Rebellion in Japan’s Army, 1860-1931


A review of Culture of Disobedience: Rebellion and Defiance in the Japanese Army, 1860-1931, by Danny Orbach.

Danny Orbach’s dissertation is a very welcome addition to the field of modern Japanese history, filling an important gap in the scholarship. This is the first significant attempt to place the many high-profile and lesser-known incidents of military disobedience in modern Japan into a coherent framework, convincingly arguing that these formed part of a military culture that tolerated and even celebrated certain forms of disobedience. Covering an impressive span of Japan’s modern history, this dissertation traces the roots of the violent disobedience that gripped the Japanese military in 1931 back to the 1870s, outlining the ways in which this tradition arose and was nurtured over fifty years before erupting with devastating global consequences. This dissertation makes a useful and interesting comparison between the Imperial Japanese Army and a computer program: in spite of a number of flaws (bugs), the army was essentially able to fulfil its function, and it was only when certain conditions arose that the flaws resulted in “severe failures which eventually undermined the entire system” (p. 4).

Part I of the thesis, “The World of Yesterday: 1858-1868,” explores the origins of military disobedience in the final decade of Tokugawa rule. This period was marked by a proliferation of gangs of shishi, or “men of high aspiration,” who made Japan’s major cities unsafe for government officials, foreigners, and one another. Assassinations and political violence were commonplace, as the loosely organized shishi sought to effect change, most often in the name of the emperor and against their own superiors. Some groups were formed around fencing schools, others were regional gangs from certain domains, while others had a trans-regional character. Most importantly, the shishi defined themselves through claims of sincerity, purity, directness, and patriotism, which guided their actions. Although many of them were killed by various government forces both before and after 1868, they struck considerable fear into the nation’s rulers during their heyday. Much of this terror came from its unpredictability. As Orbach writes, “rebellions and other acts of radical disobedience were, from 1868 to the 1930s, all too often, reckless, impulsive, unplanned and poorly coordinated” (p. 43). On the other hand, this spirit was also celebrated by the Meiji government, especially after 1875, as the shishi were portrayed as the “martyrs of the Meiji Restoration,” thereby “inadvertently legitimizing disobedient behavior as long as its motives were sincere, patriotic and pure” (pp. 41-42). This idolization of supposedly righteous rebels fed directly into the tradition of military disobedience, inspiring disgruntled army officers until the Second World War.

In Part II, “Age of Chaos: 1868-1878,” Orbach looks at the tumultuous first decade of Meiji, which was marked by rebellions, violence, and the first significant cases of military disobedience. In its discussion of this period, the dissertation introduces the first of the major “bugs” in the system: the role of the Japanese emperor as a “hazy center” (p. 48). Here, the young age of the Meiji emperor contributed to the role of the imperial institution as a both usefully and dangerously ambiguous unifying center. The authority of the emperor was acknowledged by all, but was so heavily mediated by the people surrounding him that his true opinions were rarely known. This allowed the government to issue decrees in his name, yet also provided the room for those opposed to the official line to challenge it on the basis that it was the result of manipulation of the emperor by his councilors. This dynamic manifested itself in the Taiwan Expedition of 1874, in which Lieutenant General Saigō Tsugumichi led a punitive mission against aborigines accused of killing stranded Japanese sailors in 1871. Having initially received an imperial command to carry out the mission, Saigō ignored subsequent government orders to stop his attack in light of warnings from the Western powers regarding such action. Saigō, who desired to follow through for his own reasons, was able to use the authority of the imperial decree to fend off any later commands not emanating directly from the emperor. Orbach acknowledges that this incident in itself did not feature prominently in the motivations of later military rebels, but was significant for the use of the imperial “hazy center,” as well as for conveying an impression that it was the result of dangerous collusion between the military officer Saigō and politicians from his home domain of Satsuma (p. 83).

The growing perception that interference between military and political figures was problematic led to the importation from Prussia of a strict separation between politics and the military. This system, known as tōsui-ken, ensured that the only oversight of the military came from the emperor himself. Part III, “Age of Military Independence: 1878-1913,” analyzes the development of the tōsui-ken system in response to earlier crises, and the crucial differences between it and the original Prussian Kommandogewalt upon which it was based (pp. 126-136). Orbach makes a convincing and original argument regarding the reasons for this innovation, challenging the widespread view that it was motivated by a desire for greater power on the part of Field Marshall Yamagata Aritomo. By analyzing contemporary politics and the situation in Prussia, Orbach demonstrates that tōsui-ken developed from a combination of intentional policies, differences in the nature of the imperial institution in the two countries, and an incomplete understanding of the Prussian system. As a result, civilian institutions had very little power over the Japanese military, but the great power wielded by the military was simultaneously dispersed within it and difficult to control. The positive effects of this system over the medium term included preventing military rebellion for more than half a century from the late 1870s, but also meant that when serious problems did arise, there was no effective way to counter them. The remainder of Part III discusses the 1895 assassination of the Korean queen by rogue elements of the Japanese military (Chapter Six) and the Taisho Political Crisis of 1912-1913 (Chapter Seven) to illustrate the ways in which the limits of civilian authority under tōsui-ken became ominously apparent. As Orbach argues, these incidents presented opportunities for action and possible reform to stave off more serious future trouble, but the ultimate failure to deal with them foreshadowed the massive breakdown of control in the 1930s (pp. 200, 243).   

The final section, Part IV, “Entering the Dark Valley, 1928-1931,” demonstrates how radical army officers drew on the outlined tradition of military disobedience to justify their own rebellious actions both in Manchuria and at home in Japan. Chapter Eight examines the assassination of the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin by Kōmoto Daisaku and other army officers in defiance of clear orders in 1928. The dissertation ties this event into ongoing broader debates on imperial authority, as Emperor Hirohito’s well-known displeasure regarding the incident did not result in severe punishment of the perpetrating officers. Rather than existing scholarship that focuses on the emperor’s supposed personal thoughts, Orbach places his emphasis on the systematic issues that prevented the emperor from acting independently, regardless of his desire (pp. 284-286). This presents a different angle for considering the emperor’s scope of action relative to “his” army. Chapter Nine discusses the development of the notorious Cherry Blossom Society (Sakura-kai) and other radical organizations whose activities led to extreme acts of violent rebellion in the 1930s. The leaders’ invocation of earlier shishi models (pp. 304, 329, 342) demonstrated their romantic self-perception as heroes who would lead Japan to a new “restoration,” sweeping away corrupt and decadent politicians and industrialists through their own selfless, pure, and patriotic actions in the name of the emperor. Although their actions clearly went against army policy, and included plans to assassinate senior military figures and seize control of the government, rebellious young officers were able to draw on established patterns of military disobedience for justification. Here, they were also able to take advantage of a parallel pattern of increasing practical power shifting from senior leaders to junior officers, as had already been evident in the 1912-1913 political crisis (pp. 237-238).

The “bugs” in the system outlined in this dissertation were not severe enough to bring it to collapse on its own, as evidenced by the fact that the Imperial Japanese Army functioned relatively effectively for as long as it did. On the other hand, as the scale and complexity of the system increased along with internal and external pressures, the bugs’ influence became more and more pronounced and destabilizing. Chances to address these flaws came and went at several key junctures outlined by Orbach, ultimately leading to disaster in the 1930s. The first of three major bugs, the “hazy legitimacy” of the emperor, is discussed in depth in Part II, while the remaining two are woven throughout the dissertation. One of these was the idea that the influential ideology of “enriching the country and strengthening the military” (fukoku kyōhei) was a “one-way road” that drove constant expansion and aggression towards other countries (p. 351). The third, closely-related bug, was that this ideology was an “endless road,” i.e. it was never clear when the country and military would be sufficiently rich and powerful, leading to endless expansion until the entire system collapsed (p. 352). All three of these bugs were key to inspiring and managing military ambitions from the late Tokugawa period onward, and their true nature as fatal flaws only came to be revealed over time.

Through the study of the period 1860-1931, Orbach also provides the groundwork for a re-focusing of the analysis of imperial Japan’s descent into total war during the 1930s and 1940s. Here, he seeks to highlight the essential role of military disobedience in shaping political decisions at the highest level. In challenging much of the dominant scholarship on the subject, Orbach stresses the importance of fear of violence from rebellious army officers, which “significantly reduced the maneuvering space of the government in the face of external pressure” (p. 346). Rather than merely examining what Japanese leaders did in practice during this period, Orbach persuasively argues, “it is no less essential to check what they could not do as a result of military disobedience, and which options were unable to them because of military pressure” (p. 347). This is a much more complex dynamic to analyze, based as it is on actions not taken, but this dissertation builds its argument carefully through its extensive analysis covering a long sweep of modern Japanese history. Due to its breadth and the originality of its arguments, the dissertation should have a considerable impact on scholarship, revising several long-standing assumptions concerning political dynamics and the balance of power in imperial Japan.

Oleg Benesch
Department of History
University of York

Primary Sources

Japan Center for Asian Historical Record
Japanese Army and Navy Archives, Library of Congress
National Archives of Japan, Tokyo
National Diet Library, Tokyo
Yasukuni Shrine Archives

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2015. 381 pp. Primary Advisor: Andrew Gordon.

Image: German Navy officers on a formal visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in 1937.

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