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Since the first day of the Trump presidency, the nature of conservative politics and the question of how to understand it has been a pressing concern. One of the last events of Donald Trump’s presidency: the attack on the Capitol on January 6th – has made that question even more urgent.
Internationally, the debates around historical parallels to Trumpism have been monopolized by one key issue: whether or not he or his administration can be accurately labeled as fascist. However, history has failed to settle on a single consensus definition of fascism, and so the lessons it offers for contemporary politics must be provisional. Moreover, fascism’s long shadow potentially impoverishes our hunt for historical analogy: it provides a simplified answer, yes or no, where a more diverse set of examples might give us more complex and nuanced tools to think about the present moment.
Japan in the 1930s, represents one possible historical parallel. The so-called ‘dark valley’ of Showa Japan led to Pearl Harbour and the Pacific War, but it remains contested whether we can accurately call it fascist or not. Nevertheless, studying Japan can tell us, if not how to think about the insurrection of January 6th, at least some questions to ask. Throughout the interwar period, political violence impeded and eroded the functioning of government and democracy in Japan: the nature of this violence and how the nation responded to it, proposes some lessons for understanding the right-wing violence that overshadows American political life today.
Lesson One: Startling events, not a one-off
Between 1930 and 1936, a series of assassinations, plots, and attempted coups took place in Japan. They were instigated by different groups who formed interconnected networks of like-minded patriots: army officers, intellectuals, adventurers with experience of revolutionary activities on continental Asia, and followers of a nationalistic interpretation of Buddhism.
All had in common the willingness to do whatever it took to salvage their country from what they saw as an existential crisis. Perhaps indicative of this type was the Sakura-kai (the Cherry Blossom Society), formed by a group of junior army officers in early 1930. The delicate-seeming name revealed their commitment to, and spirit of self-sacrifice: the cherry blossom, glorious in bloom but short-lived, evoked the image of a heroic soldier, willing to lay down his life for the country. Calling for a ‘Showa Restoration’ – a reference to Japan’s modernizing ‘Meiji Restoration’ of 1868 – they hoped to rescue their country from its modern ills: party politics riddled with corruption, the military side-lined and hampered by international treaties, and big business only interested in lining their pockets.
The Sakura-kai plotted two conspiracies in 1931 – the first in March and the second in the autumn. They planned to provoke riots in Tokyo, which would allow them to seize control of the parliament and the cabinet, assassinating whoever resisted and forcing the cabinet to resign in favor of a reformist military government.
In the end, senior members of the military and the Sakura-kai’s founders got cold feet and called off the riots. But the following year a conspiracy did go ahead. The Ketsumei-dan, or ‘blood oath corps’ (a name subsequently applied to them by the media) was a small cell of Buddhist-inspired civilians. They initially planned on assassinating 20 leading politicians and businessmen, but in the end, killed two; a third, the Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi, was killed by a loosely connected associate later that year.
These events (as well as subsequent ones in the following years) demonstrate that although the Sakura-kai was stopped before it could act it did not mark the end of the danger. Rather the motives that precipitated their plot were shared more broadly: left unaddressed, further violence and conspiracy ensued.
In other words, left unaddressed, the danger is that the ideas and networks behind January 6th’s events will resurface again.
Lesson Two: Look out for the lieutenants
If what makes a coup a coup is the involvement of the army, as some have argued, then it is worth noting who led these Japanese conspiracies. This year much has been made of the intervention by the ex Secretaries of Defense in the post-election controversy, who cautioned the military not to intervene.
Yet the question is: from where would military support for an insurrection come and how much control can the top exert over lower ranks? In pre-war Japan, the major figures of the Sakurai-kai and other factions were junior officers. These were men senior enough to command the lower ranks but not so important that they were invested in maintaining the status quo. The ringleaders, such as Lieutenant Hashimoto Kingoro, were a motley bunch. They embraced a romantic vision inspired by historical heroes celebrated through dissolute behavior in bars and brothels (During the events of 1931, Hashimoto’s wife was seeking a divorce, while another of the plotters was observed bragging about the coming revolution in the concourse of one of Tokyo’s largest stations.)
The role of the senior officers in these plots is more complex. The conspirators looked to a few key generals in the hope that, given the opportunity, they would be willing to lead a redemptive military regime, but for the most part, these senior figures were kept out of the loop because their support in advance of any action was not guaranteed.
That said, many of the senior officers were aware of the radicalism of their subordinates. While they refused to embrace the plots, neither did they act to break up the groups or punish them when the conspiracies were revealed. When the Sakura-Kai plots were broken up, the members were not dishonorably discharged or prosecuted; rather they were transferred out of the capital to prevent their further coordination, and otherwise left largely unpunished.
Lesson Three: The courts’ matter, but the public matters too
If the Sakura-kai plotters were let off lightly, the Ketsumei-dan group of 1932 was treated more seriously: they had, after all, killed people. The assassins surrendered to the authorities after carrying out the murders, and they freely admitted to their acts and their plots. Their only defense was the claim that they were drawn to act by the parlous state of the country and their ardent, patriotic desire to resolve it.
Their trials took place in 1933 and 1934 and were major public events. Newspapers cautioned that public ambivalence about the plot risked tipping the country into militarism. At the same time, it was a sensational story: journalists reported the court proceedings in great detail and allowed the participants to present their vision of the country and the motivation for their actions to the public.
The proceedings were theatrical and chaotic, and court officials bent over backward to be solicitous of the conspirators. The defendants, led by Inoue Nissho, an ex-continental adventurer turned radical Buddhist, cut an imposing presence, sitting in the courtroom dressed as monks with woven hats obscuring their faces. By the end of the trial, one judge had resigned due to sickness, the public had sent in petitions signed by over a million people pleading for leniency, and the prosecutor expressed reluctance that he was obliged to seek the death penalty. The sentencing judge advised the guilty men to look after their health in prison, a strong hint that they would likely be pardoned in due course, which they were.
The lesson here is that prosecution after the fact may be important, but is not enough to stop a nationalist movement. While the trials were a key step in challenging the violent vision of the would-be revolutionaries, a legal process was not sufficient: the movement had to be repudiated in the public sphere as well, and in this, the Japanese failed.
Lesson Four: ‘Success’ isn’t everything
The last major attempt to install a military government in Japan came in February 1936. The ‘Young Officers Group’ launched an insurrection that involved over 1000 soldiers and civilians. They sought to assassinate many leading figures, take control of the Imperial Palace and other key sites, and ultimately replace the government.
Again, the conspiracy was not successful. The Prime Minister survived (possibly due to a case of mistaken identity: his brother was killed), the palace and the Emperor remained secure, and eventually the instigators were all rounded up. This time, perhaps because the Imperial Palace was targeted directly, the authorities acted decisively and worked to reduce public pressure on the judicial system: trials were held in secret and most of the main ringleaders were put to death.
However, while this and previous plots did not come to fruition, many of their goals were taken up by the government all the same. Leading historian, and an eye witness to these events, Maruyama Masao, describe the evolution of Japanese rule as ‘fascism from above’. Unlike in Germany and Italy, radical right-wing groups never succeeded in taking over the government, but their aims of a stronger, more nationalistic, and militaristic rule, were adopted all the same. Inukai Tsuyoshi was the last pre-war Prime Minister chosen from the democratically elected political parties rather than the military or government bureaucracy. After his assassination in 1932, there was a series of Prime Ministers, several drawn from the Army or Navy but none from the democratic political sphere. Several were subsequently found guilty of War Crimes in the post-1945 International Military Tribunal.
The lesson? Conspiracists do not have to succeed if other elements of government share their vision. Japan allied with Germany, went to war with China, and then with the USA and British Empire. The radical revolutionaries failed in all of their attempts to overthrow the government, but ultimately achieved much of their vision of a Japanese confrontation with the West.
Historical analogies work in both directions: looking at history can give us much to think about regarding our present-day situation, but the present day’s concerns also shed new and unexpected light on the past.
Over the last four years, I’ve often found myself reflecting on the issues of the day in the classroom and how they inform our study of history. Both the Trump presidency and the UK’s Brexit vote have created new insights into the history of Japan, on the constitutional rule and foreign policy, as much as on more extreme questions such as fascism. The events of January 6th brought home to me the reality of living through political violence and the difficulty in understanding the real meaning of events as they occur.
Hopefully, the next few years of Joe Biden’s presidency will see the fading of political extremism and violence.
But the dark valley of Showa Japan suggests some key risks to remain focused upon.
Dr. Ian Rapley is a lecturer in East Asian history at Cardiff University, United Kingdom.