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23 Law Japan 1 (1990)
Action and Oratory: The Trials of the May 15th Incident of 1932

handle is hein.journals/lij23 and id is 7 raw text is: VOLUME 23:1, 1990

Action and Oratory:
The Trials of the May 15th Incident of 1932
DAVID A. SNEIDER
On May 15, 1932, a band of young naval officers, Army cadets, and civilians
assassinated Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi and attacked several other sites in
Tokyo. The action came to be known as the May 15th Incident, one of the more
significant in a series of right-wing acts of violence and rebellion which shook
Japan during the first half of the 1930s. One year following the action, its
perpetrators stood trial in three separate courtrooms, Army and Navy courtmar-
tials for the military and the Tokyo District Court for the civilians. Open to the
public and reported in detail by the print and radio media, these trials became a
cause celebre in Japan.
As one observer wrote in 1934, the May 15th Incident was really a two-
volume story. The Incident itself was the Book of Action. The trials were the Book
of Words.' The common theme of both enterprises was their protest against
perceived injustices and errors of the status quo. In the Incident, the young rebels
spoke with bullets and grenades against Japan's internal enemies: the political
parties, advisors to the Throne, the zaibatsu, and the civilian police. In the trials,
the defendants and their lawyers launched a second attack against the same
opponents, this time with words.
The significance of the May 15th Incident trials was far-reaching. While the
military status of Inukai's assassins helped cast their action in a patriotic light from
the start, it was the trials that completed the transformation of a ruthless murder
into a morally legitimate act. It was also the trials that gave the defendants and
their representatives a platform from which to broadcast their views at length to
the nation and thereby influence public opinion in a way that the action itself
could not do. And finally, it was the trials that created a public debate about the
future of Japan and meaning of Japanese justice; the interaction of the defense,
prosecution, and bench in each trial, and the interplay of the Army, Navy, and
civilian proceedings confronted the Japanese with competing viewpoints and
values and forced them to choose.
To explore these various dimensions of the May 15th Incident, this article
extends its focus beyond the official records of the trial proceedings. Part I's
description of the Incident itself, the motives of the rebels, and the initial public
Note: Mr. Sneider is an attorney at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in New York City. B.A. 1979, Yale
University; J.D. 1984, Harvard Law School.
The author would like to thank the following people for their comments and assistance in
connection with this article: Daniel Foote, It6 Takashi, Mikuriya Takashi, Mark Ramseyer, and Frank
Upham.
In this article, Japanese names appear in the traditional Japanese order, with the family name
preceding the given name.
1Akiume Goichi, Go-ichigo kaigun gunpdkaigi bdchd-ki, KAiz6 295 (October 1933).

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