1936: The February 26 Incident
By: Franz Essig
The February 26 Incident (or 2-2-6 Incident), which took place in 1936 in Tokyo, Japan, has come to be seen as a major flashpoint in Japan’s political history in the run-up to the World War II. Taking place amidst a fractious and violent political environment, the incident is often pointed to as the end of the “government by assassination” period and the dawn of the military’s dominance in Japanese politics.
Some background is necessary to understand the significance of the incident. Throughout Japanese history, since the first Emperor gained power in 660 B.C., the role of Japan’s leader has held widely-varying degrees of responsibility in the political arena. When the country first began to modernize and attempt democratic government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Emperor and his advisors continued to retain notable if somewhat latent control over the Japanese parliament. The emperor’s group of advisors, consisting of military and economic leaders, determined the outcome of major political decisions, and pushed the country to a series of successful campaigns of conquest in Asia.
During the 1920s and 30s, growing numbers of young Japanese nationalists, appealing to imperial history, argued that the Emperor should have a larger role in determining the fate of the Japanese people. The Emperor’s advisors were seen as poisonous influencers, driving the country to capitalistic greed and modernism and away from Japanese traditionalism. This division was perhaps strongest within the military itself, with pressure mounting from the younger military leaders to reinstate the power of the Emperor. These divisions became increasingly violent, and by the mid-1930s the assassinations of major political figures became commonplace (hence the term “government by assassination”).
On February 26th, a number of the “younger” officers began a plot to assassinate seven political targets including the prime minister at the time, and to gain control of the imperial residency to restore the Emperor’s authority. The plotters succeeded at killing three of their targets, but failed to secure the imperial residency, leading to a standoff which ended in defeat three days later.
In the aftermath of the incident, unlike in previous assassination attempts, the plotters were prosecuted and quickly executed. Military leaders used the opportunity to tighten their grip on the political system and freedom of the press. As the West began to be portrayed as the enemy, dissent within Japan became intolerable and was dealt with swiftly. With the concentration of power and no internal dissent, Japanese military leaders had the freedom to control long-term strategy, which partially explains why the Japanese were able to organize and execute a preemptive attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942.
The February 26 Incident has left a complicated legacy. On the one hand, dissenters of Japan’s WWII militarists have been held up by some as heroes trying to fight against the power of Japan’s fascist militarists. But the plotters themselves were no less interested in Asian conquest and fearful of the West than their older counterparts. It is difficult to say how history would have unfolded differently had their plan succeeded. Moreover, the political violence of the period is largely seen as an ugly episode in Japanese history. Regardless of the moral implications, the 2-2-6 incident will likely continue to be regarded as an important turning point for scholars of Japanese political history and World War II.