “incident” along a stretch of the South Manchurian Railway near Mudken, occupied cities and whole provinces, and eventually transformed Manchuria into a puppet state called Manchukuo.
In a well-researched and enlightening new book, Danny Orbach, a senior lecturer in the Asian Studies and General History Department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, traces the origins of Japanese militarism and expansionism to an ideology and culture within the Japanese Army that promoted or encouraged insubordination, rebellion and resistance to state and higher military authorities, all in the name of serving the emperor.
It began, Orbach writes, in the 1870s during the Meiji Restoration
when rebellious officers, statesmen, and former samurai regularly hatched assassination plots, mutinies, and at times open rebellions.
In 1873, a rebellion broke out among shizoku (samurai families) in Saga Prefecture. In 1874, Lt Gen Saigo Tsugumichi commanded an expedition to Taiwan to punish the murders of two Japanese sailors, against the express orders of Japan’s civilian leaders. Two years later in western Japan, a spiritual group called Shinpuren (League of Divine Wind) whose members were opposed to Western influences, conducted raids and massacres against troops garrisoned in Kumamoto. In 1877, Saigo Takamori led an unsuccessful military uprising in Satsuma Prefecture.
These uprisings, rebellions and acts of insubordination led to a series of military reforms in 1878, including the establishment of a General Staff (Sanbo Honbu) and the Army Inspectorate (Kangun Honbu), which along with the Army Ministry administered and oversaw the Imperial Army. Orbach notes that the reforms
were accompanied by an imported Prussian construct later known as the ‘prerogative of supreme command’,
which effectively secured the independence of the armed forces from civilian control, save that of the emperor.
An important defect of the new reforms was that insubordination and crimes committed by military personnel, including assassinations and attempted assassinations, were punished by the army instead of civilian courts and officials. “Military leaders,” notes Orbach, “therefore [had] the power to whitewash the delinquency of their comrades.” That is precisely what happened again and again.
In October 1895, Japanese soldiers and civilian accomplices assassinated the Queen of Korea. Despite solid evidence of their guilt, a military tribunal in Hiroshima acquitted all military personnel involved. The failure to punish this regicide, writes Orbach, “had ominous consequences for the future.”
Less than two decades later, the nation was nearly torn apart by the Taisho Crisis of 1912-1913, when two rival politico-military networks, often led by mid-ranking generals and admirals, vied against one another for political power; all, of course, in the name of serving the emperor. Orbach calls this development the “democratization of insubordination” in the armed forces. Although civilian rule survived, the military, writes Orbach,
became stronger and weaker at the same time—stronger as institutions, but at the same time more chaotic and difficult to control.
The General Staff acquired more power vis-à-vis the government, but nothing was done to replace the “private, horizontal networks” of the armed forces with a more hierarchical structure. Orbach explains that this development sometimes enabled the General Staff to pursue its own policies independent of government control (e.g., during the Russian Civil War in 1918-1922), but plots and assassinations by lower-ranking officers continued.
In 1928, Imperial Army officers plotted and carried out the assassination of Chinese warlord Zhang Zuolin, an act of insubordination that again went unpunished. Orback writes that this was an “important historical watershed in the development of Japanese military insubordination.” Three years later, young Japanese officers plotted to assassinate the entire civilian cabinet as a result of naval disarmament concessions made to Western powers. This, Orback writes, was “the opening act for five turbulent years of assassinations and coups unprecedented since the 1870s.”
Many of the young Japanese officers belonged to a clandestine organization known as Sakura-kai (Cherry Blossom Society), a violent military group that acted in concert with extreme nationalist civilian organizations. The “sword of military violence,” Orbach notes, was now pointed “toward the Japanese government itself.” The founders of Sakura-kai were lieutenant colonels from the General Staff, the Army Ministry, and the Tokyo Guards Division. The group coordinated its plans and activities with civilian ultra-nationalist organizations and received intellectual support from academics such as Dr Okawa Shumei, a professor at Takushoku University. It was this group that planned and carried out the Mudken incident that led to the creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria in 1931.
The acts of violent insubordination by some in Japan’s military culminated in February 1936, when more than a thousand troops from the First Division and Imperial Guard assassinated the finance minister and the lord keeper of the privy seal, seriously wounded the inspector general of military education, and attempted to takeover the imperial palace. Finally, Emperor Hirohito intervened and ordered the arrest of the assassins and conspirators. This time the punishment meted out to the military rebels was severe, including the execution of key rebel leaders.
This attempted coup and the government’s strong response brought an end to further significant acts of insubordination by junior officers in the army. But it did not, Orbach notes, lessen the independence of the army from civilian control.
In the end, Orbach blames “structural flaws in the political system” that enabled mid-level military rebels and their ultra-nationalist civilian allies to create conditions whereby militarists gained control of the government and led Japan to wage a war of conquest and expansion that ended with the firebombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
That explanation, however, comes perilously close to absolving Japan’s civilian leaders, and the emperor himself, of responsibility for an expansionist policy of conquest that many, if not most, of them supported.