The spirit of the Japanese nation is, by its nature,a thing that must be propagated over the seven seas and extended over the five continents. Anything that may hinder it must be abolished, even by force.1
—Army Minister Sadao Araki, January 23, 1933
The post–World War I economy wreaked havoc on many nations, Japan included. Due to the postwar production slowdown, increased trade barriers and tariffs imposed by the West, and economic strains caused by the Great Kanto Earthquake, Japan fell into an economic depression two years before the global Great Depression began in 1930.2 Thirty-seven banks were forced to close after Japanese citizens tried to cash in government-issued earthquake bonds that had been sold to raise funds for reconstruction. The economic crisis brought down the civilian government and brought to power the zaibatsu, family-controlled businesses that held monopolies within the Japanese Empire and kept close ties, and influence, with the civilian government.3 When the Great Depression began, Japan was economically and politically vulnerable and increasingly unstable. Like other nations during such fragile times, Japan saw a rise in political groups promising to fix the problems of the nation.
The Cherry Blossom Society, or Sakurakai, was one such group. The cherry blossom carries significant symbolic meaning in Japan. In Buddhist cultural tradition, the flower, with its short blooming period, expresses the fleeting nature of life. Sakurakai adopted this as a name not only to connect its nationalist ideology to the symbol of the nation but also to give its activities spiritual meaning. Founded by Hashimoto Kingoro, a leader in the Japanese Imperial Army, Sakurakai advocated military insurrection and “Showa Restoration,” which would free Emperor Hirohito from all political party affiliations. The Cherry Blossom Society believed the political parties established during Taisho were to blame for Japan’s current economic struggles, and their elimination was the first step in strengthening the nation.
Sakurakai began with only a few members in September 1930. It quickly grew in size and attracted several hundred ultranationalist officers from the army’s general staff headquarters in Tokyo. In October 1931, Sakurakai attempted their first of two coup d’états, or overthrows of the government. Both efforts ultimately failed. Those involved in the first insurrection suffered few consequences, but those conspirators involved in the second insurrection were arrested and transferred to other posts. Hashimoto was forced to retire, and the group had to disband. Despite these setbacks, other like-minded nationalist factions arose, and the military continued to play a dominant role in the political affairs of the nation.
The ideology of the radicalized factions of the Sakurakai found a receptive audience with Japanese military leaders. While the emperor was the country’s leader, actual power was divided among his advisers, the police, and the military. By the 1930s many military officers held legislative and executive power and formed an independent body that was answerable to only the emperor. A formative figure in this shift was General Araki Sadao, appointed as Army Minister in 1931. He was a staunch, outspoken proponent of a policy known as Kōdōha, or the “Imperial Way,” which advocated expansionism, totalitarianism, and greater militarism. General Araki retired from this post in 1936 and one year later was appointed minister of education where he used propaganda to promote patriotism and loyalty. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s Japanese students were taught about their nation’s new status as a world power and the responsibility they held in sustaining this status.
Each school day began with a procession to a courtyard where the Japanese flag was run up a poll while the national anthem played, further reinforcing the strength and connection to Japan’s imperial past with its current status. At other educational institutions, such as one private Jesuit institution in Tokyo, the Fathers and the students were forced to undergo military training. Scholarships for higher education were granted not solely for good grades or hard work but to students who personified the Japanese military ideal of discipline, tradition, strength, and loyalty to the emperor. In the early 1930s the Japanese government established the Board of Information, which censored the media and outlawed “dangerous thoughts,” ideas that originated in the West and conflicted with the goals of the Japanese Imperial Army. History books were revised and history classes were transformed into courses on Japanese ethics and morals. Books about the divinity of the emperor and the duty of every citizen to worship at the imperial altar become compulsory reading in all high schools and colleges.
One Japanese soldier, who served in World War II and was interviewed for the book Evil Men, recounted the impact of his schooling during this period:
You know, public education, they drove loyalty and patriotism, that sort of ideology home. In other words, what does that mean? It means that the country of Japan is, well, the country of God. It is the absolute best country in the world—that idea was thoroughly planted into us. . . . If you turn it over, it means to despise other races. That is the sort of ideology it is. And from the time we were small, we called Chinese people dirty chinks—made fun of them. We called Russians Russkie pigs. We called Westerners hairy barbarians, you know? And so this meant that when the people of Japan joined the army and went to the front, no matter how many Chinese they killed, they didn’t think of it as being much different than killing a dog or a cat.
Another reason is, like I said before, to give your life to the leader, His Majesty the Emperor, of what is absolutely the greatest country in the world, Japan, is a sacred duty and the highest honor.
There’s that ideology, you know. And this ideology, when you go into the military, is strengthened more and more, and your personality is taken away. . . . When it’s time to go to battle—at those times, when you were ordered by a superior, you couldn’t resist. So the humanitarian ideology I learned about in college just couldn’t win out over the ideology of “loyalty and patriotism” that had been drilled into me from the time I was small.4
- 1 : To see a photograph of Araki from January 23, 1933, see Time.com.
- 2 : The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in America and other trade barriers in Britain highly restricted the export sector of Japan’s economy.
- 3 : At this time there were at least four large zaibatsus that controlled a great deal of the Japanese Empire’s business holdings. These companies were Sumitomo, Mitsui, Mitsubishi, and Yasuda, all performing a variety of business endeavors including tax collection, foreign trade, and military procurement. See Wikipedia.
- 4 : James Dawes, Evil Men (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 49.