History tells us, it can happen anywhere.
Recently, you’ve heard the refrain, “It can’t happen here.” Meaning, the United States could never become a dictatorship (of either the left or right). But it can happen anywhere, given the right conditions and circumstances.
Less well-known are the events that happened during the same period in Japan, as it descended into a right-wing military dictatorship.
Beginning in the early 1930s, as the weight of the Great Depression pressed down upon the citizens of Japan, a series of political incidents took place that led to tremendous political instability and augured the rise of militarism in the country. Political assassinations became the order of the day in Japan, several years before it became standard practice in Nazi Germany. They were carried out by civilian ultranationalist groups and junior military officers. This time was known as the period of “government by assassination.”
In the early decades of the twentieth century Japan had developed into a constitutional monarchy, similar in form to the parliamentary democracy practiced in Great Britain. Although there was still no universal suffrage, and influential oligarchs controlled the nation politically in unison with large economic conglomerates, it was assumed that Japan was well on its way to representative, party-driven democracy, modeled on the nations of the West.
But economic depression came earlier to Japan than it did to the rest of the world. World War I had been a boon to Japan as its exports skyrocketed, especially in manufactured goods, silk, steel and shipbuilding. When the war ended in 1918 economic dislocation began almost immediately. The first major upheaval was an inflationary movement in the price of rice, which led to major urban riots in 1918. But the real crisis in Japan began with the depression of 1926 and the collapse of numerous small Japanese banks in 1927. When the Great Depression hit the entire world two years later, the effects on an already beleaguered Japanese economy were compounded. It was felt most in rural areas, where the majority of recruits for the military were drawn from.
Since the depression came during the era of parliamentary democracy, the political parties drew the lion’s share of blame for the catastrophe. And since they were tied to big businesses that were linked to global trade networks, Japan’s citizens began questioning the validity of the international economic order, led by the West. With the rise of fascism in Italy and later in Germany, there were now other models for Japan to follow. At the same time a rise in patriotic organizations occurred not just in the army but among civilian organizations and even among religious (Shinto and Buddhist) groups. The focus of these groups was the “restoration” of the emperor to his rightful place in the political hierarchy. In some ways, it was a nostalgic hearkening to the past. In fact, the emperor was in no way linked to these calls for his restoration, although he did nothing to publicly denounce such movements.
Some political and military leaders had long dreamed of an empire for Japan, where it could gain economic independence through autarchy, and hence be free of the vagaries of global trade. China’s northeastern-most province Manchuria was the prize that leaders on the right had dreamed about for decades, since they had fought there against Russia in 1904-05. In March 1931 an attempted coup d’état by junior officers and ultra-rightist civilian organizations in Tokyo was easily put down by the government and the army. Half a year later in September 1931, a group of rogue officers created an incident by planting a bomb near Japanese railroad installations in Manchuria. The civilian government in Tokyo, recognizing its inability to control the army, meekly issued orders for hostilities to cease, but it was a futile effort. By spring of 1932, Japanese army forces occupied the entire province, which was later fully annexed. Meanwhile, Japanese and Chinese troops engaged in pitched battles outside Shanghai, far to the south. The civilian government and military leaders in Tokyo began going along with the military because failing to do so would admit to the international community that they were powerless to do anything. And so, a pattern of appeasement was established.
In 1931 and 1932 a series of attempted coups by younger officers were suppressed but each time the offenders were given light sentences or complete pardons. These coups were dismissed off-handedly and the officers were chided for showing an “excessive patriotic zeal.” In February 1932 (“The League of Blood Incident”) the Finance Minister Inoue and the head of Mitsui Trading were both assassinated. The culprits had been inspired by the teachings of a Buddhist preacher. On May 15, 1932 young naval officers succeeded in assassinating the Prime Minister Inukai. Again, they had the support of rightist civilian groups, and similarly all the officers were given light sentences. In August 1935 the trial of Lt. Col. Aizawa, accused of assassinating a moderate superior General Nagata, caused a national sensation, and the defendant received wide-spread praise for his patriotism, especially in the right-wing press.
The last and largest attempted coup came in February 1936, known as the 2-26 Incident. The “Righteous Army” of over 1,400 troops led by dozens of officers set out to assassinate the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister, and several key advisors to the Emperor (among them three former prime ministers). They also attacked the presses of the liberal daily Asahi Shimbun, took over police headquarters and the national Diet (parliament building), and occupied the Ministry of War, insisting that the War Minister deliver their demands to the emperor. The group succeeded in assassinating several of their targets. Their demands included the ‘restoration’ of the emperor, the dissolution of the government, and a new form of governing for Japan based on the traditional ‘national polity.’ After four days, the rebellion was quashed. An angry emperor denounced the plotters, but the subsequent trial was kept secret to avoid publicity. Ultimately seventeen ringleaders, fifteen officers and two civilians, were executed. But by this point the power of the army over the cowed civilian government had been cemented. Within one year the Marco Polo Bridge Incident outside Peking (fomented naturally by rogue officers) led to an expansion of the war in China. Japan was well on the road at this point toward war with America and Britain.
As in Germany and Italy, a united minority of powerful like-minded individuals, who blamed the international community for the nation’s ills, who castigated and attacked the free press, and were supported by conservative religious and militant fringe groups that fomented ‘incidents’ succeeded in overthrowing a parliamentary democracy because they were uniquely one-minded in purpose and because there was no semblance of determined opposition.