Episode 102 – Dr. Dan Orbach (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Originally published on April 2, 2019

[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. My guest on this episode is Dr. Danny Orbach, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies and History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Orbach is the author of Curse on this Country: The Rebellious Army of Imperial Japan, published by Cornell University Press in 2017. Dr. Orbach, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Dan Orbach: And thank you very much for inviting me.

TG: In your research, you’ve looked widely at military history, and particularly at military disobedience, and you’ve written broadly on this topic, even a book about the German military, the plot against Hitler. But more recently, this book, Curse on this Country: The Rebellious Army of Imperial Japan. So if we could talk about this rebellious army starting in the Meiji period, and one of the first incidents that you mention is this Taiwan Expedition. So, could you tell us a little bit about how you got into this topic, and then more about this expedition itself?

DO: The reason I got interested in this subject is that I was annoyed by much of the popular literature on the Japanese army because in much of the popular literature [that] the Japanese army’s displayed as a bunch of robots, obeying, you know, having banzai attacks, sacrificing for all lives, never thinking. And this popular literature is, in a way, a result of Allied war propaganda because that’s the way the Allies (especially the U.S.) tried to portray the Japanese army during the Second World War. And it got spilled over into the Tokyo Trials, and the representation of the Japanese army as a bastion of blind obedience has become popular ever since. And when I looked at the Japanese army, what I saw instead is one of the most wild and disobedient armies in modern history, and that’s what provoked me to write the dissertation that later became a book, starting with disobedience.

TG: And speaking of this military disobedience, of course we can think of these major plots like the Manchurian Incident in 1931, and hopefully we’ll return to that subject as well. But you dated even much further back, as early as the 1870s. So, could you tell us about how we see military disobedience in the Japanese military even earlier in the Meiji period?

DO: Actually, I would even go further back. I begin in the 1860s, and I think that’s the proper date to begin because the shishi – this group of samurai radicals who contributed to the downfall of the Tokugawa government, and that’s the conclusion of my own study – had enormous influence on the Japanese army later. They had organizational influence because some of the people who are involved in the struggles against the Tokugawa regime later played [a] prominent role in the Japanese army, but – and that’s my main point – the shishi were important as a myth. Generations of Japanese officers grew on this myth of disobedience, and it was a very particular myth of disobedience: a myth of spontaneous disobedience for the sake of the emperor, and the idea was that as long as you act out of pure motives, of imperial loyalty, you can or it’s understandable when you disobey your superior. And in my opinion, that’s the foundational myth of Japanese military disobedience, and this myth got reproduced over time since the Meiji period and into the 1930s.

TG: In between those two dates of course, one of the military conflicts that we see even within the borders of Japan is the Bōshin War. Now, you were talking about this military disobedience in the name of the emperor. So, might we think about, say, the Bōshin War as an example, or maybe the Battle of Hakodate and the resistance to the imperial cause? Maybe that doesn’t really fit into this model?

DO: It fits in, but in a very particular way. I don’t write much about the Bōshin War. Maybe I should have written about the Bōshin War because in retrospect, I do think it’s important. In the Bōshin War, you had two armies, and even the army that was the shogunal army, at least certain people in the shogunal army, for example, in Aizu, did speak about imperial loyalty. And it was important in the 1870s because then, people who fought on the shogunal side claimed status or claimed recognition from the government because they said: “We fought for the emperor as well.” And the idea that you had two sides, two fighting sides, each one believes that he’s doing the imperial will… that’s an important key, I would argue, to understand later Japanese military disobedience because the basic story of Japanese military disobedience is an officer who displays orders of superiors, while saying: “I’m actually doing the will of the emperor, while my commander… he’s a traitor, while the Prime Minister is distorting the emperor’s will.” So the Bōshin War, in a way, is a prototype of this later story of disobedience: rebelling against the government while saying that you represent a higher authority, and this is imperial authority.

TG: And that’s certainly a theme that recurs regularly in prewar Japanese history and we’ll come back to. Now you’re mentioning this fighting for the imperial cause even in the Bōshin War. This brought to mind the Yasukuni Shrine, and of course, there’s all sorts of political controversies surrounding this shrine today, but it does get its start in the Bōshin War, mainly for those people who die fighting for the imperial cause. I’m really curious: you know, say those Tokugawa holdouts… are they eventually enshrined in Yasukuni as well, are you aware?

DO: Yes, that’s a key point. Actually, there are debates on – throughout the 1870s, the 1880s, even the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century – who to enshrine, who to recognize as a shishi, as a martyr of the revolution. So in the beginning, the Meiji government enshrined people who were loyalist shishi, who fought for the emperor, either in the Bōshin War or before it. Then, there were these people who disobeyed the Meiji government and murdered foreigners – for example, in 1869 out of imperial loyalty. Should they be enshrined or not? Some of them were enshrined. And then what about the Aizu samurai? Yes, they were wrong. They fought against the emperor, but maybe they believed erroneously that the emperor is on their side. So slowly, gradually, some of these people were enshrined as well. And here, there was a very important principle: you deserve recognition and honour in Yasukuni Shrine and elsewhere if you believed that you fought for the emperor. Namely, your motives matter more than what you actually did, and that was the yardstick by which disobedience was later judged. As long as your motives are pure, then it’s seen with honour, recognition, sympathy even if people disagree with what you did.

TG: And speaking of these actual incidents of disobedience, maybe we could talk a little bit more specifically about one of the earlier ones that you talk about in the Meiji period being this Taiwan Expedition. So, could you tell us what exactly happens in the Taiwan Expedition and how is this an act of military disobedience?

DO: The Taiwan Expedition was a military mission to chastise Aborigines in Taiwan who murdered Japanese subjects [who] were actually from the Ryūkyū Islands. And then when the expedition was about to set sail, the foreign diplomats made very vigorous protests to the Japanese government, and the Japanese government decided to cancel the Japanese expedition at the last moment. One thing they did was in spring of 1874.

Saigō Tsugumichi – the brother of the more famous Saigō Takamori – was the leader of the expedition, disobeyed the government order and sailed to Taiwan anyways. And one of the reasons he gave – this is very crucial for discussion here – is that he got an imperial edict to sail to Taiwan, and an imperial edict cannot be cancelled by an order of the government. So again, what Saigō did: he disobeyed an order of the government using the imperial centre, the authority of the imperial centre.

But here was the problem: nobody knew for sure what the emperor said or what the emperor wanted. In prewar Japan, the imperial will was almost always conveyed through advisors, through other people. So, people who wanted to disobey could always say: “Oh, these advisors actually do not represent the imperial will. I know what the imperial will is.” In the case of the Taiwan Expedition, this was more logical to say because Saigō Tsugumichi actually got an imperial edict. And he would say: “An imperial edict could not be cancelled by a mere government order.”

TG: As the work of people like Robert Eskildsen has shown, there was even perhaps a gesture towards a more long-term occupation of Taiwan resulting from the Taiwan Expedition, and keeping in mind of both that and what you were just saying about this being the first example of military disobedience, it’s surprising that the Taiwan Expedition doesn’t get more treatment in some of these histories of the Meiji period. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be?

DO: The reason is that virtually nobody mentioned it later. I studied many later cases of disobedience, and the interesting thing is that nobody mentions the Taiwan Expedition as an example that one should follow. People always mention the shishi; they go back to the 1860s. The Taiwan Expedition was not used as an inspiration for later disobedience. What the Taiwan Expedition did was to indirectly influence the future course of the army, and I’ll explain: the Taiwan Expedition was seen by the people in the Army Ministry, especially by the famous Yamagata Aritomo, as a folly born out of illicit connections between politicians and officers. That was the way the Army Ministry saw the Taiwan Expedition. The Army Ministry did not like the Taiwan Expedition from the start. Yamagata believed that Satsuma politicians and volunteers pushed the country into an unnecessary adventure. He resisted Taiwan Expedition from the start, and the Taiwan Expedition along with the Satsuma Rebellion and other later events convinced Yamagata that politicians should have nothing to do with the army, and the army has to be tied directly to the emperor in order to avoid political interventions like the Taiwan Expedition. And that was one of the reasons that Yamagata created a system known as the tōsuiken system – the prerogative of supreme command that virtually says the chief of staff, even in operational matters, is responsible directly to the emperor, not to the Prime Minister, and the army very wisely used it later as a way to justify disobedience. Because we are bound directly to the emperor and not to the government. What I’m trying to say is that the Taiwan Expedition had an influence on later disobedience, but this influence was indirect.

TG: And this is the same thing that goes into the separation of powers, right, where you get the Daihon’ei General Headquarters, which is separate from the army and navy ministries, isn’t that correct, based on the Prussian model?

DO: Exactly. The idea of the Prussian model, again, is that the army is bound to the emperor and not to the government, but there was a problem here, and I think this should be mentioned. Some scholars, and Bernd Martin is maybe the most important, blamed the Prussian model in Japanese disobedience. They said Japan adopted the wrong model.

This is not accurate in my opinion because Japan adopted the Prussian model incorrectly. The Prussian model presumed that the emperor is actually ruling the country. He’s not ruling the country everyday. He’s not making, maybe, the everyday decisions, but whenever there was a debate, a deadlock, between the different authorities of imperial Germany, the emperor could make decisions, and emperors did make decisions: William I made [decisions] and William II even more.

The Japanese emperor, on the other end, was more hidden than the German emperor. The Japanese emperor did not make decisions, and that created the deadlock. Nobody could be an arbiter between the army and the government, and I would say the wrong adoption of the Prussian system created the chaos in the Japanese system that was the breeding ground for the disobedience of the 1930s, and let me add a remark here: I think the tōsuiken system was a very rational solution to problems Japan faced in the 1870s – military rebellions, illicit ties between feudal politicians and army units. That’s what Yamagata wanted to stop. The problem was that generations ahead created even a worse problem of disobedience than the problem he tried to solve.

TG: I want to come back to that question of lack of civilian control and how that allows the military to somewhat run free starting in 1928 and certainly through the 1930s. But before we do that, I have one more question about the Taiwan Expedition in the 1870s, and you mentioned this in reference to the Satsuma Rebellion in influencing Yamagata Aritomo’s military thought. But I was wondering if we could put it within that context of some of these military incidents both within and without Japan in the 1870s and the killing of the Okinawans in Taiwan, as you mentioned, in fact happens several years earlier in ‘72 I believe? And at this time, of course, there was the Seikanron debates or the “Punish Korea” debates that are going on, splitting the Meiji oligarchs into two competing sides, but they put off the attack of Korea. Is the Taiwan Expedition maybe a release valve for some of these military frustrations?

DO: I think it’s correct, but in a very interesting way. It’s not only a release valve for military frustrations. It’s a release valve for Satsuma frustrations and Tosa as well, but mainly Satsuma. What happens after the Seikanron crisis is that most of the Satsuma officers and officials just retired from government service. Saigō Takamori withdraws, and everybody fears civil war. Everybody fears that civil war is going to erupt at any moment.

That means that the government needs to uphold ties to Satsuma by all costs, and Saigō Tsugumichi who’s later appointed as the leader of the expedition, was maybe the only important Satsuma leader [who] stayed in Tokyo and continued to serve the central government. Now, the government needed Satsuma people more than anything else in order to uphold ties with Satsuma and avoid a civil war.

Well, if you want to keep the few Satsuma people who remained, you should give them something, right? And that something was the Taiwan Expedition. So, the Satsuma lobby pressed for an expedition to Taiwan, at least for two years since 1872. They were pushed aside for a long time, but now there was such a strong need by the government to pacify the Satsuma lobby, that it made a lot of sense to invade Taiwan because that was Satsuma’s main demand at the time, after the Korean crisis.

TG: And then of course, we get the [Saga] Rebellion, the Shinpūren Rebellion, the Satsuma Rebellion throughout the 1870s. All of this series of rebellions within Japan… does it put a damper on this military disobedience? Are those who are longing for a fight, so to speak, basically silenced until we get to the 1920s or are there other events in between with the Sino-Japanese War, Russo-Japanese War, other events that we can see as military disobedience in the intervening years?

DO: Yes and no. The way I say it in my book is that samurai rebel in the 1870s when they are optimistic enough. People do not rebel if they don’t think they have a very good chance to overthrow the government, and the story of the 1870s is the story of revolutionary optimism among samurai groups. Even when rebellions failed, potential rebels tended to believe that the next leader may succeed, and especially Saigō Takamori. Saigō Takamori was seen as the gravest threat to the government, but when Saigō himself rebelled and failed, this revolutionary optimism was gone.

Until the 1930s, you don’t have violent military rebellions in Japan any longer, but what you do have… you have officers who are disgruntled, who are in the opposition. They want to do something against the government, but they do not want to rebel because they think it’s pointless, and then there is a way, and this way is patriotic disobedience. And I analyze it in my book at length. I think it’s a certain bug in the Meiji system that the system looks with great sympathy on people who try to promote government goals, but in a faster and more radical way.

And everybody who was opposing the government may do something patriotic abroad – maybe make an unauthorized invasion to another country, kill a foreign leader – and as long as it’s done out of patriotic and pure motives, again, it goes back to the myth of the shishi, then, he may be forgiven. And the example I give in my book is the assassination of Queen Min – the Korean queen – in 1895, and a military man always who is the main Japanese minister in Korea, General Miura Gorō, is assassinating the Korean queen against government orders. The government didn’t know anything about it, didn’t want it, didn’t approve anything of the kind. And he’s doing it alone with civilian adventurers (political ruffians known as sōshi), and this person Miura Gorō belongs to an opposition group. He hates the Meiji government, he hates the oligarchs, and he sees the assassination of Queen Min not only as a way to solve a problem in Korea, but also as an expression of opposition to the government he detests. So being aggressive and patriotic is the main valve of active opposition to the government after the rebellions of the 1870s failed. And the dynamics I see Japanese history is that only in the 1930s, this nonviolent defiance transforms again into violent rebellion, but it takes a lot of time, takes a few decades.

TG: That’s a great point about the assassination of Queen Min, and you mentioned that there are these sōshi, these adventurers or people who are caught up in these ultranationalist groups like the Kokuryūkai or the Amur River Society, the Black Dragon Society. Now, another big assassination that’s really impactful in Japanese relations, of course, is the 1928 assassination of Zhang Zuolin in northeastern China, and that’s clearly a military activity whereas this earlier assassination was mainly members of these ultranationalist militarist societies. I mean, isn’t there a difference between those two?

DO: I think they are very similar. Of course, the circumstances are different, the time is different, the atmosphere is different, but the mechanism of disobedience behind these two assassinations at least could be compared. What happens in 1928 [is] that the officer who’s plotting the assassination Kōmoto Daisaku again is an oppositionist. He hates the government especially in particular, he hates General Tanaka Giichi, who was the Prime Minister, he hates the Japanese military cliques, he believes there is an unholy alliance between Zhang Zuolin, the tyrant of Manchuria as defines him, and the Japanese military cliques.

And this act of disobedience in 1928 is an act designed to shame the government and the Japanese military cliques, just like it’s an act designed to solve a problem in Manchuria. Again, this is disobedience (patriotic disobedience), I call it in my book “flight to the fraught.” You try to be more radical, more patriotic, more nationalistic than the government. This is a very major way to express your opposition to the government and the army leadership in the Imperial Army, and this goes way back. You can see it in 1895, and you can see it again in 1928.

TG: And many of these groups, as you mentioned, this idea of we can reform Japan, we can carry out the goals of the Meiji Restoration… many of them espouse the ideas of thinkers like Kita Ikki who was very influential for the rebels in 1936 (the February 26th Incident). Do we see similar thought amongst these rebels earlier into say, the 1920s even?

DO: Kita Ikki is influencing the rebels of the February Incident in 1936. I think, along with some other historians, that his influence was somewhat overstated. I think of Kita more as a figure than important in himself. Kita, like other rightists in the 1930s like Õkawa Shūmei, like Mitsukawa Kametarō, like Tachibana Kōzaburō, they had goals, they had a political platform that could never be implemented by anybody because no matter how nationalistic you were, you couldn’t expand the empire and then safeguard social justice and give money to the poor peasants, and then enlarge the army without limit because there was no money. Nobody could do it. There was no budget, and this political platform, which was completely detached from reality, was adopted by military rebels in the 1930s. And that created a major problem because you couldn’t stop this disobedience by concessions because you cannot give concessions, you cannot pacify people with political platforms completely detached from reality. So, the Japanese government faced enemies that on the one hand, could not be crushed because the government was always afraid of the army at least until 1936, and on the other end, they could not be pacified. And that was the reality of the 1930s.

TG: You mentioned these rebels that were legitimizing their military disobedience by claiming a higher authority basically, you know, acting in the name of the emperor, and this is what gave them, somewhat, legitimacy to do this thing. And you know, I’m wondering how this shaped the reaction to their activities. I’ve always been struck by the case of the 1932 May 15th Incident, where you have these 11 young naval officers who, much like in 1936 in the case of the army, staged a coup d’état, but in this case, they are almost celebrated by the people in Japan, aren’t they? I mean, you get the case of 350,000 petitions requesting leniency, some of which are signed in blood, even 11 youths from Niigata who offered to take the place of those condemned on the gallows even. So, there does seem to be popular support based on the idea that well, they’re acting in the name of the emperor.

DO: Not only in the name of… yes, we are acting in the name of the emperor, that’s what I call in the book “the hazy centre”: this absolute centre of authority, which is the emperor, but nobody actually knows for sure what the emperor wants, and therefore, any rebel who’d say: “I know what the emperor wants,” in the case of the young officers in the 1930s, if they actually say so in interrogations, in order to know what the emperor wants, you don’t need to ask the emperor. You need to meditate on what is right, so the emperor becomes some kind of a spiritual figure, an idea, which could justify any act of disobedience in any rebellion, but the public adores the rebels not only because of that and not only because people were very disillusioned from the political system in the 1930s because of the economic crisis, because of several scandals of corruption. It was because the motives of the rebels were pure, and this, again, goes back to the shishi myth, and that’s why the shishi myth is so important.

The memory of the heroes of the Meiji Restoration who rebelled against the authority and they did a lot of mistakes, they had pure motives of imperial loyalty, and anybody who had pure motives should be looked upon with great sympathy, and that was very strong in the public discourse in Japan and in the legal system. That’s why people adored them: because their motives were pure, and I want to mention something important here. Pure motives in the context of the time does not mean only that you believed in what you were doing. For example, a communist or an anarchist who may want to kill the emperor also believes in what he’s doing, right? But his motives are not pure because pure motives are imperial loyalty by definition, and if you’re disloyal to the emperor, your motives cannot be pure.

TG: That’s a fascinating point you made about this imagined will of what the emperor wants. You don’t need to hear the emperor say it. You can imagine what the emperor wants, and it really reminds me of this book about the Nazis in Germany: Working Towards the Führer. The same kind of idea of well, we can imagine what Hitler wants, and I know you’ve written about military disobedience in wartime Germany. Do you see similarities?

DO: I think the question behind German military disobedience and the underlying questions behind Japanese military disobedience are two different questions. In Nazi Germany, everybody knew that Hitler is the absolute authority, and yes, people worked toward Hitler, they guessed what Hitler wanted. But if Hitler wanted to intervene, indeed he did sometimes intervene in small details. But his intervention was very erratic, but it was always there. So what happened: you guessed what Hitler wanted, and if you guessed right, you got a reward, but Hitler often said clearly what he wanted, and the question of military disobedience in Germany was the question of whether Hitler should be killed or not, whether Hitler’s authority is legitimate.

This question did not arise in Japan. In Japan, nobody except for very small groups of communists and anarchists doubted the absolute authority of the emperor. That was not even the question. The question in Japan was not like in Germany: whether authority is legitimate or not. The question was: who is authorized to do what under the emperor? And this is the way we should understand the debate about the imperial will, who represents the imperial will. Because the emperor was silent, then rebels could always say it: “We follow the emperor and you do not,” and in the 1930s, it becomes endemic.

TG: And this is a theme that you could say starts as early as the Meiji period.

DO: Yes, it starts as early as the Meiji period when the regime is still fluid, when the regime did not gain stability, but this basic idea is passing from generation to generation. So, when the Meiji regime gained stability in the 1880s/1890s, then the level of disobedience becomes negligible, especially army disobedience. But this idea that you can rebel for the emperor is being passed along the generation as a myth, along with the myth of the shishi, and it’s a potent myth. And when conditions are right again in the 1930s, this myth comes forth again, and rebels are using it. So, what I’m saying is that you cannot really understand the 1930s without understanding the 1860s, and without understanding the Meiji period because the intellectual and ideological infrastructure of rebellion in the 1930s is based on Meiji ideas.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode:

Dan Orbach, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, April 2, 2019. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-102-dr-dan-orbach-hebrew-university-of-jerusalem/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.