The 26 February Incident

A bit of history that was forgotten in the West, I believe.

In the early hours of 26 February 1936, a group of young radical Japanese army officers led approximately 1,400 troops, under their command, on an attack at the Prime Minister’s residence and other buildings in Tokyo, killing Home Minister Saito Makoto, Finance Minister Takahashi Korekiyo, and Army Inspector General of Military Training Watanabe Jotaro. They also entrenched themselves in the Nagatacho and Miyakezaka areas of central Tokyo, the hub of the country’s government and military.

The February 1936 military revolt in Tokyo marked the high point of the extremists and the consolidation of power by the Control Faction within the army. With the death of Korekiyo, whose monetary policies had spared Japan the worst effects of the Depression, opposition to additional inflationary spending by the government was silenced.

The Young Officers’ Movement (Seinen shōkō undō) was a loosely-knit organization, comprised of hardcore dedicated activists with a large following of a few hundred “comrades” (dōshi) and sympathizers. Its members maintained connections with each other and some of them were in contact with civilian organizations of radical rightists. Although the Young Officers’ Movement was a clandestine association, it was tolerated and often supported by higher military echelons.

The young officers believed that the problems facing the nation were the result of Japan straying from the Kokutai (national polity). To them, the privileged classes exploited the people, leading to widespread poverty in rural areas, and deceived the Emperor, usurping his power and weakening Japan. The solution, they believed, was a Shōwa Restoration modelled on the Meiji Restoration from 70 years earlier. The rise up of the officers to destroy the evil advisers around the throne would enable the Emperor to re-establish his authority The Emperor would then purge those who exploited the people, restoring prosperity to the nation. These beliefs were strongly influenced by contemporary nationalist thought, especially the political philosophy of the former socialist Ikki Kita. Almost all of the young officers’ subordinates were from poor peasant families and working classes and believed that the young officers truly understood their predicaments and spirits.

The loose-knit young officers‘ group varied in size but is estimated to have had roughly 100 regular members, mostly officers in the Tokyo area. Its informal leader was Mitsugi (Zei) Nishida. A former IJA lieutenant and disciple of Kita, Nishida had become a prominent member of the civilian nationalist societies that proliferated in Japan from the late 1920s. He referred to the army group as the Kokutai Genri-ha (National Principle) faction.

The Kokutai Genri-ha had long supported a violent uprising against the government. The decision to finally act in February 1936, was caused by two factors. The first was the decision announced in December 1935 to transfer the 1st Division, which most of the Kokutai Genri-ha’s officers belonged to Manchuria in the spring. This meant that if the officers did not strike before then, any possible action would be delayed by years. The second was Aizawa’s trial. The impact of his actions had impressed the officers, and they believed that by acting while his trial was still in progress, they could take advantage of the favourable public opinion it was engendering.[30][31]

The decision to act was initially opposed by Nishida and Kita when they learned of it. The pair’s relationship with most of the officers had become relatively distant during the years leading up to the uprising, and they were opposed to direct action. However, once it was clear that the officers were determined to act anyway, they moved to support them. Another barrier to be overcome was opposition to the involvement of troops from Teruzō Andō, who had sworn an oath to his commander not to involve his men in any direct action. Andō’s position in the 3rd Infantry Regiment (the largest source of troops) was essential to the plot, so Muranaka and Nonaka spoke with him repeatedly, ultimately wearing down his resistance.[32][33]

The date, 26 February, was chosen because the officers had been able to arrange to have themselves and their allies serve as duty officers on that date, facilitating their access to arms and ammunition.

From 22 February on, the seven leaders managed to convince eighteen officers to join the uprising with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Non-commissioned officers (NCOs) were informed on the night of 25 February, hours before the attacks started. Although the officers insisted that all NCOs participate voluntarily and any orders given were merely pro forma, many of the NCOs argued later that they had been in no real position to refuse to participate. The soldiers themselves, 70% of whom were less than a month out of basic training, were not told anything before the coup began, though many were enthusiastic once the uprising began.

The bulk of the Righteous Army was made up of men from the 1st Infantry Regiment and 3rd Infantry Regiment. The only other significant contribution was 138 men from the 3rd Imperial Guard Regiment. including officers, civilians and men from other units. The total size of the Righteous Army was 1,558 men. An official count of 1,483 was given at the time; this number excludes the 75 men who participated in Nakahashi’s attempt to secure the Imperial Palace.

The coup leaders adopted the name “Righteous Army” (義軍, gigun) for this force and the password Revere the Emperor, Destroy the Traitors (尊皇討奸, Sonnō Tōkan), adopted from the Meiji Restoration-era slogan, Revere the Emperor, Destroy the Shogunate. Allies were also to display a three-cent postage stamp when approaching the army’s lines.

Early in the morning of 29 February, orders were given to subjugation at 5:10 and to start the attack at 8:30. The Martial Law HQ made neighbours take refuge from the area around and stationed military policemen NHK at Mt. Atago. From the sky, planes scattered fliers to persuade the troops to surrender. At 8:55 on the radio, an advisory titled, “Directive to Soldiers” (兵に告ぐ in Japanese) said, “The Imperial decree has been proclaimed. The command of His Majesty has already been dispatched”…[19] In addition, a balloon advertising, “Imperial Command was Dispatched. Not be Defiant Any Longer” (勅命下る軍旗に手向かふな in Japanese) was launched into the air.

The divisional commander and senior officers persuaded them with tears. Finally, the troops had gone back to their original units by 14:00. Captain Andō attempted to commit suicide but failed. At the army minister’s official residence gathered the rest of the activist officers. They determined to insist on their opinion in court. They, except for Captain Nonaka, who committed suicide, were arrested at 17:00, and also private citizens, Kita Ikki, Nishida Mitsugi, Shibukawa Zensuke and others. The incident had been completely suppressed.

On 4 March at 14:25, ex-reserve 2nd lieutenant Yamamoto Matashi turned himself in at Tokyo Military Police Headquarters. On 5 March, Captain Kōno attempted to commit suicide and died that morning at 6:40. The troops consisted of 20 officers, and 1528 NCOs and privates. 456 were from the 1st infantry regiment, 937 from the 3rd infantry regiment, 13 from the 7th artillery regiment, 61 from the 3rd infantry regiment of the imperial guards, and so on.

The Navy Ministry did a do-or-die resistance against the rebels on the morning of 26 February. For the defence of its building, they prepared for action. In the afternoon, they rushed the landing force to Shibaura and Tokyo from Yokosuka Naval District, whose commander in chief was Yonai Mitsumasa and the chief of staff was Inoue Shigeyoshi. Also, the IJN 1st Fleet was dispatched to Tokyo Bay. In the afternoon of 27 February, they were ready to bombard the troops from the sea. In addition, at 9:40 on 27 February, the IJN 2nd Fleet anchored to Osaka Bay for defence. Their duty finished on 29 February and returned to their work.

The Ni-ni-roku Coup attempt failed. The leaders were arrested; 19 were executed, more committed suicide, and dozens of their superiors in rank were purged for aiding and abetting the violence.

Most of the soldiers in the insurgents didn’t know the plan for the incident. They believed their actions as legal and followed the officers. Some soldiers were tried in the military court; on the other hand, many were killed at the front in the war.

On 28 February, Mutō Akira and others at military affairs in the Army ministry determined to set up a special court martial by Imperial Command of Urgency. It was realized on 4 March. Why it was by the Imperial Command of Urgency that a special court-martial could be set only under martial-law by ordinary law. Also, it solved the problems of jurisdiction, because the insurgents belonged to too many different units to deal with a normal court. Special court-martial could be characterized, compared to an ordinary one: in that, it is a one-tiered judicial system; completely closed; and defendants can’t recuse judges; and with no defence lawyer.

In Army Penal Code, article 25 defines the crime of rebellion:

Article 25
A person who assembles in a crowd and commits the crime of rebellion with armed forces, and shall be sentenced according to the following distinctions:
(i) A ringleader shall be punished by death;
(ii) A person who participates in a plot or directs a mob shall be punished by death or imprisonment without work either for life or for a definite term of not less than 5 years; a person who performs other leading functions shall be punished by imprisonment either with or without work for a definite term, not less than 3 years;
(iii) A person who merely follows others or otherwise merely joins in the rebellion shall be punished by imprisonment either with or without work for not less than 5 years.

Sakisaka Shumpei and other Judge advocate staff investigated the incident, commanding Military Police. In the special court-martial, the trial resulted in a judgement of guilt on most of the activist officers and citizens. Isobe Asaichi had been cursing this judgement until the execution of his death penalty. Also, Andō and Kurihara were greatly shocked at the death penalty on so many of their companions. They believed that the Emperor would be glad if they carried out direct action.

Despite the failure of the coup, the 26 February Incident had the effect of significantly increasing the military’s influence over the civilian government. The Okada cabinet resigned on 9 March and a new cabinet was formed by Kōki Hirota, Okada’s foreign minister. However, this transition was not without its problems. When the selection of Hirota was made clear and efforts began to assemble a cabinet, General Hisaichi Terauchi, the new cabinet’s Minister of War, made his displeasure with some of the selections clear. Hirota gave in to Terauchi’s demands and changed his selections, choosing Hachirō Arita over Shigeru Yoshida as Minister of Foreign Affairs.



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1 Comment

  1. historiebuff says:

    All new to me.Any consequences on the world stage? Would things have been less belligerent if they had succeeded?


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