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1936 coup failed, but rebels killed Japan’s ‘Keynes’

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Special To The Japan Times

This Friday marks the 80th anniversary of the February 26th Incident, a coup staged by young military officers who hoped to spark a general uprising, but whose revolt was quashed on the orders of Emperor Hirohito.

The plotters were arrested and several were executed. Martial law was declared for three days, but it was all over by Feb. 29, 1936. Many of the 1,400 soldiers who participated in the coup were relatively new recruits and easily manipulated by the ringleaders who resented civilian control of the military, wanted to restore the Emperor to his proper place and purge the polity of corruption and capitalism.

These fanatics were also angry about arms reduction treaties that intruded on the prerogatives of the military — most notably the 1930 London Naval Treaty — and felt that officers sympathetic to their aims were being sidelined and persecuted. In this context, pending budget cuts were literally a call to arms.

It all began early on a snowy morning, and one of the prime targets was Finance Minister Korekiyo Takahashi, who advocated reduced military spending to promote fiscal consolidation. A lieutenant led a contingent of 120 men to the minister’s house in Aoyama, not far from where the Canadian Embassy is now located, and killed Takahashi while he was sleeping.

“Takahashi proposed drastic cuts in the military budgets (and) thus signed his own death warrant,” says Richard J. Smethurst, author of the acclaimed biography “From Foot Soldier to Finance Minister: Takahashi Korekiyo, Japan’s Keynes.” The rebels, he points out, “brutally killed three of Japan’s most prominent moderate and internationalist leaders, former Prime Minister Makoto Saito, Gen. Jotaro Watanabe and Finance Minister Korekiyo Takahashi. Takahashi was well known for proposing the abolition of the army and navy general staffs and for advocating ‘Rich country, prosperous people’ in place of the famous dictum, ‘Rich country, strong army.’ All three men stood for a policy of cooperation with the United States and Great Britain because they knew Japan could not defeat the Anglo-Americans in a war.”

Although the insurrectionists were ostensibly acting in Emperor Hirohito’s name, he was not on their side. He acted decisively to suppress the coup in 1936, a resolute stand that animates debate over his role in 1937 and 1941 as Japan embarked on an ever-widening war in China and the Pacific.

According to historian Christopher Szpilman, the coup represents one of the “few occasions when the Emperor put his foot down and prevented the rebellion from succeeding. This implies that Hirohito was more powerful than generally argued.”

The mutiny “was a power struggle within the army (that) destroyed any effective resistance to the military within Japan,” Szpilman says. Unintentionally, he adds, the uprising led to “complete control of the military over Japanese politics.”

At the time, the army was divided between the Imperial Way Faction (to which the coup plotters belonged) and the Control Faction. The rebels valued spiritual purity over materialism and advocated attacking the Soviet Union. The Control Faction, which dominated top military staff positions, supported total war theory and the need for centralized economic and military planning, technological modernization and expansionism in China.

The young officers believed that the problems facing the nation were the result of Japan straying from the essence of kokutai (national polity), involving the proper relationship between the Emperor, the people and the state. They called themselves the “Righteous Army” and adopted the slogan “Revere the Emperor, Destroy the Traitors.” They drew inspiration from Ikki Kita, a right-wing ideologue who advocated national socialism and a totalitarian state led by the Emperor, and were incensed by widespread poverty in rural areas, which they blamed on the privileged classes. They also believed that the Emperor’s closest advisors were deceiving him and usurping his power. The coup aimed for a “Showa Restoration” that would enable the Emperor to reclaim his authority and purge Japan of Western ideas and those who exploited the people.

Prior to the February 26th Incident, young officers and right-wing fanatics had engaged in numerous acts of violence and abortive coups, enjoying public acclaim and eliciting sympathy as patriots. An ultranationalist fatally wounded Prime Minister Osachi Hamaguchi in 1930 (he died in 1931) and in 1932 several naval officers assassinated Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai, not long after reactionary zealots killed a former Bank of Japan governor and a top executive at Mitsui. The very light punishments given to the naval officers undermined the rule of law and sent a signal that vigilantes could act with near impunity against government officials.

In contrast, those implicated in the February 26th Incident faced severe consequences. The trial was held in secret and the defendants had no legal representation, could not call witnesses or appeal the verdict. In the end, 19 of the ringleaders, including Kita, were executed for mutiny and another 40 imprisoned.

“This severity ended any subsequent plotting,” says Szpilman, “which makes you wonder why the authorities hadn’t been as severe on previous occasions.”

The murder of Takahashi, often likened to John Maynard Keynes, the British economist famous for advocating counter-cyclical deficit spending to overcome recession, was a devastating loss to the nation. According to Smethurst, Takahashi believed that “the government’s role in stimulating economic growth is both to create demand and make capital less expensive — at the same time, it needs to decentralize the economy and give greater autonomy to market forces.”

Smethurst also credits Takahashi for rescuing the economy from the Great Depression.

“Thanks to his reflationary fiscal and monetary policies in 1931-35,” he says, “Japan returned to full employment by 1935 and even the hard-hit rural sector of the economy reached pre-depression levels of income by 1936.”

How would Takahashi evaluate Abenomics? Not highly, because he understood the importance of timing, something Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda have proven inept at.

“Unlike Takahashi,” Smethurst notes, “Japan in 2014-17 is raising taxes too soon. Takahashi valiantly opposed tax increases in 1935 because he thought that Japan’s recovery from the world depression was incomplete. In 2014, the Abe government, in the beginnings of a Takahashi-style recovery, raised the value-added tax by 60 percent, slowing economic recovery. Now the government may raise taxes again in 2017.”

Surely, in light of market developments, there is no need for Abe to call yet another election to decide against the already postponed sales tax increase. As Takahashi wrote in 1885, “Not listening to market forces is a sure road to disaster.”

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.