The World Will Look Upon You As Wild Beasts

Debates over January 6, 2021 often founder on the basic question of how “serious” the insurrectionists really were. While many analysts are at least minimally willing to admit that Trump instigated the mob to attack, they still ask whether was all just a product of mass delusion. The mobbing is often lumped in with the broader trend of “dreampolitik,” the “politics of partisan fantasy.” This dismissal overlooks many pertinent factors such as the significant degree of prior (observable) forethought, how close the mob came to actually inflicting grave harm, and the ideological utility of the failed insurrection to the contemporary GOP. Still, the idea that we live in an age of fantasy political movements is not totally wrong.

The Area 51 raid is a useful symbol of many 21st century social movements because it had no goals more substantial than collective amusement and camaraderie. Many information-age movements in general are about the intoxication of making Internet things happen in the “real world.” While they may dress this motivation up in vague populist language, mobilization is still an end in and of itself. This can be tied to the offline decline of social organization. Social ties are less secure, and political organization has largely been replaced by ephemeral swarms following social media influences. Politics is omnipresent, but actual political movement – as opposed to dopamine-reinforcement – does not occur. However, too much focus on the disordering effect of contemporary technology and the aimlessness of contemporary politics ignores steerage.

We live in an era of disorientation, disruption, and distraction. We also live in an age of collective delusion and fantasy. Yet so did people in earlier “analog” times. However, some movements – even if they lacked the capacity to formulate and pursue realistic goals – nonetheless had a significant impact. They could latch themselves onto something that could steer them even if they could not steer themselves. How do movements with fantastic if not delusional ideologies acquire steerage? How do movements that deliberately disdain forethought answer the question of “what shall we do now” that all movements must ask in order to act? These are not new questions, but they are more particularly salient today. In reading Ben-Ami Shilony’s book Revolt in Japan: The Young Officers and the February 26, 1936 Incident, I came to understand part of why the incident itself has such cultural resonance in Japanese history: it provides an indirect answer to these questions.

On February 26, 1936, junior military officers led 1,400 troops in a brazen attack on the seat of Japanese governmental power in Tokyo. They murdered high-ranking officials, occupied the center of Tokyo, and demanded the formation of a new cabinet that would carry out their desired reforms. After several days of talks, the Emperor issued an Imperial Order to suppress the revolt. Defeated, the rebel leaders either committed suicide or submitted themselves for court-martial and eventual execution. While very little of the Young Officers’ idiosyncratic demands were realized, the incident fatally compromised Japan’s civilian government and accelerated Japan’s movement towards the apocalypse of World War II. The February 26 plotters did not lay out a systemic ideology or even make even rudimentary plans of how they would manage the aftermath of their military coup. They gambled everything on a single symbolic action: killing targeted politicians and occupying the center of Tokyo. A spectacular act of violence would awaken a nation to its peril and force it to change.

Many have sought to draw parallels between the February 26 incident and January 6. These parallels have, for the most part, been superficial. The most valuable aspects of February 26 for American readers are not necessarily found in their implications for the American case. Rather, they are summed up by what novelist Yukio Mishima – who attempted his own 1970 coup modeled after February 26 – made of the affair. Writing on the revolt in 1968, Mishima states that “the February 26 incident was not only the greatest political incident of the Shōwa era, but also the greatest clash between spirit and politics.” Mishima laments that “in this clash, politics won and spirit lost.” Shilony rightly singles this quote out. Like the February 26 incident, Mishima’s 1970 revolt also is still subject to significant interpretative ambiguity. Did Mishima undertake his 1970 coup attempt and ritual suicide out of a desire to realize a purely personal aesthetic fantasy or carry out a deliberate political act? Mishima did not see a difference, and that was the problem.

As Julia Shiota explains, Mishima never saw a difference between these two drives. They were one and the same, and their interrelationship says something profound about Mishima and the men he idealized. To draw this out, Shiota analyzes Mishima’s February 26-themed story Patriotism. The subject of Patriotism is a military officer that commits dual suicide with his wife in the aftermath of February 26. The officer tells his wife that he intends to take his own life to avoid the inevitable order to put down the revolt and fight his compatriots. This potentially suggests a political motive, but Mishima suggests through both text and subtext that politics could be a convenient afterthought and death itself a foregone conclusion. Further supporting an apolitical motive is the myopic focus on the officer and his wife and “over the top” and even “self-indulgent” depiction of their sexual intercourse before they commit suicide and the suicide itself.

Through a protagonist that understands his death “might be politically meaningless,” Mishima “glorifies the private act of seppuku.” The double suicide is “less about making a clear political statement and more about acting out a personal drive couched in grand, cosmic terms.” For Mishima, personal, aesthetic, and political currents flow together, with the personal providing emotional content to larger political theater. The personage of the Japanese Emperor in both cases – the ostensible motivation driving February 26 and Mishima’s imitation – served as an “empty marker” that stood in for an imagined Japan of the past and a possible Japan of the future. “For both Mishima and the insurgents, the Emperor was enough of a signifier to latch onto, but equally enough of a void to fill with whatever meaning they desired.” Who he was as a person was ultimately irrelevant, what mattered was his utility as a source of steerage.

The immediate goal of the February 26 operation was to eliminate moderate and liberal politicians that, in the rebels’ reading, controlled the Emperor. The uprising would begin with a coordinated series of political murders targeting establishment “villains” the rebels held most responsible for Japan’s plight. Rebel forces would next occupy Tokyo’s administrative center, cut off access to the Emperor, and then hold their ground until a reform cabinet sympathetic to their goals could be convened. And after that? Lacking anything approximating a coherent ideological system, the Young Officers mostly did not think too hard about it. This was not accidental. To come up with a total revolutionary ideology would be to infringe on the Emperor’s authority. Once the so-called “traitors around the throne” were eliminated, the Emperor would be responsible for determining the proper way forward.

This belied the practical reality that, like the Meiji Restoration-era shishi (men of spirit) they sought to imitate, access to the Emperor could be used to influence and even control his behavior. Shilony suggests but does not conclusively prove that there were contingency plans to depose Emperor Hirohito if he decided he did not want to play along. Traditionally, Japanese Emperors have played mostly symbolic roles and eschewed direct leadership of day-to-day politics. Because government policy was nominally sanctioned by the Emperor, status quo authorities could claim that obeying them meant obeying the Emperor. Rebels claimed that the Emperor’s true wishes were suppressed by corrupt elites that had to be displaced, even if doing so required rebellious violence. Restoring the Emperor’s true authority therefore could be used as a justification for one’s own expansive agenda of revolutionary reform.

Naturally, it was unclear how to make loyalty to the Emperor equivalent to loyalty to the state. This particular problem was a time bomb the Meiji reformers planted in the process of clearing away the shogunate. The Meiji Restoration put the military under the direct control of the aforementioned absentee Emperor. As the Emperor did not concern himself with the details of governance, military chiefs could operate outside the remit of civilian government. But the Emperor’s remoteness also cut two ways. The Emperor’s civilian advisors could influence him to act against the military’s wishes. And in any case the military’s budgets were approved by a civilian legislative body and the military also had to coordinate with a civilian party cabinet. It was only a matter of time before the emergence of new political and economic elites disinterested in the military’s worldview and priorities triggered new conflicts.

But the top brass’ pique over military budgets and foreign policy was not enough to stimulate the young military rebels’ fervor. The Young Officers, as company commanders, bore responsibility for the welfare of their enlisted troops. This put them in contact with Japan’s impoverished rural areas, where many of their charges originated from. As they witnessed the lengths their men’s desperate families were willing to go to in order to survive, they grew disillusioned with protecting a nation plagued by what they saw as internal rather than external enemies. In fulfilling their basic military duties, they radicalized. One of the rebels, in a prison testament, wrote bitterly of how he learned that his subordinate’s sister had prostituted herself for their family’s sake. The image of an enlisted soldier’s sister being sold into prostitution provided an immensely powerful metaphor for a spiritually decrepit nation in thrall to corrupt elites. Hence, it was re-used frequently in political propaganda.

While part of a much larger military-rightist ideological ecosystem, the Young Officers were not reducible to mere puppets of the Kōdōha (Imperial Way) faction or ephemera of the conflict between the Kōdōha and Tōseiha (control) army factions. The Young Officers identified zaibatsu family industrial cliques, big landlords, party politicians, and high-ranking military officers as the modern “traitors around the throne” and desired a Japan ruled with an “absolute monarch with an egalitarian people.” Capital would be controlled by the state, private ownership limited, and the Emperor would rule over a spiritually transformed and unified people. While the military would play a vital role in initiating a popular uprising, national awakening depended on the “unified effort of all the people.” The Young Officers never left a blueprint for how their reforms were to be achieved, how contradictory components would be reconciled, or even their desired post-coup governmental arrangements.

One particular officer that participated in a earlier military revolt in 1932 spoke for the 1936 conspirators when he confessed that he “thought about destruction first” and “never considered taking on the duty of construction.” Once the desired “destruction” was achieved, “someone could take charge of that construction for us.” While eschewing an overly religious dimension, the Young Officers and associated movements nonetheless saw their revolt as “heavenly punishment” that would lead to the “rebirth of Man through the use of the heavenly sword.” By betraying the Emperor, the ruling class “traitors” had blasphemed heaven itself and Japan’s ancestral gods. And because the Young Officers acted on the order of heaven itself, they could not be held responsible for their criminal actions by earthly authorities. Yet Shilony is keen on the irony that a movement calling for a return to older values also expressed raw disdain for the elderly. The Young Officers valorized youth and vitality and depicted the old as exhausted, infirm, and even weak and cowardly.

“There is no other country in the world where old people have as much power as they do in Japan,” a rightist fellow traveler despaired. “Old people may realize the need for change, but they lack the courage to see it through.” It fell on the young to act, and the Young Officers symbolized the courage and virility of youth rather than the pragmatism and wisdom of the elderly. And while the Young Officers relied heavily on the idea of the shishi revolt tradition as a mythopoetic core to re-enact, they also were far from prisoners of destiny. Shilony argues that the Young Officers were influenced by the romantic Ōyōmei flavor of Confucianism, which held that the individual could reach enlightenment through “intuitive decision” accompanied by resolute action. Shilony describes this doctrine as the “affirmation of spontaneous action and of the power of human will to change objective circumstances.” Like the Meiji rebels before them, the Young Officers reached intuitive decision and accompanied it with spectacular acts of symbolic violence.

They accordingly labeled their revolt kekkō (decisive action). Loose goals and a strong valorization of individual will also correlated with loose operational control. While led by military men, there was no military chain of command. No single rebel officer had the absolute authority to command the operation, emulating the Meiji Restoration example the rebels had selected as their template. The revolt was commanded by consensus among the rebel leadership group. The decision to involve enlisted men was extremely controversial. The Young Officers initially resisted involving enlisted soldiers at all, as they believed that small groups of heroic rebels would be seen as sincere by the populace. Deploying 1,400 troops would dilute the revolt’s mythopoetic potential. Still, involving more men would also give the mission more robustness against failure. The plotters eventually were forced by necessity to involve enlisted soldiers, but only after a contentious and nearly group-dissolving dispute.

Involving civilians was also out of the question. Civilians were unpredictable, undisciplined, and would undermine the Young Officers’ claim to be latter-day shishi. Instead, civilians were supposed to spontaneously rise up after the rebels had accomplished their fait accompli. The Young Officers were not interested in popular mobilization and did not seek to operate in any meaningful way outside Tokyo. While the Young Officers certainly had some overlaps with left-wing Japanese groups and borrowed revolutionary language, they and their peers were distrusted and shunned by the prewar Japanese left. And rightly so. Shilony situates the Young Officers as a component of a larger rightist movement that owed allegiance to the nation as a mystical entity rather than the working classes. While some Western historians have sought to cast the Young Officers as Japanese versions of the Claus von Stauffenberg group, Shilony is clear about their ideological status as a far-right movement.

Moreover, the Young Officers – for all of their bottom-up pretensions – were carrying out an elite coup that they believed would succeed due to complicity with or at least tacit tolerance for their goals from Japan’s political, military, and industrial elites. This belief was not totally unwarranted, as the February 26 incident generated numerous warnings and alarms that simply were not acted on. The revolt could plausibly be said to have been allowed to occur. Shilony strongly suggests that elite complicity was in and of itself a kind of subtle steerage. The Young Officers’ revolt failed in part because their radical goals were anathema to the senior military. But the Young Officers and other radical factions were useful to the military top brass because they eliminated liberal and moderate opponents and cast doubt on the ability of the civilian government to manage a worsening internal crisis.

Here, it is also important to understand that Shilony intervened in a particular debate by Western and Japanese historians on February 26 that long preceded him. And his book is by no means the last word on the question, as it was published in the 1970s. Shilony is critical of those arguing that the Young Officers were merely one of many series of fascist attacks on Japan’s civilian government. In this particular view, the rebellion did not fail because its true aims were military dictatorship, monopoly capitalism, and aggressive wars of conquest. These analyses gloss over the many failed attempts to forge alliances between the rebels and the military elite and their significant divergences of interests and values. One of the strengths of Shilony’s book is its extreme attention to the intricate “web of army politics” in the 1930s.

Others try to explain the various factional disputes within the Japanese army as being proxies for clashes of material economic interests. But this fails to account for the hostility of the Young Officers to zaibatsu and the manner in which corporate-industrial interests were at best passive participants in the revolt. Industrialists feared the Young Officers and their kin and gave them financial resources in the hope of securing protection from terrorism as well as protecting their interests in the midst of Japanese political turmoil. Others argue that the revolt was a middle stage in between isolated revolts by fascists on the margins of Japanese society, acts of terrorism by military officers, and the imposition of fascism from above by the ruling class. Shilony is most sympathetic to this view, with some caveats.

Senior officers wanted the military to control the state and carry out reform from above. For the Young Officers, the military would play a critical role in initiating an popular uprising, but it would not lead the natural restoration that followed. This would be nothing more than a “modern shogunate.” To the Young Officers, the people of Japan were more than mere “puppets of the military.” This flowery rhetoric ought not to be taken at face value, but it cannot be totally dismissed either. If the Young Officers were indeed a middle transition point in a cycle that eventually brought fascism from above, they did not necessarily desire to serve such a function. That they did anyway is one of the many bitter ironies of the book, and perhaps key to their postwar mythology.

Why did the revolt fail? The Meiji shishi that the Young Officers emulated triumphed over a weak, decentralized state humiliated by foreign powers. The Young Officers instead fought a powerful modern state on the rise abroad. The shishi could claim with some justification to be displacing unpopular elites that could not speak for the Emperor, and the Young Officers instead contended with officials with a greater claim to the Emperor’s will and the opposition of the Emperor himself. Ironically, the Emperor – the primary motivation of the plot and the entity around which its success hinged – was the very person that doomed it to failure. Hirohito was vehemently opposed to the revolt. Hirohito grew so frustrated with the official response that he threatened to use his personal authority to lead a counterforce to put down the conspirators. The Young Officers failed to take the Emperor’s wishes into account, because the symbol was all they needed.

The Young Officers wanted Hirohito to become, as Shilony vividly describes, a “mystical incarnation of Japan’s destiny.” This drew on the precedent of the Meiji Restoration, when a rebel faction successfully enjoined another Emperor to favor their particular vision of Japan’s future. However, that Emperor was young and pliable. Hirohito was a grown man by the time of the 1936 revolt and was unwilling to go along. The rebels could have assumed physical control of the Emperor and pleaded with him (albeit at gunpoint) to rescue Japan from his so-called “evil” advisors. This may have increased their chances of success. But the rebels – however hypocritically – abhorred the idea of forcing the Emperor to do anything. Unable to secure robust backing from either conservative elites or the Emperor, the Young Officers’ chances of success were never particularly high at the outset.

The Young Officers’ revolt could be, uncharitably, seen as little more than a theatrical attempt to act out a symbolic moment in Japanese history or even just a ritualized re-enactment of the romantic tradition of shishi revolt. In this view, there was little instrumental political content to February 26 because the Young Officers’ desire to act beautifully took precedence over the pragmatic need to act soundly and prudently. This is a respectable argument, especially in light of how Mishima and others interpreted the revolt. Those arguing in favor of such a hypothesis could cite the ad-hoc planning and execution of the rebellion. They could highlight its focus on theater and vague ideology over detailed revolutionary planning. But this would be a category mistake borne of hindsight and emotional distance.

Shiota explains that the original Japanese title of Patriotism denotes a “slight temporal and affective emphasis” and does not “hold the same sense of loving one’s country that the term has in English.” It instead registers a “patriotism borne from a concern for the future of the nation…[relating to] anxiety, lament, and even grief.” However, revolt may also be a filling of emptiness. The protagonist of Patriotism “slices into himself, his insides bursting out, for an idea that is rooted in a void, an emptiness that only reflects the one looking into it.” Revolt in Mishima’s telling was an intimate and private act carried out on a grand stage, a personal drive that took on cosmological significance. One can perhaps see this as the origin of the stock anime and video game charismatic villain with vaguely reactionary grievances that seeks – in a sometimes comically grandiose yet nonetheless very personal fashion – to strike against a corrupt and diseased society.

If we are to return back to the original question of how movements with little in the way of concrete planning or coherent views acquire steerage, the Young Officers suggest several relevant answers. The symbolic template of the 19th century shishi provided, in a Sorelian sense, a myth as a expression of a determination to act. One in which (as with their European interwar counterparts) a fallen nation could be redeemed by a daring, passionate, and violent action. The myth did not deterministically control the plotters, but it helped their individual actions cohere into a greater whole. It guided them towards a fateful confrontation despite their lack of strategic content and refusal to create a coherent ideology. Myth not only provides a source of dramatic charge, but also a generally understood shared implicit model that could stand in for a more explicit strategic mechanism.

The shishi mythology in particular had the advantage of giving each man in the February 26 cabal the ability to both feel as if he followed his obligation to something greater than himself and that he had realized his own individual will. And as with the protagonist of Patriotism, it also granted the ability to act out a private drama characterized by intense personal emotion on a grand public stage. This harmonized well with the similar duality of rebellion against authority as the highest expression of fealty to it, which the Japanese military had consistently encouraged from the Meiji era onwards. Certainly following the myth did not lead to the result the Young Officers desired, but it worked remarkably as a means of coordinating their efforts and pushing them towards final decision.

And as what Shiota refers to as “an empty signifier for any number of drives,” the Emperor’s personage made for another important but fatally compromised source of steerage. Indeed, “the insurgents placed their faith in a figure they believed would solve the problems of the present by returning to an imagined past when, in reality, that figure ordered their capture and trial.” Just as the shishi mythology stood in for a real strategic mechanism and system of thought, the symbol of the Emperor could similarly stand in for a true leader. Even though he was absent, the symbolic figure of the Emperor negated the need for an actual chain of command. The power of the Emperor as a steerage source held together a movement with little in the way of ideological consistency, intellectual rigor, or realistic goals. It was always the focus of the movement, the Clausewitzian “center of gravity” that made it cohere.

The Emperor would make everything right, clarify what was confusing, and re-enchant a dying world. However this very figure, which guided the Young Officers towards their auspicious destiny, was also the instrument of their destruction. The revolt collapsed when it became clear that their god had forsaken them. Shilony does not provide any evidence that the Young Officers considered this problem more than superficially after their revolt failed. But he does not need to. If the Young Officers were capable of understanding the deep absurdity of it all, they might not have ever taken up their swords to begin with. The Young Officers were not stupid, but Shilony does not suggest they were self-aware either. To quote Mishima, “the special quality of hell is to see everything clearly down to the last detail.” The Young Officers – men who deemed themselves swords of heaven – thought they saw hell in contemporary Japan. But if they glimpsed hell, it was a hell made out of bright and blurry colors.