The Chargé in Japan (Neville) to the Secretary of State

No. 624

Sir: I have the honor to refer to my despatch No. 623, of May 20, 1932,9 outlining the events in connection with the “May 15th affair” [Page 685] in which Premier Inukai was assassinated, and to present herebelow comment on these events.

The events of Sunday evening, May 15th, present a situation which Western observers have difficulty in understanding because of the extraordinary concepts which actuated the perpetrators. I have no definite knowledge of their motives, but may attempt to present some of the conclusions to which I am led by study of the situation. The Japanese people pride themselves on a peculiar feeling of responsibility, the evidences of which to Westerners, often assume a somewhat ludicrous, and in some cases, tragic aspect. Japanese history is full of stories of samurai who committed suicide in protest against actions of their superiors, or who performed some desperate deed, fatal to themselves, as a warning to their superiors.

In recent years this somewhat feudal concept of duty has been largely replaced by more modern ideas, but among subordinate officials, particularly of the armed forces, it remains strong. This leads to acts which are often anti-social and, according to Western ideals, criminal. Nevertheless Japanese understand the motive is unselfish and to them highminded. The law may demand, and secure punishment for the crime, but in the eyes of the people the guilt is atoned for by the good faith with which the deed was committed. Hence the tendency in Japan, condemned by foreign observers, to condone acts of violence by misguided patriots against political leaders who are considered to have betrayed the country.

Only in this way can the assaults of May 15th be explained. The younger officers, whose activities the Embassy has noted from time to time, feel with the entire country that the political leaders have played the country false. During the past few months, criticism of parliamentary government as exemplified by the Diet and of the conduct of the political parties and the Cabinet has been vociferous. The lack of probity and patriotism of the Diet representatives as well as their turbulent conduct in the House, their lack of feeling of responsibility for the welfare of the country, their venality and corruption have disgusted and alarmed the entire nation. One recent example which caused particular resentment among military men and had, I believe, no little influence in creating the present state of public opinion, was the attempt to oust Count Uchida from the presidency of the South Manchuria Railway purely for reasons of party politics (See Embassy’s despatch No. 586, of April 22, 193210).

The events of Sunday evening, thus, may be interpreted as a peculiarly Japanese demonstration against governmental mismanagement. [Page 686] The conclusion which seems inevitable is that the entire affair was in the nature of a gesture in the hope of arousing public opinion to the critical state of affairs and of precipitating a political crisis which would result in the downfall of the Government. Incidentally, both of these objects have been attained.

The shooting of the Premier was merely a part of the demonstration. He could not have been held personally responsible for the evils of the Government, but a sacrifice was necessary and a sacrifice of such prominence that his death would serve as a warning to the whole nation. However sophistical this explanation may appear, I am convinced that it is true. Moreover, it is certain that there are many intelligent Japanese who, although they regret the cruel death of the Premier, confess that they have full sympathy with the ideals of the perpetrators and are inclined to agree with them that a sacrifice was necessary to shock the nation into consciousness of the situation which confronts it.

Bearing out this theory, it will be noted that the conspirators attacked (1) the Prime Minister, (2) the Seiyukai Headquarters, (3) the Residence of Count Makino, (4) the Metropolitan Police Station, (5) banking institutions. In all of these attacks no one of any political importance was injured except the Premier. The “bombs” thrown at the Seiyukai, the Police Station and the banks were small hand grenades incapable of doing any material damage. They merely served to indicate the institutions which the conspirators considered culpable. The Prime Minister represented the Government as a whole; the Seiyukai represented the political parties and the Diet, both guilty of many abuses. Count Makino has been criticized for faulty advice tendered to the Emperor; the Police have been blamed for playing politics and neglecting their proper duties; the banks have been attacked for exchange operations at the expense of the nation’s finance. The conclusion seems inescapable that the attacks were merely demonstrations. How otherwise than a gesture could be interpreted the act of throwing a small hand grenade against a deserted bank at a late hour on Sunday?

The theory is further borne out by the fact that the conspirators surrendered voluntarily to the police or gendarmes. This is quite in accordance with the Japanese tradition of responsibility for one’s conduct. They must have had full knowledge of the penalty that awaited them, and must have resolved that the cause was worth the sacrifice of their lives.

There has been much speculation as to the number of men involved in this conspiracy, and as to what backing they had. It seems incredible that a small band of about twenty men, however resolute, would [Page 687] attempt such desperate deeds unless assured of support, moral or otherwise, from some powerful direction. However, no information is available in regard to such support. That military and naval officers should have been able to get together and plan a concerted attack indicates some degree of organization, particularly as the two branches of the service have little in common in this district, there being no naval station of importance nearer to Tokyo than Yokosuka, fifty miles away. In this connection the Miyako Shimbun stated editorially: “We do not know whether the terrorists were backed by others, but there can be no dispute that what they did has been encouraged by the agitation of men of Fascist views. Toward the end of the Wakatsuki Cabinet a certain plot was engineered by a certain group (of young officers) but it was nipped in the bud. Had the authorities made public at that time a true version of the affair, we believe the recent incident might have been prevented”.

It is rumored, with credible evidence, that all of these young men were under the influence, if not pupils, of an extraordinary institution, the Aikyojiku (Patriotic School) of Mito, a town north of Tokyo. This town played a significant part in Japanese history, for it was here that plans for the Meiji Restoration were hatched, and from this town came the assassin of Ii Kamon no Kami, the enlightened statesman of the Shogunate and protagonist of the movement to open Japan to foreign intercourse. Moreover, as further evidence that the town has retained its reactionary character, it was here and in the surrounding district that the infamous “blood brotherhood” was organized which, during the past few months, has accounted for the lives of Mr. Inouye and Baron Dan. In spite of this circumstantial connection, I should hesitate to link these slayers with the conspirators of Sunday except for other happenings on that same evening. At almost exactly the same hour as the assassination of Mr. Inukai, a man by the name of Nishida, formerly a member of the “blood brotherhood”, who had turned informer and testified against the group, was himself assassinated in the suburbs of Tokyo. Moreover, the press reports that only quick action by the employees of the electric stations in Tokyo prevented an attempt to throw the city into darkness made at the identical hour by a group of men said to be from Mito. Thus, all of the devious lines of evidence, when followed, lead back to that historic town with its reputation for fanatical patriotism.

Externally at least the vernacular press is unanimous in condemning the action of the young officers. Editorially, the newspapers condemn the appeal to force and deplore that mistaken ideas have resulted in tragedy. The Nichi Nichi stated on May 16th: “A patriotic motive does not condone a murder or any other abuse. There is no good effect [Page 688] in direct action, however exalted its motive may be. Once the public shows a tendency to regard murder as justified when impelled by patriotism, all the forces opposed to law and order will get out of hand”. There is, however, an undercurrent of sympathy for the conspirators and their ideals. For example, the Yomiuri Shimbun stated on May 17th: “Japan has seen this year a chain of undesirable incidents.… Those who took part were spurred by the economic depression and actuated by the weakness of the Government’s foreign policy. No superficial control can prevent recurrence of these undesirable incidents. The authorities need to study well the real causes of unrest.… and unless they be remedied, undesirable events cannot be prevented”.12 I append hereto translations13 of some of the press editorials commenting on the violence of Sunday evening.

The actual connection between the young officers who took part in this affair and the Army in general will probably never be revealed. It is sufficient to say that any such organization could not exist without the knowledge of the superior officers. However, one may be certain that whatever attitude the military displays publicly toward the conspirators, the aims and convictions of the latter are those of the military as well. The Army has always stood as the bulwark of intense patriotism, self-abnegation for the good of Emperor and country and has had small patience with the’ cynical self-interest of party politicians. They regard themselves as direct guardians of the person and prerogatives of the Emperor and have repeatedly demonstrated that in fulfilling their interpretation of this duty they will stand no interference from politicians or civil government. They have seen the country in a financial depression so severe that economists predict the virtual extinction of the landed farmer. They have seen unemployment growing while prices have fallen to a level where production is unprofitable. At the same time they have watched the large banking and mercantile institutions make vast sums out of exchange manipulations, while politicians with scarcely concealed contempt for national welfare indulge in endless wrangling and mutual abuse.

I wish to emphasize that not only does public opinion to a large degree support the Army, but that the public viewpoint coincides with that of the military. In many respects the Army seems far more representative of public opinion than the Diet. There is much evidence that the people are quite as disgusted with party politics as conducted in recent years as is the Army. They feel that the only direction in which they can turn for patriotic and devoted service to the country is the military. The Army recognizes the existence of [Page 689] this support and is prepared to dictate terms to the politicians. It is difficult to avoid drawing the conclusion from recent statements and events that parliamentary government in Japan is being weighed in the balance at this time. In any event, it is quite plain that the Army is going to play a larger part in politics. I quote here below from the influential Jiji Shimpo of May 10th:

“At yesterday’s conference of the three heads of the Army, an opinion was reached as to the formation of the succeeding cabinet. It was decided to permit the formation of a party cabinet, viz, the extension of the Seiyukai Ministry under the premiership of Dr. Suzuki on the following conditions:

That the new Ministry carry out and effect practical purification of party politics, and as a proof testifying to its intention thereof, excluding such politicians as are suspected or despised by the nation.
That in the light of the bad experience with the London Naval Treaty,14 the new Ministry shall strictly respect and take care to avoid interference with the Emperor’s supreme control of the armed services, particularly because the question of the supreme command will necessarily come forth in connection with the future policy vis-à-vis Manchuria.
That the new Ministry shall make a wholehearted effort for the control of public thought.
That the new Ministry shall cooperate with the Army in matters relating to social welfare.

It was also arranged that the new War Minister (whoever may be chosen) shall accept the offer to participate in a new cabinet only after the aforementioned four conditions shall be agreed to by the organizer of the new cabinet”.

I have no reason to discount the genuineness of the extraordinary statement. It is quite in accord with the spirit animating the Army at present.

There has been much talk of Fascism in Japan, but the word is misleading when applied to movements in this country. It predicates the personal rule of an outstanding personality. No such rule would be possible in Japan, where all rule is contingent upon Army approval. The Army itself is far too well organized and disciplined to permit any of its members undertaking a personal dictatorship. If a dictatorship results from the present situation it will be with the support and under the control of the Army, in the name of the Emperor and dedicated to the welfare of the people. It will, in view of the statements of its leaders, have a strong tinge of state socialism, favoring the agrarian classes and opposing the domination of capitalists in [Page 690] politics. It may be expected to adopt a more resolute policy toward Manchuria.

As regards parliamentarism, the Army has not followed the young officers in declaring against representative government and political parties per se. Army leaders would hesitate to take a step which would bring them into conflict with the Constitution. The statement above quoted indicates that the military are willing to allow the parties to exist, but insist on sweeping changes in methods of administration. In this the nation seems to concur. The powerful Osaka Mainichi stated editorially on May 18th:

“Never before have parliamentary politics been placed on the slab for a more profound and critical scrutiny than at this time. Prince Saionji is reported as desiring to see constitutional politics progress smoothly. This may be the best course, but thus far in this country the form is complete but the actual workings are rudimentary. Whether parliamentary politics are to be abolished or whether further united efforts are to be made to realize the real object of this system, is the paramount question now confronting the nation”.

As reported in my telegram No. 132, May 18, 6 P.M.15 Prince Saionji has been called upon by the Emperor, as usual, to give advice in appointing a new premier. The aged Genro has not yet, five days later, delivered his opinion, and is said to be giving close study to the situation. It is certain that he is seriously concerned over a situation which has such grave possibilities for parliamentarism. He has always been a stout protagonist of constitutional party government. On the other hand, today’s newspapers report that the military are even more determined to prevent the formation of a straight party government.

The present situation illustrates the inherent weakness of the Japanese Constitution under present conditions. In previous despatches from time to time the Embassy has pointed out the necessity for some authority in the background to give the Emperor “advice”. The Japanese Government at present is composed, for practical purposes, of three distinct administrative controls. The civil administration, headed by the Prime Minister, and the General Staffs of the Army and Navy. The Ministers of War and Navy, who are the heads of the administrative branches of their respective departments, have no direct control over the General Staff[s]. The latter have direct access to the Emperor, which means, actually, that they are, except in fiscal matters, independent of the War and Navy Ministers and of the Prime Minister.

Under the Emperor Meiji a group of men who had built up the [Page 691] modern state exercised a coordinating influence. All branches of the State services were represented in this group; Prince Yamagata, Army; Prince Ito, civil administration; Prince Matsukata, finance; and so forth. In times of political crisis, this group met, debated the questions at issue and gave the Emperor their collective advice. They were men of immense prestige and great energy and as they acted as a unit their views as to personnel and general policy were bound to prevail.

There are no men today who occupy their position. This means that there is no coordinating organ in the Government and the separate branches of the Administration go their more or less independent ways. Prince Saionji, who has been relied on to fill the position once occupied by the Elder Statesmen or Genro of Meiji days, is an old man. He apparently has not the energy, nor the prestige with the younger men, needed to cow warring factions. Until some coordinating organ is developed, or there is a constitutional reorganization, Japanese politics must remain subject to uncertainties in times of stress.

Respectfully yours,

Edwin L. Neville
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  3. Omissions indicated in the original.
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  5. Signed April 22, 1930, Foreign Relations, 1930, vol. i, p. 107.
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