May 15th Incident

The reign of the Emperor Hirohito, the Showa Era, began as a period of great tumult, and continued to be so until well after the World War II era. An incident that captures the chaos of the period was the infamous May 15th Incident, which occurred in 1932 and culminated in the assassination of Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai. Also attacked was Kinmochi Saionji, an influential politician who was himself a former Primer Minister and had been a close friend to the Emperor Meiji, Hirohito’s grandfather and founder of modern Japan. The attempted coup d’etat was a failure, and eleven young naval officers were quickly arrested, along with several military cadets and right-wing civilians.

The reign of the Emperor Hirohito, the Showa Era, began as a period of great tumult, and continued to be so until well after the World War II era. An incident that captures the chaos of the period was the infamous May 15th Incident, which occurred in 1932 and culminated in the assassination of Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai. Also attacked was Kinmochi Saionji, an influential politician who was himself a former Primer Minister and had been a close friend to the Emperor Meiji, Hirohito’s grandfather and founder of modern Japan. The attempted coup d’etat was a failure, and eleven young naval officers were quickly arrested, along with several military cadets and right-wing civilians.

But May 15th Incident was not an isolated moment that spontaneously erupted into violence. It reflected a growing ultra-nationalism in Japan, as well as the growing power of the military in Japanese decision-making. When Hirohito became Emperor in 1927, various ultra-nationalist groups called for more power to gather in the Emperor’s hand. These groups were successful in the eventual development of State Shinto, which glorified the Emperor and Japanese values. Ideals of the Japanese family and state, as well as the idea of self-sacrifice for the sake of the nation, grew to have increasing credence.

When Giichi Tanaka became Prime Minister from 1927-1929, he allowed provocative incidents in China to run unchecked in the hopes of provoking a Chinese response. These incidents include obstructing Chiang Kai-shek’s unification process and the assassination of a former ally, a Chinese warlord. However, the Chinese government and the Japanese high command refused to mobilize, and Tanaka fell from power. The unchecked violence, however, was never condemned or reined in, leading to further violence in the 1930s.

At last, the Manchurian Incident of 1931 succeeded where other attempts to create war had failed. A group of Japanese army conspirators blew up a section of track in Manchuria and blamed Chinese saboteurs. The Japanese army quickly took control of Mukden, an important industrial center in Manchuria. In 1932, the Japanese attacked Shanghai on the pretext of of fighting Chinese resistance in Manchuria. After 3 months of fighting, Japan established the nation of Manchukuo, a puppet government under the Puyi, the last Chinese Emperor.

Along with the adventurist colonization plans in China, domestic plots also abounded in Japan. Sakurakai, a secret society founded by army officers, planned to attack the Japanese Diet, kill the prime minister, and declare martial law to remove all power from parliament and give it to the Emperor. This 1931 plot was canceled, but no reprisals were taken against the plotters.

The May 15th Incident was the successful culmination of military plans to eliminate the democratic government in favor of military control of the country. The eleven young naval officers who were arrested in the Incident were sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, with an outpouring of public support. Saionji chose Inukai’s successors from among the military, which furthered Japan’s slide from democratic government to militarism. Eventually it would lead to the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident near Beijing, which escalated into full-scale war between Japan and China, and the decision to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The May 15th Incident is seen as a watershed moment for the Japanese ultra-nationalists, since it cemented their power and influence and essentially gave them carte blanche to conduct policy as they saw fit. But less than 15 years later, the power of the ultra-nationalists was broken by Japan’s defeat by the United States in the Pacific War, which gave rebirth to an even more democratic government than what the May 15th Incident was intended to destroy.

 

(Originally published in Muzosa Journal 3/31/06. Author retains all copyrights.)

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