The Exact Wrong Way to Stage a Military Coup

Uncategorized June 5, 2016 0

Japanese troops in Dachang, China in 1937. IJA 18th Infantry Regiment History Association/Wikimedia photo A last-ditch attempt to overthrow the Japanese government at the...
Japanese troops in Dachang, China in 1937. IJA 18th Infantry Regiment History Association/Wikimedia photo

A last-ditch attempt to overthrow the Japanese government at the end of World War II was a bloody embarrassment

by ROBERT BECKHUSEN

Open Road Media sponsored this post.

By August 1945 more than two million Japanese soldiers, sailors and aviators had died in eight years of war stretching from China and Southeast Asia to halfway across the Pacific.

More than a half-million civilians died in the U.S. bombings of Japanese cities. The World War II-era Imperial Japanese Navy had been smashed, and the home islands were exposed to an imminent Allied invasion.

Even after all that death, loss and destruction, a group of high-ranking military officers planned to unleash fratricidal bloodshed to prevent an unconditional surrender.

This is the context of William Craig’s 1967 history The Fall of Japan, now available as an e-book through Open Road Media. Craig’s narrative weaves together the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, U.S. advisers in China fighting Japan while warily eyeing Maoist forces, and the infighting within Japan’s leadership during the empire’s final days.

The Fall of Japan’s strongest suit is the latter. One of the most interesting personalities is 57-year-old Gen. Korechika Anami, Tokyo’s war minister and a firm opponent of surrender. In August 1945, Anami had only held the post since April, long past time that Japan could have realistically staved off an Allied victory.

Given his position, however, Anami was well aware of the role Japan’s military establishment played in political decisions. Nine years earlier, he cautiously avoided picking sides during the February 26 Incident — an attempted military coup in 1936 when hardline officers targeted elected politicians for assassination.

Japanese rebel troops after the February 26 Incident. Photo via Wikimedia

“Once again in a time of crisis, the young officers of the Japanese Army had decided to take matters into their own hands,” Craig writes. “When they did so, blood always flowed in the streets and peaceful men died brutally.”

During the 1937 coup attempt, a gang of assassins descended on the home of prime minister Keisuke Okada, who was fast asleep having drank too much earlier that evening. Okada’s guards barely had time to hide the drowsy prime minister before they were gunned down.

Okada’s brother-in-law, Matsuo, was also home. Owing to his resemblance to the prime minister, Matsuo revealed himself.

The assassins shot Matsuo to death, believing they had killed Okada.

For the next forty-eight hours, while the Army rebellion rocked Tokyo, Okada hid in the darkness. He escaped from his refuge by mingling with mourners following Matsuo’s corpse as it was taken from the residence. With them, he calmly walked past rebel soldiers still patrolling the streets. He survived to attend his own funeral, which was staged in the belief that Matsuo’s body was truly that of the Prime Minister.

That coup attempt ultimately failed.

Shifting the narrative back to 1945, Craig notes that Anami was afraid Japan’s tattered army could revolt from underneath him, like it did in 1936. At the same time, he would have preferred to send the army — still numbering in the millions — to die in a hopeless, last-ditch defense of the homeland.

The Fall of Japan

His most important priority was to prevent the Allies from abolishing the monarchy during an occupation — which meant attempting to stall a capitulation even if it meant many more people would die.

Rebellion became a common topic in the corridors of the War Ministry. Anami had his hand on the pulse of the officer corps and realized that he was dealing with volatile men, who, if provoked, could overthrow the best-laid plans of the Government. The atomic bomb did not matter to these zealots, who still believed surrender a worse fate than death.

[…]

Anami was in an acutely difficult position. The men under him demanded that he defend what was left of the nation. Those above him accused him of trying to destroy any chance for peace and a future for the nation. He could not please both sides in the struggle. Though Anami was against unconditional peace, he was also against insurrection. Knowing that his army might erupt under him at any moment, he was trying to lull the junior officers into inaction while he worked out the best possible peace terms. In that way he could prevent his impetuous aides from disrupting negotiations. Anami hoped that his course of action would avoid bloodshed in the next hours and days.

At left — Maj. Kenji Hatanaka. At right — Gen. Korechika Anami. Photos via Wikimedia

The revolt ultimately came without Anami’s blessing, who deferred to Emperor Hirohito’s decision to capitulate. The coup attempt instead fell to Maj. Kenji Hatanaka and other senior officials within the War Ministry.

By the time the revolt was well underway on Aug. 15, Anami was slowly dying from a self-inflicted stab wound.

While Anami bled, violence was being done elsewhere in the name of the Emperor. As in 1936, when soldiers hunted down men who opposed their plans, squads of fanatical men had gone out into the warm summer night to track down and slay men they thought were betraying Japan. There was no concerted plan. Hatanaka and his men at the palace had been in contact with various officers around Tokyo, and a loose scheme had been discussed. But the soldiers who walked the streets of the capital this night struck out at the officials of the Government in haphazard fashion. At widely separated points in the city, they moved in to kill.

What is striking about Craig’s history is how the officers went about their coup attempt in such a badly-planned and impulsive manner. The rebellion began when Hatanaka gunned down Lt. Gen. Takeshi Mori of the First Imperial Guards Division after Mori refused to join him.

The Fall of Japan describes a revolt that quickly flounders.

The rush to overthrow the government was largely due to the speed at which events were unfolding. An audio recording of Hirohito formally declaring the war over was set to go out over the radio. Finding, seizing and destroying that recording was Hatanaka’s top priority.

But within hours, “Hatanaka’s authority had collapsed.”

Only shortly before, Colonel Haga, the man who was supposed to take control of the Guards Division, lost his temper with the ringleaders. Heartsick at the news that General Mori had been shot down, Haga realized that he had been duped, and screamed, “Get out of here.” Koga, Ishihara, Shiizaki and Hatanaka got out. Koga and Ishihara were disconsolate. Both of them had been appalled when Mori died, and since then nothing had gone right. Ishihara, in particular, had become almost hysterical as the night wore on, and was of little help.

Unable to seize the recording, Hatanaka grew ever more desperate. His final move was embarrassing.

He took several men with him and raced to the broadcasting studios of NHK, the government radio station. There he went to Studio Twelve and pointed his gun at Morio Tateno, a radio announcer on duty.

“Let me speak on the radio at the five A.M. news hour.”

Tateno refused, saying, “You have to get the permission of the Eastern Army Headquarters.” Because of the air-raid alert, the Army automatically took control of radio broadcasts.

The furious Hatanaka berated Tateno, who could do nothing but repeat the statement. No one could go on the air without sanction from General Tanaka.

As the two stood there arguing, the telephone rang. Hatanaka picked it up. General Tanaka’s office had traced him to the radio station. Hatanaka identified himself and listened quietly as the voice on the other end urged him to give up the rebellion. The disheveled ringleader stood with the receiver in his left hand, the revolver in his right. Finally he broke in: “I want only five minutes. We want to let the nation know what the young officers think.” When the voice on the phone refused his request, Hatanaka hung up.

He was defeated. There was nothing else he could do to stop the surrender.

Nine hours after killing Lt. Gen. Takeshi Mori, Hatanaka walked into a wooded area near the Imperial Palace and turned his gun on himself.

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