As Japan emerged from the medieval period into the early modern age, the future Nippon Empire transformed from a period characterized by warring states, to the relative stability of the Tokugawa Shōgunate. Here, a feudal military government ruled from the Edo castle in the Chiyoda district of modern-day Tokyo, over some 250 provincial domains called han.
The military and governing structure of the time was based on a rigid and inflexible class system, placing the feudal lords or daimyō at the top, followed by a warrior-caste of samurai, and a lower caste of merchants and artisans. At the bottom of it all stood some 80% of the population, the peasant farmer forbidden to engage in non-agricultural work, and expected to provide the income to make the whole system work.
Concerned about 17th century Spanish and Portuguese colonial expansion into Asia made possible by Catholic missionaries, the Tokugawa Shōgunate issued three edicts of expulsion beginning in the early 1630s, effecting a complete ban on Christianity in the Japanese home islands. The policy ushered in a period of national seclusion, where Japanese subjects were forbidden to travel abroad, and foreign contact limited to a small number of Dutch and Chinese merchants, trading through the port of Nagasaki.
Economically, the production of fine silk and cotton fabrics, the manufacture of paper and porcelain and sake brewing operations thrived in the larger urban centers, bringing considerable wealth to the merchant class. Meanwhile, the daimyō and samurai classes remained dependent on a fixed stipend tied to agricultural production, particularly in the smaller han.
The system led to a series of peasant uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries, and extreme dislocation within the warrior caste.
Into this world stepped the “gunboat diplomats” of President Millard Filmore in the person of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, determined to open the ports of Japan to trade with the west. By force, if necessary.
In time, these internal Japanese issues and the growing pressure of western encroachment led to the end of the Tokugawa period and the restoration of the Meiji Emperor, in 1868. The divisions would last, well into the 20th century.
By the 1920s, two factions had evolved within the Japanese Imperial Army. The Kōdō-ha or “Imperial Way” members were the radical nationalists, resentful of civilian control over the military. This group sought a “Shōwa Restoration”, purging Japan of western ideas and returning the Emperor to what they believed to be his rightful place. By force, if necessary. Incensed by the rural poverty they blamed on the privileged classes, the group was vehemently anti-capitalist, seeking to eliminate corrupt party politics and establish a totalitarian state-socialist government, run by the military.
Opposed to this group was the much larger Tōsei-ha or “Control faction” within the army, who stressed the need for technological development within the military, while taking a more conciliatory tone with the government when it came to military spending.
In the Fall of 1930, a group of young officers of the Kōdō-ha attempted the assassinations of Prime Minister Osachi Hamaguchi, Prince Saionji Kinmochi. and Lord Privy Seal Makino Nobuaki. The group attempted a coup the following March, and the installation of soldier-stateman Ugaki Kazushige, as Premier. Ugaki himself was of the more moderate faction and took no role in the attempted coup, though he assumed responsibility and resigned his post.
That September, the ultra-nationalists launched an invasion of Manchuria, without authorization from the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff Office, and over objections from the civilian government. A month later the group launched another coup attempt. This too was unsuccessful but, as with the “March Incident” of six months earlier, the government’s response was excessively mild. Ringleaders were sentenced to 10 or 20 days’ house arrest, and other participants were merely transferred. For the radicals, such lenience became a virtual hall pass, ensuring that there would be future such efforts.
This “Righteous Army” faction remained influential throughout the period known as “government by assassination“, due largely to the threat that it posed. Sympathizers among the general staff and imperial family included Prince Chichibu, the Emperor’s own brother. Years later, Winston Churchill would describe Hitler’s appeasers as “one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last”. Despite being fiercely anti-capitalist, this particular crocodile received sustenance from zaibatsu – the industrial and financial business leaders who hoped that their support would shield themselves.
General Tetsuzan Nagata was murdered in 1935, following the discovery of yet another coup plot and the Army’s arrest and subsequent expulsion of its leaders.
In 1931, Japan abandoned the gold standard in an effort to defeat deflationary forces exerted by worldwide depression. The “John Maynard Keynes of Japan”, the moderate politician and Finance Minister Takahashi Korekiyo, argued for government deficit spending to stimulate demand. The country emerged from the worst parts of the depression two years later, but Takahashi’s efforts to reign in military spending created a conspiracy mindset among more radical army officers.
On February 26, 1936, 1,438 soldiers divided into six groups attacked Prime Minister Admiral Keisuke Okada, former Prime Minister and now-Finance Minister Takahashi Korekiyo, Grand Chamberlain Admiral Suzuki Kantarō, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal and former Prime Minister Saitō Makoto, the Ministry of War, the offices of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, Tokyo police headquarters and attempted to seize the Imperial palace of the Emperor himself.
While unsuccessful, the incident killed some of Japan’s most moderate internationalist politicians, putting an end to effective civilian control over the army while increasing the military’s influence over civilian government. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the unwilling architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was reassigned to sea to prevent his assassination by army hard-liners. Another step had been taken, on the road to war.