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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 distantly related, they are not, ultimately, what happened on 26 February 1936.
Everything not nice is called an “incident” in Japan.
Culturally, the Japanese don’t like to speak of unpleasant things, so the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) mutiny that started on 26 February 1936, the bombing of the Mukden railway in 1931 used as an excuse to take over Manchuria, and the 1937 firefight on the Marco Polo Bridge that started the war with China were all called “incidents.”
Pearl Harbor would have been an “incident” if the Americans had behaved as planned.
On 26 February 1936, a faction of the IJA attempted to eliminate their rivals in the military and the government. The faction was called the Kokutai Genri-ha (Kodo-ha for short), also called the "Righteous Army," "national principle," or the Imperial Way. It comprised primarily company grade and junior field grade officers (lieutenants through lieutenant-colonels) convinced that Japan had strayed from the traditions of the Meiji Restoration of 1876. They wanted the Emperor to return to direct rule, instead of governing through a constitution or a parliament—political government. This would restore national prosperity, return Japan to its rightful and natural place in the world's scheme, and enable Japan to purge itself of all evil western influences, like politicians.
It was easy for the rest of the IJA to oppose this movement.
The Kodo-Ha opposed "western influences," even those that enabled Japan to even get a seat at the table of negotiations with the United States and Great Britain were on the list of "evil" that the faction decried. Like many radical movements, parts of it simply made little 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. Opposing this movement was the Tōseiha or Control Faction of moderate officers who included Tojo Hideki and several other future leaders during WWII.
Kodo-Ha was primarily responsible for the Manchurian Incident in 1932.
The attempted 26 February coup failed after four days of tension and violence, but not before the murder of two former prime ministers, Takahashi Korekiyo and Saitō Makoto, and several others. The secret trials afterwards took eighteen months. After them, the courts executed nineteen of the conspirators. But rather than have any thought of the extinguishing of a Showa Restoration, the quashed-but-remembered movement became what could be called today a meme, if a false one.
And, exhausted, Japan gave in to the military.
The politicians and most others were simply weary of the killings and the rhetoric of the Kodo-Ha and let the samurai—”militarists” to the west—have their way and run Japanese affairs…like the Constitution allowed them to do. The IJA and the IJN would use the “Emperor’s peace of mind” to justify everything they did, right up to 1945. Every attack, every invasion, every annexation was in the name of, and for the wellbeing of, the Emperor. Unfortunately, The Showa Emperor 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 be perfectly willing to either assassinate or imprison him (they certainly were not above it), 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 the Showa would cast caution aside and stop the militarists/samurai by withdrawing his support for their actions.
In our book, my co-author and I make short shrift of the February 26th “Incident,” but its effects were writ large in the rest of Japan’s history.
After decades of struggle with the civil government, the military finally triumphed, imposing control on much of Japanese society from that date on…until 14 August 1945. It’s cheap on Amazon now, but if you get it from me, it’s autographed.
A History of Time
A What of What?
On 25 February:
1890: Vyacheslav Mikhaylovich Skryabin, AKA Vyacheslav Molotov, was born in Kurkaka, Russia. He took the name “Molotov,” derived from the Russian for “sledgehammer” because it sounded proletarian. Today his name is best known for a gasoline bomb, but he also served the Bolsheviks and the Soviet Union for most of its—and all of his—life.
1956: In his speech On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences, Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin as a “degenerate.” By that time, nearly everyone had denounced some part of Stalin’s brutal regime, even Molotov. Khrushchev was just the first major figure to do so in public.
And finally, today is NATIONAL CHOCOLATE COVERED NUT DAY. When I could eat either chocolate or nuts, I never cared for the combination…but hey, different strokes…