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‘Curse on This Country: The Rebellious Army of Imperial Japan’: Of insubordination and the road to WWII

by

Special To The Japan Times

In “Curse on This Country: The Rebellious Army of Imperial Japan,” multi-lingual Hebrew University senior lecturer Danny Orbach tracks nearly 80 years (1860-1936) of the influence of the Imperial Japanese Army’s officer class on Japan.

Curse on This Country: The Rebellious Army of Imperial Japan, by Danny Orbach.
384 pages
CORNELL UNIVERSITY PRESS, Nonfiction.

Based on Japanese-language primary source research as well as other original documents in four other languages, Orbach details how members of the officer class conducted overthrows of foreign governments, political assassinations and repeated insubordinate actions against Japan’s military and civilian leadership. Orbach argues that the Japanese Army acted contrary to orders and policy on many occasions beginning in the Meiji Era (1869-1912), becoming a cult of disobedience that pushed Japan into the disastrous Pacific War.

All of this was despite the fact that, from the founding of the Meiji “national” armed forces, the Imperial Rescript mandated loyalty to the Japanese nation-state, with clear instruction not to “meddle in politics.” What’s more, Japan’s 1880s penal code called for severe punishment for any act of military disobedience — but apparently this did little to thwart rebellious activities.

Starting in the 1860s, Orbach examines the origins of shishi, “warriors of high aspirations.” Flourishing in kendo clubs and urban entertainment districts, the shishi occupied a space somewhere between the “old” samurai of the feudal Edo Period (1603-1868) and the “new” Meiji Era nationalists.

In 1865, Shinsaku Takasugi, a Choshu clan (present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture) samurai, was celebrated as a shishi success story after he organized an improvised mixed force of samurai and peasants against a Choshu collaborationist government, defeating the shogunate forces. Takasugi showed that a reckless, impromptu assault could yield victory, and this narrative formed the basis for a shishi ideology: purity of motive over clear strategy.

During the 1870s, the most significant domestic rebellion against the new Meiji state came from Saigo Takamori, a disaffected general whose clan was based in southern Kyushu. To Orbach’s military eye, Saigo made many strategic mistakes that doomed his rebellion. Paradoxically, like the 1930s military rebels that were to come, Saigo saw himself as a loyal retainer of the Emperor, although he besieged the Meiji army garrison in Kumamoto Castle. Without arms, food or ammunition, the Meiji forces managed to overwhelm the rebels, and Saigo’s forces surrendered.

Orbach leverages his European perspective to analyze Japan’s “supreme prerogative,” a Meiji import from Prussia consisting of an army leadership triumvirate: the chief of general staff, the army minister and the inspector general. Orbach points out that whereas in Germany a strong Kaiser ultimately made military decisions, Japan had the relatively “weak” young Emperor Meiji, creating at the center of power what Orbach calls a “hazy center.” For this reason, the German military never developed a culture of insubordination; in Japan, the “supreme prerogative” used the name of the Emperor to usurp power.

During the late 19th century, plots and insubordination led by Japanese military officers flourished outside of Japan, and Orbach details these, including the 1895 assassination of Korea’s Queen Min. Alarmed by such reckless actions, the Japanese government recalled the Japanese conspirators from Korea. A court acquitted the group, setting the pattern of a lack of punishment, even for regicide, for conspirators.

In another 1928 example, Imperial Army Col. Daisuke Komoto hatched an audacious plan to accelerate the incorporation of Manchuria into the Japanese Empire by assassinating Zuolin Zhang, a Manchurian warlord. With local Imperial Army units he succeeded in this operation in “complete defiance of Japanese government policy.” Zuolin Zhang’s violent end did not result in Japanese expansionist outcomes, however, as the conspirators had done no planning. Komoto left the Imperial Army without punishment.

Meanwhile the London Naval Disarmanent Treaty, which was viewed by the Japanese officer class as weakening Japan’s military power, was one among many grievances that acted as a catalyst for the formation of the Sakura-Kai (Cherry Blossom Society), Japan’s “first cross-army conspiratorial group.”

What made the Sakura-Kai-led mutiny of Feb. 26, 1936, (known as the “2-26 Incident”) exceptional was that the leadership came not from generals and colonels, but from members of the lower officer ranks, who rose to assassinate civilian leaders to open the way for a military-dominated, Asia-expansionist government.

The mutiny forced senior generals to take responsibility by retiring, and this thrust mid-level officers up the rank hierarchy. Fearing further attacks, the civilian government raised the military budget, causing the army to simultaneously become stronger as an institution and weaker at being able “to control its younger officers to act independently in the field (overseas).”

The next year, young army officers triggered a battle with Chinese nationalist forces at the Marco Polo Bridge — escalating into a full-blown Sino-Japanese war. The army’s merger with the civilian government was personified by Gen. Hideki Tojo’s appointment as prime minister. At the Tokyo War Tribunals, Marquis Koichi Kido declared that military insubordination was a “curse” that brought on Japan “the misfortunes of war, defeat, and occupation.” After Japan’s surrender, the “supreme prerogative” was dissolved and the Self-Defense Forces remain under strict civilian government oversight.

Orbach’s narrative speaks time and time again of missed chances in Japanese governance that would have prevented the hijacking of a nation and the terrible miscalculations, without clear strategic analysis of dire consequences, that followed.

It is a book that draws on multi-lingual primary sources with an innovative re-interpretation through a 21st-century military and political lens that connects historical incidents, especially on the late Tokugawa shishi and their outsized influence on 20th-century Japan.