Unable to stand up to the military
The Hirota Cabinet was inaugurated just after the February 26 Incident of 1936, which significantly influenced the course of Japan’s, not to mention Hirota’s, diplomacy.
According to a historical sociologist, some generals in the so-called Kyushu faction in the Army in the 1930s such as Sadao Araki and Jinzaburo Masaki were challenging the mainstream group led by Kazushige Ugaki. The Kyushu faction was backed by a group of staff officers, who belonged to an informal association—the Isseki-kai (One Evening Society). Young officers followed Isseki-kai members and formed the Kodo-ha (Imperial Way Faction). Araki became the War Minister in the Inukai and Saito Cabinets by aligning himself with these people.
Araki chose Masaki as Vice Chief of the Army General Staff and carried out a number of partisan personnel changes, including appointing Tomoyuki Yamashita, Toshishiro Obata and Yorimichi Suzuki to key posts in the Army General Staff and the War Ministry. Eventually, Araki was forced to resign because of the backlash against his aggressive personnel changes and his lack of political leadership. Senjuro Hayashi became the War Minister in place of Araki. Hayashi appointed Tetsuzan Nagata as chief of the Military Affairs Bureau of the War Ministry. Nagata led a group of officers called the Tosei-ha(Control Faction)—which tried to control the radical moves of young officers oriented toward the Kodo-ha—together with Hideki Tojo, Akira Muto and Kyoji Tominaga. The tension between the two factions deepened.
In addition, young officers of the Kodo-ha, including Takaji Muranaka and Asaichi Isobe were arrested on suspicion of planning a coup in November 1934. Inspector General of Military Training Jinzaburo Masaki, an Kodo-ha faction leader, was also dismissed. Before starting the February 26 Incident, the Kodo-ha faction assassinated Nagata in August 1935.
Led by Muranaka and Isobe, about 1,400 troops attacked the Prime Minister’s Official Residence on February 26, 1936, and, amongst others, killed Finance Minister Korekiyo Takahashi, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Makoto Saito, and Inspector General of Military Training Jotaro Watanabe—Masaki’s successor. Then Prime Minister Keisuke Okada, who found refuge from the coup, said a few years later: “I think the February 26 Incident could have been the best opportunity to suppress political interference...It was a good time but the fear of seeing bloodshed again was stronger than confronting the Army. As a result, the military’s clout became even stronger.”
Political leaders were terrified by the Army’s iron-fisted terrorism and they were at a loss as to what to do to stop the military.
After the February 26 Incident, Vice War Minister Yoshijiro Umezu under War Minister Hisaichi Terauchi became an influential figure. Likewise, the groups respectively led by Kanji Ishihara and Akira Muto, strengthened their positions. Soon, Ishihara and Muto confronted each other. One episode in particular provides an insight into the discord between them.
In autumn of 1936, Muto, an officer of the Kwantung Army, triggered the Suiyuan Incident, a failed offensive in Inner Mongolia by Japanese-trained Mongolian troops. Ishihara, chief of the Second Section (Operations and War Plans) of the Army General Staff, flew to Manchuria and ordered Muto to stop the attack but Muto refused, saying “We are modeling this after what Mr. Ishihara and others did in the Manchurian Incident. I didn’t expect at all to receive a rebuke from you.” The leader who had taken power from his superiors was avenged by his junior in much the same way as he had been.
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which occurred in a suburb of Beijing in 1937, developed into an all-out war between Japan and China. The war developed into a stalemate because of the hard-line stance adopted by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe. Questions that should be raised are: Couldn’t the country have avoided escalating the conflict? Why did Konoe, a politician with strong public support, not show effective leadership? What were lawmakers and politicians doing at such a critical period?