Hirohito: String Puller, Not Puppet
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — LAST month, I received a startling email from an employee at one of Japan’s largest newspapers, about a development I’d long awaited. The government was about to unveil a 12,000-page, 61-volume official biography of Emperor Hirohito, which a large team of scholars and civil servants had been preparing since 1990, the year after his death.
I was asked if I would examine an embargoed excerpt from this enormous trove and then comment on the emperor’s perspective on various events, including Japan’s 1937 expansion of its conflict in China and its decision four years later to go to war with the United States and Britain; the trial of war criminals; the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the American military occupation of postwar Japan.
But there was a condition: I could not discuss Hirohito’s “role and responsibility” in World War II, which would be strictly outside the scope of the newspaper’s reporting. Having devoted years of my life to examining precisely this topic, I politely refused.
The release of Hirohito’s official biography should be an occasion for reflection around the world on a war that, in the Pacific theater, took the lives of at least 20 million Asians (including more than three million Japanese) and more than 100,000 citizens of the Western Allied nations, primarily the United States and Britain.
Instead, Japan’s Imperial Household Agency, abetted by the Japanese media, has dodged important questions about events before, during and after the war. The new history perpetuates the false but persistent image — endorsed by the Allied military occupation, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur — of a benign, passive figurehead.
As I and other scholars have tried to show, Hirohito, from the start of his rule in 1926, was a dynamic, activist and conflicted monarch who operated within a complex system of irresponsibility inherited from his grandfather, the Meiji emperor, who oversaw the start of Japan’s epochal modernization. Hirohito (known in Japan as Showa, the name of his reign) represented an ideology and an institution — a system constructed to allow the emperor to interject his will into the decision-making process, before prime ministers brought cabinet decisions to him for his approval. Because he operated behind the scenes, the system allowed his advisers to later insist that he had acted only in accordance with their advice.
In fact, Hirohito was never a puppet. He failed to prevent his army from invading Manchuria in 1931, which caused Japan to withdraw from the League of Nations, but he sanctioned the full-scale invasion of China in 1937, which moved Japan into a state of total war. He exercised close control over the use of chemical weapons in China and sanctioned the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Even after the war, when a new, American-modeled Constitution deprived him of sovereignty, he continued to meddle in politics.
From what I’ve read, the new history suffers from serious omissions in editing, and the arbitrary selection of documents. This is not just my view. The magazine Bungei Shunju asked three writers, Kazutoshi Hando, Masayasu Hosaka and Michifumi Isoda, to read parts of the history. They pointed out, in the magazine’s October issue, significant omissions. Only the first of the emperor’s 11 meetings with General MacArthur was mentioned in detail. Instead, the scholars noted Hirohito’s schoolboy writings and commented on trivialities like the discovery of the place where his placenta was buried.
That does not mean that the project is without merit. Researchers collected 3,152 primary materials, including some previously not known to exist, such as the memoirs of Adm. Saburo Hyakutake, the emperor’s aide-de-camp from 1936 to 1944. They documented Hirohito’s messages to Shinto deities, fleshing out his role as chief priest of the state religion. They collected vital materials on the exact times, dates and places of imperial audiences with civil and military officials and diplomats.
Hirohito was a timid opportunist, eager above all to preserve the monarchy he had been brought up to defend. War was not essential to his nature, as it was for Hitler and Europe’s fascists. The new history details his concern over the harsh punishments enacted in 1928 to crush leftist and other opposition to Japan’s rising militarism and ultranationalism. It elaborates on his role in countering a coup attempt in 1936 by young Army officers who wanted to install an even more right-wing, militaristic government. It notes that he cried for only the second time in his life when his armed forces were dissolved.
The official history confirms Hirohito’s bullheadedness in delaying surrender when it was clear that defeat was inevitable. He hoped desperately to enlist Stalin’s Soviet Union to obtain more favorable peace terms. Had Japan surrendered sooner, the firebombing of its cities, and the two atomic bombings, might have been avoided.
Why does all this matter, nearly 70 years since the end of the war?
Unlike Germany, where acceptance of responsibility for the Nazis’ crimes is embedded in government policy, Japan’s government has never engaged in a full-scale reckoning of its wartime conduct. This is partly because of the anti-imperialist dimension of the war it fought against Western powers, and partly because of America’s support for European colonialism in the early Cold War. But it is also a result of a deliberate choice — abetted by the education system and the mass media, with notable exceptions — to overlook or distort issues of accountability.
The new history comes at a politically opportune time. Prime MinisterShinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party government is waging a campaign to pump up nationalist pride. Mr. Abe has made no secret of his desire to enhance the monarchy’s status in a revised “peace constitution” that would rewrite Article 9, which prohibits Japan from maintaining offensive forces.
The very idea of a carefully vetted official biography of a leader fits within the Sino-Japanese historical tradition, but raises deep suspicions of a whitewash, as well as issues of contemporary relevance. Okinawans cannot take pride in the way Hirohito sacrificed them, by consenting to indefinite American military control of their island. Japan’s neighbors, like South Korea and the Philippines, cannot be reassured by the way its wartime past is overlooked or played down, but neither can they be reassured by America’s confrontational, militaristic approach toward Chinese assertiveness.
After Hirohito died, in 1989, there was an outpouring of interest in his reign and a decade-long debate about his war responsibility. Now, after decades of mediocre economic performance, generational divides have deepened and the Japanese may not take much note. If so, a crucial opportunity to improve relations with Asian neighbors and deepen understanding of the causes of aggression will have been lost.
Emperor HirohitoBorn April 29, 1901 in Tokyo
1926 Succeeds Emperor Yoshihito to Chrysanthemum throne
1931 Japanese troops invade Manchuria
1940 Japan joins Axis alliance
1945 Approves Japan's surrender, ending World War II
1946 Approves American-made constitution permitting occupation by U.S. Publicly repudiates divinity of the Emperor
1989 Dies Jan. 7 at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo
Japan's wartime monarch outlived his role as god-king, but he oversaw the nation's modern transformation By FRANK GIBNEY SR.
By traditional (and official) count, he was Japan's 124th emperor, but Hirohito ranks first in length of tenure. His reign spanned the years between 1921, when he became regent for his ailing father, and his death in 1989--a record of regal endurance comparable to those of Austria-Hungary's Franz Josef and Britain's Victoria. At his formal accession to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1926, he took the official name of Showa--which translates as "Enlightened Peace." Ironically, his era was characterized by the brutal military invasion of China, followed by his country's most disastrous war, then its unprecedented foreign occupation and, ultimately, Japan's transformation into the world's second economic super-power.
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Beyond doubt, Hirohito was the 20th century's great survivor. History has not given too many the chance to lead a nation into appalling disaster, only to emerge with at least partial credit for its reform and rebirth. Critics and loyal supporters alike have cited instances of Hirohito's superior decision-making or shrewd behind-the-scenes policy-setting. Others have likened him to the character portrayed by Peter Sellers in the film Being There, a modest mediocrity whose commonplace observances were given the value of Delphic instruction. Both versions are correct in the context of Hirohito's society--the Japanese have never shown much respect for Aristotle's law of contradictions. To understand the Showa Emperor's goals and premises, we must examine his life, as he led it and as it was led for him by his multitudinous helpers.
Born on April 29, 1901, the eldest son of the Emperor Yoshihito, he was enrolled at the age of seven in the Peers' School. Its principal was the redoubtable Maresuke Nogi, the victorious infantry general of the Russo-Japanese war and an embodiment of the old samurai virtues. From Nogi and two Confucian tutors, Hirohito was given a heavy dose of stern dynastic duty, as the semi-divine descendant of the legendary Sun goddess Amaterasu. He lived with ancient ritual, as his ancestors had done before him. By tradition the pontiffs of Japan's shadowy Shinto religion, emperors were revered as semi-sacred beings. But they were secluded in their Kyoto palaces and generally kept powerless by varieties of military leaders, ruling in the imperial name.
In 1868, however, just 33 years before Hirohito's birth, the ancient role of the emperor was redefined. His grandfather Mutsuhito, known to history as the Emperor Meiji, had been brought out of seclusion by the young samurai modernizers of the Restoration that bears his name. Shedding his 10th century ritual robes for 19th century military uniforms, he was installed with his court in a refurbished palace in the new capital of Tokyo. Having swept aside the 250-year rule of the Tokugawa shoguns, the reformers needed an active symbol at the head of their nation-state. Meiji became the country's first constitutional monarch.
Yet he was a monarch with a difference. Impressed by the socially unifying force of Christianity in Europe's nation-states, the ever-practical Meiji reformers revived the pontifical role of the Emperor and made Shinto the official state religion. Going further, they decided that Japan's modernized conscript army and navy would report to the Emperor alone. Meiji took his new military role seriously. So did his leading general. In 1912, on the day of Meiji's funeral, Nogi and his wife committed the ceremonial suicide of junshi, the samurai ritual of "following one's lord in death."
A few days earlier, Nogi had paid a last visit to Hirohito and his brothers, admonishing them to live dedicated, frugal lives, as he had taught them. Hirohito, then 11, would heed Nogi's advice. For the rest of his boyhood the lessons continued, under the venerable Admiral Heihachiro Togo and a succession of teachers and advisers. They schooled him in constitutional kingship, as well as Confucius and the ancient Japanese chronicles.
In 1921 the young Crown Prince took a trip overseas, the first ever for a top member of the Japanese royal family. A shy, serious and reflective young man--he had already begun to collect specimens for his lifelong study of marine biology--he was bowled over by his cordial reception in Europe, especially by the relatively relaxed ways of the British royal family. He visited museums, played golf, went fishing in the Scottish highlands and even managed a day's shopping in Paris. For all the retainers following him, he felt oddly at ease. He wrote his brother Chichibu, "I discovered freedom for the first time in England."
It didn't last. Back in Tokyo, he was now regent for his sickly father, the Taisho Emperor. (Known principally for his fondness for smart uniforms, a Kaiser Wilhelm-type moustache and a failing mind, the old man was finally removed from public view after whiling away a formal session of the Diet by rolling up the manuscript of his speech and peering through it at his distinguished audience.) Soon after the disastrous 1923 Kanto earthquake, an assassin took a shot at Hirohito as he rode in the imperial limousine--and only narrowly missed. At this, the always conservative palace guard closed in. He was able to marry Nagako, an imperial princess, in 1924 despite some advisers' disapproval. (It was said there was color-blindness in her family!) But by the time he succeeded to the throne, after his father's death in 1926, he was surrounded by protective protocol. As the historian Daikichi Irokawa put it, "The prince was forced into the life of a caged bird."
Twice he attempted to assert his authority, with some success. In 1928 aggressive army units, already pushing into Manchuria, contrived the assassination of the Chinese warlord Zhang Zuolin. When Prime Minister Giichi Tanaka did not take action against the plotters, Hirohito forced his resignation. The second time was more serious. In 1936, with militarist sentiment rising, a group of young officers called out two regiments in an attempted coup d'état, killing several civilian officials. Hirohito was incensed, especially since the militarists said they were acting "in the Emperor's name." He ordered his generals to suppress the rebellion. With some reluctance--since most of them were by no means opposed to military rule--they subdued the rebels and executed 19 of the ringleaders, under a direct order from their imperial Commander-in-Chief. It was the first such order in modern Japanese history. Also the last.
The following year Japanese armed forces moved into China. Its path scarred by unspeakable brutalities, "the Emperor's Army" perpetrated a series of atrocities, of which the ghastly Nanjing Massacre was only one incident. Cabinet after cabinet, civilian governments supinely backed the aggression, which led directly to the Pacific War. Big business, happy at the prospect of new resources and markets on the Asian mainland, by and large supported the Army. So did most of the population, as the reports of victories came rolling in.
Why did the Emperor not stop it? In a series of documents published after his death, including direct transcripts of Hirohito's monologues and interviews, the pros and cons of his behavior have been argued out. Apologists--Hirohito included--contended that, with militarists directing the government from the late 1930s on, any attempt at imperial restraint would have resulted in another coup, this time successful. Japanese history abounds in incidents where emperors were sidetracked or deposed by political regimes. And Hirohito, given his intensive indoctrination and ever-cautious advisers, was anxious to preserve the dynasty. That, and not averting a wider war, was his main objective.
There is no doubt that Hirohito the man wanted peace. There is equally no doubt that this shy, reclusive family man, who could be goaded to act decisively only in extremis, lacked the courage to enforce his wishes. So Hirohito the Emperor went to war. Like his grandfather Meiji, he not only reviewed the parades but participated in the strategy sessions. Cautious as ever, he criticized Japan's decision to join the Axis powers and commented tartly on the army's bogging down in China. He urged that talks with the United States continue in 1941, even after the U.S. embargo on oil and other raw materials made compromise difficult. He interrupted the conference that decided to wage war with the U.S. by reciting a poem that his grandfather Meiji had once written in similar circumstances: Though I consider the surrounding seas as my brothers Why is it that the waves should rise so high?
Like his other oblique calls for restraint, this was politely ignored. It was hardly an imperial order. With the first victories of Pearl Harbor, Singapore and the Philippines, Hirohito was swept along with the tide of national euphoria. Three years later, however, defeat was staring Japan in the face. In January 1945, Prince Konoe, a former Prime Minister (and grandfather of early-1990s Prime Minister Hosokawa) appealed to the Emperor to put an end to the war. He refused. And here Hirohito's responsibility for the conflict deepened. If he didn't start the war, he continued it. For almost a year, in the face of gathering defeat, he urged his generals and admirals to gain one last victory in order to secure decent peace terms. During that period an additional 1.5 million Japanese were killed.
The fateful imperial staff conference in August came only after the atomic bombs, the fearful fire-bombings, the strangling submarine blockade and the Soviet Union's entry into the war. At last, the Emperor cast a deciding vote for surrender and later made his memorable broadcast to Japan's people about "enduring the unendurable." It was the first unequivocal decision he had made since 1936.
Just a month later the semi-divine Emperor, in striped trousers and a morning coat, reluctantly handed his top hat to an aide and entered General Douglas MacArthur's reception room at the refurbished American Embassy to begin what amounted to his re-incarnation. Accepting responsibility for the war, he offered to abdicate or do whatever else was necessary. But MacArthur wanted him to stay. In the first of 11 meetings between the Emperor and the new American Shogun, the two men worked out an odd but intense collaboration. The U.S. general flatly resisted colleagues who felt that Hirohito should be tried as a war criminal. Above all he wanted a peaceful occupation. The Emperor who finally stopped his generals from continuing a last-ditch war was surely the man who could keep his subjects peaceful. The Emperor agreed.
The decision remains debatable. With 20-20 hindsight, modern critics have pointed out that Hirohito bore almost as much responsibility for the war as Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who was sentenced to death by the war crimes tribunal. More than 3 million Japanese--military and civilians--had died in a war waged in the Emperor's name. To exonerate him completely cast doubt on the entire proceedings and has done much over the years to deepen Japan's collective amnesia about the crimes of its military. At the time, however, the decision seemed prudent to the American occupiers (myself among them), faced with the task of governing, indeed re-modeling millions of Japanese who had only recently seemed ready to fight to the death against invasion.
So the Emperor set to work to assist America's effort at de-mo-ku-ra-shi for Japan. On Jan. 1, 1946, he publicly denounced " ...the false conceptions that the Emperor is divine." He supported MacArthur's new made-in-America constitution with its renunciation of war. Later that year, with MacArthur's vocal support, Hirohito drove out of the palace in his ancient Rolls-Royce and went to the people. For five years a tightly secluded ruler whose very photographs had been held sacrosanct traveled from one end of Japan to the other, talking to his countrymen and pressing the flesh (although he generally preferred exchanging bows) in the manner of a late 20th century constitutional monarch. In the process, shyness and guilt gave way to P.R. sense and confidence.
As TIME's Tokyo correspondent, I followed him on some of those tours--and was impressed. As I wrote in 1950: "The crumpled gray hat became in time the badge of a successful political campaigner. The monosyllables in which Hirohito had conducted his early interviews with the common folk grew into coherent questions and intelligent replies. The shy man waved his hat in the air to acknowledge greetings. He smiled. Slowly the sense of a personality behind the walled moat of the Imperial Palace communicated itself to the people of Japan."
For all the hurt he had permitted--and there are many Japanese who can never forgive him--the imperial reinvention was by and large successful. The same day I wrote my report, I talked to some steel workers at the Yahata mill in Kyushu after Hirohito's visit. "I must admit," one of them told me, "that we were all filled with deep emotion. When you talk about the Emperor, it's just an abstract thing. But when you see him close at hand, it's different, somehow... The Emperor is our father. He should be left just as he is."
When the Occupation ended, Hirohito continued to act as the "symbolic emperor" he had promised to become. His daily activities were publicized for a generally respectful nation. The 1959 wedding of his son Akihito to a commoner, Michiko Shoda--they met playing tennis--was as popular as any royal wedding could be. The imperial survivor presided over the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and made greatly successful foreign trips to the U.S. in 1975 and Europe in 1971, spending the night at Buckingham Palace just 50 years after his first British visit. While a few rightwing fanatics still preached the old rote reverence--the mayor of Nagasaki was almost killed in 1990 for mentioning Hirohito's war guilt--the country at large viewed Hirohito as a still useful piece of human furniture, preferably left in the drawing room.
He died on Jan. 7, 1989, after months of a wasting illness, each operation or injection reported in the same minute, vein-by-vein detail that Japan's media lavishes on baseball averages, weather reports or trade statistics. His death did not have the stuff of grandeur, like that of his grandfather Meiji, whose funereal cannonades moved the great novelist Soseki Natsume to announce the end of his era. There was no General Nogi to commit ritual suicide--conspicuously not in a country whose modest Self-Defense Forces enjoy one of the biggest drop-out rates among the world's military.
But for almost all Japanese who watched the incessant TV commentary, there came a moment of wistful stock-taking. For better or worse, the Showa Emperor's life had limned the world in which they lived. They had forgotten the bad beginnings of the era. The good life that came later they would try their best to perpetuate.
Frank Gibney Sr. is author of Japan: The Fragile Superpower and president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College