The Kyujo Incident was a little-known conspiracy on August 14 and 15th, hours before the announcement of the end of the war, that attempted to place the Emperor under house arrest, assassinate officials, and continue the war. If it had succeeded Japan as we know it would not exist. The evening of the 14th saw Japan’s future standing on the edge of a knife, and it is nearly a miracle that things worked out as well as they had.
To understand the actions of the rebels that night, it’s important to understand the Japanese idea of Gekokujo (下克上). Gekokujo could be translated as, “overthrowing one’s superiors” or “rule from below”. Basically, this is the idea that one can overthrow one’s superiors or government if it is morally justified and for the good of the people. It is a little similar to the American idea of rebelling against a tyrannical government. It’s a kind of the letter of the law vs the spirit of the law.
Throughout the 1900’s gekokujo was used as an excuse by both military officers and assassins to excuse their actions betraying orders or killing officials. One could claim that they were morally justified in the action, and often receive forgiveness. Many political assassinations were justified in this way, and often most of the public would support the assassin, and they would receive a lesser sentence.
So, for many young military officers it was common knowledge that it was okay to disobey direct orders, even from the Emperor himself, if you could argue and convince enough people that you were doing it for the good of the same Emperor.
After the atomic bombings the Emperor finally forced the rest of the war council to accept the fact that unconditional surrender was their only option. As the decision was announced to the lower members of the war council, many members, who had been brought up in a culture that told them that to surrender was completely reprehensible to a warrior, began to make plans for gekokujo.
A 33-year-old Major, Kenji Hatanaka, was the ringleader of the group. They felt that if Japan accepted unconditional surrender the Emperor would be removed from power and the entire traditional culture of the nation would be destroyed. For the young, ultra-patriotic officers, this was entirely unthinkable. It was un-Japanese to surrender in such a way. Hatanaka and his compatriots must have felt that the Emperor had been swayed by defeatist counselors and that they were doing the Emperor good in removing them, with extreme prejudice.
But they knew that they would not be able to overthrow the government on their own, they would need more military support.
Major Hatanaka and his supporters first approached War Minister Korechika Anami. Anami was the second most powerful man in Japan next to only the Emperor himself. They pleaded to him to do whatever he could to prevent the Emperor from accepting the Potsdam Declaration (terms for Japan’s surrender). But Anami eventually made it clear that he would not support any action that would go against the will of the Emperor. But Anami did not do anything to prevent Hatanaka either.
Realizing that they would not receive any help from Anami, they continued with their plans on their own. The plan was to infiltrate the palace, and take it over. Once that was complete they would prevent the Emperor’s broadcast of the announcement of the surrender. Furthermore, agents outside the palace would convince officers of armies surrounding the palace to also support their cause. They would purge the council of “unpatriotic” elements and reject the Potsdam Declaration.
Around 9:30 in the evening of August 14th Hatanaka and his troops infiltrated the palace guards claiming that they were reserves there to bolster the defense of the palace. They spent much of the evening bicycling from office to office trying to garner support for their coup. Hatanaka claimed that they had the support of Anami and other powerful generals, and was able to gain the support of a few other officers.
Finally, they visited Lt. General Takeshi Mori, who had been meeting with his brother-in-law, to try to gain his support. Mori was the commander of the Imperial Guard, obtaining his support was crucial to the plan. Mori said that he would have to go to the shrine and purify himself before he could make his decision. Brimming with impatience Hatanaka and his conspirator Uehara, attacked the two. Uehara stabbed Mori’s brother-in-law with his sword, and Hatanaka shot Mori. Using Mori’s seal Hatanaka ordered that they would make their move at 2 am, and surround the main area of the palace.
As all this was going on Anami committed seppuku, leaving behind a very cryptic note saying, “I – with my death – humbly apologize to the Emperor for the great crime.” Whether he was apologizing for the surrender, the coup, or something else is unknown.
Even with the palace surrounded, Hatanaka knew that his success hinged on capturing the copies of the surrender announcement. Were that announcement to get out and be played, any hopes of performing a successful coup would fall faster than a stone bird. So, he and his men began a frantic search for the recordings.
The recording of the surrender announcement had been made in the palace earlier in the day, and the workers from NHK were still in the palace. They were succinctly captured and questioned about where the recordings were. House Minister Sotaro Ishiwatari, and Privy Seal Koichi Kido had the only 2 copies of the recordings. Capture them and the game would be up.
Hatanaka’s troops scattered in search for the two officials. Conveniently, there was a blackout that disrupted the search. Furthermore, many other officials who were supporters of the Emperor helped to hide Kido and Ishiwatari. And they distracted and threw off those who were searching. Other Hatanaka supporters outside the palace went to the Prime Minister’s office to assassinate him, finding him gone they machine gunned the building and set it aflame. They then set-off to the Prime Minister’s home who just barely managed to escape with his life.
They searched throughout the night, but finding out their efforts to recruit its officers the Eastern Army was on its way to stop them. Hatanaka knew that his plan was falling apart around him. He tried to break into NHK studios to give his own announcement, but he was prevented. He was finally contacted by the leader of the Eastern Army who convinced him that the coup attempt was over. Hatanaka and his right-hand man Shiizaki fled the palace.
In the early hours of the morning, Hatanaka on his bicycle and Shiizaka in horseback rode throughout town tossing out leaflets that explained their actions. Finally about an hour before the broadcast was scheduled to air, refusing to hear the message of surrender from his Emperor, his god, Hatanaka put his pistol to his head and ended his life.
Thus ended the final formal resistance to the surrender. In a way, Hatanaka’s death was the death of the Empire. His death symbolized the end of an era, and the birth of a new.
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