The years of 1931-32 were a turning point in Japanese history, typified by military coups, invasions, and political assassinations. Although this era only gets a few sentences in English language history books, the specific details of three events – the October Incident, the Blood Brotherhood Incident, and the 5-15 Incident – are fascinating in their own right and read like a thriller novel. I’ve taken information from various sources to create a thoroughly researched and detailed account of these events that changed the course of Japan.
One thing to consider is that not much information exists in English about these episodes. Also, many accounts are contradictory or just plain wrong. I’ve read many times that Prime Minister Inukai was assassinated by Army officers, when, in fact, they were Navy officers, assisted by Army cadets. I have tried to stick with provable, agreed-upon facts, but when speculation arises, I will call it out as such.
By the dawn of the 1930s, Japan was in turmoil by extremists on both sides were inflamed by economic and political factors. The Great Depression began in America but was exported by the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of June 1930. This tariff hurt Japanese exports, causing a wave of layoffs throughout the country. Although it is not a very explored topic, the Japanese Left, egged on by the outlawed Communist Party, took advantage of the turmoil, instigating a total of 984 labor strikes and protests throughout 1930. By the end of the year, four million Japanese were unemployed.
In 1931, on top of the Great Depression ravaging the economy, a severe famine struck the Tohoku region, Japan’s northeast. This area is where a large amount of rice is farmed, and the famine caused a great deal of hardship on both country and city dwellers. However, there was a clear divide between city and country, with many nationalists viewing places like Tokyo as dens of decadence and vice, shamelessly imitating the West and giving up their Japanese culture.
Many impoverished Tohoku farmers had to sell their daughters into prostitution, who became virtual slaves in Tokyo and Osaka brothels. A good portion of the Army enlisted ranks along with the junior officers were from the Tohoku region. Letters from home detailing the misery of their families, slowly wasting away from hunger, along with their sisters being sold into prostitution, bred a deep resentment toward the capitalist system that seemed to only benefit the rich city dwellers.
In 1930, the London Naval Treaty was signed and ratified, limiting the number of Japanese warships against Britain and America. This sparked bitter resentment within the Japanese Navy, and the acrimony spread to the Imperial Army. One such Army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Kingoro Hashimoto, started a secret group, the Cherry Blossom Society (Sakurakai) in September 1930, dedicated to overthrowing the civilian government and establishing a new military dictatorship.
In this atmosphere of extremism, Prime Minister Hamaguchi was shot in November 1930, and the Cherry Blossom Society attempted a coup d’état in March 1931, but their intrigue proved for naught. In September 1931, a separate group of Army officers, stationed in Manchuria, plotted and instigated a false flag event, the infamous Mukden Incident, the cassus belli for the Japanese invasion of the entire region.
It is important to note that the officers who planned the Mukden Incident had nothing to do with the Cherry Blossom Society, or vice versa, and both groups existed in separate spheres of intrigue. Emboldened by the success in Manchuria, the Cherry Blossom Society planned for one more coup d’état.
Incident in October
Formed in 1930, the Cherry Blossom Society was a violent secret group within the Imperial Army. It had already attempted a coup in March, but failed. It had backers among the Japanese elite, such as Viscount Makino, who would, ironically, wind up on a death list drawn up by the Cherry Blossom Society. Strangely enough, many of the right-wing Cherry Blossom Society officers were ferociously anti-capitalist, and even courted support from left-wing parties, in an attempt to destroy the current system, represented by the current prime minister – Baron Reijiro Wakatsuki.
The Manchurian Incident threw the Japanese government into chaos. Prime Minister Wakatsuki and his Foreign Minister, Baron Shidehara, proved impotent to stop the Army from expanding throughout Manchuria. The Japanese military force in this region was the Kwantung Army (Kanto Gun), but it is important to note that while this unit was part of the Imperial Japanese Army, its distance from Tokyo allowed it to function almost autonomously from the central government.
The main conspirator in the March Incident – Lieutenant-Colonel Kingoro Hashimoto – began planning with Major Isamu Cho. It is not clear if Cho had much involvement with the March Incident, but he was a major figure in the events to follow. Both men were violently nationalistic and disgusted by what they perceived as the weakness of the civilian government. Their views can be witnessed in a statement made by Hashimoto in 1930:
“When we observe the London Treaty, it is evident that the poisonous sword of the demoralized and covetous party politician is about to be turned toward the Army. Those of us who are rank and file of the Army must strengthen unity and not only prevent the repetition of the Navy’s failure but also with a strong patriotic fervor, be ready to wash out the bowels of the corrupt and covetous men who rule us.”
Both men were hotheaded and bloodthirsty. A career artillery officer, Hashimoto was described as impatient and hysterical, receiving over 60 punishments throughout his military career, but also, strangely, he was a very talented and sentimental poet. Cho was described as a man not above slapping junior officers when angry and would lose his temper at a moment’s notice.
While they supported the Manchurian Incident, the Cherry Blossom Society valued an internal revolution before external expansion. Only then could Japan be strong enough for a major war. While the Wakatsuki Government did not denounce the invasion openly, behind the scenes they appealed to the League of Nations and supported a withdrawal, save the exception of General Jiro Minami, the Army Minister.
Terrified that the Wakatsuki Government would betray all the gains made by the Kwantung Army, plans began in early October 1931 for another coup d’état. This new plan differed from the March Incident in a few key areas.
- While the previous plot focused more on overthrowing the government, with bloodshed only to be used if there were resistance, this new plan would see the wholesale slaughter of the entire Wakatsuki Cabinet, all its ministers, leaders of the political parties, prominent businessmen, and even some Army officers, like General Minami.
- There would be no major contribution from civilian nationalists. Shumei Okawa would be involved, but his role would be merely to occupy the newspaper offices and print pro-coup propaganda, which would persuade the Japanese to support this new regime.
- Senior Army officers would not be directly involved. In the March Incident, General Ugaki’s reluctance ultimately caused the plot to collapse. Now, Hashimoto and Cho wouldn’t take that risk again.
The Imperial Flag Revolution
The plan was simple and not well thought out. A running theme of these Japanese coup plotters is that they were far more concerned with destruction rather than construction. They would tear down the existing system and let others build up a better one. Flags bearing slogans were prepared in advance and given to a sympathetic female dentist for safekeeping. As such, this plot would become known as the Revolution of the Imperial Flag (錦旗革命事件, Kinki Kakumei Jiken) in addition to the October Incident (十月事件, Jūgatsu Jiken).
The plan was such. On October 18th, members of the ruling elite (Prince Kimmochi Saionji and other genro) were to be assassinated using soldiers from the 23rd Infantry Regiment. Machine guns, artillery, and poison gas were to be used in their demise. Simultaneously, the Wakatsuki government was to be killed en masse during a cabinet meeting using Navy bombers from the nearby Misty Lagoon Naval Air Station. If aircraft couldn’t be procured, then the cabinet ministers would be assassinated individually by Cherry Blossom Society officers.
Isamu Cho was tasked with killing Prime Minister Wakatsuki, Colonel Toichi Sasaki (who helped engineered Chang Tso-lin’s murder in 1928) would murder GeneralMinami, and Major Kengo Noda would do away with Baron Shidehara, the epitome of the hated “weak-kneed” foreign policy. Viscount Makino would be assassinated by allies in the Imperial Navy (since all Cherry Blossom Society officers were in the Army). This is very ironic, given that Makino actually funded the Cherry Blossom Society. Finally, several key sites like the Metropolitan Police Headquarters and other government buildings were to be occupied.
But most importantly, Major Nobuo Tanaka would lead troops loyal to the Cherry Blossom Society to cordon off the Imperial Palace, isolating the Emperor from the outside world. The Imperial Guard was either to be enlisted or overrun, and all of the “unpatriotic” advisers were to be eliminated, along with unsympathetic officers in the Army.
Hashimoto and Cho would rely on a well-respected figurehead in the form of Admiral Heihachiro Togo, the legendary Navy officer who destroyed the Russian fleet in 1905, to persuade the Emperor to form a new cabinet. Lieutenant-General Sadao Araki, a nationalist firebrand, was to become prime minister. Kingoro Hashimoto would become home minister. General Yoshitsugu Tatekawa (who was sympathetic to the Manchurian Incident) would be the new foreign minister. Dr. Okawa would be appointed the finance minister, and Major Isamu Cho was to be superintendent-general of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. Whether or not he would resign from the Army to do so is unclear.
It is said that Togo knew of the plot and sympathized, but he denied any such knowledge to General Araki.
A Fire-Eating General
Some words should be set aside for Lieutenant-General Sadao Araki. Mostly forgotten today, he was a huge figure on the militarization of Japan in the 1930s. A veteran of the Siberian Expedition, Araki harbored an intense hatred for Communism, Socialism, and any foreign “ism”. However, he despised capitalism and the selfish individualism it fostered.
In 1931, Araki was appointed the Inspector General of Military Training, which was a very important post in the Imperial Army, right after army minister and chief of staff. Araki used his new position to instill a deep patriotism within Army officers. The Japanese Army always had some degree of politicization, but usually kept out of civilian affairs. That is until 1930, with the advent of the Great Depression. Araki’s teachings further shaped the Japanese Army’s mindset. He introduced the prefix “Ko” (Imperial) into many terms like – Kogun (Imperial or, more accurately, the “Emperor’s” Army) rather than Dai Nippon Teikoku Rikugun (Army of the Great Japanese Empire) and on September 23rd, 1932, he introduced the term “Kodo” (Imperial Way) at a press conference. This phrase was to be adopted by his adherents of radical junior Army officers, calling themselves the Kodoha – the Imperial Way Faction. This faction, however, will not play a major role in our story but will become a power player in Japanese politics as the 1930s go on.
The Plot Draws Closer
Ever since the Manchurian Incident began, Hashimoto and Cho spent most of their time in geisha houses and restaurants, receiving potential co-conspirators, and finalizing the details of the plot. While it would mostly be an Army affair, some civilian assistance was courted. Their help would be needed after the coup took place, in order to avoid a possible civil war. However, as stated, they would not really be involved in the coup itself.
These civilians included:
Ikki Kita – an intellectual writer loved by what would become the Imperial Way Faction. His 1919 book “Outline for the Reorganization of Japan” was one of the most influential texts on the Japanese Far-Right. In it, Kita argues for what would later become known as the Showa Restoration. Named after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which overthrew the Shogun and reinstalled the Emperor’s rule, the Showa Restoration would abolish the civilian government and rule of the military on behalf of the Emperor. Vast fortunes were to be confiscated and redistributed to the poor, heavy industries were to be nationalized, and Japan would liberate Asia from white colonialism.
Mitsugi “Zei” Nishida – a reserve Army officer and student of Kita, who, beginning in the late 1920s, attempted to persuade his fellow officers that the Army should overthrow the civilian government and rule on behalf of the Emperor.
Nissho Inoue – a former spy and mysterious figure in the Nichiren sect of Buddhism. We’ll talk more about him later.
Overtures were made to the Imperial Navy as well since the plan called for Navy bombers to decimate the Kantei, where the Wakatsuki Cabinet would be meeting.
However, Hashimoto and Cho inspired distrust in many of the conspirators. They were loud, crude, and their bloodthirstiness was a turn-off. Even more so, their insistence of taking power after the coup smacked of greedy careerism, of taking power simply for power’s sake. The fact that they lounged in geisha houses, indulging their baser instincts, did not ingratiate themselves with many other stalwart patriots of Japan’s Far-Right. Hashimoto’s and Cho’s defense were that they were simply imitated their role models, the vaunted shishi (志士 men of sacrifice) of the Meiji Restoration, who engaged in similar debauchery while striving for the good of Japan.
This view was especially held by Nissho Inoue and a Navy officer, Hitoshi Fujii, who will both become very important in future events. As such, they both withdrew from the plot.
Endgame in October
Rumors of this impending coup d’état were well-known to Japan’s elite. Prince Saionji knew about it, along with Army Minister General Minami. Many of the conspirators were convinced that there was an informant in their midst – Hiroshi Nemoto and Zei Nishida are usually named as the chief suspects. The fact of the matter is that Hashimoto and Cho were so loose with their talk that it’s a wonder they weren’t discovered sooner.
For example, while at Shinjuku Station, Major Cho loudly boasted that the Cherry Blossom Society would “win the streets of Tokyo with blood and gore!” Added to that were the many geisha parties they attended, and even though geisha are notoriously tight-lipped about clients, it is conceivable they were reported to the Police.
After General Minami became aware of the coup, he ordered Lieutenant-General Araki to temper their passions and snuff it out beforehand. On October 16th, in full uniform, Araki confronted Hashimoto and Cho at a tavern in Kyobashi, entertained by geisha. Apparently, Hashimoto had lounged in geisha houses for so long that his wife had requested a divorce. This infuriated Araki, who was a Spartan officer of pure values, who raged at the two officers, saying:
“You must refrain from doing anything violent or thoughtless. The Kusanagi sword (a blade from Japanese mythology) should always be polished, but it should not be indiscriminately drawn from its scabbard. It is almost inconceivable that I should have to come here in military uniform where you’re drinking sake in order to admonish you. You must be more discreet.”
It should be noted that Araki wasn’t against the coup per se but disdained its sloppiness. The next day, Army Minister Minami order the Kempeitai Military Police to arrest Hashimoto and Cho at their tavern. However, if they were frightened of a court-martial, they overestimated Minami’s rage. All conspirators were given extremely light sentences. Hashimoto was given 20 days house arrest, Cho 10 days, and transferred to the Kwantung Army in faraway Manchuria.
Lieutenant-Colonel Kingoro Hashimoto would receive a new assignment in December, attached to the 10th Regiment of Field Artillery, and bounce around from command to command, before going into the reserves in 1936. He went on to found the fascist Great Japan Youth Party that same year, before being reactivated in 1937 to fight in the Sino-Japanese War, then retiring in 1939 to a life in politics.
Interestingly enough, Major Isamu Cho would later propagate conspiratorial rumors that if the civilian government did not support the Manchurian Incident, the Kwantung Army would declare independence, and use Manchuria as a staging base to invade Japan and seize power. He would meet his end in 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa, the last major battle of the Pacific War.
A Scandal Full of Dollars
World events marched on. By autumn 1931, the Great Depression had become a worldwide economic catastrophe, the cause of which is still debated about to this day. Some central bankers believed that the gold standard, the monetary system in which paper currency is tied to a fixed rate of gold, was hindering economic development. But by going off of the gold standard, governments could print more money to stimulate the economy, spend on public works, etc.
In September 1931, Britain went off the gold standard and since London was the center of global banking at the time, this sent shockwaves around the world. In 1930, Finance Minister Junnosuke Inoue had returned Japan to the gold standard, hoping to stabilize the yen after a series of shocks throughout the 1920s. Although Japan had benefited financially because of World War I, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 wrecked the economy and laid the groundwork for the massive bank failures of the 1927 Showa Financial Crisis.
Inoue’s decision to return to the gold standard couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Just as Japan began to recover from the 1927 crisis, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 hit the economy hard. There were repeated calls for the government to abandon the gold standard, but Inoue held firm. This action was shared by the Herbert Hoover Administration in America, who hung tenaciously to gold.
However, Britain going off gold was the canary in the coal mine. Japanese big business conglomerates, the famous zaibatsu, saw which way the wind was blowing. In particular, the Mitsui zaibatsu, under Director-General Baron Takuma Dan, purchased over 100 million in US dollars. Mitsui, it should be noted, was the major backer of the other major political party – the Rikken Seiyukai.
By 1931, Japanese politics was split between two major political parties. The first was the Rikken Minseito – the Constitutional Democratic Party. Formed in 1927 by the merger of two liberal parties, the Kenseikai and the Seiyu Honto, the Minsei Party became the foremost liberal party of pre-war Japan. I will say “liberal” only in that it strived for more civilian oversight of the military, less rule from the genro and elites, and an increased role of the Imperial Diet in governing. Their financial policies were hardly left-wing and were funded by the Mitsubishi zaibatsu. However, Minsei foreign policy could be considered very internationalist and multilateral, with a non-interventionist attitude toward China and cooperation with the League of Nations.
The Rikken Seiyukai – Association of Friends of Constitutional Government – was founded in 1900 by the vaunted genro, Hirobumi Ito. The Seiyukai was the more conservative of the two parties. Hirobumi Ito led the party at first, followed by Prince Kimmochi Saionji, and the militarist General Giichi Tanaka, all respected elites of society. It should be noted that the first commoner prime minister – Kei Hara – was a Seiyukai member. The Seiyukai supported the Peace Preservation Law of 1925, aligned with big business, and, under General Tanaka, supported an interventionist, hardline approach to China.
The 1920s saw an increase in the political parties and, thanks to universal male suffrage in 1925, this gave birth to what was dubbed Taisho Democracy, named after the Taisho Era. Elections seesawed back and forth, but ultimately it was the Emperor, and his advisers, who decided who became prime minister. For example, the Emperor could appoint an active-duty general or admiral to become prime minister. The Diet controlled the budget and laws, but the Emperor decided who was in charge of the government.
In 1929, the Seiyukai cabinet under Tanaka collapsed and a Minsei successor under Osachi Hamaguchi was formed. The Minsei won a commanding majority in the 1930 elections, but as events have shown, even a majority of seats in the Imperial Diet was useless in the face of Army insubordination in Manchuria. After Hamaguchi was shot, Reijiro Wakatsuki took office, but his influence was limited.
The Seiyukai’s president, Tsuyoshi Inukai, was an old wheeler and dealer in Japanese politics. Despite the modern view that Inukai was a courageous man of impeccable moral character, contemporary reports were less kind. In addition to being informally called “Ki” by his friends, Tsuyoshi Inukai had earned the nickname “The Old Fox” and anyone who has studied Japanese mythology knows that foxes (キツネ kitsune) are represented as devious tricksters who shapeshift and cause mischief.
Inukai wasn’t particularly eager to form a cabinet, nor was he very supportive of the Manchurian Incident, despite his conservative politics. However, he and the Seiyukai were beholden to the financial interests of Mitsui. And that meant going off the gold standard so they could exchange their US dollars for Japanese yen, making a large profit in the exchange rate.
Prime Minister Wakatsuki and his cabinet floundered for months after the invasion of Manchuria, tendering his resignation several times. Unfortunately for him, the Emperor refused to accept. This changed, however, in December 1931 when one of Wakastuki’s ministers – Kenzo Adachi – refused to attend cabinet meetings for forty-eight hours. Wakatsuki’s impotence was too much for the Emperor to ignore and accepted his resignation.
Prince Kimmochi Saionji, the most senior adviser to the Emperor, chose Inukai as his successor, mainly because there was nobody else. Most politicians were afraid of upsetting the Army and even the people since the Manchurian Incident had proved unexpectedly popular with the Japanese populace. Inukai accepted the offer to form a government and appointed Korekiyo Takahashi as finance minister. A staunch Keynesian, Takahashi’s first move was to take Japan off the gold standard in an effort to stimulate the Japanese economy.
Mitsui and other bankers made a lucrative profit from their purchase of US dollars, but the move infuriated the populace, particularly the Far-Right. Dubbed the Dollar Buying Incident (Dora Bai Jiken), the scandal epitomized what many patriotic societies saw as the unholy marriage of greedy capitalists and the political elite. Former Finance Minister Junnosuke Inoue was particularly enraged, perhaps embarrassed that his own economic policies had damaged the economy. Nevertheless, he called the Dollar Buying Incident “traitorous.”
A Terrorist Called by the Sun
One particular nationalist who was disgusted by the Dollar Buying Incident was the aforementioned Nissho Inoue. Born Shiro Inoue in 1887, he later adopted the name Akira Inoue and it should be noted that there was no relation between him and Finance Minister Junnosuke Inoue, since ‘Inoue’ is a relatively common Japanese surname.
The son of a rural doctor, Nissho Inoue left Japan and found employment with the South Manchurian Railway Company (Mantetsu) between 1909 – 1920. The South Manchurian Railway was a semi-government, semi-private corporation that not only controlled the vital southern railway in Manchuria but also was involved in heavy industries and especially the Kwantung Army. As such, Nissho Inoue found a lot of work as a spy for the company, and the Kwantung Army.
These were wild years for Inoue, filled with danger and intrigue. One notable example is that during the First World War, he spied on German positions at Tsingato, giving the invading Japanese a clear picture of where their enemy was stationed. Inoue also was an agent General Rihachiro Banzai, a Japanese adviser for Yuan Shi-kai, the man who helped overthrow the Qing Dynasty. During these tempestuous years, Inoue drank and whored his way throughout Manchuria. Such debauchery was a fitting lifestyle for a tairiku ronin – a continental wanderer – men who drifted throughout China, usually in the pay of Japanese Intelligence.
Upon his return to Japan, Inoue drifted, a vagabond without a home, until he had a religious awakening. There are several sects within Buddhism, the most prominent being Zen Buddhism which emphasizes meditation, self-reflection, and self-restraint. At first, Inoue studied Zen Buddhism but became enraptured with Nichiren Buddhism under the teachings of Chigaku Tanaka.
Nichiren was a Buddhist monk in the 13th century who warned against spiritual decadence and an impending crisis approaching Japan. He was correct in that the Mongols attempted to invade in 1274 and 1281, but both times they were repelled. Nichiren’s version of Buddhism began to spread, differing from other sects in certain ways. I am no expert on Buddhism, but the main difference between Zen and Nichiren Buddhism is a focus on sutras, specifically the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren believed enlightenment could be attained within the Lotus Sutra alone, and rejection of this sutra caused the evils of the world.
If you’re interested in the differences, here’s a link explaining the differences between Nichiren vs Zen Buddhism.
Akira Inoue became a diehard Nichiren, studying at Chigaku Tanaka’s Kokuchūkai temple. In 1923, he heard a strange voice call out “Nissho!” Taking it as a religious sign, he adopted the moniker Nissho – ‘Called by the Sun.’ It should be noted that the ‘Ni’ in ‘Nissho’ is the same character for ‘sun’ as ‘Nihon’ – ‘Sun Land’ the Japanese name for Japan. However, Chigaku Tanaka’s teachings were different from the mainstream Nichiren sect and were steeped in ultranationalism which can fittingly be called Nichirenism (日蓮主義, Nichirenshugi).
Modern-day scholars point out that Nissho Inoue was not an ordained Nichiren priest, but rather a self-styled preacher. Regardless, in 1928 he moved to the Ibaraki Prefecture, neighboring Tokyo to the east, and set up the Righteous National Defense Temple (立正護国堂 Rissho Gokokudo) to spread his beliefs. Namely, Japan was rotting from moral decadence and spiritual corruption, weakening the entire body politic. The entire nation needed radical reform.
Nissho’s temple trained young men for the upcoming reformation of Japan through spiritual hardening. This included mediation in the morning and evening, reciting mantras, and a seven-day fast. Many of these young men brimmed with swagger when they began the fast but by day three, they writhed on the ground in agony, unaware that their hunger pangs would disappear by day five.
Soon, Nissho earned the reputation as a faith healer, which was met with skepticism by the local police. One day, a detective investigated whether or not he was a fraud, and questioned Nissho at his temple. Nissho gave a demonstration, telling the detective to stand up. He couldn’t. According to Nissho, it was the detective’s own spirit that refused to let him stand up. Nissho then said, “Don’t worry, just close your eyes and I’ll make it possible for you to stand up.” The detective did so, stood, and was convinced that Nissho Inoue’s teachings were not “superstition, after all.”
The Misty Lagoon
In January 1930, Nissho Inoue and his followers attended an informal meeting at the home of an Ibaraki Prefecture government employee. Also in attendance were Navy officers of the nearby Misty Lagoon Naval Air Station. One Navy officer, Lieutenant-Commander Hitoshi Fujii discussed government reform, which angered Nissho, who didn’t take him seriously. According to Zen Terror in Prewar Japan, the following exchange took place:
Fujii snapped back: “Well, reverend sir, do you have a concrete plan for the reformation of Japan?”
“I do indeed!”
“Well, then, let’s hear it!”
“Fine, come with me to the Temple to Protect the Nation!”
“I certainly will!”
Although their relationship began with a rocky start, Nissho and Fujii would become extremely close, sharing a core belief that Japan needed to be purified. Nissho would consider Fujii a member of his group after this meeting, even though in some ways, Fujii would influence Nissho. Who was the teacher and who was the student?
Not only Lieutenant-Commander Fujii, but several Navy officers at the Misty Lagoon Air Station were to become close to Nissho Inoue, most notably Lieutenant Kiyoshi Koga. Back in June 1925, eighteen-year-old Kiyoshi Koga, a cadet at the Imperial Naval Academy at Etajima, and Cadet Fujii, four years his senior, strolled along the garden and talked politics. Fujii was a firm believer in Pan-Asianism, stating that Japan had a sacred destiny to liberate Asia from white colonialism and become the dominant world power. Fujii’s beliefs had a major impact on Koga, who also became involved in right-wing politics, associated with characters like Dr. Okawa.
Fujii himself attended lectures by Dr. Okawa in the 1920s, and befriended Army officer Zei Nishida. Inspiried by Nishida’s own patriotic society – The Heavenly Swords Party (Tenkento), Fujii founded the Kingly Leadership Society (Oshikai), consisting of radical Navy officers like Kiyoshi Koga.
Nissho Inoue’s own brother Fumio has been a Navy pilot who died during a training exercise, so perhaps there was some feeling that Fujii was a sort of surrogate brother. Regardless, the Navy officers of the Kingly Leadership Society drew closer with Nissho’s group in their desire for radical reform. By 1930, the situation in Japan had gone from bad to worse. Unemployment had skyrocketed, labor unrest, egged on by Communists, caused riots in the cities, and the London Naval Treaty inflamed nationalist tensions, especially among Navy officers like Koga and Fujii.
The Blood Brotherhood
The term Ketsumeidan can be translated in many ways – The Blood Oath Band, the Blood Pledge Corps, the League of Blood, the Blood Brotherhood, but they all basically evoke the same meaning. However, it is important to note that Nissho Inoue’s group never gave themselves this title, or any name for that matter. Ketsumeidan was coined by the popular press only after the assassinations, as many newspapers filled their dailies with lurid stories (and completely fictitious) of Inoue’s group performing a blood oath to kill their enemies.
However, an actual group existed, and for simplicity’s sake, we’ll just refer to them as the Blood Brotherhood. There were clear differences between Fujii’s group and Inoue’s gang. For instance, Fujii was steadfast in his belief for outward expansion, and the London Naval Treaty hindered this. However, Nissho Inoue was more concerned with internal purification, and would even go on to oppose the Pacific War. The motives of these Far-Right nationalists in prewar Japan are complex and sometimes conflicting, so it is not a cut and dry situation.
Regardless, Fujii felt that Nissho Inoue was the man to bring about this internal purification and convinced the priest to move to Tokyo in October 1930. Fujii and the Navy officers had established contacts with numerous nationalists, both civilian and military, and arranged Nissho to stay at the Golden Pheasant Academy (Kinkei Gakuin), headed by Masaatsu Yasuoka. However, a rivalry between the two men developed and Nissho soon left, bouncing around from various right-wing establishments, like a nationalist couch surfer.
In November 1930, the rest of the Blood Brotherhood followed him from the Ibaraki Prefecture to Tokyo. In January 1931, Nissho found a place to stay in a vacant house owned by Seikiyo Gondo, another nationalist from Ibaraki. Fujii and Nissho contacted various nationalist groups and leaders, including Dr. Okawa and Lieutenant-Colonel Hashimoto. Nissho and his followers were said to have small roles in the March Incident of 1931, joining a patriotic society called All Japan Patriots Joint Struggle Council” (Aikyo), formed that month. Other than giving rabble-rousing speeches in Ginza, urging the masses to rise up against a corrupt government, they accomplished very little and Aikyo disbanded after the failure of the March Incident.
And we have seen, Fujii and Nissho withdrew their support for Hashimoto’s second plot in October, feeling that it would place Japan in the hands of the greedy gunbatsu – militarist cliques. They were not for true reform, Nissho felt, and just wanted power for power’s sake. Nissho even promised to assassinate Hashimoto if the coup was successful.
Rather than repeat another October Incident, the Blood Brotherhood and Navy officers decided to take matters into their own hands. On January 9th, 1932, a plot was devised at Sekiyo Gondo’s vacant house. Rather than a full-blown coup de ’tat, they would instead assassinate twenty political and business leaders who they deemed corrupt. Fujii had received Browning pistols from arms dealers in China, and each assassin would be equipped with one for his mission. The assassinations were to be conducted simultaneously on February 11th, 1932 – Empire Day, marking the mythic date that Jimmu became the first emperor of Japan.
But events in faraway Shanghai would alter their intended bloodbath.
A Death in Shanghai
While the Blood Brotherhood plotted, Prime Minister Inukai was busy with what he did best – backroom deals. In December, he’d dispatched an emissary to China in order to negotiate with Chiang Kai-shek about a possible ceasefire in Manchuria. While Chiang officially had a policy of non-resistance, the semi-autonomous warlord of Manchuria – Marshal Chang Hseuh-liang held out in the city of Chinchow, and much of his former army carried on fighting, most notably Ma Chan-shan up north.
Evidence of the negotiations is vague, but it appears that Inukai was willing to withdraw Japanese troops if Manchuria was to become independent from both China and Japan. For a nationalist like Chiang, this was still unacceptable. Manchuria was part of China. These negotiations would haunt the Old Fox.
The Kwantung Army’s exploits in Manchuria had captured the population’s hearts. The Navy seethed with jealously and wanted glory. The Army wanted international eyes off Manchuria while they consolidated their gains. They reached an agreement in Shanghai. An Army officer in the Special Service Agency (Tokumu Kikan) arranged an incident there. Tensions were high, with anti-Japanese boycotts and protests a daily occurrence since the Manchurian Incident began last September. A gang of Chinese thugs were paid to attack two Nichiren Buddhist monks. One died. The Japanese Navy now had an excuse to attack Shanghai, which began on January 28th, 1932.
Suddenly, the Navy officers realized they could be called for duty in Shanghai, before the scheduled date of February 11th. Inoue’s Blood Brotherhood, student sympathizers, and the Navy officers met again on January 31st, 1932, and altered their plans. Now, the Blood Brotherhood would strike first and when the Navy officers returned, they would be part of the second wave of assassinations.
In the end, only a few Navy officers were called to Shanghai, most notably Lieutenant-Commander Hitoshi Fujii. Attached to the aircraft carrier Kaga, he would meet his end on February 5th, 1932, shot down over the skies of Shanghai, never seeing what his years of beliefs would bring upon Japan.
One Person, One Kill
The altered plot was as follows. Initially, twenty victims were targeted, but then it was decided such a list might be too ambitious. So, it the list was reduced to ten, with names to be added in later once the first round of men were eliminated. They are:
- Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai
- Prince Kimmochi Saionji – one of the Emperor’s most trusted advisers
- Reijiro Wakatsuki – Former Prime Minister
- Baron Kijuro Shidehara – Former Foreign Minister
- Iesato Tokugawa – President of the House of Peers
- Viscount Nobuaki Makino – Lord Keeper of the Privvy Seal
- Seihin Ikeda – Mistui Bank Director
- Takejiro Tokonami – Railway Minister
- Junnosuke Inoue – Former Finance Minister
- Baron Takuma Dan – Director-General of the Mitsui Zaibtasu
Instead of the assassinations occurring on February 11th, each man would receive his target and kill them whenever the opportunity presented itself. This strategy was called ichinin issatsu (one person, one kill”).
As previously agreed, these assassinations would be carried out by the Blood Brotherhood, with Fujii and the Navy officers carrying out the second wave when they returned from Shanghai. But who were they supposed to kill? Those targets have never been made very clear, but the book Zen Terror in Prewar Japan surmises that the Blood Brotherhood and students were to kill civilian targets, whereas Fujii and the Navy officers were to eliminate military targets. These Army and Navy officers belonged to gunbatsu – military cliques – who schemed and plotted at seizing power, installing themselves as dictators.
Again, it is important to note that the Blood Brotherhood Incident (血盟団事件 Ketsumeidan Jiken) was not a coup de ‘tat but rather a series of assassinations to reform Japan through terror. Nissho was averse to seizing the government, since to him, it would just be one group exchanging power from another, not true reform. It is not hard to guess who was to be assassinated by Fujii and the Navy officers – Lieutenant-Colonel Kingoro Hashimoto, comes to mind, along with any Navy officers who supported the London Naval Treaty.
The assassins of the Blood Brotherhood did not know the overall strategy, since the less they knew, the less they could reveal to the Police. There exists precious little information in English about the individual men of the Blood Brotherhood, but we’ll spotlight two in particular – Sho Onuma and Goro Hishinuma.
Twenty-one-year-old Tadashi “Sho” Onuma hailed from Ibaraki and was employed in a bakery until “oppression by the gas company” forced the shop to close due to unpaid bills. Unemployed and destitute, Onuma came across Nissho Inoue’s Righteous National Defense Temple and fell completely under his spell. Onuma was particular taken with this nationalistic view of Nichiren Buddhism, saying at his trial “Nichiren taught that Japan is the greatest country in the world and will eventually conquer the world.”
But at the time, Japan was still a democracy with universal male suffrage. In January, the Imperial Diet recessed for the upcoming elections, scheduled for February 20th. Political forecasts predicted a Minsei Party bloodbath. But Minsei loyalists like Juunosuke Inoue did their duty and accepted the role of campaign manager for his political party. Meanwhile, Onuma practiced with his Browning pistol at deserted spots on the seashore, waiting for instructions from Nissho. On February 9th, they came. Onuma proceeded to the Hongo Komamoto Elementary School where Juunosuke Inoue was to give a speech.
The reason given for the former finance minister’s death was due to his handling of the economy. Clinging to the gold standard caused a deflationary monetary policy, which worsened the impact of the Great Depression. It also put pressure on the Imperial Navy, reducing its budget and making it susceptible to the hated London Naval Treaty.
In the cold February evening, Onuma paced back and forth outside the school, smoking cigarettes and muttering the Lotus Sutra to himself. Finally, at around 8PM, a limo pulled up and out stepped Junnosuke Inoue, clad in frockcoat and top hat, the very image of a greedy plutocrat. Onuma decided to kill him before entering the school for his speech since there would be fewer innocent bystanders. Rushing up behind him, Onuma yanked out his Browning automatic and fired three shots into Inoue’s back.
Nearby witnesses pounced on Onuma, beating him savagely. He would have been killed if not for police officers intervening and arresting him on the spot. Junnosuke Inoue was rushed to a hospital but died shortly after from his wounds.
Death to Baron Dan
Nissho read about Junnsouke Inoue’s assassination in the morning newspaper. He was pleased but decided it best to change location to avoid a surprise Police raid. So, on February 10th, 1932, he left Gondo’s house and reached out to his friend Kenichiro Honma, who had become the secretary to Mitsuru Toyama, the godfather of the Japanese Far-Right.
Honma arranged for Nissho to stay in a second-floor room in a building owned by Toyama’s son, Hidezo. Secure in his new hiding space, Nissho waited for more news. But before another assassination occurred, the elections passed on February 20th, and to nobody’s surprise, it was a Seiyukai landslide. Although the Minsei Party campaigning on the slogan of “Defeat Inukai and the Dollar-Buyers” (a reminder of the hated Dollar Buying Incident in December 1931) the Seiyukai gained 127 seats in the Diet. Some Minsei Party members switching sides so they wouldn’t be voted out.
Junnosuke Inoue’s assassination was initially viewed in the conspiratorial lens of party intrigue. Since Inoue was a Minsei Party member, had the Seiyukai hired a hitman to do away with him? Sitting in a jail cell, Sho Onuma wasn’t talking, allowing the daily newspapers to run wild with speculation, pleasing Nissho. In the coming weeks, accusations would be made against Kaku Mori, a Seiyukai politician, for donating money to the Blood Brotherhood, but nothing concrete could be proven. For now, more assassins waited in the alleyways of Tokyo.
Despite Inukai’s attempts to stop the Manchurian Incident, the election results were clear. People wanted a return to a tough foreign policy regarding China, evoking the interventionist days of General Giichi Tanaka, the former Seiyukai prime minister. Inukai was caught between a rock and a hard place. On March 1st, the independent state of Manchukuo (Manshukoku in Japanese – literally ‘Manchu State’) was proclaimed. It was painfully clear to everyone that Manchukuo was little more than a puppet state, and Inukai withheld formal recognition as a tepid form of protest.
This enraged the militarists, who sought the Japanese government to legitimize their conquest. Negative publicity hounded Mitsui and its director-general, Baron Takuma Dan. During the Shanghai Incident, it had been revealed that a Mitsui subsidiary – Mitsui Bussan – had sold the Chinese 19th Route Army barbed wire in its struggle against the Japanese. Although the culprit was Yunosuke Yasukawa, head of Mitsui Bussan, Baron Dan received the harshest criticism since he was head of the entire zaibatsu.
Furthermore, Finance Minister Takahashi had hinted that the zaibatsu should help the government pay for the Shanghai Incident through floating government bonds. After the Dollar Buying Incident, some zaibtasu used their newly made money to purchase government bonds to stimulate the economy, and Mitsui was rumored to have profited the most from this flurry of speculation.
Baron Takuma Dan was a powerful player in Japanese finance. Born in 1858, he graduated from MIT in 1878, fostering many American friends and a relatively positive image of the United States. Most notably, his friendship roster included Thomas Lamont of the JP Morgan Bank. Dan became head of Mitsui in 1917, establishing business clubs and contacts across Japan in the 1920s. Although maligned as a greedy plutocrat, Baron Dan seems to have been a sincere patriot, but his drive for business was anathema to many Japanese in the 1930s. During that time, many Japanese, especially on the right, capitalism was to serve the nation first and foremost. Profits were fine, but selfish greed was a threat to society.
Thus, Baron Dan was marked for death by the Blood Brotherhood. The main reason was Mitsui’s involvement in the Dollar Buying Incident, Dan’s reluctance to purchase bonds to cover the Shanghai Incident must have figured into the decision too.
Nineteen-year-old Goro Hishinuma was chosen as Dan’s killer. Also hailing from the Ibaraki Prefecture, he also had a similar story to Onuma. He’d strived to find a job with the railway but was turned down due to his red-green colorblindness. In a fit of despair, he found Nissho Inoue’s teachings which gave him purpose and villains to hate.
Like Onuma, Hishinuma practiced with his Browning pistol at the beach, waiting for instructions. After knowing his target, Hishinuma carried around a picture of Baron Dan, torn out of a magazine, and stalked him throughout early March. Hishinuma monitored him outside of the Mitsui Bank Headquarters in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi Ward until he was confident of the Baron’s movements. March 5th, 1932 was a Saturday, but most Japanese still had work. Baron Dan’s limo pulled up to Mitsui Bank at around 11AM. He stepped out and began ascending the steps when Hishinuma made his move.
Advancing from the right, the assassin whipped out his Browning and snapped out two shots. Baron Dan crumpled to the ground gushing blood. Some accounts say Hishinuma peacefully surrendered, while others say he tried to turn the gun on himself but was subdued by Baron Dan’s bodyguard. Regardless, he was arrested at the scene of the crime.
Baron Takuma Dan was rushed to the 5th Floor Dispensary, Room 305 in the Mitsui Building. Ten doctors struggled to save his life, but a bullet had punctured Dan’s aorta and they were unable to stop the bleeding. The seventy-five-year-old Takuma Dan died at 11:45AM. Later, Goro Hishinuma would justify his actions by saying:
“As the head of the Mitsui zaibatsu, Dan, in collusion with the parties, had corrupted politics, controlled Japan’s economy, and brought it to economic ruin. To save Japan from her present emergency, and to ring an alarm bell to the political and financial worlds, which are blinded by self-interest and greed, I assassinated Dan.”
The Walls Close in on Ketsumeidan
The newspapers ran with wild speculation following Baron Dan’s death. Since Junnosuke Inoue had been a prominent Minsei politician, and Dan’s Mitsui zaibatsu was a major donor to the Seiyukai, it stood to reason that it had been a political hit. Were the two major parties engaging in political warfare like Chicago gangsters?
In his safehouse, Nissho no doubt was pleased. But then he began noticing odd coincidences. A mounted police officers trotted by on the street below. Then Nissho noticed more policemen, as if he were under surveillance.
Indeed he was. Nissho didn’t know it at the time, but he had been betrayed. Masahiro Yasuoka, whose Golden Pheasant Academy Nissho had crashed at when he first moved to Tokyo, was worried that one of his former pupils – Yotsumoto – had since joined the Blood Brotherhood plot and would implicate him. Yasuoka wasn’t involved and didn’t want to be punished for a crime he didn’t concoct. There was a lot of jealous rivalry within the Japanese Far-Right.
Yasuoka informed the Tokyo Metropolitan Police that if they just arrested Nissho Inoue, the plot would collapse, and even received a fifty-thousand-yen reward for his information. Elsewhere, the rest of the Blood Brotherhood was not as successful as Onuma and Hishinuma. A mixture of incompetence and bad luck thwarted any further assassinations. The Blood Brother tasked to kill Prince Saionji stalked him outside his seaside villa in Okitsu for two weeks but never laid eyes on him. The man assigned to assassinate Iesato Tokugawa wasted his time attending soccer games.
Nissho was now aware time was short. He considered killing himself, asking his friend, Kenichiro Honma, to cut off his head and deliver it to the Metropolitan Police. However, Honma and a man named Tatsuo Amano (another subordinate of Mitsuru Toyama) persuaded him to surrender himself peacefully. Amano had been in touch with Army Minister General Araki, who assured him that Nissho would be treated as a “patriot.”
Nissho was convinced and agreed to leave Toyama’s lodgings on the morning of March 11th, escorted by Kempeitai (Military Police) so that he wouldn’t be accidentally arrested by a random police officer. Nissho arrived at Metropolitan Police Headquarters and was greeted with respect befitting a true patriot. The Superintendent-General even welcomed him with a large smile. He was questioned by Police and prosecutors, answering questions in a polite but firm manner. Through Nissho, the Metropolitan Police tracked down the other assassins and arrested them all in one fell swoop.
The prosecution had dubbed the group with the name – the Blood Brotherhood – and the newspapers loved its lurid sound. They popularized the name throughout March and April and the entire bloody affair became known as the Ketsumeidan Jiken.
The Navy Takes Over
Lieutenant Kiyoshi Koga watched the collapse of the Blood Brotherhood from afar at the Misty Lagoon Naval Air Station. His mentor, Hitoshi Fujii, was dead, and Nissho was arrested. It would be possible for the Police to deduce his involvement with the Blood Brotherhood, but Nissho wasn’t talking. The original plan was for Nissho’s civilian assassins to kill ten targets, then Fujii’s Navy officers to kill another ten, upping the total to twenty.
But with Fujii’s death and the Blood Brotherhood’s failure, Lieutenant Koga took over the plan, altering it considerably. Contemporary historians have taken to calling the May 15th Incident (五・一五事件 Go Ichi Go Jiken) and hereafter referred to as the 5-15 Incident, as merely the second stage of the Blood Brotherhood Incident. However, as we will see, Koga’s plans did not resemble the seemingly random wave of assassinations that Nissho planned. Instead, Koga plotted for a swift and violent coup d’état like a military operation, to be carried out simultaneously.
Indeed, their chief target was Prime Minister Inukai, who was supposed to be assassinated in the “first wave” of killings by Nissho’s men. This indicates that while Koga took over the reins of the plot, he altered it into something almost entirely different than what Nissho and Fujii originally envisioned. And to do this, he’d need money, guns, and men.
Precious few details exist about Kiyoshi “Seishi” Koga other than the basics. Born April 10, 1908, he graduated the Naval Academy in 1928, becoming a pilot in 1931. As stated earlier, he was a confidant of Hitoshi Fujii, and was profoundly impacted by the London Naval Treaty. Details about him are rare, and I’ve only found a single photograph of him in Navy uniform, but Nissho described him as physically “beautiful.”
Hatred of the London Naval Treaty was a commonality in all the 5-15 Incident plotters, Koga especially. At his trial, he said:
“The Japanese delegates to the London Naval Conference, Baron Wakatsuki and Admiral Takarabe, were influenced by financiers and therefore they failed. The political parties are the tools of financiers; the Navy was asleep and Japan failed because of the lack of united force.”
In March 1932, after Nissho’s arrest, Koga contacted Dr. Shumei Okawa and requested funds and arms in the conspiracy to kill Inukai. While not independently wealthy, Okawa always had access to sources who’d provide him with money, who are still mysterious today. Likely they came from Army and Navy officers, businessmen, and aristocrats, like the Marquis Yoshichika Tokugawa.
Although historian Richard Storry speculates that the 5-15 Incident was possibly Okawa’s master plan, it is far more likely he was just the financier and that Koga was the true mastermind. On March 31st, Koga and other Navy officers met at a boarding house in Tsuchiura, a small garrison town in the Ibaraki Prefecture. They constructed a basic overview of the plot, which would involve Army officers and right-wing civilians.
Several key politicians and court advisers were to be assassinated, beheading the government. Unlike the October Incident, no plans were drawn up for a new cabinet. Koga and the other plotters were to surrender themselves and face punishment for their crimes, but they would remain pure and not succumb to the temptation of seizing power for themselves, unlike Hashimoto and Cho.
The main Navy ringleaders were Fujii’s adherents, including Lieutenant Taku Mikami. Like Koga, Mikami was deeply angered by the London Naval Treaty, but also influenced by his grandmother, a fiery nationalist who would help Mikami secure leave by sending a false telegram saying his mother had died. Mikami, Koga, and the other officers sought to establish the Showa Restoration, the dream shared by the Japanese Far-Right. In Mikami’s words:
“Our revolution is intended to bring about direct rule and harmony between ruler and ruled. We find it necessary to overthrow plutocrats and others whatever their station who act against the spirit of the Empire. As we aim to establish direct Imperial rule, we are neither left nor right.”
Mikami himself contributed an important piece to the Young Officers Movement with a song he wrote in 1930, “The Song of the Showa Restoration.” This forlorn tune is still used today by Japanese Far-Right groups (右翼団体uyoku dantai).
Navy Lieutenant Isamu Kuroiwa, another plotter, said of the London Naval Treaty: “We were told that the ratio allotted Japan had been computed on the defensive needs of the countries concerned. Of course, that was a lie. The ratio was forced on Japan by the United States.”
The plotters had many motives – decline in morality and Japanese culture, corruption in politics, poverty of the working class, the horrific famine in the northeast Tokoku region – but the London Naval Treaty seems to have been the spark that lit the firestorm of violence that typified Japan in the 1930s. This applied to the Navy specifically, which was met with mixed results when Koga approached his friend Zei Nishida for Army support.
Nishida discouraged the plot, saying it was too premature for a violent coup. Army Minister Araki and other senior officers appear to have discouraged any commissioned Army officer from joining this plot led by Navy officers. There was an intense rivalry between the Japanese Army and Navy, rooted in samurai clan tension, amplified by fights over the national budget and long-term military strategy. In general, the Army wanted to fight Russia, and the Navy saw America and Britain as Japan’s primary enemies.
However, despite Nishida’s discouragement, eleven cadets from the Army Academy (陸軍士官学校 Rikugun Shikkan Gakko) did enlist their support. These men would be the only participation of the Imperial Army in the 5-15 Incident.
Koga found more support among right-wing civilians in the form of Kosaburo Tachibana. A country boy, Tachibana hd developed a theory of agrarianism that many historians have claimed was “Tolstoyan” in nature. To him, the Japanese farmer was the soul of the nation, and the fruits of his labors were stolen away by decadent city folk in Tokyo and Osaka.
Like many in this story, he too hailed from the Ibaraki Prefecture and became locally famous for his lectures on agrarianism (nohon-shugi). Through donations, he was able to set up his own school, the Native Land-Loving Academy (Aikyojuku) on the outskirts of the town of Mito. There, he trained young, impoverished men, some farmers, some not, in history, math, bookkeeping, and agriculture.
Tachibana’s beliefs can be summed up in this quote: “Japan is a debtor nation, yet Tokyo and the cities grow larger each year. Where does their strength come from? It is clear that if the village were released from the burden of sustaining the cities the national power of Japan would increase.”
His ideology was somewhat similar to Nissho Inoue and the Young Officers who advocated for a Showa Restoration, but it cannot be stressed enough, the Japanese Far-Right was not united in a coherent theory. For example, as we’ve seen, Nissho was against a major world war, and Tachibana wanted Japanese society to be thoroughly decentralized, meaning there would be no dictatorship, Communist or Fascist.
They were all united in what they were against – the current system governed by “corrupt elites.” This, they would destroy and leave others to rebuild something better.
A Meeting in Tsuchiura
Dr. Okawa had been busy collecting arms, bombs, and money for the coup. There are some reports that he met with General Shigeru Honjo – commander of the Kwantung Army – in early May in the newly established state of Manchukuo. Some have mused that perhaps that the guns came from the Kwantung Army, but these rumors appear to be unconfirmed. Furthermore, there is speculation that some of the coup plotters met with Honjo, and that he supported it, which also appears dubious. David Bergamini writes that some of the Army cadets met with Honjo and visited a memorial dedicated to the Russo-Japanese War, but if they did, the connection appears to have ended there.
Regardless, Koga collected the weapons and guns from Okawa and other right-wing sympathizers, most notably, Hidezo Toyama, the son of Mitsuru Toyama. While the elder Toyama might have some suspicion of what Nissho Inoue was up to, he appears to have been completely ignorant of what Koga was plotting, and perhaps even Hidezo was kept ignorant of the plot’s inner details. Indeed, Mitsuru Toyama was actually friends with Tsuyoshi Inukai, even warning him not to accept the position of prime minister back in December 1931, worried about his safety. While Toyama wasn’t actively planning for his assassination, he was could see the writing on the wall that whoever was prime minister would bear the brunt of the Far-Right’s wrath.
Flush with cash, Lieutenant Koga arranged a final meeting with the core plotters on May 13th. They gathered at a restaurant/inn called Sansuikaku, in Tsuchiura, a stone’s throw away from the Misty Lagoon Naval Air Station. Outside, seas of rice paddies stretched into infinity, dotted with the thatched roofs of traditional Japanese village houses.
Inside Sansuikaku, the core plotters – Lieutenant Kiyoshi Koga, Lieutenant Taku Mikami, an Army cadet, a Tokyo student, and Kosaburo Tachibana ironed out the final details of the plot. It is important to note that Dr. Okawa was not there, further evidence he was a financier rather than an active participant.
The coup would unfold May 15th, 1932. The plotters would be divided into four groups with designated targets.
Lieutenant Mikami would lead a squad of nine men, himself included, consisting of four Navy officers (including Lieutenant Yamagishi), and five Army cadets. Their target was Tsuyoshi Inukai himself, who would be assassinated at the Kantei, the official residence of all Japanese prime ministers. Then, they’d bomb the Bank of Japan, a hated symbol of capitalism, and turn themselves in.
Lieutenant Koga would lead the second squad, consisting of five men, to the residence of Viscount Makino, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, and bomb it, killing the aristocrat. Afterward, they were to go to the Metropolitan Police Headquarters, bomb it as well, distribute propaganda to passersby.
Lieutenant Nakamura would lead the third squad and bomb the Seiyukai Headquarters to rubble.
Students from Kosaburo Tachibana’s Native Land-Loving Academy would provide civilian participation. They’d be organized into the Death-Defying Farmers (nomin kesshitai) and attack key power stations. Tokyo would be plunged into darkness, causing fear and panic, and – so the plotters hoped – giving the Army justification to establish martial law.
Inukai was the primary target, the head to be cut off. There were many reasons given – from the London Naval Treaty (which he and the Seiyukai actually opposed) to rumors that he’d accepted checks from Marshal Chang Hsueh-liang, and finally, the rumors that he’d been engaged in secret peace talks with Chiang Kai-shek had gotten out. To the Young Officers, this smacked of treason, demanding his death. But most importantly, Inukai was marked for assassination simply because he embodied the system. The Young Officers would later say they had no personal grudge against him.
However, personal scores would be settled too. Convinced that Zei Nishida has hampered Army support for the coup, and also suspecting he might be a Police informant, they marked him for death too.
And there was also the last-minute addition of a new target in the form of Hollywood actor Charlie Chaplin, who had just arrived in Japan.
‘A Darling of the Capitalist Class’
While on trial, the Young Officers elaborated their reasoning for wanting to assassinate Charlie Chaplin.
“Chaplin is a popular figure in the United States and the darling of the capitalist class,” Lieutenant Koga answered. “We believed that killing him would cause a war with America, and thus we could kill two birds with a single stone.”
Strange as it sounded, there was a belief that America would galvanize her forces to avenge the death of a Hollywood star. Koga and the others didn’t realize that Chaplin was actually English, an irony the actor himself would point out years later saying: “I can imagine the assassins having carried out their plan, then discovering that I was not an American but an Englishman — ‘Oh so sorry!’”
Charlie Chaplin arrived in Kobe on May 14th, 1932, and from there took a train to Tokyo, arriving the same day. He was accompanied by his brother Sydney and his secretary, a Japanese man named Toraichi Kono, who now resided in Southern California and even appeared in several of his films. Chaplin was greeted with a hero’s welcome, thousands of Japanese cheered his arrival, a not-so-subtle indication that xenophobic militarism had not completely taken root in the country. Chaplin was likewise impressed with Japan, writing in his memoir:
“[Japan] has always stirred my imagination — the land of cherry blossoms, the chrysanthemum, and its people in silk kimonos…”
Chaplin was on tour to promote his latest movie, City Lights, which wouldn’t be released in Japan until 1934 ironically. If the Kobe reception was friendly, his welcoming at Tokyo Station was even grander. Chaplin was almost mobbed by throngs of adoring fans, with police officers having to hold off thousands of cheering fans.
From Tokyo Station, Chaplin was escorted by policemen to the Imperial Palace, where he and his party paid a respectful bow outside. Such courtesies didn’t diminish any suspicion some of the authorities had toward foreigners, since apparently Chaplin and his brother had their bags searched. However, Chaplin remained open-minded as they departed for dinner at a restaurant.
While there, a group of six young men entered along with a sinister presence. One of these men had pestered Kono earlier, asking if Chaplin would be interested in purchasing pornographic paintings. Kono and Chaplin flatly refused, which offended the man, who returned with ruffians. According to Chaplin’s memoirs: “Kono, without looking up from his plate, mumbled: ‘He says you’ve insulted his ancestors by refusing to see his pictures.”
Chaplin couldn’t keep his cool any longer. He stood, put his hand in his pocket as if he had a pistol, and bellowed out, “What’s the meaning of this?” The bluff worked, and the six men retreated without further confrontation, leaving Chaplin and his party to enjoy their dinner.
‘Talking is Useless’
May 15th, 1932 was a Sunday, one day that many Japanese had off from work – weekends wouldn’t become a thing in Japan until after World War II. The Navy officers under Koga and Mikami, along with the Army cadets, gathered at the Yasukuni Shrine, the sacred site where the spirits of all Japanese war dead lay enshrined. There were supposedly some 126,363 spirits of Japanese warriors who, since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, had given their lives in service of the Japanese Empire.
The assassins removed their peaked service caps and, according to Shinto ritual, clapped their hands together to call the attention of the spirits, then bowed in respect. They tucked their caps back on and left, one officer pausing to buy Shinto charms from a miko – a teenage shrine priestess. From Yasukuni, they split into their separate groups and mustering stations.
Much of the funds from Okawa and Hidezo Toyama went to pay for taxi fare, which is how the assassins traveled around Tokyo. Private cars were still a luxury only the rich could afford, and the Tokyo subway was not as extensive as it is today. Lieutenant Mikami’s death squad crammed into two taxis and took off to the Kantei – the prime minister’s office.
That evening, Charlie Chaplin had been scheduled to attend a banquet with Prime Minister Inukai and his son, Takeru. There is conflicting information on whether or not the next event was impromptu or agreed ahead of time, but Takeru Inukai took Chaplin along to see a sumo match at Ryogoku Stadium. Thus, when Lieutenant Mikami and his men arrived at the Kantei, a few minutes before 5:30 PM (1730), Chaplin was nowhere to be found.
At first, they were greeted by Inukai’s receptionist and a uniformed police guard. Mikami asked where Inukai was, but his staff played dumb, saying they’d leave their business cards (meishi) with them. When one of the death squad noticed a plainclothes policeman trying to leave, he aimed his Browning pistol and fired off a shot. The plainclothesman crumpled to the ground. Suddenly, a shot was fired in their direction from upstairs. The assassins stormed up the stairs to the second floor, where they distinctly heard a key turning inside a lock.
They broke down the office door and were greeted by another plainclothes police officer (Inukai’s personal bodyguard). The officers shot him and proceeded further into the Kantei, before coming across Prime Minister Inukai himself. Not only the Old Fox, but his daughter-in-law, along with Inukai’s infant grandchild, were there too.
Mikami told her to leave, “knowing what would happen in a few minutes,” but she remained there. Inukai himself kept his cool, asking the young men to remove their shoes, as is custom when entering a Japanese-style room. Mikami would later admit to being shocked at just how small Inukai was, barely five feet.
“You needn’t worry about our shoes,” Mikami snarled. “You know why we are here.”
Lighting a cigarette, Inukai asked the officers to talk things over with him in his study, perhaps to spare his daughter-in-law and grandchild to see what he figured would happen. At his trial, Mikami said, “I decided that it would only be a warrior’s mercy to listen to what he had to say in his last testament.”
In the study, Mikami and a few other officers confronted the Old Fox about his supposed “crimes” – the London Naval Treaty, the secret negotiations with Chiang Kai-shek, refusal to recognize Manchukuo, and the checks from Marshal Chang. Inukai fielded the questions and said his famous words, “If we could talk, you would understand.” (話せば分かる, hanaseba wakaru).
Outside the study, Lieutenant Yamagishi had become impatient, and stormed in, brandishing a dagger, followed by other officers and cadets. Someone – either Yamagishi or Mikami – uttered the famous reply: “Talking is useless.” (問答無用, mondo muyo).
The assassins opened up a barrage of gunshots – hitting Inukai in the neck and stomach, then collapsed into a bloody heap. Mikami later admitted to wanting to say something poetic, like “I wish you a peaceful slumber.” But all he could manage was to say “Out!” The assassins walked out of the study, down the stairs, where another police officer challenged them with a wooden kendo sword.
They promptly shot the policeman and piled back into the taxi cabs. Their main mission over, the first attack squad departed for the Bank of Japan and tossed some explosives out the car windows. The damage was minor, but Mikami and his men didn’t stick around to try again. They left and surrendered themselves to the Kempeitai.
Chaos in Tokyo
As Tsuyoshi Inukai battled for life, even requesting that his killers come back to talk things over, his son Takeru and Charlie Chaplin sat enjoying a match of sumo in a box seat. Chaplin would muse that sumo is “amusing to watch… if you don’t understand the technique, the whole procedure looks comic. Nevertheless, the effect is hypnotic and thrilling.”
Suddenly, Takeru was called away by an aide, and Chaplin himself described what happened next. “I asked him if he were ill. He shook his head, then suddenly covered his face with his hands. ‘My father has just been assassinated,’ he said.”
Although Inukai was the main target, several others were marked for death on May 15th, 1932. Lieutenant Koga’s squad had lobbed explosives at the residence of Viscount Makino, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal. However, like Mikami’s explosives, minimal damage was done, a police guard was injured, but Makino was unharmed. Koga and his men then left for the Metropolitan Police Headquarters, firing pistols into the air. They also lobbed an explosive at Police Headquarters, but it failed to explode. The only damage done was to wound a reporter and a guard on duty in the Police lobby.
But while there, Koga’s squad wildly distributed leaflets that proclaimed their politics and urged people to rise up with them. According to Japan: The Years of Trial, it read as follows:
“People of Japan! The time has come to look squarely at our fatherland! Look at politics, foreign policy, the economy, education, ideas, military matters –where is the true Imperial Japan to be seen? The political parties, blinded by their own interests, conspiracy with the zaibatsu to squeeze sweat and blood out of the common people, while the bureaucrat defends them and oppresses the people. Our foreign policy is spineless, our education decadent, our military corrupt, our ideas are perverted, our working class and farmers suffer in dire distress, and vain speeches are made all the while! Japan is on the verge of dying in a cesspool of depravity. Fellow citizens, to arms! In the name of the Emperor, slay the evil courtiers! Kill the enemies of the people – the parties and the zaibatsu! Wipe out the privileged classes! Farmers, workers, people of our county! Defend your Japanese fatherland! Build a healthier Japan! To reconstruct, first destroy! Demolish the present abominable system totally!”
Their pleas fell on deaf ears and Koga surrendered his squad to the Metropolitan Police soon after.
The third squad under Navy Lieutenant Yoshio Nakamura had tried to bomb the headquarters of Inukai’s political party, the Rikken Seiyukai. But again, their explosives did little damage, especially since it was Sunday, and the headquarters was virtually empty. Similar failure met with the students who attempted to blow up Mitsubishi Bank, and Tachibana’s Death-Defying Farmers, who tried to destroy six substations to cut off Tokyo’s electricity. Although they inflicted some damage, their incompetence regarding electrical matters resulted in a minor, temporary blackout for part of Tokyo’s slums, when a Death-Defying Farmer cut a power cable with his knife. Other than that, the city’s neon lights still glowed.
One band was partially successful. Zei Nishida found himself in the path of an assassin’s bullet and was severely wounded, bleeding outside his home. Luckily for him, doctors were able to save his life, and he’d go on to play a role in another failed coup d’état – the 2-26 Incident.
The Failed Coup That Succeeded
News of Tsuyoshi Inukai’s death was premature. The Old Fox lingered on death’s door for several more hours as doctors struggled to stop the bleeding. He fell into semi-catatonic states until around 9PM, he sat up and vomited a huge pool of blood, saying that he felt a little better. The doctors gave him a sedative and he fell asleep, but around 11:20PM, May 15th, Tsuyoshi Inukai succumbed to his wounds.
Although no Army officers had participated in the 5-15 Incident, several sympathized with it after it happened. That evening, five young Army officers gathered at the Army Ministry, looking for General Araki. The General was not there, but General Jinzaburo Mazaki – another firebrand, even more radical than Araki – and Assistant-Army Minister, General Kuniaki Koiso (more moderate, but also involved in the March Incident), received them.
Armed with revolvers, the Army officers demanded that the Imperial Army declare martial law and support the coup. Despite his fiery nationalism, Mazaki was pessimistic of such a coup succeeding. The people would not support it. He even compared Army Minister to Araki to Takamori Saigo, who launched the ill-fated South-Western War of 1877.
“Where the great Saigo, the most powerful militarist of his day, failed, how could Araki and Mazaki succeed?” he asked.
For two hours the debate raged until Mazaki found a reason to excuse himself. He slipped away, got help, and had the five young Army officers arrested by the Kempeitai.
Navy Minister Admiral Mineo Osumi and retired Admiral Togo urged the Navy to remain calm and not join the rising. Their pleas worked and even though the entire Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department was mobilized (some ten thousand men), there were no further disturbances. The main plotters had all been arrested and by nightfall, the coup was over.
The 5-15 Incident failed in its primary mission to overthrow the government and bring about a Showa Restoration, but it succeeded in ending party-led government. General Araki declared that the Army would no longer supply a minister for any cabinet that was led by a party politician. Since the Army and Navy could refuse to nominate candidates, all future prime ministers had to have no memberships with a political party. They could be civilians – as with the case of Fumimaro Konoe – or active duty officers – as with General Tojo – or retired military officers – as with former Admiral Makoto Saito, who would succeed Tsuyoshi Inukai, coming into office on May 26th 1932.
‘Sacrifice Yourselves on the Altar of Reform’
There was an outpouring of popular sympathy, more for the assassins than for the slain Inukai. Nine young men from Niigata severed their pinky fingers, pickled them in jars, and sent them to the Army Ministry, in an effort to show how moved they were by Koga and his men. Thirty thousand holders of the Golden Kite, which was the highest military award of the Japanese Empire, signed a petition requesting their release. A young woman cut off her hair and sent it to the judges, declaring that she would become a man in order to carry out the mission that the Young Officers started.
Taku Mikami was moved by the efforts to free him and his comrades, but he declared in court, “Do not shed tears for me but sacrifice yourselves on the altar of reform.”
The other conspirators were rounded up in the weeks and months after the 5-15 Incident. Dr. Shumei Okawa in June 1932. He was convicted of having to participate in Inukai’s murder and was sentenced to five years imprisonment, but only served two, being released in 1937. He would accept a teaching position, and after the war, find himself on trial alongside key figures like General Tojo. Okawa, however, was deemed unfit for trial, behaving erratically at the trial, slapping Tojo on the head, and ranting in German. He later converted to Islam and translated the Quran into Japanese.
Kosaburo Tachibana fled to Manchukuo, where he leisurely wrote a book and was then arrested by the Kempeitai in July 1932.
The assassins of the 5-15 Incident were court-martialed in 1933, with the civilian participants being tried the same year. The Blood Brotherhood trial began in the summer of 1933 but was postponed until 1934. All of the key players were found guilty, receiving various sentences, but most had been released by 1940.
Despite the militaristic nationalism that swept Japan in the 1940s, Kiyoshi Koga and Taku Mikami (both paroled in 1938) were never allowed to rejoin the Imperial Navy. Koga entered the business world, living until 1997, whereas Mikami was involved in postwar smuggling operations, and continued life in the Far-Right, even involving himself in another coup attempt in 1961.
Nissho Inoue was released in 1940 and, in March 1941, he received an invitation from the prime minister at the time – Prince Fumimaro Konoe. While he had his issues with the Prince, Nissho seemed to like and respect Konoe, who he believed was sincere in his loyalty to the Emperor, unlike the then Army Minister, General Hideki Tojo.
When Konoe complained that the military would hide information about the war raging in China from him, Nissho said, “As long as the militarists are in control of Japan, reform is impossible.”
The 5-15 Incident remains relatively obscure, even in Japan itself, where it is overshadowed by the more famous coup attempt of 1936, the 2-26 Incident. There exists precious few books dedicated to this and the Blood Brotherhood Incident, but some of the participants penned their memoirs. For the 5-15 Incident, I’ve found that the 1958 movie The Army and Navy’s Bloody History depicts the event, along with 1980’s The Revolt. I’m sure there are others as well, however, apparently, there’s never been a movie solely dedicated to the 5-15 Incident, which is surprising.
The Blood Brotherhood Incident has been dramatized in the movie Memoirs of Japanese Assassins, and the 1969 novel Runaway Horses features a fictional group of nationalist students inspired by the Ketsumeidan, who plot their own assassinations a few months after the events. Interestingly, the novel’s author, Yukio Mishima, would attempt his own coup de’tat in 1970.
The October Incident is featured briefly in Memoirs of Japanese Assassins and The Army and Navy’s Bloody History, but like most of these events in 1930s Japan, it is barely known in the West.
My novel Smoke Over Tokyo features the 5-15 Incident as a major plot point. While it does fictionalize the details, the overall presentation of events is accurate. My fictional character of Lieutenant Katsuro Okamura who is (loosely) based on Lieutenant Hitoshi Fujii. The two are very different, however, with my fictional Katsuro being from a yakuza family, and although he was shot down over Shanghai, my character survived, albeit horribly disfigured.
The Dollar Buying Incident features heavily in Shadows of Tokyo, book 1 of the Reiko/Aizawa series. My novels are first and foremost thrillers, not historical nonfiction, but I do always try and present the details of this era as accurately as possible. However, for those who are interested in learning more about this fascinating period in Japanese history, I’d suggest checking out the sources I used to create this article, listed below.
- Curse on This Country: The Rebellious Army of Imperial Japan by Danny Orbach
- Zen Terror in Prewar Japan by Brian Daizen Victoria
- The Double Patriots by Richard Storry
- Government by Assassination by Hugh Byas
- Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy by David Bergamini
- Revolt in Japan by Ben-ami Shillony
- Nationalist Extremism in Early Shōwa Japan: Inoue Nisshō and the ‘Blood-Pledge Corps Incident’, 1932 by Stephen S. Large
- The Mitsui Zaibatsu Tenko by Hyung Gu Lynn
- Japan: The Years of Trial by Hyoe Murakami
- Japan: The Years of Triumph by Louis Allen
- Charlie Chaplin tramps his way past a Japanese coup d’état by Patrick Parr
john koeppen says
very interesting story and clears up the books I read about these events. Thank you
Matthew Legare says
Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it!
Joe Brewer says
Thanks for writing about this intriguing period. It helps me with some background for my writing.
Very interesting post! There’s shamefully little in English about this period of Japanese history, so I really appreciate your writings and film reviews.
I haven’t been able to find anything on the 1958 movie you mentioned, “The Army and Navy’s Bloody History”. Do you have more information about this movie? Is a review for that movie forthcoming?