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Seizing The Telegraph Office: Japan’s 1916 April Revolution And Its Consequences

(based on the “The Times That Try Men’s Souls” series from the same author)


Part 7 By Chris Oakley

Summary: In the previous six chapters of this series we remembered Japan’s April Revolution of 1916 and the massacre of the imperial family; the new regime’s barbaric crackdown on religious and political dissenters after it seized power; the start of the Sino-Japanese War in late 1930; the brief Russian-Japanese border conflict of 1932; the Japanese-backed terror bombings in Singapore in 1933; and the death of Japanese People’s Republic founder Yuji Kagamoto. In this installment, we’ll explore the early years of the regime of Kagamoto’s successor, Mitsuharu Yamagida.



Any doubts the world might have had that new Japanese chancellor Mitsuharu Yamagida meant to continue the late Yuji Kagamoto’s policies were erased on March 12th, 1934 when Yamagida made his first speech to the Diet following Kagamoto’s death. In that speech he pledged to keep prosecuting the war with China until the Chinese capitulated, vowed to smash any internal foe that dared rear its head against the Liberation Society regime, and warned the United States, Britain, and Russia any attempts on their part to halt the expansionist agenda of the People’s Republic would have dire consequences. He didn’t give any specifics on what those dire consequences would be, but naval and military analysts in all three nations’ capitals could guess as to the general outlines of what Yamagida had in mind. Alexander Kerensky, whose second term as Russian premier was set to conclude that summer, ordered an inspection of every major Russian military outpost in the Far East to ensure they would be ready for action if another war with Japan broke out. Ramsay MacDonald, who’d decisively won a confidence vote in February to keep his post as British prime minister, held a series of meetings with the Royal Navy’s top admirals to review battle plans for confronting the Japanese People’s Navy in the Pacific if it showed any signs of making a move against Singapore or India.

Franklin Roosevelt, halfway through his first term as the President of the United States, visited the U.S. Pacific Fleet HQ at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and was appalled by the inadequacy of its anti- submarine defenses. He wasn’t much more pleased when the U.S. Army territorial commander for Hawaii apprised him of the deficiencies of Pearl’s air defenses; though no aircraft in existence at the time had the capability to attack Pearl directly from the Asian mainland, there was still at least an outside chance Japanese carrier aircraft could bomb the harbor area and put most-- if not all --of its airbases out of commission right at the moment when they would be needed the most to protect Hawaii.

The French government, already nervous in the first place in regard to Japanese intentions towards France’s colonial outposts in the Far East, was in out-and-out panic after the British embassy in Paris presented the French foreign ministry with a translation of the new chancellor’s speech. While not explicitly constituting an official declaration of war by Japan on France or any other Western nation, it certainly came breathtakingly close to one. And the fact that France was in the midst of yet another internal political crisis while all of this was going on didn’t help matters any; then-prime minister Albert Serrault, at a time when both he and the French people both urgently needed a unified government to meet the threat posed by the Japanese, instead found himself saddled with a cabinet and legislature sniping at each other almost constantly as well as a general staff whose views on military strategy were a full fifteen years behind the times when it came to the realities of modern warfare.

The governments of Australia and New Zealand looked with nervous eyes towards Tokyo, right concerned that a major Japanese push against European colonies in southeast Asia would if it progressed far enough eventually place Australia and New Zealand under threat of invasion. In the summer of 1934 a confidential report to the prime minister by the Australian defense ministry warned that if the Japanese People’s Army were to succeed in conquering southeast Asia the Australian army might only have as little as thirty days to prepare itself for a full- scale JPA assault on Australia’s northern coast. Equally dire warnings were issued in October of 1934 by the chief of staff of New Zealand’s army to that country’s defense minister; a four-page analysis written in response to a September JPA offensive against Chinese guerrillas said that if war broke out with Japan New Zealand might only have two weeks-- at most --to brace herself against invasion.

The spring of 1935 brought fresh cause for concern for those who worried about the Yamagida regime’s expansionist agenda. In mid-April of that year, the Japanese government abruptly pulled out of a seven- nation naval conference in London that had been intended to create the framework for a naval arms reduction agreement between Japan and the Western powers. The dust from this imbroglio had barely even begun to settle when an incident near the mouth of Cam Ranh Bay in what is now Vietnam prompted Paris to accuse Japan of deploying its submarines to spy on French naval activities off the coast of Indochina. Then just weeks later, two Japanese nationals were arrested in the Philippines on espionage charges after they were spotted photographing security- sensitive areas of the U.S. air base at Clark Field. Finally, Russian naval patrols off the Kamchatka Peninsula intercepted a Japanese boat that had supposedly been trawling for fish but turned out to be a spy vessel monitoring Russian military and intelligence communications in northern Siberia.


Elsewhere in the Far East, Japan’s war with China continued with little diminishment in intensity. Despite the best efforts of the Japanese People’s Army the Chinese still would not capitulate; Mao Zedong’s guerrilla armies in particular resisted the JPA with a ferocity that at times even amazed Mao himself. For every partisan the JPA killed three seemed to spring up, and there were rumors that the anti-Japanese guerrillas were receiving help from foreign intelligence operatives in obtaining weapons and other supplies. Certainly public opinion just about everywhere outside of Japan leaned overwhelmingly in favor of the Chinese resistance forces. Nowhere was that sentiment more powerful than in the United States, where pro-China lobbies were waging an increasingly passionate media battle with isolationists over the question of whether or not Washington should directly intervene in the Sino-Japanese war.

There were a number of factors, however, that made it difficult for the White House to take concrete military action on China’s behalf against Japan. One of those was the Great Depression, which in 1935 was in its sixth year and was making it tough for governments in all parts of the world to even safeguard their own borders-- never mind taking on potential adversaries thousands of miles away. Another key problem for Roosevelt was that the United States simply didn’t have enough troops at the time to execute the kind of massive intervention the China lobby in Washington argued was necessary to prevent Yamagida from making a tyrannical Japan the dominant power in the Pacific. Last but not least, isolationist sentiment was still strong in some sectors of the American electorate, and any move towards intervention abroad at that point in FDR’s presidency would have been greeted with howls of protest by the isolationist factions among the general public and within the halls of Congress.

Not that Roosevelt stayed entirely aloof from the conflict. In mid-August of 1935 he signed a series of executive orders that sharply curtailed U.S. economic trade with Japan and imposed a strict embargo banning Americans from traveling to the island nation for any purposes other than official government business or humanitarian relief for the victims of natural disaster. Two months later he made a surprise visit to the Chinese embassy in Washington to meet with the Chinese military attaché for informal discussions on what Washington might do to assist Chiang Kai-Shek’s government in its struggle to eject the JPA from the Chinese mainland. Three weeks after those discussions Roosevelt, amid vociferous protests from isolationists in Congress, signed another set of executive orders to ease the restrictions of the Neutrality Act on purchases of U.S. arms by foreign countries-- an act which to be sure might have been highly unpopular at the time but in the long run were critical to preventing the Japanese People’s Republic from permanently seizing control of China.

In late February of 1936 an incident happened that gave the White House still further incentive to fight to overcome the isolationists’ reluctance to get involved in China. The gunboat USS Scranton, on its way to Hong Kong so its crew could enjoy some much-overdue shore leave in that city, was fired on by a Japanese People’s Navy light cruiser and sustained considerable damage; three American servicemen died and six others were injured in the skirmish. Cordell Hull, who at the time of the incident was about to complete his third year as Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, blasted the Japanese actions as “piracy” and “a mockery of international law”. The Japanese foreign ministry answered Hull by asserting the cruiser had fired on the Scranton as an act of self-defense after the American naval vessel had tried to ram her and violated Japanese territorial waters; nobody outside Tokyo took these claims seriously, and the already strained relationship between Tokyo and Washington deteriorated into outright hostility. On March 11th, the United States formally severed diplomatic relations with Japan.


While most of the world’s attention was focused on the Scranton incident, a meeting was taking place in Berlin that would have prove to have devastating consequences for Europe and the world. Since the Nazi Party had assumed power in Germany in 1933 there had been fears in the major Western capitals that Adolf Hitler might eventually form some sort of alliance with the Japanese People’s Republic, and those fears were about to become reality as what had started out to be trade negotiations evolved into the first steps toward a full-blown military alliance. Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, had been one of the first people in Hitler’s inner circle to grasp the possible strategic benefits to Germany of a coalition with Tokyo; when a senior Japanese envoy approached him at a reception in Potsdam in October of 1935 and hinted the Yamagida regime might be interested in creating a partnership with Berlin, he jumped at the chance to establish a more intimate diplomatic bond between Germany and Japan. In January of 1936 Ribbentrop flew to Osaka for a summit with Japanese foreign minister Daisuke Matsuoka that would pave the way for a German trade pact with the Japanese People’s Republic.

That pact in turn laid the groundwork for a visit by Matsuoka to Munich during the same week when the Scranton incident took place. In many Western capitals the Matusuoka-Ribbentrop summit was viewed with trepidation if not outright panic; the White House in particular saw the meeting as a warning sign that the Yamagida regime was gearing up for a possible future military conflict with the United States. When Joseph Goebbels announced on March 11th that Mitsuharu Yamagida would be coming to Berlin in five days’ time for the formal signing of the German-Japanese friendship pact negotiated by Ribbentrop and Matsuoka, many of President Roosevelt’s top military advisors took it as a sign Japan was actively preparing to launch a war against the United States in the near future...



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