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Gekokujō (下克上?, also 下剋上) is a Japanese term variously translated as the lower rules the higher or the low overcomes the high. The phenomenon became prevalent during the Warring States period, starting with the Ōnin War when the power of the Muromachi Shogunate ended in factional strife and the burning of Kyoto. Without the imprimatur of the shogunate, provincial daimyo were vulnerable to being overthrown by forces both from without and within their domains. During this period vassals betrayed their lords and were in their turn endangered by overthrow from below. Clerics and peasants sometimes formed ikko-ikki in rebellion against the daimyo and succeeded, for a time, to establish independent realms.

In later centuries, gekokujō was also an understood justification for junior and mid-level military officers to engage in principled disobedience if they were motivated by moral principles. This was played out in Manchuria and Tokyo several times during the 1930s. Army officers engaged in provocative attacks in Manchuria in attempts to create justification for seizing territory from China. In Japan, ultranationalist military officers led waves of assassinations against political and business leaders, in order to “purify” Japanese society from the corporate and political party influences that they believed were preventing Japan from attaining its rightful place among nations through Asian expansion. The most spectacular episodes were the May 15 Incident in which junior navy officers and army cadets assassinated Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi and the February 26 Incident involving 1500 Tokyo troops in a failed coup. Although criminal prosecutions did ensue, in many of the incidents the defendants' testimony declaring their motives led to widespread public support and most often resulted in comparatively light punishment. While the leaders of the February 26 Incident were subjected to quick secret trials and executions, the episode is widely seen as the last and most serious event leading to the breakdown of party politics and the dominance of the military in Japanese government affairs until the end of World War II.

Gekokujō in Art

  • The February 26th Incident is prominently portrayed as a modern example of gekokujō in Yukio Mishima's famous Japanese Modernist short-novel Patriotism, and serves as the backdrop for the events of the narrative.
  • Elements of gekokujō can commonly be seen in kyōgen plays, primarily those starring the character Tarō Kaja.

References

  • Battle From Ancient Greece to Modern America by John A. Lynn
  • Sources of Japanese Tradition Volume 2 compiled by William T. de Bary, Carol Gluck and Arthur E. Tiedemann

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