In the early 1930s, two competing groups emerged within the Japanese army: the Kodo-ha (Imperial Way) group, which advocated the importance of character building through rigid mental and physical discipline, and the Tosei-ha (Control) faction group, which emphasized the importance of military modernization. Both groups struggled for power. Yanagawa was a member of the Kodo-ha. Both factions were in agreement, however, that Japanese political and social systems had to be reformed by a strong military government. On 26 February 1936, a number of young army officers attempted a coup d'état, which failed. Yanagawa sympathized with the plotters and was slated to be vice minister of war if the coup had succeeded. With its failure, however, Yanagawa was placed on the reserve list.
Only a year later, in October 1937, Yanagawa was reactivated and assigned as commander of Tenth Army, sent with his army to China to fight in the Sino-Japanese War. When Tenth Army landed at Hangchow Bay to support Shanghai Expeditionary Army, Chinese forces were already in retreat toward Nanjing (Nanking). Yanagawa insisted on a pursuit of the Chinese forces. Troops under his command and those of General Asaka Yasuhiko committed widescale atrocities in the Japanese occupation of Nanjing.
In 1940, Yanagawa became minister of justice; the next year, he was made minister of state in the second and third cabinets of Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro. He retired from public service in October 1941 and died in Tokyo on 22 January 1945.
Dorn, Frank. The Sino-Japanese War, 1937–41: From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor. New York: Macmillan, 1974.; Sugawara Yutaka. Yamato Gokoro: Fukumen Shogun Yanagawa Heisuke (Recollections of General Yanagawa Heisuke). Tokyo: Keizai-Oraisha, 1971.; Yamamoto Masahiro. Nanking: Anatomy of an Atrocity. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.