Prime Minister Wakatsuki remains a coward, unable to stop the incident from spreading
How did the government deal with the Manchurian Incident triggered by the Kwantung Army?
The Cabinet of Prime Minister Reijiro Wakatsuki at one point decided to try to stop the Manchurian Incident from spreading, but later approved of the military’s action. Why did it do so?
News of the explosion at the railway section on the outskirts of Mukden was conveyed by telephone to War Minister Jiro Minami on the morning of September 19, 1931—the morning following the incident. An emergency Cabinet meeting was held.
Minami said, “The time has come for the government to make a decision of vital importance concerning the issue of whether to secure special interests in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia.” Foreign Minister Kijuro Shidehara disagreed, saying, “I would like to follow a policy aimed at containing the incident by all means to a narrow area, while giving consideration to our international relations.”
Shidehara had essentially been pursuing a foreign policy of maintaining Japan’s interests in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia while respecting the so-called Washington Treaty system. He had been maintaining cooperation with the United States and the United Kingdom on the one hand and refraining from interfering in the internal affairs of China, and from intervening in its civil war, on the other.
The Cabinet meeting eventually decided to halt the spread of the incident. Pleased by Wakatsuki’s report, the Emperor told Prime Minister Wakatsuki, “It’s really good to hear that the government has decided to try to keep the incident from spreading. I want you to make due efforts.”
Did Prime Minister Wakatsuki live up to the Emperor’s wishes?
That same night, Wakatsuki asked Kumao Harada, secretary to Kinmochi Saionji, the genro, to come to the Official Residence of the Prime Minister. Wakatsuki reportedly said: “I cannot contain the military on my own [as to the deployment of troops in Korea to Manchuria]. It is inexcusable to dispatch His Majesty’s troops without Imperial sanction. But what on earth should I do in this case?”
Saionji, the chief political adviser to the Emperor, instructed Harada to convey the following message to Grand Chamberlain Kantaro Suzuki and Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Nobuaki Makino: “The fact that the troops were sent without the Throne’s sanction should never be forgiven by His Majesty when the War Minister or the Chief of Army General Staff makes a report to His Majesty.”
The dispatch of troops from Korea to Manchuria naturally required an expenditure by the government, a matter subject to Cabinet approval. During a September 21 meeting of the Cabinet, only War Minister Minami said that reinforcements from the Korea Army were necessary, but, apart from Prime Minister Wakatsuki, all of the other ministers were of the opinion that the deployment was not required. The Cabinet session was adjourned without reaching any conclusion.
On September 22 when Minami informed Wakatsuki of the Korea Army’s arbitrary decision to send its troops to Manchuria, the Prime Minister unreservedly gave his consent, saying, “What can we do with the force that has already been sent?”
The Emperor told Wakatsuki to “stick to the containment policy” when the Prime Minister visited him for an Imperial briefing session. When Chief of the Army General Staff Hanzo Kanaya petitioned the Emperor to belatedly sanction the deployment of the Korea Army’s troops, the monarch appeared displeased and said: “Be careful hereafter.”
After the end of World War II, Wakatsuki tried to excuse himself for his 1931 decision. In his reminiscences, Wakatsuki wrote: “The troops had already been deployed. If the government refused to bear the incurred expense for it, [War Minister] Minami and [Chief of General Staff] Kanaya would have encountered trouble and, furthermore, the Japanese residents [in Manchuria] would have been subjected to cruel consequences.”
What led military officers to become so presumptuous? To understand the cause of this, it is necessary to go back to 1928 and study how the assassination of Chinese warlord Chang Tso-lin, by bombs planted by Colonel Daisaku Komoto and his group, was handled.
The Emperor reprimanded Prime Minister Giichi Tanaka for taking inadequate measures against the bombing of Chang’s train, leading to the resignation of Tanaka’s Cabinet. But the Kwantung Army kept refusing to disclose information about the incident to the public, while Komoto, who was suspended from duty as a senior staff officer of the Army, subsequently quit the military and became a director on the board of the South Manchurian Railway Company. In other words, no resolute measures were taken in this case.
In March 1931, in what was later named the March Incident, an attempted coup took place. With the involvement of nationalist leader Shumei Okawa, Kuniaki Koiso, Director General of the Administration Bureau of the War Ministry, and Lieutenant Colonel Kingoro Hashimoto, masterminded the coup attempt in order to install War Minister Kazushige Ugaki as prime minister. In October of the same year, it was revealed that extremist members of the Sakura-kai (Cherry Society) such as Hashimoto and Major General Isamu Cho had drawn up a scheme to assassinate all Cabinet members and establish a military dictatorship—a plot that was designed to be implemented in concert with the Manchurian Incident. Both coup attempts failed.
As a punitive measure, officers of the Army General Staff such as Hashimoto and Cho who had been involved in the October Incident were “strictly confined to their barracks” for 20 days and were later assigned to provisional units. Such indecisive measures encouraged irresponsible behavior to prevail in the military and prompted military officers to act recklessly.
In Manchuria, the army of Chang Hsueh-liang, the son of Chang Tso-lin, put up little resistance to Japanese troops, following Chiang Kai-shek’s strategy of “first internal pacification, then external resistance”—eliminating the Communists before ousting the Japanese. Indeed, Chiang had been careful to give no excuse to Japan for military action against his side.
On September 21, 1931, China embarked on an effort to argue in the League of Nations that Japan’s military operations were an act of invasion. China thus chose a strategy of trying to gain the support of the international community.