Japan’s revolutionary nationalism and the February 26 Incident   

Written by Dmitry Filippov. Edited by Nathaniel Robinson.

The pre-1945 history of Japanese nationalism and right-wing thought can be roughly divided into two stages: the first, from late 19th century until the end of the First World War, was predominantly pro-government and characterised by vehement propaganda of aggressive territorial expansion in East Asia. It was succeeded by an array of radical fascist groups and movements which shared close ties with the Japanese military and operated in opposition to the government. The attempted coup d’état of 26 February 1936 (often referred to as the February 26 Incident) became the apex of these radical far-right movements in Japan but also their death knell.

In the wake of the First World War, a new strain of extreme nationalism emerged in Japan. Drawing inspiration from Germany’s national socialism and Italy’s fascism, as well as traditional Japanese concepts, new far-right intellectuals and leaders called for strict centralisation of power through the installment of a military dictatorship with the Emperor at the head. This extreme ideology first took root among Japanese peasants. Raised in the spirit of collectivism and disillusioned by the economic crisis in rural Japan, they became easily radicalised. Since most low-ranking officers were recruited to the Imperial Army from the peasantry, far-right ideas quickly contaminated the military. In a matter of several years, the military transformed into the most influential political entity in Japan, pushing back political parties and the big business – all those whom the peasants blamed for the country’s adversities. It was the military far-right groups that perpetrated a string of assassinations and acts of terror throughout the 1920s and 1930s; without their support, the actions of civilian right-wing movements would have no doubt been limited to propaganda.

While some powerful factions within the Japanese military, like general Sadao Araki’s Kodoha (Faction of the Imperial Way), had ties to underground fascist organisations and posited the necessity of establishing a military dictatorship, they preferred words over actions. There were however a lot of young officers, many of them descending from affluent families with traditional ties to the military, who were ready to kill and die for restoring Japan’s greatness and its unique national identity, the most prominent group being Sakurakai, or the Sakura Society.

1932 became a watershed in the sense that from that point on, it was no longer just the right-wing groups and societies that started to raise their voices and make themselves known, but, also terrorist organisations without any coherent political platform. On 15 May 1932, young revolutionary-minded officers attempted their first anti-government coup. They assassinated the liberal-leaning Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai, bombed several banks and government buildings and subsequently willingly surrendered themselves to the police.

While the coup failed, the nation’s sympathy was on the terrorists’ side. The judges who oversaw their trial received thousands of letters from across the country imploring them to grant the young officers clemency. Conversely, the murdered prime minister was shown little compassion as he epitomised the political elite scorned by Japanese society. Common people, peasants and workers, supported the terrorists because the latter made the grievances of the former known. Many in the Imperial Army viewed the perpetrators as heroic champions of justice. When an officer called Saburo Aizawa was arrested after killing General Tetsuzan Nagata by hacking him to death with a sword in 1935, other officers sent him encouraging letters and even severed finger bones – a symbol of loyalty.

Discontent among young revolutionaries in the army reached its pinnacle on the snowy day of 26 February 1936. Since the early hours of the morning, Tokyo was buzzing with rumours of a coup and assassinations. It was not until three days later that the people of Japan learned that the attempted coup had failed without the support of the military brass and the Emperor. The rebellion was not so much foiled as it imploded from within.

On the morning of the 26th, about fifteen hundred soldiers and officers took to the streets of Tokyo. The officers, who had worked out a plan of action beforehand, told their subordinates that a sudden and very important military drill was taking place. Several groups of rebels then proceeded to attack the homes of politicians and businessmen, among them Prime Minister Keisuke Okada whose survival was most fortuitous – his brother was shot instead. The insurgents took over the parliament building and prohibited the newspapers from printing news about the coup. However, contrary to their expectations, they failed to garner widespread support, with Emperor Hirohito denouncing their actions as rebellion. As a result, the mutineers laid down their weapons voluntarily and returned to their barracks where they were promptly apprehended.

After a swift trial, the officers who organised the coup were sentenced to death, while the low-ranking soldiers most of whom knew nothing of the insurrection received softer sentences. It was forbidden to stage theatrical productions and make films about the leaders of the rebellion, and underground political organisations were banned. The trial unequivocally demonstrated that the government was ready to use force against the radicals, however nationalistic or reverent towards the Emperor they were. Public opinion had swung as well, and the 26 February insurgents earned little sympathy in the eyes of common people. Radicalism and the tactics of terror were overwhelmingly condemned. The only way out for disillusioned revolutionaries and right-wing activists was to integrate into the establishment. This subsequently led to the military successfully dissolving political parties and assuming full control over government in the lead-up to the Second World War.