Walter Hamilton. A Chandelier in the barracks.

Oct 9, 2014

In July 1940, five months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Emperor Hirohito met with his military planners to discuss the details of Japan’s new “southward advance” policy. An apparently skeptical Hirohito asked them a series of questions, including whether the policy would involve “occupying points in India, Australia and New Zealand.”

Although Japan’s supreme commander felt nervous about his country’s impending military adventure, he did not resist it––as he had, for instance, in 1936 when his disapproval was sufficient to crush a military coup by disaffected elements of the Imperial Army.

Both episodes show Hirohito to have been a much more activist leader than some portrayals suggest.

The latest attempt to paint Hirohito as a strict constitutionalist, obliged to follow the advice of his ministers, and look mildly martial on a white horse, is a 61-volume, 12,000-page publishing colossus, the Annals of the Showa Emperor. (Showa is the era name of Hirohito’s reign that lasted from 1926 to 1989.)

Commissioned by the Imperial Household Agency, and 24 years in the making, it supposedly brings together all available documents related to the Emperor’s life. The first volumes are due to be published next year, with the remainder dribbled out to the public over five years.

Although the work contains some new material of interest to academic researchers, critics complain that, on major points of historical conjecture, it is both incomplete and intentionally obscure. The Mainichi newspaper found it contained “hardly anything new” of real significance. The annals’ summaries make it impossible to link information to a particular source; it omits any direct quotations attributable to the Emperor; and some records of his close aides are withheld altogether. (I rely for this analysis on Japanese media and academic sources, since only a select group of individuals so far has been allowed to see the contents of the annals.)

One example stands out. While the annals make reference to a 2006 newspaper article about a memo in which Hirohito is quoted as criticizing the honouring of Class “A” war criminals at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, the actual memo is not among the documents reproduced. It is not known whether this particular omission was done to appease the Abe Government, with its strong nationalist bent, but there can be no doubt that the project as a whole set out to avoid controversy.

Professor Herbert Bix, author of Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan* told the New York Times he had been asked by a Japanese newspaper to comment on the annals––on condition he refrained from discussing Hirohito’s “role and responsibility” in World War II. Having expended much time and effort researching the Emperor’s close involvement in military planning, Bix naturally declined: “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…”

The annals cultivate the image of a leader who was war shy and peace friendly, and yet this analysis cannot withstand even the most superficial investigation. If Hirohito had the power to end the Pacific War in August 1945––and he did play a decisive role––why did he not have the power to prevent it starting in December 1941 or to bring it to an end much sooner? The evidence, in fact, shows he was enthusiastic about Japan’s early military successes and only swung his support behind the “peace faction” once his very existence was threatened by atomic annihilation.

Australia wanted Emperor Hirohito put on trial as a war criminal, together with the military, industrial and political leaders who were convicted, and in some cases, executed. The United States, however, took the view that hanging Hirohito would play into the hands of Japan’s Communists and make the postwar occupation (and security realignment) of Japan that much harder. The Chifley Government eventually concurred.

For the President of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, the Australian Justice William Webb, Hirohito’s immunity from prosecution rankled: “No ruler,” he wrote in his separate opinion on the Tokyo Trials, “can commit the crime of launching aggressive war and then validly claim to be excused for so doing because his life would otherwise have been in danger.” Evidence of Hirohito’s responsibility was suppressed during the actual hearings until Hideki Tojo slipped up while being questioned by a defense lawyer. “No Japanese subject,” insisted the loyal wartime prime minister, “let alone a high official of Japan, would ever go against the will of the Emperor.” Tojo was later given a chance (by the prosecution) to “correct” his mistake, but that ghost could never be laid to rest.

Hirohito died in 1989 at the grand old age of 87. I remember, on the occasion of his funeral, standing with the crowds lining the streets near the Imperial Palace, sleet falling on a bitterly cold February day, and reflecting on the legacy of a man who had led Japan through its darkest and its brightest days, first by means of war and then by means of peace. The shuffling, bespectacled, grandfatherly figure I had witnessed performing his many official duties––whose only public opinion was an enigmatic smile––seemed to have redeemed himself. Certainly, at least, he and the Americans (those mighty republicans) had saved the imperial institution.

But there was a cost, which we are still paying.

Professor Bix, in his analysis of Japanese power, identified a “system of irresponsibility,” a closed circle of buck-passing in which politicians and generals acted in the name of an Emperor who, in turn, acted in accordance with their advice. Thus no individual took the blame (each of the Tokyo Trial defendants pleaded “not guilty”) for ideas and actions that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people.

In some respects modern, democratic Japan perpetuates this system of irresponsibility, including in the way it refuses to render a full and proper accounting for the past.

Japan spent ten years between 1931 and 1941 creeping towards war with the great powers. The imperial institution was the chandelier in the barracks: a decorative incongruity lighting the way for the militarists. Still remote and unaccountable, I wonder what way it will light for Japan in the days ahead.

* From my reading of his book, Bix seems unable to make up his mind whether Hirohito was a warmonger or an acquiescent nationalist, and some of his conclusions about the personality and temperament of the young Hirohito go beyond the evidence adduced. But, particularly in its second half, the book effectively demolishes the revisionist arguments of Japan’s “textbook” patriots.

Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for the ABC for eleven years.



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