Army of Japan

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Rise of militarism

The military had a strong influence on Japanese society from the Meiji Restoration. Almost all leaders in Japanese society during the Meiji period (whether in the military, politics or business) were ex-samurai or descendants of samurai, and shared a set of values and outlooks. The early Meiji government viewed Japan as threatened by western imperialism, and one of the prime motivations for the Fukoku Kyohei policy was to strengthen Japan’s economic and industrial foundations, so that a strong military could be built to defend Japan against outside powers.

Domestic issues within early Meiji Japan also called for a strong military. The early Meiji government was threatened by internal revolts, such as the Saga Rebellion and Satsuma Rebellion, and numerous rural peasant uprisings.

The rise of universal military conscription, introduced by Yamagata Aritomo in 1873, along with the proclamation of the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors in 1882 enabled the military to indoctrinate thousands of men from various social backgrounds with military-patriotic values and the concept of unquestioning loyalty to the Emperor as the basis of the Japanese state (kokutai). Yamagata like many Japanese was strongly influenced by the recent striking success of Prussia in transforming itself from an agricultural state to a leading modern industrial and military power. He accepted Prussian political ideas, which favored military expansion abroad and authoritarian government at home. The Prussian model also devalued the notion of civilian control over the independent military, which meant that in Japan, as in Germany, the military could develop into a state within a state, thus exercising greater influence on politics in general.

Following the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War, the Army Staff College and the Japanese General Staff paid close attention to Major Jakob Meckel’s views on the superiority of the German military model over the French system as the reason for German victory. In response to a Japanese request, Prussian Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke sent Meckel to Japan to become an O-yatoi gaikokujin. In Japan, Meckel worked closely with future Prime Ministers General Katsura Tarō and General Yamagata Aritomo, and with army strategist General Kawakami Soroku. Meckel made numerous recommendations which were implemented, including reorganization of the command structure of the army into divisions and regiments, thus increasing mobility, strengthening the army logistics and transportation structure with the major army bases connected by railways, establishing artillery and engineering regiments as independent commands, and revising the universal conscription system to abolish virtually all exceptions. A bust of Meckel was sited in front of the Japanese Army Staff College from 1909 through 1945.

Although his period in Japan (1885–1888) was relatively short, Meckel had a tremendous impact on the development of the Japanese military. He is credited with having introduced Clausewitz’s military theories and the Prussian concept of war games (kriegspiel) in a process of refining tactics. By training some sixty of the highest-ranking Japanese officers of the time in tactics, strategy and organization, he was able to replace the previous influences of the French advisors with his own philosophies. Meckel especially reinforced Hermann Roesler’s ideal of subservience to the Emperor by teaching his pupils that Prussian military success was a consequence of the officer class’s unswerving loyalty to their sovereign Emperor, as expressly codified in Articles XI-XIII of the Meiji Constitution.

The rise of political parties in the late Meiji period was coupled with the rise of secret and semi-secret patriotic societies, such as the Genyōsha (1881) and Kokuryukai (1901), which coupled political activities with paramilitary activities and military intelligence, and supported expansionism overseas as a solution to Japan’s domestic issues.

With a more aggressive foreign policy, and victory over China in the First Sino-Japanese War and over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, Japan joined the imperialist powers. The need for a strong military to secure Japan’s new overseas empire was strengthened by a sense that only through a strong military would Japan earn the respect of western nations, and thus revision of the unequal treaties.

Growth of military adventurism

Japan had been involved in the Asian continent continuously from the First Sino-Japanese War, Boxer Rebellion, Russo-Japanese War, World War I and the Siberian Intervention. During the term of Prime Minister Tanaka Giichi from 1927 to 1929, Japan sent troops three times to China to obstruct Chiang Kai-shek’s unification campaign. In June 1928, adventurist officers of the Kwantung Army embarked on unauthorized initiatives to protect Japanese interests in Manchuria, including the assassination of a former ally, warlord Zhang Zuolin, in hopes of sparking a general conflict.

The Manchurian Incident of September 1931 did not fail, and it set the stage for the Japanese military takeover of all of Manchuria. Kwangtung Army conspirators blew up a few meters of South Manchurian Railway Company track near Mukden, blamed it on Chinese saboteurs, and used the event as an excuse to invade and seize the vast territory.

In Tokyo one month later, in the Imperial Colors Incident, military figures failed in an attempt to establish a military dictatorship, but again the news was suppressed and the military perpetrators were not punished.

In January 1932, Japanese forces attacked Shanghai in the First Shanghai Incident, waging a three-month undeclared war there before a truce was reached. The civilian government in Tokyo was powerless to prevent these military adventures, and instead of being condemned, the Kwangtung Army’s actions enjoyed considerable popular support.

Inukai’s successors, military men chosen by Saionji Kinmochi, the last surviving genrō, recognized Manchukuo and generally approved the army’s actions in securing Manchuria as an industrial base, an area for Japanese emigration, and a potential staging ground for war with the Soviet Union. Various army factions contended for power amid increasing suppression of dissent and more assassinations. In the February 26 Incident of 1936, the Army’s elite First Infantry Division staged an attempted coup d’état in yet another effort to overthrow civilian rule. The revolt was put down by other military units, and its leaders were executed after secret trials. Despite public dismay over these events and the discredit they brought to numerous military figures, Japan’s civilian leadership capitulated to the army’s demands in the hope of ending domestic violence. Increases were seen in defense budgets, naval construction (Japan announced it would no longer accede to disarmament treaties), and patriotic indoctrination as Japan moved toward a wartime footing.

In November 1936, the Anti-Comintern Pact, an agreement to exchange information and collaborate in preventing communist activities, was signed by Japan and Germany (Italy joined a year later). War was launched against China with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 7, 1937 in which a clash near Beijing between Chinese and Japanese troops quickly escalated into the full-scale warfare of the Second Sino-Japanese War, followed by the Soviet-Japanese Border Wars and the Pacific War.

Despite the military’s long tradition of independence from civilian control, its efforts at staging a coup d’état to overthrow the civilian government, and its forcing Japan into war through insubordination and military adventurism, the military was ultimately unable to force a military dictatorship on Japan.

Under Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro, the Japanese government was streamlined to meet war-time conditions and under the National Mobilization Law was given absolute power over the nation’s assets. In 1940, all political parties were ordered to dissolve into the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, forming a single party state based on totalitarian values. Even so, there was much entrenched opposition from the government bureaucrats, and in the 1942 general election for the Japanese Diet, the military was still unable to do away with the last vestiges of party politics. This was partly due to the fact that the military itself was not a monolithic structure, but was rent internally with its own political factions. Even Japan’s wartime Prime Minister, Hideki Tōjō, had difficulty controlling portions of his own military.

Japan’s overseas possessions, greatly extended as a result of early successes in the Pacific War were organized into a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which was to have integrated Asia politically and economically—under Japanese leadership—against Western domination.

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