It begins with the Manchurian Incident
The Imperial Japanese Army initiated the Manchurian Incident. Young elite officers—graduates of the Army General Staff College then serving as staff officers—were the instigators. Senior officers tacitly approved of the “juniors-overriding-seniors” gekokujo tactic as well as the juniors’ interference in politics. This section looks into those officers at the center of the military bureaucracy who exerted their influence on various decision-making processes.
On March 1, 1928 (the third year of Showa), the Mokuyo-kai (Thursday Society) group of officers of the War Ministry and the Army General Staff held its fifth meeting. In addition to its leader, Teiichi Suzuki, the group included Tetsuzan Nagata, Yasuji Okamura, Hideki Tojo, Kanji Ishihara and Hiroshi Nemoto.
The meeting considered and discussed Nemoto’s report. Winding up the meeting, Army Lieutenant Colonel Tojo said, “We need to establish complete political authority in the Manchuria-Inner Mongolia region for the self-defense of our Imperial nation.” When one colleague asked if “complete political authority” meant that Japan would “capture” Manchuria, Tojo answered, “That’s right.”
The Mokuyo-kai hammered out a war policy of its own, which stated in part: “We will maintain the Manchuria-Inner Mongolia region for the existence of the Japanese people and as a solution to the population issue in Japan. This policy will certainly clash with the Soviet Union’s southward advance, leading to a war with the Soviet Union. In the event of such a development, China will be used as our base for war supplies. We will also prepare ourselves for a war with the United States.”
Before the Mokuyo-kai came into being, three graduates in the same class of the Army Military Academy—Nagata, Okamura and Toshishiro Obata—took the initiative in organizing a group of Army officers, named the Futaba-kai (Double Leaf Society). They were known to have secretly concluded a so-called Baden-Baden Alliance Pledge in Germany, where they were posted as majors in 1921 (the 10th year of Taisho). Their common goal was to oust Choshu elements from the Army leadership—the Army’s key posts had been given to officers from Yamaguchi Prefecture, home of the Choshu clan that had played a part in toppling the Tokugawa Shogunate during the Meiji Restoration. The trio also hoped to renew the Army system to make it better prepared for national mobilization. Tojo later joined the trio, as did Daisaku Komoto, who was well-versed in Chinese affairs.
In May 1929, the Futaba-kai and the Mokuyo-kai merged to form a new informal association of Army officers, named the Isseki-kai (One Evening Society). Akira Muto, Shinichi Tanaka and Kyoji Tominaga, among other officers, joined the new group. During its inaugural meeting, the Isseki-kai agreed to support three generals—Sadao Araki, Jinzaburo Masaki and Senjuro Hayashi—and to seek to resolve the Manchurian issue.
The Isseki-kai did not actually concoct specific plots such as the Liutiaohu Incident or the September 18, 1931, Incident, in which a stretch of the South Manchurian Railway was blown up. But it is widely believed that there was a tacit consensus among Isseki-kai members that Japan would have to use military force sooner or later. In his memoirs, Nemoto wrote: “[The Isseki-kai] concluded at long last that ‘there can be no other means but to eject Chang Hsueh-liang by force.’ Then [we] worked to forge an atmosphere [in our favor] within the military.”
In January 1928, Ishihara, who masterminded the Manchurian Incident, told a Mokuyo-kai meeting about his “Final World War Theory”—in which a final war would be fought between Japan and the United States.
In October of the same year, he left for Manchuria to serve as a staff officer for operations of the Kwantung Army, declaring that “You will see [Japan] seize the whole of Manchuria without fail while I am there.”
What did the highest echelons of the Imperial Japanese Army do? The central headquarters of the Army made an important move in June 1931, outlining measures to solve the Manchurian issue. The outline was worked out by Yoshitsugu Tatekawa, head of the Second Bureau (Intelligence) of the Army General Staff; Tetsuzan Nagata, chief of the Army Affairs Section of the War Ministry; Yasuji Okamura, chief of the Assignments Section of the ministry; Masataka Yamawaki, chief of the First Section (Organization and Mobilization) of the Army General Staff; Hisao Watari, chief of the Fifth Section (American and European Affairs) of the Army General Staff; and Chiaki Shigeto, chief of the China Section of the Army General Staff.
Essentially, the plan was that the Imperial Japanese Army, in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry, would try to have the Chang Hsueh-liang regime ease its anti-Japanese policy on the one hand and let the Kwantung Army exercise self-restraint on the other. “Any spread of anti-Japanese movements in spite of all our efforts could eventually lead to the inevitability of military action.”
Prior to the drafting of the outline, a document titled “Josei Handan” (An Analysis of the Situation) had been prepared by the Second Bureau of the Army General Staff. It said, “The Manchurian issue must be dealt with. Should the government, for its part, decline to follow the opinion of the military, we would need to take strong measures.” This passage was inserted by Kingoro Hashimoto, who headed the Russia group in the Second Bureau and was one of the leaders who plotted coup attempts such as the March Incident and the October Incident of 1931.
War Minister Jiro Minami took no action in connection with the attempted coup. On August 4, 1931, he issued a statement hinting at the possibility of military action being taken in Manchuria. An Army statement, following that of Minami, described a high level of excitement in the Army.
The Army version read: “As members of the military are responsible for politics known as military government, we naturally have a duty to intervene in politics... We must not change our belief by being misled by populist opinions of politicians.”
The Manchurian Incident was now imminent. The members of the Isseki-kai at that time included Nagata, Okamura, Itagaki and Dohihara. The four men, classmates of the 16th class of the Military Academy, were emerging as new war leaders without any actual experience in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 and/or the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05.