On a Wednesday morning nearly half a century ago, a light snow was swirling across the flagstones of Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial to Japan's war dead in central Tokyo, as 13-year-old Hideko Sano hurried by on her way to the dentist.
Now as Hideko Mizuno, a grandmother and a member of Japan's vast middle class, she remembers that outing vividly, she said recently. She had paused to adjust her kimono when she noticed the large number of soldiers milling around, fixing bayonets to their rifles and squatting behind the sand-filled parcels of rice straw barricading the streets.
Suddenly, an olive-colored limousine, its engine racing and a Rising Sun banner fluttering from its antenna, sped down the elevated sidewalk, knocking her into the waist-deep snow on the roadway below. The car door flew open, she recalled, and out jumped an officer of his majesty's Imperial Army who bowed deeply and apologized for the "inconvenience" before hurtling off hellbent toward the barricades.
Only later did she learn, Mizuno said, that she had been caught in the midst of what all schoolchildren here now know as the 2-26 (February) Incident, the 1936 mutiny among the emperor's troops, which Japanese today acknowledge as a milestone on the country's road to Pearl Harbor and war with the United States.
Among Mizuno's wartime generation, reminiscences of those violent days churn up a mixture of nostalgia and dread. They seem strangely out of place in Japan today where the country's stunning economic performance, political stability and rock-bottom crime rates have aroused the admiration and envy of foreign observers.
Magazine articles, films and best sellers commemorating the dramatic event have, in recent years, gained growing popularity among a younger generation of affluent Japanese. They reflect a new fascination with military affairs and an underlying anxiety about Japan's place in the world.
These remembrances generally depict the young Army officers who led the hapless revolt as a band of benevolent terrorists who were determined to root out the evils of political corruption at home and resist efforts by the Western powers to force Japan into humiliating concessions on the global scene.
To be sure, few Japanese seriously believe that direct parallels with the dark days of the 1930s exist today. At the same time, however, mounting pressure on Japan by the United States, its old adversary and current key ally, to build up its modest defense forces has touched off a sharp debate here on the wisdom of a stronger military.
Meanwhile, dire warnings from Japan's major trading partners in the West that the country move quickly to open its markets to more foreign goods or face protectionist action have fostered a perception here that Japan is, once again, being unfairly singled out for criticism.
This comes amid talk by politicians and intellectuals here broadly comparing ominous signs today of impending trade wars to the problems that helped devastate Japan's economy five decades ago.
According to press reports here, Masumi Esaki, a veteran member of the country's ruling Liberal Democrats, told reporters in Washington this week that growing support for protectionist-oriented reciprocity trade laws in Congress "could lead to the folly of the 1930s" and risk the collapse of the international economy.
"You can't really compare the 1930s with today," said a senior Japanese political writer. "But we do look around us and find, frankly, that Japan doesn't have many friends."
Toru Yano, professor of political science at Kyoto University, said, "There is an increasing sense of isolation among the Japanese and, while economic conditions are a far cry from the 1930s, people are suffering from a sense of stagnation," now that Japan's blistering growth of the 1960s and early 1970s has slowed. Younger Japanese, he suggested, lack the clear sense of national purpose that helped make the country's postwar economic miracle possible.
Questions of what was then referred to as national destiny were much clearer when, in 1936, Kiichi Sasaki, a 27-year-old Army corporal, helped carry out the Feb. 26 attack, which targeted key political and business leaders for assassination.
"Our captain told us," Sasaki, now a bespectacled grandfather of 74, recalled in a recent interview, "there were dark clouds separating us from the emperor and to restore the country, it was our duty and honor to remove them."
Sasaki and his 150 comrades, who belonged to one of six similar hit squads then fanning out through the city, marched four-abreast in the direction of the Imperial Palace moat. Halos hung around the Victorian streetlamps, he remembered, and the company's heavy boots crunched softly on the snow-carpeted streets.
At 4:30 a.m., they halted in front of the residence of grand chamberlain Kantaro Suzuki, head of the imperial household and a close adviser to Emperor Hirohito. Sasaki burst in the main entrance and felt his way along the pitch-dark corridors on the first floor then suddenly came upon the elder stateman's wife in her sleeping quarters.
"Who are you," the startled woman asked, "and how dare you break into my house with your heavy boots still on?"
Kneeling down to apologize to Mrs. Suzuki for the inconvenience and the late hour, Sasaki noticed the rice-paper door to an adjoining room ajar and glimpsed her husband being held at bay within a circle of bayonets.
Ordering the soldiers to step back, Sasaki drew his revolver, he said, and told the old gentleman, "Sir, you're time is at hand. For the restoration of the country, please prepare to yield your life."
His hands were shaking, Sasaki recalled, as he closed his eyes and jerked off two rounds.
The grand chamberlain fell forward into the arms of his wife as an officer brandished his sword for the death blow.
"Mrs. Suzuki pleaded with us to let her husband die in peace," he said, "and we were so impressed with her courage that we all bowed and left."
Miraculously, Suzuki survived the attack and went on to lead Japan's last wartime Cabinet as prime minister. Other assassination attempts were successful but the attempted coup collapsed after only three days when the soldiers left bivouacs in the Tokyo streets and returned to their barracks on direct orders from the emperor.
Ironically, the ill-fated putsch, which exposed the weakness of civilian rule, put Japan's top militarists in ultimate control of the country as the self-styled champions of law and order.
Yawara Hata, who was among the 1,500 officers and men taking part in the uprising, explained, "The military became very powerful after that, and the revolt led us directly to war with the West. This kind of thing must never be allowed to happen again."
Hata, who is now governor of Saitama Prefecture near Tokyo, acknowledges that Japan's sense of isolation has been amplified by dour global economic conditions and the country's thorny trade ties with the West. And, as during the 1930s, he said, corruption is still a fact of political life.
"What makes today different," he said, "is that democratic institutions are now firmly rooted in Japan. In the 1930s, you had economic depression, misery and oppression and there were no channels for people to express their dissatisfaction."
Jiro Tokuyama, who heads the Nomura Research Institute's executive management school, said, "The young officers who carried out the revolt were pure-minded, naive and selfless." These qualities, other have suggested, may account for the new interest in the affair among today's pampered postwar youth who are groping for ideals.
"Japan is one of the world's most stable countries," said Tokuyama, "because we have been able to reduce the gap between rich and poor." But at the same time, he suggested, Japan's overwhelming dependence on imports of oil and raw materials has renewed the country's historical feelings of vulnerability. "Here we are at the height of affluence and yet nobody feels secure," he said.
In the face of mounting pressure from the United States on the issues of trade and defense, a growing number of internationally minded Japanese have come to worry that too much foreign pressure in too short a time could produce a "boomerang" effect on the country's efforts to broaden its world view.
"Japan has always dealt with problems as a result of strong foreign pressure," said a Japanese automobile executive, "and we haven't been very good at taking preventative measures before things get out of hand." The Americans, he said, "know that Japan will respond to pressure, and we've got to break that cycle."
Echoing similar concerns about Japanese-U.S. trade ties, American Ambassador Mike Mansfield told reporters here recently, "The world economy may be facing its most critical point since the 1930s. Japan cannot afford to look inward."
According to Seizaburo Sato, a professor of political science at Tokyo University, that is not likely to happen. In contrast to the 1930s, he said, "now our two countries share a common adversary in the Soviet Union and our two economies are so interdependent that we couldn't cut the relationship without tremendous damage to both sides.
"We may not like each other very much from time to time," he said, "but we've now passed the point of no return. We will have to learn how to manage our [mutual] problems more effectively."