JPRI Working Paper 92 (June 2003)
Emperor Hirohito in 20th Century History: The Debate Rekindles
by Herbert P. Bix

Fourteen years after the death of the Showa Emperor Hirohito in 1989, scholarly interest in his life and times has rekindled. By contrast, popular support for the imperial house has continued slowly to weaken. This historical departure from traditional popular loyalty to the throne, is occurring in an atmosphere of rising internal nationalism, as seen in the education policy that Japan’s ruling elites are seeking to nurture. Today, as emotional identification with the monarchy declines, it is easy to see how many Japanese may feel freer than ever before to accept a critical historical assessment of Hirohito. And now that the world is again at war and undergoing revolutionary changes, the period of Hirohito’s wartime reign has never seemed so close, or so much in need of reassessment.

In this context, the Japanese translation of my book Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (Kodansha, 2002) may be contributing not only to a reappraisal of Hirohito’s reputation but also to a better awareness of the nature of decision-making for imperial war. The overwhelming majority of Japanese readers have responded positively to its complex, multisided narrative, depicting the emperor as at once a product and an active agent of Japan’s modern historical process. Concurrently, the book has stirred a debate, waged in scholarly forums and newspaper columns, which is likely to continue while the Japanese reassess their country's past and current role in the international community in a time of war.

To clarify the contemporary debate, it may be helpful to recall several themes of my book. It began with the circumstances of Hirohito’s birth and his private family life, which always had a strong public aspect. It gave attention to his carefully planned schooling, which stressed military training as well as preparation for “virtuous rule.” This entailed close examination of the public statements and diaries of court officials, scholars, politicians and military men who had nurtured him. In the course of this effort it grappled with the imperial ideology that Hirohito inherited, preserved, and carried forward into the post-monarchical age that dawned after World War I.

Emperor ideology and the cult of the emperor were central to virtually everything of importance: from the Meiji Constitution and Hirohito’s education and enthronement, to the ways in which war was presented for popular and elite consumption, and even the act of surrender. My discussion of ideology was a way of showing how national policies and “subjects” (shinmin) were socially constructed; it was also a way of confronting the normative dimensions of Japanese politics.

My book describes in detail the emperor’s deepening involvement in political and military affairs, as well as in the legitimation of the imperial bureaucracy and its policies. I show how Hirohito and his advisers constructed the political space in which he could operate, and in which priority would be given to his point of view. Hirohito did not act alone. Practical application of the Meiji Constitution required him to operate within a pluralistic, consensual system of decision-making that deliberately blurred lines of accountability. But I also stressed his inconsistencies, the important moments when he vacillated, and those occasions when he changed his mind and did not act rationally. As the violence of wartime mounted and the forces ranged against Japan increased, Hirohito’s judgment of events, usually good, could not help but be affected and on occasion turn bad.

My book analyzes the roles Hirohito played before, during, and after the war. In order to pierce his shield of silence and learn what he was thinking, I focused on evaluating situations and events and contextualizing facts, for context can help “to fill in what documents fail to tell us about an individual.”1 And context is particularly important in the case of the Japanese state, which does not allow the relevant facts pertaining to Hirohito to come to light even long after his death, just as it does not respond to the just demands for restitution to the victims of Japanese wartimecrimes.

Chapter 13 on war termination criticizes the Truman regime for its incendiary carpet-bombing of Japan’s cities and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with immense toll in civilian lives; but it also puts the moral onus on Japan’s leaders for delaying surrender. Not until late June 1945 did Hirohito finally, personally and directly, order a search for an early, negotiated peace to avoid capitulation. I argued that “It was [Hirohito’s] reluctance to break with the military proponents of fighting to the bitter finish that mainly delayed Japan’s surrender” (p. 15). The desire to protect the emperor thereafter limited and distorted how both Japanese and American officials and historians depicted the entire surrender process.

The emperor of my four postwar chapters was an extraordinary survivor, determined to avoid attending the Tokyo Trials, and to do whatever was necessary to ensure the continuity of his dynasty and the imperial institution. Hirohito reluctantly accepted General MacArthur’s constitutional reforms because he had to. Thereafter, though banished by the new constitution from the stage of Japanese government, he worked off-stage to maintain his influence. His behavior after 1946 showed his disregard for the Constitution of Japan and for the autonomy of the Japanese people, whom he continued to regard as his “children.”

In recounting the story of Hirohito’s avoidance of postwar trial for violations of international and domestic law, my biography stressed that this policy was decided on and carried out by both the Japanese and American governments. For reasons of their own, other Allied governments, including the Soviet Union, accepted the American grant of immunity. The long-standing belief that Japanese emperors were merely impotent figureheads led to the misperception of Hirohito and his pivotal roles before and during the war. It also provided a plausible basis for the legal and political cover-up.

At the same time, Chapter 15 on the Tokyo war crimes trial showed that Hirohito and his advisers wanted to avoid any possible judicial questioning of whether he had been derelict in the performance of his duties as commander-in-chief, constitutionally obligated to issue orders to, and maintain the discipline of, his armed forces. For Hirohito, the Tokyo trial always carried the threat of exposing the deception that he had been a normal constitutional monarch.

Perhaps the central aspect of my analysis that has universal implications for the present is of the oligarchic decision-making for war in a context of secrecy and unaccountability. During the 1930s and early 1940s, Japan’s major players in this process—the army, navy, and foreign ministry in particular—were often deeply at odds with each other. They repeatedly struggled toward a consensus they never reached. By setting forth their respective policy positions in “national policy” documents that were vaguely worded to suit their own convenience and to allow a variety of interpretations, they concealed their conflicts. Concurrently, they again and again postponed the final implementing decision, as well as the reckoning and allocation of the resources needed to accomplish a particular goal. Often left unclear was the question of whether force or diplomacy, or both together, would be used. Differing profoundly over strategy, the elites mouthed the rhetoric of harmony while repeatedly subordinating the national interest to their own bureaucratic, institutional interests.

Caught up in, and at the very center of, this consensual decision-making process, Hirohito appeared simultaneously passive, noncommittal, and remote—indeed almost invisible. But behind the scenes and out of public scrutiny, he became more and more dynamic and activist, more and more the prodding political monarch, willing and able to inject his “imperial will” into the process before prime ministers ever brought cabinet decisions to him for his sanction.

Wartime institutions, which had their own specific dynamics and produced their own modes of legitimation, strengthened this system of irresponsibility. They had the practical affect of immunizing the top leaders, especially the head of state, from the criminal consequences of their actions. The Imperial Conferences (gozen kaigi) and Imperial Headquarters Conferences attended by Hirohito (daihon’ ei gozen kaigi), were important affairs. At these meetings the high commanders, senior statesmen, and ministers who participated with the emperor in making decisions could claim that they had acted only in accordance with the emperor’s wishes, while Hirohito could later claim that he was a mere passive monarch who had followed the advice of his ministers, sanctioning their policies while often unaware of their full content.

More vividly than other institutions, the Imperial Conferences illustrate how the actions of the elites (including the emperor) were mutually dependent upon one another, and how elite political decisions were expressed in the theocratic ideal of the destiny of the imperial house (koun) and the sacred kokutai.

By analyzing the emperor as an individual wielding real power, an ideological discourse in which he was the centerpiece, and a bureaucratic institution with its own teleology, and by showing the inconsistencies and overlaps between these three elements, I was able to offer an explanation of Hirohito’s entire life, and to raise the level of discussion of his and the Japanese people’s war responsibility.

In the end, I described a culpable emperor who was born to preserve the Japanese empire and his people, but who led them instead to disaster. After Japan’s surrender American authorities, for their own selfish reasons, handled him with kid gloves. I argued that maintaining Hirohito on the throne after the defeat, not investigating his role in policy making, and insulating him from criminal investigation and possible trial created more problems than it solved. It contributed to a falsification of history. It impeded historical clarification of the decision-making process leading to war and surrender. It made rethinking the lost war and its atrocities extremely difficult, and allowed the Japanese people to prolong bringing their defeat to closure by means of taking responsibility through effective apology and reparations. Finally, as a by-product, it reinforced the ancient principle of immunity for the head of state.

Favorable Reception in Japan

Judging from book sales, postcards, and letters that I and Kodansha Publishers have received, and also from talking with Japanese friends and acquaintances, I can say that the evaluation by most Japanese readers has been overwhelmingly positive. Many readers find the book’s viewpoint appealing and fresh. They enjoy studying history through the life of an important individual. Yet historians of wartime imperial Japan cannot be expected to speak as one on subjects so highly charged as the emperor and the war. The image of international law, and the stance that different states took toward it before and after World War II, also remain problems for historians.

A representative example of friendly yet challenging criticism can be found in a dialogue on Hirohito by Yasumaru Yoshio (Professor Emeritus, Hitotsubashi University) and Kurihara Akira (Professor, Meiji University), which appeared in the November 15, 2002 issue of Shukan dokushojin. They argue that (in Yasumaru’s words) after I describe how Hirohito and his advisors constructed the space in which he operated as a political monarch, I “extract[ed] the emperor’s war responsibility and show[ed] that the rationalizations and excuses expressed in the ‘Showa tenno dokuhakuroku’ (The Showa Emperor’s Monologue) do not work.”

Yasumaru adds: “Bix emphasizes that when the war grew intense, the emperor exercised positive leadership, issuing orders that the upper echelons of the military thought were impossible to implement. Political responsibility should not be argued too abstractly but discussed in accordance with a concrete process. In this respect, Bix’s book is very persuasive.”

Professor Kurihara comments that, “One cannot hear the current emperor [Akihito] voice his own opinion. . . . Institutionally, his mouth is sealed.” The continuity of the emperor system thus “lives on in the political technique of silence. When Bix questions the responsibility for the consequences of the Showa emperor’s political leadership, he clearly illuminates the emperor’s silence as a political technique. . . . By not saying anything the emperor gave his approval. . . . [T]he voiceless order [was] the emperor’s [style of] political leadership. The action of . . . conniving at something seems at first glance negative, but has the aspect of a command. Allegedly the emperor did not say anything at the time of each individual incident, and thus did not display any leadership. In fact, he is consistently using silence as a political method.”

Kurihara commented on only one aspect of Hirohito’s “not telling.” Other forms of silence, including refusal to abdicate, were interpreted by Japanese commentators in diverse ways. The famous poet Miyoshi Tatsuji viewed the emperor’s “negligence in the performance of his duties” as a betrayal. “It is the emperor who is guilty for betraying the loyal soldiers,” he wrote in June 1946 (Bix, p. 606). Only the thinnest line separates Hirohito’s technique of silence from political lying.

A major theme of my book is that the modern monarchy was constituted by lies, and that in every period of Japanese history there were individuals who decried what the Soto Zen priest Uchiyama Gudo called the whole “pack of lies” about the emperor, which were corrupting Japanese politics in late Meiji (Bix, p. 33). Clearly, Uchiyama had caught on to the Orwellian big lie. Here it is worth remembering that lies have also helped define the American presidency and its mystique—think of George Washington and the cherry tree, as well as occupants of the White House ever since.

Other related themes concern the cognitive dissonance experienced by the Showa emperor, fostered by his education, which made him believe he could practice “benevolence” and realpolitik at the same time; his refusal to tell the whole truth; and how he and his advisers, with the active cooperation of the censored (and self-censored) mass media, spread their lies and war messages. Readers with knowledge of how the corporate media in present day America function as a “Ministry of Truth” can well appreciate this aspect of Japan’s wartime ambiance.

To have explored the symbiotic relationship between the emperor and the people at different levels might have revealed something important about the willingness of the Japanese—the intended audience for the mendacious messages issued in the emperor’s name—to be duped into believing what their leaders’ told them. This phenomenon is of course not unique to Japan.

Both Yasumaru and Kurihara argue that my book does not sufficiently explore why the emperor, after making a decision, sometimes changed his mind. They also point to the need for further analysis of what they believe is my accurate description of the symbiotic relationship between the emperor and the people. “This book,” Yasumaru writes, “depicts a deeply symbiotic relationship between the people on the one hand and the emperor and his political behavior on the other. As a general theory I understand it but this aspect is almost never pursued. What is actually investigated are the relationships among Japan’s highest ruling elites, i.e., the emperor, the military, and the Cabinet. The detailed description of these relationships is one of the book’s merits. But this methodology cannot adequately answer when that emperor did this or why that kind of war occurred. On this point I felt that Bix’s book was too closely influenced by the empirical historical research of modern and contemporary Japan.”

One of the strengths of biographical history is the attention an author can give to the future leader’s childhood, youth, and education before he becomes a causal agent in his own right. Biography’s limitations include having to keep the protagonist on nearly every page, so that the larger community of which he is a part gets less consideration. My book about Hirohito brought the values and attitudes of the larger society into the picture only indirectly. By discussing the ideas of the elites who surrounded the emperor, and by concentrating on decision-making by collective bodies, I tried to grapple with the Japanese people’s willing cooperation in the war. But if the key symbiotic relationship had been pursued at the local level, more light would have been shed on a basic misperception about the war that both American occupation authorities and Japanese old guard elites encouraged: namely, the belief that “the militarists” deceived both the people and the emperor.

Professor Yoshida Yutaka in his “Afterword” to the Japanese translation used different strands of the book to suggest other interesting lines of questioning. Citing political scientist Masumi Junnosuke’s Showa tenno to sono jidai (The Showa Emperor and His Era, 1998), Yoshida introduces the idea of Machiavellian mechanisms of effective rule. Masumi wrote that “Imperialist leaders, even if they wish for peace, do not forget scheming and trickery (kenbo jussu) for the purpose of expanding the national interest and national defense. The emperor was no exception. The criterion for action of imperialist leaders is not the ideology of war or peace but can this war be won or not.”

My book stresses that Japan’s head of state was an opportunist, lacking in clear moral principles that might have put him at odds with the forces in Japanese society supporting aggression. He accommodated to things he could have changed had he chosen to exercise his power and influence. Most leaders are ambivalent about international law; so was he. Over the course of the Manchurian Incident (1931-33) Hirohito committed to an expansionist foreign policy while still professing a pro-Anglo-American line. Certainly where China was concerned, neither he nor the high command respected the treaties to which Japan was a signatory, such as the Nine Power Treaty (1922) and the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928). Yoshida, noting these points, comments that, “If we fully accept Masumi’s formulation, we must examine the question of how far the Showa emperor’s way of thinking was universal among imperialist leaders at that time, or to what extent it was unique to him? In other words, we need an international comparison of imperialist leaders.”

Indeed, much can be learned from revisiting the foreign policies of imperialist war leaders in any time-period, not just the decade from 1931 to 1941. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, together with his top policy-makers, heading a “Machiavellian Republic” that was also an empire, practiced deceit, guile, subtlety, and dissimulation.2 When it suited his needs Roosevelt falsified his own image and used force, ideology, threats, and propaganda. The statecraft of Hirohito and his top policy-makers employed the very same tools of empire. Yet Roosevelt did not openly flout international law, as it then existed.3 His realism remained prudent while Hirohito and Japan’s high command succumbed to extreme Machiavellianism.

Why did Japan’s leaders ignore the voices of skeptics and critics and yield to delusions of power? Why did they override conventional moral principles and existing international law in fighting the “China Incident?” Why at the end of their long road of aggression against China, did they brazenly launch a preemptive war against a much stronger power? We may never have the full answers to these questions because of the great lengths to which the Japanese government and the Imperial household Agency still go to prevent the release of unexpurgated texts of key documents. But evaluating the available facts concerning Hirohito and the key individuals with whom he interacted at least undermines many fallacious arguments about how he figured in all of this.

Let me now turn to some of the hostile reactions my book has received in Japan.

Criticism from the Right

The Japanese government has long denied the centrality of the emperor in Japan’s invasions and undeclared wars against China, and later against the United States and Britain. In the official version Hirohito was a normal constitutional monarch, a passive onlooker to events unfolding around him, a moral agent, and an honest pacifist who worked day and night for peace. In this view, he was so opposed to war in 1941 that his prime minister, General Tojo Hideki, had to trick him into attacking Pearl Harbor.

A tiny minority of rightist historians and publicists still cling obstinately to these myths. Convinced that the stock image of Hirohito is the true one, and that power and authority in the Japanese state remained separated even after the Meiji revolution of 1868, they oppose the claim that the emperor was militarily and politically empowered by the 1889 Constitution.

Refusing to learn from monographic studies that concretely demonstrate the Showa emperor’s active, sometimes decisive role in politics and war, the rightists remain blatant partisans of old knowledge and discredited narrative. In their view, only Japanese corrupted by individualism, and Westerners for whom individualism is second nature, would even raise the issue of responsibility where Hirohito and the imperial house are concerned. Not surprisingly, such people have responded emotionally to my book, producing distorted, superficial readings of it.

Journalist Matsumoto Ken’ichi, war historian Hata Ikuhiko, and Self-Defense Agency bureaucrat Shoji Junichiro are typical examples. In the January 24, 2003, issue of Shukan Asahi, Matsumoto charges that I described the Showa emperor as a dictator and “reduced the shadowy parts of the imperial state after Meiji to the responsibility of Hirohito himself” (p. 109). He also asserts, falsely, that I blamed “the emperor alone” not only “for the war of aggression but the use of poison gas.”

What I actually wrote (and Matsumoto ignored) was that Hirohito “shared responsibility” for “the military’s refusal to apply international law to China”—a legal “void” that, as I said, lay behind the atrocities and the mistreatment of prisoners of war, whether military or civilian. “He alone wasfree to act in this area and needed to act, but did not act. If he had intervened and insisted on establishing rules and regulations, or even an organization for handling war prisoners, the result could well have been different.” “Hirohito bore more direct responsibility for the use of poison gas. Gas was the one weapon that Hirohito, the Imperial Headquarters and the high command retained close, effective control over throughout the entire China war” (Bix, pp. 360-61).

My text is littered with phrases like Hirohito “exerted a high degree of influence,” “made important contributions,” “provided continuous oversight,” “the leading participant,” and so forth. When I argue that Hirohito was an activist, dynamic, sometimes hands-on monarch, who participated in the war at all stages, I am not suggesting, as right-wing journalists charge, that he alone was to blame for determining events, especially the course to war, let alone that he was a dictator and a war-monger. What my book shows is Hirohito’s continuous and slowly mounting responsibility for the wars of aggression.

Those who continue to hew to imperial mythologies are deeply opposed to my reading of Hirohito. They charge that I relied only on leftist historians and based my narrative mainly on secondary sources. When Matsumoto, in a dialogue with the bureaucrat Shoji Junichiro (Bungei shunju, October, 2002), and Hata Ikuhiko, in two articles, level these criticisms, they are attempting to discredit the very best historical scholarship on Hirohito and early Showa—critical, mainstream work that refutes their interpretations of the past.

The wide range and large amount of primary and secondary sources that I analyzed to clarify the behavior of Hirohito and the thought of his advisers belie their charges. And unlike rightists who either ignore or belittle the scholarship of what they denigrate as “the left,” I spent as much care on books and articles by individuals who extol the imperial tradition, as I spent on critics of the monarchy. In a comprehensive narrative treating a very large number of topics over the entire, long lifetime of a single individual, it is only natural to take account of many monographic works by Japanese authors of all persuasions who produced new knowledge and valuable insights.

Toward the end of their joint “critique” Shoji says that “Bix even makes astonishing interpretations of Shinto.” He is referring to my Chapter 5, “The New Monarchy and The New Nationalism,” where I continue my discussion of how fertile soil was prepared during the regency period and the first years of Showa for arguments and ideas that would overturn Taisho democracy and strengthen Japanese nationalism. Shoji cites the place where I highlight the way in which ideological discourse was structured during Hirohito’s 1928 enthronement ceremonies and later during his prewar tours.

Here I wrote that the tennosei and Shinto are composed of numerous fixed dichotomies: “Threaded through the emperor’s enthronement rituals, and his travels in connection with them, are many obsessive dualisms . . . clean against unclean, pure against impure, the self against the other. From these deep conceptual and emotional dichotomies, would follow a natural, almost inevitable progression during the 1930s and early 1940s: we Japanese confront the world as a racially pure nation; therefore our wars are just and holy wars, and our victories create ‘new orders’ in East Asia” (Bix, p, 197).

From this Matsumoto concludes that I believe Shinto and the emperor system inevitably give rise to war, which is of course not at all what I am suggesting. My argument is that after the start of the Manchurian incident, plotted by men in the grip of religious certitudes, and throughout the 1930s and early 40s, these dichotomies functioned to justify killing. Careful readers of these pages would see that the issues at stake were political legitimation and the strengthening of the throne. They would see that the Court Group, not the military, initiated this excessive preoccupation with national identity centered on the imperial house and Shinto, and that Hirohito thereafter cooperated with the military in bringing emperor worship to a fever pitch. Equally evident to most readers is that in any country, propaganda that justifies killing invariably mixes religion and nationality. Thus this passage illuminates the profound ties between religion, war, and ideological discourse.

Why Shoji and Matsumoto failed to grasp these points is suggested at two places in their critique. In the first instance, Matsumoto says, “Given the course of Japanese history from the mid-nineteenth century, I tend to think that war was almost inevitable regardless of who happened to be emperor. The problem was that once Japan was forced to open its doors to the outside world, it was obliged to build a modern, Western-style state and adapt to international society during the heyday of imperialism in order to survive.”

This naive viewpoint is exactly the same as the one that Hayashi Fusao, a leading “romantic” writer of the 1950s and early 60s, first expressed in a series of Chuo koron articles (September 1963 to June 1965). Using the cynical, official propaganda name for the war that aimed to secure oil and other badly needed raw materials, Hayashi entitled his articles “In Affirmation of the War of Greater East Asia.” He contended that Japan’s war against the United States and Britain was the inevitable, final phase of a conflict that had begun a century earlier, in 1853-4, when the black warships of Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Edo bay with the intention of compelling Japan to submit to American demands. In effect, Hayashi and Matsumoto are asserting that Japan’s leaders did not decide for themselves which course to pursue; fate intervened in their decisions and destined Japan to bear the burden of an inevitable war.

The second statement revealing the rightist origins of Shoji’s and Matsumoto’s critique occurs in the last paragraph when Matsumoto says: “Bix simply failed to understand the imperial institution as a Japanese cultural tradition. I imagine this failure relates to one of the most basic characteristics of American history and culture, its newness.” The British and Dutch peoples “have supported [their monarchies] over the years without demanding accountability. But America is a manufactured state devoid of ancient traditions, and as an American, Bix has been unable to come to an understanding of our Japanese imperial tradition.”

We should note, first, that the rightists’ claim that “accountability” is merely a contemporary American fad, rooted in the experience of the Vietnam War but totally alien to the history and culture of Japan, is belied by Japan’s own pre-modern history of peasant uprisings. Furthermore, Shoji-Matsumoto reveal a lack of historical perspective and even common sense when they claim that because the American state is “manufactured,” American historians are disadvantaged in producing a truthful account of the Showa emperor and the modern monarchy. Modern historians neither believe in the notion of an immutable state nor claim that their culture and nationality are the criteria for judging the truthfulness of their historical work.

The modern and even post-modern view is that the-state-is-how-it-is-interpreted. The same is true of the concept “nation,” which is shaped by history and varying in character over time. What counts are the constructions and the changing material conditions. Could these naive critics still be clinging to the pre-1945 belief, rooted in 19th century German philosophy of law, that the Japanese state is organic, originating in the mythological figure of Jimmu, with an emperor descended from a line “unbroken for ages eternal?”

Hata Ikuhiko’s Rant

In 1984, Hata Ikuhiko published Hirohito tenno itsutsu no ketsudan (Emperor Hirohito’s Five Decisions), a book premised on the idea that Hirohito, far from being a puppet, made decisive political decisions that shaped the course of Showa history on five separate occasions. Two false propositions about historiography and the handling of historical materials gave away his ideological stance. One was that in assessing evidence on the emperor’s political activities he had been guided by the belief that “truth lies in between the extremes;” the other claim was that he had “avoided value judgments and preconceptions and adopted the method of letting the facts speak for themselves” (p. 268). Of course facts never do “speak for themselves,” just as it is impossible for the historian to select facts and evaluate data without deploying “values.”

Despite Hata’s pretense of neutrality, the result was a largely apologetic account of an emperor who emerged in 1945 from the restraints imposed by the militarists to become, under the occupation, a skillful political leader. Subsequently, Hata came to see himself as the defender of the honor of the imperial armed forces and the policies of the state in the face of assaults launched by historians critical of both. This led him to minimize the Nanking atrocities and defend the army against charges of having practiced sexual slavery. These activities eventually propelled him into the rewriting of school textbooks in order to increase their nationalistic content. Not surprisingly, Hata’s efforts to discredit my book have been the most vituperative, and the most carried away by anger and special pleading. But for all that his results are also the most simplistic, for they are based on formulaic answers to accusations that the emperor bore both individual and collective responsibility for the war.

In a polemic published in the February, 2003 issue of Chuo koron, Hata argues that Hirohito was a puppet of the militarists and had no power of any kind—period. “The Showa emperor,” he writes, “was neither a dynamic political monarch as Bix describes him, nor did he bear legal responsibility. Nonetheless, he tried to assume all responsibility [ i.e., legal, political, and moral].” These bizarre assertions would appear to repudiate a central proposition of Hata’s own 1984 book.

More important, Hata merely recycles old constitutional interpretations that I had already dealt with in detail. During the occupation Hirohito’s defenders went to enormous lengths to save him from the Allied judicial process, including building their case on the Meiji Constitution and stage-managing the testimony of the war-crimes trials defendants. Hata seems to have internalized their defense and now regurgitates it. A brief examination of the many factual errors that litter his invective give an insight into his method.

Hata writes that MacArthur conducted a thorough investigation of documents concerning the Showa emperor, and afterwards judged the emperor to be innocent. Let us look at the facts. Former Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Kido Koichi, Hirohito’s most important political adviser, submitted his diary, covering the years 1930 to 1945, to the International Prosecution Section [IPS] in three installments, starting on December 24, 1945. The critical portion, covering the year 1941 and including the decision to wage the Pacific War, was not turned over until January 23, 1946.4 The Harada Kumao diary, which sheds light on the 1930s, was not submitted to the IPS until February 26, 1946. More weeks and months passed before the depositions of many other key war criminal suspects were made, translated, and submitted.

Lacking access to much of the most important evidence that historians have subsequently analyzed, MacArthur, on January 25, 1946, sent his famous telegram to U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Eisenhower in Washington, reporting that after thoroughly researching the matter, he had determined that there was “[N]o specific and tangible evidence . . . which might connect [the emperor] in varying degree with the political decisions of the Japanese Empire during the last decade.” To this day no document has been discovered indicating that MacArthur or his staff even conducted an investigation. He reached his conclusion without using evidence of any kind. This was a typical MacArthur-like deception of his superiors, well known among serious scholars in Japan and abroad. But Hata ignores MacArthur’s deception because it is in his rhetorical interest to pretend that the General is telling the truth.

Hata also misreads documents and manipulates evidence. Writing in the March, 2003 issue of Bungei shunju he claims, mainly on the basis of MacArthur’s notoriously unreliable, embellished, self-serving Memoir, that Hirohito at his first meeting with MacArthur, on September 27, 1945, sought to assume all responsibility for the war. After going through a “proof,” which gives the appearance of being scholarly, Hata writes: “I think one may affirm as an assured historical fact that the Showa emperor who met MacArthur was prepared to sacrifice his own life in place of his subjects (the civil and military war-leaders) and he stated that he would take upon himself all responsibility for the war (pp. 146-7).”

This, of course, is quite simply Hata’s “surmise.” No reputable Japanese specialist on the matter would make such a claim in the absence of credible published or unpublished documentation attesting to the content of the interview. Yet for years Hata has been trying to elevate his supposition to the level of historiographical truth (i.e., “assured historical fact”).

Naturally, one cannot rule out the possibility that Hirohito did tell his American protector, MacArthur, that he was prepared to stand trial and die for his people. But if he did say that, why do the Foreign Ministry and the Imperial Household Agency still feel it necessary—sixty-plus years after the event—to hide the emperor’s heroic and selfless statement? And supposing that Hirohito had made such a statement, or that he had taken responsibility by abdicating after the threat of the Tokyo trials had passed, would knowing that retroactively change our understanding of him during the first twenty years of his reign? I think not.

In my chapter devoted to the Tokyo war crimes trial, I detailed at great length how MacArthur, his senior staff, including his secretary General Bonner Fellers, protected Hirohito from indictment and shielded him from the trial. Hirohito himself reportedly reached for the telephone to check on how General Tojo, the designated fall guy, would testify. Yet Hata writes (Bungei shunju, p. 147) that: “What emerged in the preliminary investigations by the kenjidan (prosecution) prior to the indictments was the coherent image of a ‘pacifist’ who had approved the arms reduction treaty, the Japan-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty, the emperor organ theory, and had disagreed with the Manchurian Incident, the withdrawal from the League of Nations, the Tripartite Alliance with Germany and Italy, the war against the Soviet Union, and the opening of war with the United States. Concerning all elements of the indictment at the trial, he was judged innocent not only by the United States but by all the Allied nations.”

Leave aside that Hirohito was never indicted and tried, and so could not have been “judged innocent.” How, one may ask, could anything critical of Hirohito have emerged from kenjidan investigations when all the interrogated senior statesmen, military men, and court officials were intent on “protecting the kokutai?” When Hirohito himself was never investigated? When the only IPS investigator even interested in pursuing the emperor’s war responsibility was lawyer Henry R. Sackett? But just as Hata ignores the campaign to “protect the kokutai,” so he ignores the Kido depositions, throughout which Kido, like the other war crimes suspects, lied to protect the emperor. Even then, if Sackett’s interrogations had been used at the trial, a damming indictment might have been drawn from them.5

Another Hata method of attack is footnote excavation with the aim of turning my collection and analysis of Japanese sources against me. Minor errors had crept into the early editions of my book and were gradually corrected with each subsequent printing. Some errors in reading Japanese names and in dating (where the time-gap is insubstantial and of no great consequence) remained, as did a few small errors in the endnotes to the English-language paperback edition on which the Japanese translation was based.6 Although, they have no effect on any interpretations and ideas, Hata seized on them and grossly exaggerated their significance. To correct the many errors and confusions he has sowed by this tactic would be a trivial, unproductive exercise, and therefore best avoided. The few mistranslation that have been uncovered, Kodansha Publishers is planning to correct.

Suffice it to say that Hata’s childish rant extended to everyone who gave publicity to my book, and even the new sources I introduced, such as diplomat Hidaka Shinrokuro, who visited Nanking after its fall, and New York Times correspondent Hallett Abend, who indirectly implicated the emperor in knowledge of the Nanking atrocity. Hata writes that I am filled with “malice” and wish to prove Hirohito’s war responsibility at all costs (Bungei shunju, pp. 140-141). For my part, I can only repeat that I sought to understand the emperor at every stage of his life; and since the war was the most important event in his life, I devoted the fullest attention to it. This meant confronting the question of his war guilt and how he abdicated his responsibility to the Japanese people for the ways in which he exercised power and influence both as head of state and supreme commander.

Although ideologues like Hata live in denial of the Showa emperor’s war guilt, most Japanese people who concern themselves with these questions no longer do. I hope that historians will continue to write the most unflinchingly truthful accounts of the role of the Showa emperor during the 20th century so that they can provide an historical analysis of the problem of accountability in all of its dimensions.7

1. Carlo Ginzburg, The Judge and the Historian (London: Verso, 1999), p. 116.
2. For the concept of the “Machiavellian Republic,” see James G. Wilson, The Imperial Republic: A Structural History of American Constitutionalism from the Colonial Era to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2002).
3. Under the United Nations-centered “new world order” after World War II, much more international law was written and Roosevelt’s successors became shameless and successful in flouting it.
4. Awaya Kentaro, Tokyo saibanron (On the Tokyo Trials) (Tokyo: Otsuki Shoten, 1989), p. 203.
5. Awaya Kentaro, Tokyo saiban shiryo: Kido Koichi jinmonchosho (Materials of the Tokyo Trials: Kido Koichi’s Interrogations) (Tokyo: Otsuki Shoten, 1987).
6. As far as the errors in the English paperback are concerned, the content of one note got put into another note directly above it; there are wrong page numbers for note 102 on p. 743 (it should have been Kojima, Tenno, daiyonkan, p. 9 instead of p. 73); on p. 743 I gave the correct page numbers in notes 20 and 22 but my source is not Ibid but Mori Atsushi, cited earlier; endnote 33 on p. 751 says p. 8 when it should be pp. 112-13; and on p. 780, endnotes 45 and 46 cite Toyoshita,
Ampo joyaku no ronri when it should have been Ampo joyaku no seiritsu. All of these errors got corrected in the Japanese edition, so Hata does not pick up on them.
7. I have not responded to Hata’s personally insulting remarks toward me and the many Japanese scholars and writers whom he named in his attack, since his clear intent was to check, by intimidation, further public discussion of the Showa emperor’s state and individual responsibility for war. Others may wish to comment on his thuggish behavior.

HERBERT P. BIX is a professor of history and sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. His book Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (HarperCollins, 2000) won the Pulitzer Prize. A Japanese version of this article is forthcoming.

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