February 26, 1936 Incident

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Perhaps the most serious coup attempt of Japan, before World War Two in the Pacific, was the February 26, 1936 Incident, a classic incident of ritualized insubordination, or gekokoju. Leaders killed by the radical Army Young Officers included Home Minister Makoto Saito, Finance Minister Korekiyo Takayashi, and Army Inspector General of Military Education Jotaro Watanabe. [1] They also killed a number of police, family members, and staff.

While it drew initial support, especially from officers associated with the Imperial Way Faction, Emperor Hirohito took a strong position against the rebels, even threatening personally to lead troops against it. After three days, it collapsed. This provided the basis for the Control Faction to purge the Imperial Way members from the military. It led to "unity" cabinets, and the end of political parties by 1940.

It may have accelerated the movement to war. The Control Faction in the Army were intermixed with the Strike-South Faction, which believed in a military solution to obtain resources in Southeast Asia and Oceania. Imperial Way focused first on national development rather than expansion, although there was a good deal of support of the Strike-North Faction against Siberia. Conceivably, Imperial Way might have been a bit more willing to form economic cooperation with China.


Ikki Kita, wrote, in his book A Plan for the Reorganization of Japan, that the land should follow "state socialism", in which landowners, industrialists, and even some aristocrats were usurpers, interfering with a "gospel of the sword" that could unify "our seven hundred million brothers in China and India", led by Japan.[2]

1931 preamble

Kita's disciple Mitsugi Nishida was a military officer, but resented the materialistic influence of the Three Crows. He supported what the British Embassy termed "the realization of a system of Fascist dictatorship, based on aggressive militarism, chauvinism, and the destruction of all liberal principles of government." He formed a group called the Young Officers, who made their first action in the March 1931 Incident, with the intent of making Sadao Araki the Prime Minister. Araki was head of the Imperial Way faction.

1935 events

Another organization, the National Principle Group organized by two former Army comrades and containing mostly lieutenants and captains, had, in May 1935, sent a pamphlet to Chief of Staff (Imperial Japanese Army) Prince Kanin, charging that Nagata was involved in the March 1931 incident. Kanin, on 30 July 1935, sent War Minister Senjuro Hayashi to ask Hirohito's permission to expel the two leaders from the Army, as opposed to the usual punishment of transfer to the reserves. [3] Prince Chichibu had been monitoring the situation for the Palace, and the plotters felt they had encouraged them. Prince Chichibu had long been sympathetic with Imperial Way, and had clashed with Hirohito about it for ten years. [4]

The defense counsel of Saburo Aizawa, assassin of Tetsuzan Nagata, said at his trial, "If the court fails to understand the spirit which guided Colonel Aizawa, a second Aizawa, and even a third, will appear." Aizawa himself said he was motivated to commit a murder, under gekokujo, because

I came to realize that the senior statesmen, those close to the Throne, powerful financiers and bureaucrats, were attempting gradually to corrupt the government and the Army to their selfish interests. "[5]

Sterling and Peggy Seagrave wrote that as Aizawa left the room where he killed Nagata, he encountered Gen. Tomiyuki Yamashita, who shook his hand and said "thank you."[6]

Prime Minister Okabe, in trying to control the situation, rejected the organ theory of government. Still, this was insufficient for some who wanted radical reform, including constitutional interpretation. Government changes did not satisfy them.[7]

1936 operation

They felt most encouraged by Gen. Tomiyuki Yamashita, a member of Imperial Way and then assigned to the Palace, to investigate the Strike-North Faction. He had agreed to meet with them on December 22, but did not. After the meeting, several members stopped at a police station and gave a report on their own activities. While this might seem odd in Western eyes, it was quite customary, and even regarded as privileged, for radicals to keep the police informed, as part of the maintenance of civil order. Marquis Kido noted some of the plans in his diary:[8]

  • 1st Company, 1st Infantry Regiment: capture the Home Minister's residence
  • 3rd Company, 3rd Infantry Regiment: kill Prime Minister Keisuke Okada
  • 2nd Company, 1st Infantry Regiment: kill the Lord Privy Seal

The plotters were angry that sympathetic General Jinzaburo Mazaki as Inspector General of Military Education had been replaced by Jotaro Watanabe. Mazaki had been a supporter of Sadao Araki.

Final planning

On the evening of February 22, the leaders met at the home of Lieutenant Yasuhide Kurihara and reviewed the target list:[9]

The strike

Twenty-two junior officers, part of the plot, commanded over 1,400 soldiers in carrying out the operation. They immediately took control of the Army Ministry and Metropolitan Police Headquarters, and killed Makoto, Takahash, and Watanabe, and wounded Suzuki. Five policemen, and several family and staff members, died in the attacks.

Baroness Suzuki mollified the assassins, when they were about to give him a coup de grace, by saying "If you consider it necessary, let me do it." Okada's secretary and brother-in-law, Colonel Denzo Matsuo, ran at the rebels, shouting "Long live the emperor", and was killed instantly — but they thought they had killed the Prime Minister. Makino's bodyguards fought the mutineers long enough for him to escape. [10]

From a tactical standpoint, their immediate failures included not cutting the Palace's communications, and not considering the Navy as a counterforce. The commander of the Yokusuka Naval Base, Rear Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai, guarded the Navy Ministry and gathered warships and landing forces for a counterattack. [11]

Hirohito's reaction

Emperor Hirohito, in spite of the Imperial Way's idealization of the throne, strongly disapproved and ordered counteraction. He had been informed, at 05:40, that an uprising was underway.

Dressed in an Army uniform, he met accused General Shigeru Honjo of prior knowledge. Honjo had received a warning from his son-in-law at 5 AM that day, and ordered him to call it off. He also notified the chief of the kempetai and the duty imperial aide-de-camp.

Shortly after 0600, however, Hirohito said to him, "Only you, Chief Aide-de-Camp, worried beforehand there might be such an outbreak." He replied,

The young officers only mean to find a place for their sense of righteousness as individuals in the all-encompassing righteousness of the Emperor. They wish a little fresh air for their ideas to bloom in.[12]

According to the Harrises, Hirohito responded,"Why should we forgive them when these brutal officers kill our right-hand advisers? ... All my most trusted retainers are dead and [the mutineers'] actions are aimed directly at me." In an unprecedented statement for an Emperor traditionally behind the scenes, (emphasis added) he continued, "We ourselves will lead the Imperial Guards and suppress them.[13]

Kido quickly determined what the Imperial Guards would do if the mutineers moved into the palace, and made it his priority to be sure no provisional cabinet would be formed until the mutiny was over.

Army Minister Yoshiyuki Kawashima met with rebels, at 0700, who occupied the lower floor of his residence. They gave him their manifesto of demands, and recommended that he consult with several officers: Strike-North Faction leader Mazaki, vice-minister of war Lieutenant General Furusho Mikio, and Major General Tomiyuki Yamashita. They did not know Yamashita had been reporting their discussions to the Palace.[14] Presenting the rebel manifesto, which Bergamini interprets as having a veiled message of avoiding further foreign entanglement, and focus on domestic reform and preserving traditional virtues, rejecting his expansionist policies. [15] Kawashima encouraged Hirohito to form a cabinet to "clarify the kokutai', stabilize national life, and fulfill national defense." Hirohito sent him off to suppress the rebellion, and also sent away Chief of Staff (Imperial Japanese Navy) Prince Fushimi, who also wanted to know what the Emperor would do about a new cabinet. [16]

At 0800, Mazaki, of the Imperial Way Faction (kodo-ha) "whom a court-martial was later to credit with advanced knowledge of the uprising", visited the Army Minister, congratulated them, and then discussed a solution. They agreed, without consulting anyone else in the army, to forward a recommendation that a "strong cabinet" be formed. [14] Mazaki was the rebels' candidate for Prime Minister. On April 5, 1935, he had issued an instruction to the Army to clarify kokutai, explaining Japan was a holy land ruled over sacred emperors who were living deities. He was a member of Kokuhonsha.[17]

The Emperor told the members of the Supreme War Council that the Army must suppress the revolt. At noon, Kawwashima sent Yamashita to the rebel command post with an answer, which, in formal language, told the six leaders they had lost. "The Emperor has been told your intentions; the war minister recognizes the sincerity of your motives; the Supreme War Council has met and decided to uphold the national prestige." They said they would die fighting; Yamashita called the palace, and kept talking, reinforced with Teiichi Suzuki and the commander of the rebels' regiment.

Hirohito, meanwhile, refused to appoint a new prime minister, considering that a sign of success by the rebels. Eventually, the Cabinet appointed a temporary administrator. The Supreme War Council acknowledged that they had been heard, and then ordered the Tokyo Defense Plan put into effect. After the Emperor met with the Privy Council, they recommended the imposition of martial law.[18]

The second day

Loyal troops took positions, by 10:30, facing the rebels and securing the open areas of the palace. Prince Chichibu, who was known as a friend of the rebels, was enroute to Tokyo, and was escorted to the palace for dinner when he arrived at 17:17. Joined by other princes, two decisions were made: have Prince Kanin come to Tokyo and stand in support of Hirohito. Chichibu also sent a personal note to the highest-ranking rebel, asking him, as a personal favor, to withdraw. That individual, Captain Nonaka, shot himself the next day.

Generals Jinzaburo Mazaki, Noboyuki Abe, and Yoshikazu Nishi told the rebel leaders that they should submit. The rebels were in radio contact with Ikki, who encouraged them to continue.

The third day

Hoonjo was told of the rebels' decision to resist, after encouragement from Ikki. On a personal level, he was disgraced because his son-in-law, Captain Ichtaro Yamaguchi, had given aid to the reels. Captain Yamaguchi pleaded, at 11:00, not to us force, but after an hour, Colonel Kanji Ishiwara, said "we shall attack as soon as possible."

There was a delay, as Yamashita had thought of one compromise. He came to Honjo, accompanied by Kawashima, with a pledge that the rebel officers would commit suicide, provided that the Imperial Chamberlain would witness their act, and report their sincerity to the throne. Hirohito rejected the proposal, saying "If they wish to commit suicide, let them do it at their own pleasure. To send an Imperial witness to such men is altogether unacceptable." The Army leaders were stunned, as ritual suicide was a traditional way to end impossible situations, with a modicum of honor. Then Vice-Chief-of-Staff Hajime Sugiyama offered a face-saving formula that the rebels did not expect an imperial witness at the suicides,but that the chamberlain might inspect their bodies to see if they correctly carried out the rite of seppuku and report this to the Throne. With anger, Hirohito rejected it.

Sugiyama pleaded with the Emperor, and even lay in a doorway and offered to let Hirohito trample him. The Emperor merely stepped over him. At 16:30, Sugiyama and the commander of the martial law force, told the Emperor it was too late in the day for an attack but promised one early in the morning. Dismissed with anger, Hirohito summoned Honjo and accused the Army, with dripping sarcasm, of gross insubordination.

There is a rumor the Army belongs to the Emperor. There is another rumor that the Army is intentionally stalling to increase the significance of the incident.[19]

A delegation of senior military officers made one last effort to prevent Hirohito from putting the Army at risk,Araki, Hayashi, and Sugiyama met Prince Kanin and tried to have him change Hirohito's mind. Kanin refused, and Colonel Kanji Ishiwara, chief of staff of the martial law forces, put an end to it. He stared at Araki, and said ""This is a violation of the supreme command. Please state your name and rank, sir."

"You know perfectly well I am General Araki. Andi Inow that you are trying to insult a superior officer. I would advise you to hold your tongue."

Ishawara said he could not, for it was "absolutely impermissible to use the arms of the Throne against he throne. That would be beyond common sense and has nothing to do with Army morale. You call yourself a general, but I cannot believe anyone so silly can be a general in Japan."

Nevertheless, the general were able to try to convince the rebels to surrender peacefully. Honjo's son-in-law, however, was arrested on suspicion of high treason.


There were several major effects. Hirohito and his key advisers tried to get better control of the military. Purging the Imperial Way Faction allowed the Control Faction to accelerate its program of economic and military preparedness for expansion, and, since many Strike-North Faction advocates were also affiliated with Imperial Way — some Imperial Way members, including the rebels, did not want short-term foreign actions — Strike-South dominated planning.

Army reform

On March 2, all senior general offered to resign over the "recent unforgivable incident", which Hirohito accepted on March 6, with the effective date being April 3. He retained, in the operational group,

Hirohito also declined the resignations of:

Cabinet and structure

It was now time for a new cabinet. Prince Konoye refused the Prime Ministership, in part because he was not that visible in public office, and also that he did not want to preside over an Army purge. Prince Asaka, who had commanded the Imperial Guards, urged the Emperor to replace Okada Government with the Hirota cabinet. Saionji, the recommender of candidate, then suggested Foreign Minister Koki Hirota, who became Prime Minister on March 9.

Hirohito strengthened his belief that the Constitution reinforced his power of command. He became more strict about it, refusing to accept Ishiwara's proposal for an independent Air Force because it might not be covered by the Constitution and elude his command. He moved closer to the Control Faction, was more determined not to appear indecisive, and yet seemed to believe the Throne was more insecure than it was [20] even though preservation of the Throne would prove to be literally more important than life to the hard-core military leadership.

Changes and the trial

Other than Nonaka, the Young Officers considered suicide but decided to surrender, assuming they could speak before a court. Nonaka wrote, before shooting himself,

In recent years the sins of the traitors at home have been redeemed by the blood of our comrades in Manchuria and Siberia. What answer can I give to the souls of these men if I spend the rest of my days here in the capital? Am I insane or am I a fool? There is but one road for me to take.[21]

Honjo resigned and was sent to the Reserves, with a good deal of grace from the Emperor. Mazaki was held by the kempetai for a year and a half, but, after a hunger strike, was cleared, possibly through the intervention of Prince Konoye. Yamashita was reposted to a brigade in Korea, but received a personal note of encouragement in December 1936, and his career went back on track.

A Privy Council meeting on March 4, which Hirohito attended, recommended quick secret trials of the Young Officers, along with their civilian associates.

Seventeen of the surviving Young Officers were shot, after an hour to explain their positions to a secret Army tribunal [22] in April. Two civilian theorists, Ikki Kita and Mitsugi Nishida, were executed. [1]

The executions took place in July. Bix reports that Hirohito told a military aide, who had been on duty during the revolt, to obtain seventeen of the lanterns used to remember the spirits of the dead during the Buddhist obon festival, and place them, quietly, around the Palace. He said no more, because saying more could be perceived as condoning mutiny. The remembrance, however, might let him "feel more at ease with himself...even after sanctioning death sentences in order to extinguish threats to his entourage, he could still feel he was living his belief in compassionate concern for his subjects."[23]


  1. 1.0 1.1 , Chapter 4, Challenge to Constitutional government — The rise of the military: 4-7 The 2.26 Incident of 1936, Modern Japan in Archives, National Diet Library
  2. Merion and Susie Harris (1991), Soldiers of the Sun: the Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army, Random House, p. 177
  3. David Bergamini (1971), Japan's Imperial Conspiracy, Morrow, pp. 621-622
  4. Sterling Seagrave and Peggy Seagrave (1999), The Yamato Dynasty: the secret history of Japan's imperial family, Broadway Books, ISBN 07677904066, p. 147
  5. John Toland (1970), Chapter 1: Gekokoju, The Rising Sun: the Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire 1936-1935, vol. Volume 1, Random House, pp. 14-15
  6. Sterling Seagrave and Peggy Seagrave (1999), The Yamato Dynasty: the secret history of Japan's imperial family, Broadway Books, ISBN 07677904066, p. 155
  7. Herbert P. Bix (2001), Hirohito and the making of modern Japan, Harper Perennial, ISBN 978-0060931308, pp. 292-293
  8. Bergamini, p. 323
  9. Harris & Harrs, p. 184
  10. Bergamini, pp. 634-636
  11. Bix, pp. 297-298
  12. Bergamini, pp. 638-639
  13. Harris & Harris, p. 190
  14. 14.0 14.1 Harris & Harris, p. 190
  15. Bergamini, p. 642
  16. Bix, p. 299
  17. Bix, pp. 288-299
  18. Bergamini, pp. 643-645
  19. Bergamini, p. 650-651
  20. Bix, p. 303
  21. Toland, p. 12
  22. Bergamini, pp. 658-659
  23. Bix, p, 301