Emperor Hirohito's War

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Emperor Hirohito's War

What did Hirohito really think of Pearl Harbor? On the 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack that brought the US into the Second World War, Herbert Bix offers a provocative reassessment of the Showa Emperor's responsibility for the conflict, drawing on his translations from diaries and memoirs of Hirohito and his court circle.

Since the death of the Showa Emperor Hirohito in January 1989, new historical documents have focused public attention on the leadership role that he and his innermost circle of advisers played in the Japanese political process both during and after the Second World War. These new materials, and others published over the course of the 1980s, furnish a fresh starting point for situating the Showa emperor in the history of the twentieth century. They help to delineate more clearly key elements of Emperor Hirohito's character, while exposing certain myths pertaining to his innocence in starting the Pacific War, and his heroism in ending it. They also raise questions about his position in the post-war state, where he was supposed to be a powerless 'symbol', completely devoid of any political role.

The emperor's death lifted a taboo on discussing his role in history and in 1990 alone six 'insider' diaries and memoirs of considerable historical value appeared. Two of them – the diaries of Makino Nobuaki, the emperor's Grand Chamberlain and Privy Seal from 1925 to 1935, and Nara Takeji, his chief military aide-de-camp – reveal the emperor during his first political crises in 1928 and 1931-33. They show his permissive attitude toward the military elite from the very start of its rise to power; and also show that, with the exception of the Genro Saionji Kinmochi (whose influence relative to Makino declined after 1929), the emperor and his most important political advisers were never strong supporters of party cabinets.

The era of 'Taisho democracy' (First World War to 1926) had coincided with the physical and mental inability of Hirohito's father to exercise his power under the Meiji Constitution. That situation, which had been public knowledge ever since the First World War, facilitated a decline in the power and prestige of the throne, making possible the rise of 'Taisho democracy'. In 1926 when Emperor Hirohito ascended the throne and the 'Showa era' began, a major concern among ruling circles was how to implant in the people the authority of Emperor Hirohito. It was, therefore, not entirely accidental that the period that witnessed the decline and end of the era of political party governments – 1928 to 1931 – was also the period in which the young emperor and his close advisers, Makino Nobuaki, Suzuki Kantaro and Nara Taketsugu, were most pre-occupied with reasserting the power and prestige of the throne, and establishing the 'imperial will' as distinct from the policy of the government.

Sokkin nisshi, Kinoshita Michio, another diary revealing the emperor in the early post-war period, was kept by Kinoshita Michio, a Tokyo University Law School graduate, who in 1924 became Crown Prince Hirohito's private secretary and chamberlain. Kinoshita's record covers the period from his appointment as Vice Grand Chamberlain in October 1945 until his resignation in June 1946. He has much to say about developments in the making of the post-war Japanese state, including the emperor's role in the emergence of a new 'give and take' relationship with the United States. Here one finds the emperor's defence of his wartime prime minister Tojo Hideki's discussions of the emperor's thoughts on the designation and arrest of war criminal suspects, and entries dealing with the making of the emperor's famous 'declaration of humanity', issued as an imperial rescript to the Japanese nation on January 1st, 1946.

According to Kinoshita seven people participated directly in the drafting process of the declaration, including the emperor. The Americans took the initiative and approved the original draft, believing that they were getting the emperor to participate directly in the debunking of emperor ideology. But Hirohito wanted to get across a different message: namely, that the monarchy had always been compatible with democracy. And his revisions ensured that the primary message of the rescript was not so much the disavowal of his alleged divinity but the idea that the democratisation of Japanese society marked a continuation of ideals inscribed in the Five Article 'Charter Oath' of the Meiji Restoration. In its reaffirmation of the past, and failure to explicitly repudiate the old wartime ideology of the divine origins of the imperial line, the 'Declaration of Humanity' had some of the same mendacious qualities as the emperor's famous August 15th, 1945, surrender broadcast, which cast his acceptance of the Potsdam Proclamation in the form of a unilateral assertion of imperial will.

Kinoshita is also helpful in explaining how the emperor and his entourage prepared for the Tokyo war crimes trials, and how American policy makers in Tokyo and Washington assisted the Japanese 'moderates' in transforming him from the symbol of Japanese militarism to the emblem of its new found pacifism. Kinoshita does not focus on the Japanese people who were the targets of this propaganda effort, but he was writing in that critical period when a gap had opened between the monarchy and the people, which the court, with General Headquarters co-operation, was attempting to close by promoting a new image of the emperor as a great pacifist. The emperor's periodic tours of local areas, which began in February 1946 and continued until 1954, were part of that effort. When historians examine Japan's road to war with the peoples of Asia and the West, they will not be able to ignore the issues of the emperor, the 'palace groups' and the 'emperor system'; nor will they be able any longer to treat the emperor in the post-war period as a completely non-political figure. The discovery of new historical materials has made it possible to put them all back into the picture. Doing this, however, will involve taking account of the emperor in his capacity as supreme military commander.

A recent Japanese language study of the Showa Emperor's war leadership, by Yamada Akira, gives new insight into the role of the emperor as commander-in-chief. In standard, authoritative historical accounts, such as Robert Butow's Japan's Decision to Surrender (1954) the wartime emperor is depicted as 'a bystander watching with interest the turmoil of political activity taking place around him but never interfering no matter how personally concerned for the outcome he might be', However, this 'bystander' image of a constitutional monarch robotised and kept in the dark by the military, is a travesty. It is far more accurate to see Emperor Hirohito at the height of his political powers as an inconsistent wielder of sovereign power who did not want war with the United States and Britain but, by the late 1930s, moved squarely into the camp of the 'renovationist' group who were tending toward an ever-expanding war in Asia.

By October 1941, as Konoe Fumimaro and his chief cabinet secretary, Tomita Kenji, have suggested, a major factor in Prime Minister Konoe's resignation, which paved the way for the war cabinet of General Tojo Hideki, was the emperor's own increasing inclination toward war. Less than seven weeks after he had bestowed the mandate of prime minister on Army Minister Tojo, Emperor Hirohito sanctioned the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Thereafter, as the nation's supreme commander-in-chief, he frequently worked to give overall supervision for the entire war effort, even going so far as to insist that specific orders be issued to his commanders in the field, and, on occasion, interfering in military operations in all the far-flung theatres of the war.

Yamada documents eleven major instances where the emperor was deeply involved in supervising the actual conduct of war operations. According to the evidence in this work, Hirohito pressured the High Command to order an early attack on the Philippines, including the fortified Bataan peninsula. He pressed for, and secured, the deployment of army air power in the Guadalcanal campaign. Following Japan's withdrawal from Guadalcanal he demanded a new offensive in New Guinea, which was duly carried out. Unhappy with the navy's conduct of the war, he criticised the withdrawal from the central Solomon Islands and demanded naval battles against the Americans for the losses they had inflicted in the Aleutians. Finally, it was at his insistence that plans were drafted for the recapture of Saipan and, later, for an offensive in the battle of Okinawa.

Yamada's work is an excellent guide to a remarkable historical document, written around the time of Kinoshita Michio's diary but, like Kinoshita, not published until the great 'emperor boom' of 1989-90. This document is the Showa emperor's dokuhakuroku or dictated account of the key events during his first twenty years as emperor. It was taken down in five dictation sessions in the spring of 1946, by close aides.

When the popular literary magazine Bungei Shunju conveniently published the dokuhakuroku in December 1990, it created a sensation by enabling readers to get a new and deeper insight into the emperor's character, For the first time since the war, many saw the forgotten fighting generalissimo side to Hirohito – a side that Yamada Akira and other Japanese historians had already documented on the basis of the emperor's 'questions' to his military commanders, and their reports to him on the unfolding war situation.

The first point to consider about the dokuhakuroku, however, is the political intention behind its genesis. The emperor's first person survey of Japan's crises and wars from 1928 to 1945 was composed in order to answer questions that had arisen specifically in connection with the Tokyo war crimes trial. The fear then was that the Americans might bring pressure on the emperor to abdicate, or even to testify as a witness in the forthcoming trials. The second point is that the published document is essentially a shortened version of an original that was copied out in pencil by the liaison officer of the Imperial Household, Terasaki Hidenari.

It has been conjectured by well-informed Japanese scholars such as Awaya Kentaro and Hata Ikuhiko, that Terasaki made an abbreviated English translation of the document and presented it to high officials within SCAP. Evidence in Terasaki's own diary as well as Kinoshita Michio's suggests that Terasaki probably acted with the approval of the Japanese foreign minister, Yoshida Shigeru.

Judging from the large number of copies that the Terasaki version of the dokuhakuroku has sold in Japan and the media attention it has gained, one may say that this single document has attracted more public attention than any of the other new historical materials on Emperor Hirohito. Although many Japanese have commented favourably on the Showa emperor of the dokuhakuroku, many more, from all walks of life, have been shocked by the revelations: the amazing alibis by which he sought to exonerate himself for the defeat, his lack of consideration for the Japanese people, or guilt for the millions of victims of Japanese aggression.

The lack of moral fibre shown by his constant shifting onto others of his own ultimate responsibility for the defeat, and his failure to reflect on his own mistakes, have drawn the most critical comments. Readers have also raised questions about his dismissal of his first prime minister, Tanaka Giichi, in 1929, his decision to sanction the starting of the Pacific War in 1941; and his role, three and a half years later, in Japan's decision to surrender unconditionally to the Allies.

For their part, professional historians have concentrated on the many myths about the emperor and his court advisers, or those whom US Ambassador Joseph Grew used to call the 'moderates' around the throne. One such myth is the notion that Emperor Hirohito was a normal constitutional monarch who, with a few well-publicised (and therefore undeniable) exceptions, never issued commands but merely expressed opinions or put his seal to documents. Another is that during the Pacific War he was a member of the peace camp, trying to surrender before the US began its all-out bombing campaign of the Japanese mainland. The dokuhakuroku has undermined the emperor's false renown as a constitutionalist and pacifist and raised questions about his incredibly belated decision to surrender in August 1945. In these and other ways, it has helped advance the whole debate on his unacknowledged war responsibility, even though much of what it contains is not new to historians.

The emperor of the dokuhakuroku combined a keen sense of himself as an absolute sovereign, with a remarkable capacity to pretend that he was a normal constitutional monarch. He was certainly a political realist with an appetite for the fruits of territorial aggrandisement, and that might have made him susceptible to the rhetoric of hakko ichiu (eight corners of the world under one roof), When he observed in the dokuhakuroku that:

it does not matter much if an incident occurs in Manchuria because Manchuria is rural; but if something were to happen in the Tientsin-Peking area, Anglo-American intervention would surely worsen and might lead to a clash,

he seems to have been speaking true to character. In the Asian arena he could safely express his expansionist inclinations; and in China's north-eastern provinces in particular he easily rationalised the aggression of his armed forces. But when dealing with the West he preferred caution because he lacked confidence in Japan's ability to win a war against the United States and Britain, and was far more aware than his military commanders of Japan's vulnerability to economic blockade. Essentially, he believed in force but wanted to combine it with its opposite, diplomacy, so that Japan might retain the fruits of its aggression against weaker Asian neighbours.

Equally well-documented are the emperor's frequent disagreements with the military and his condemnations of their recklessness. These disagreements, however, were mainly tactical and not principled. They stemmed from what the emperor imagined the United States or Britain would do in response to any particular act of Japanese aggrandisement. Although the military's rise to power in the 1930s created situations in which the emperor's orders were sometimes disobeyed, rifts between him and his military should not be exaggerated. Moreover, the military never had enough power to establish a dictatorship and could only operate through the authority of the emperor. As historian Yoshida Yutaka has observed, the military's rise to power during this period was also a process in which Emperor Hirohito strengthened his voice and projected his will in the policy making process.

Two other aspects of the emperor's world-view can be gathered from the dokuhakuroku. One was his sense of Japan as a 'have-not' nation (vying with the Anglo-American powers who were intent on keeping it in a subordinate international position within the Washington treaty system). Another element appears to have been a low regard for party government at home. Needless to say, these too were features that the emperor shared with the militarists; and both are exemplified in his defiant introduction to the dokuhakuroku. This particular monologue appears as a document attached to Kinoshita Michio's diary, written about the same time as the dokuhakuroku, but it is not reproduced in full in the published and abbreviated (Terasaki Hidenari) version. Here, addressing the origins of the Second World War, is what the emperor says:

Japan's call for racial equality, advocated by our representatives at the peace conference following World War I, was not approved by the Great Powers. Everywhere in the world discrimination between Yellow and White remained, as in the rejection of immigration to California and the Whites-only policy in Australia. These were sufficient grounds for the indignation of the Japanese people who suffered from having a small, over-populated territory and a lack of raw materials, yet had considerable ability to develop.
Nor was that all. Despite my visit to England and the efforts I made for mutual friendship, the Anglo-Japanese alliance was abrogated immediately after my visit. As time passed, Great Power pressure on Japan to reduce its armaments grew steadily stronger. We were forced to return Tsingtao. In China anti-Japanese education, which drew on the sympathy of the Great Powers for the weaker party, had very deep roots. For these reasons Japan-China relations could only continue to worsen. Moreover, our political ability to deal with these unfavorable international conditions showed signs of gradual debilitation as a result of the corruption of the political parties. The feeling spread among the nation's masses that entrusting politics to the party politicians was endangering the future of the state. The selfless spirit of the nation cries out in such times of national crisis.
Because the military stood up under such circumstances, bearing the frustrations of the nation, it was extremely difficult to check the spirited young men who formed its core, even though they acted recklessly without regard to means. For their reckless behaviour appeared to exhibit some common ground with the patriotic action of breaking the deadlock of the state.

Having rationalised Japan's war of aggression as a just war of defence against white Western imperialism and Chinese resistance, the emperor launches into a discussion of his first political crisis: the assassination, in June 1928, of the Manchurian warlord Chang Tso-lin by staff officers of his Kwantung Army, and his subsequent scolding (in effect, firing) of his prime minister, the Seiyukai party president, General Tanaka Giichi, for his alleged mishandling of the incident. His intention is to introduce at the outset his main defence: namely, that he was a 'normal constitutional monarch', who ratified military faits accomplis but was unable to interfere in cabinet decisions.

If the dokuhakuroku raised many different aspects of the emperor's war responsibility, other new documents published in recent years have helped to carry that discussion into the post-Second World War period. On three different occasions the Showa emperor considered abdicating as a way of acknowledging his responsibility for Japan's war dead (as opposed to the Asian and Western victims of its aggression). The first was right after the surrender; the second was around the time of the reading of the final verdict in the Tokyo War Crimes Trial in November 1948; and the third was right after Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty and regained its independence in 1951. Throughout that seven year period, the question of abdication was at once a war responsibility issue and an issue of protecting the imperial institution itself, on the ideological plane, from the dangerous idea of political accountability to which the emperor's pre-war and wartime activities had exposed it.

In 1980 Tokyo University Press brought out the previously unpublished post-war diaries of Kido Koichi, covering the period December 15th, 1945, to the end of 1948, together with various Kido interviews, interrogations, memorandums and letters. Kido, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment as a 'Class A' war criminal by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal in November 1948, also gave thirty depositions to the Tribunal's International Prosecution Section between December 21st, 1945 and March 15th, 1946. And in 1987 this entire record was also published by the leading authority of the Tokyo Trials, Awaya Kentaro, and others. In Awaya's commentary on Kido one finds new documentary evidence of Kido's strong feelings on the war responsibility issue and how he tried to get the emperor to act on the third and last occasion when he considered abdicating. Having served the emperor as Privy Seal and close confidant between June 1940 and November 1945, Kido knew what he was talking about when, from Sugamo prison on October 17th, 1951, he sent the emperor the following secret message:

I had left the same word when I bid farewell to His Majesty [December 1945]. No matter how one looks at it, the Emperor bears responsibility for losing the war. Therefore, once you have thoroughly carried out the Potsdam Proclamation – in other words, when a peace treaty has been signed – I think it is most proper for you to take responsibility and abdicate for the sake of your imperial ancestors and for the nation.... By doing this, the bereaved families of those who died and were wounded in the war, those who were not repatriated and the families of the war criminals will somehow feel requited. I think that should make a very important contribution to national unity centered on the Imperial House. However, if you do not do this, then the end result will be that the Imperial Family alone will not have taken responsibility and an unclear mood will remain which, I fear, might leave an eternal scar.

Emperor Hirohito could never bring himself to abdicate. Nor could he adjust easily to the spirit of the new peace constitution which, although it stripped him of all political powers, had been largely established for his benefit. The conservative party politician and diplomatic historian Ashida Hitoshi served as foreign minister in the first socialist cabinet of Katayama Tetsu in 1947 and was prime minister in his own cabinet in 1948. His seven volume diary, published in 1986, has shed important light on the imperial institution during the entire occupation period. Ashida confirms the emperor's unabated (and unconstitutional) political activism and his inability to desist from interfering directly in domestic and foreign policy affairs. In an entry of July 22nd, 1947, Ashida describes how the emperor urged him to 'align' with the United States in the Cold War with the Soviet Union and pressured him to continue the practice of making informal reports to the throne on diplomatic problems, even though such reports violated the new constitution.

By 1947 the Cold War had started to affect Japan, accelerating a reverse course in US occupation policy and creating new opportunities for the emperor to project his views into the policy-making process. As the international situation worsened, the emperor began to act more forcefully in the old mould, not only insisting that the government make unofficial reports to the throne (naiso), which it did, but secretly operating behind the scenes to ensure that the Ashida government co-operated with Washington against the Soviet Union. Ashida even records that on March 10th, 1948, the emperor importuned him to take action against the Japanese Communist Party, though any such action would have been illegal under the new constitution. By re-establishing the practice of naiso, and in other ways, Emperor Hirohito continued to act not as a 'symbol' but as a political monarch.

Finally, new light has also been shed on the emperor's role in the establishment of the Shidehara Kijuro cabinet (October 1945 to April 1946), and how that cabinet colluded with MacArthur's GHQ to defend him on the issue of his responsibility for the defeat and for having indulged Japan's military cliques in their rise to power. Tsugita Daizabiro nikki, the short diary of Tsugita Daizaburo, chief cabinet secretary in the Shidehara government, brings alive the world of early post-surrender Japan with its millions of unemployed, demobilised soldiers, looming food shortages, mushrooming popular movements, and rising criticisms of those responsible for the great defeat.

Tsugita wrote from the viewpoint of a professional bureaucrat and politician who believed in the twin myths of the Showa emperor as a constitutional monarchist and a pacifist who had brought the war to an end. The following diary entry of October 26th, 1945, suggests that from a very early point in the occupation General MacArthur was predisposed to exonerate the emperor of all war crimes charges, without even bothering to investigate the available evidence.

Around 6 o'Clock [Army] Lt. General Haraguchi [Hatsutaro] called on me. He said that he had met [Brigadier General Bonner F.] Fellers of MacArthur's headquarters and was told that the problem of the Emperor's responsibility for the attack on Pearl Harbor is the 'most important and critical' issue on the American side. The topic came up of how to deal with it. Both MacArthur and Fellers have very warm feelings toward His Majesty. Haraguchi has no doubt that they are thinking of how to solve this problem without causing trouble for the Emperor. However, American public opinion is very strong; there is also a proposal from the Soviet Union; and it seems that it is not so easy for MacArthur to do as he pleases. In any case, he said that we must have prepared and ready a general explanation [i.e. defence for the Emperor]. Regarding this matter, I think that since the Meiji Emperor, the Emperor of Japan has approved all matters reported to him by the Government or the Imperial Headquarters and never once has he exercised a 'veto.' But at the time of the ending of the war, the Cabinet ministers and the staff officers of the Imperial Headquarters could not reach agreement. So, at the prime minister's request, the Emperor made a decision. One can say that this is almost the only instance in which the Emperor's will was reflected directly in government. I think it is most appropriate to explain this fact honestly.

Ten days earlier, on October 16th, 1945, Washington had instructed MacArthur to 'proceed immediately to assemble all available evidence of Hirohito's participation in and responsibility for Japanese violations of international law'. From Tsugita's comments, it would seem that MacArthur responded to Washington's order by alerting the Shidehara cabinet to prepare a general defence of the emperor. Worried about how the United States would proceed on the issue of punishing war criminals, the Shidehara cabinet for the remainder of its existence worked closely with MacArthur's GHQ to protect the emperor from the Tokyo Tribunal. A statement it adopted on November 5th, 1945, to guide government officials in answering questions 'On matters of war responsibility' laid out the official line thereafter: all war responsibility (by which they meant responsibility for having lost the war) lay with the Government and the military High Command, while the emperor bore no responsibility whatever.

Meanwhile, MacArthur's efforts to solve the problem of the emperor's war responsibility 'without causing trouble for the Emperor' were neither entirely successful, nor salutary for the Japanese people. The very logic of the reforms entailed the smashing of emperor ideology by promoting a broad interpretation of war responsibility in all areas of Japanese national life. So, while MacArthur was attacking the social basis of the emperor system, extending the pursuit of war responsibility even to school-teachers who had indoctrinated the Japanese nation with militarism and ultranationalism, he was also moving in the opposite direction where the emperor himself was concerned. By shielding the emperor from the scrutiny of the war crimes investigators, and later discouraging his abdication, MacArthur abetted the Japanese conservatives in preventing the Japanese people from coming to grips with their own past aggression.

With the publication of the dokuhakuroku and other documents, the veil that was drawn over the Showa Emperor's war responsibility and his failure to abdicate has been pulled back. New debate on the role of the palace groups in the period of fascism and war has also been stimulated. The prevailing views in the West of the emperor as a pacifist standing outside the political process, and the palace 'as a break on extremism throughout its pre-war existence', have never corresponded to reality and are now sure to be revised in the light of the new material.

This will also bring the Japanese people back into the debate on war responsibility from which they were largely excluded during the occupation period. Since the death of Hirohito, a post-Cold War evolution has got underway in which issues of war responsibility and monarchy have once again become part of a necessary Japanese dialogue with the past. For historians, the danger in this debate is that because of documents like the dokuhakuroku, which focus solely on the emperor as an individual in the decision-making process, we are apt to lose sight of the elusive pre-war emperor system itself; and what it reveals about the deeper structures of Japanese state and society: its triangulation with power, class and cultural themes.

Further Reading:

  • Edited by Ito Takashi & Hirose Junko – Makino Nobuaki nikki (Tokyo, 1990)

  • Yamada Akira – Showa tenno no senso shido (Tokyo, 1990)

  • John W. Dover – Empire & Aftermath (Harvard, 1979)

  • Saturo Ienaga – The Pacific War (New York, 1978)

  • Nakamura Masanori – The Making of the Symbol Emperor System (New York, 1992)

Herbert P. Bix is Associate in Research at the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University.

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