The official history of Hirohito — decades in the making — is deeply flawed

tags: Japan, Hirohito

Herbert P. Bix is emeritus professor of history and sociology at Binghamton University, and the author of Peasant Protest in Japan, 1590-1886and Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. His essays on foreign policy and Japanese history have appeared in books, scholarly journals, and leading newspapers in many countries around the world. He is an Asia-Pacific Journal Contributing editor.

On September 9, 2014, the Imperial Household Agency released to the public its carefully vetted Authentic Account of the Showa Emperor’s Life and Reign (Showa Tenno Jitsuroku). This was the long-awaited official version of nearly every aspect of Emperor Hirohito’s long life and reign. Compilers, researchers, and outside scholars of the Agency’s Archives and Mausoleum Department—including a few specialists in modern Japanese history--started on the project in 1990. It took nearly a quarter century to finish. Through negotiations they secured the cooperation of imperial family members, chamberlains, and others who had worked closely with the emperor and were prone to self-censorship in revealing what they knew about him. They collected a huge trove of 3,152 primary materials, including some unpublished, even unknown diaries of military and civil officials, all of which were arranged chronologically in 61 volumes.

Included in the Jitsuroku are documents that flesh out his childhood, education, and regency during which his protective entourage instructed him to study hard so that he could participate fully in political and military decision making once he took up his duties as emperor--something his chronically ill father the Taisho emperor had been unable to do. Precious material on who and when the emperor met civil and military officials was included, thereby enabling historians to construct more accurate chronologies of decision making for war and diplomacy. Confirmed by documents beyond any doubt was the emperor’s bullheaded insistence on delaying surrender when defeat was clearly inevitable--inevitable, that is, to everyone but him. The U.S. firebombing of Japanese cities, the mass slaughter of civilians in the Battle of Okinawa, and the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki followed as fateful consequences of the decision to postpone surrender.

Journalists, writers, and a few specialists in modern Japanese history who were given pre-publication access to a PDF file of all volumes, quickly realized that the Jitsuroku can never stand as a truthful record of the emperor’s entire life, perhaps least of all that portion of it in which he participated with others in guiding the China war from 1937 onward and later when he joined the war party by selecting Gen. Tojo Hideki as prime minister in October 1941, and thereafter extended the China conflict to the vast Asia-Pacific region.

Despite publication of valuable new materials, some commentators saw that the Jitsuroku dodged questions about important events before, during, and after Japan’s lost war. The official history does not have truth as its objective. Rather, it is based on the premise that the emperor was a non-political, constitutional monarch. In that sense it is a form of domestic propaganda and fails to compel a major revision of existing critical biographies and monographic studies of the monarchy by eminent Japanese historians.2 The critical works show that from the start of his reign in 1926 the young Showa emperor was a dynamic, activist and conflicted monarch operating within a complex system of political irresponsibility inherited from his grandfather, the Meiji emperor.

This system veiled him in secrecy, leaving him conveniently free to act energetically behind the scenes, guiding the nation’s course with the aid of close court advisers. Japanese historians had already established that during the period of the Manchurian “incident” (1931-33), which marked the start of Japan’s long war in China, the emperor knew full well his will had been violated by a cabal of Kwantung Army officers. But he sanctioned their aggression after the fact for he believed Japan’s colonial implantation in Manchuria had to be protected from Chinese nationalism, and also because his political advisers discouraged him from acting as he wished.

The tactic that Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Makino Nobuaki and retired elder statesman Saionji Kinmochi used to justify compromising with the military was imperial “constitutionalism.” Meiji had bequeathed Showa not only an empire with treaty rights in China but also a constitution that he could hide behind while operating secretly and energetically. Further complicating the picture was his special relationship to the army and navy which he alone directly commanded, and his need to uphold the principle of constitutionalism even though it was merely a tactic for avoiding responsibility for his actions. The complex Meiji system of oligarchic government enabled a privileged few to dominate decision-making and mandated Hirohito to play multiple roles and wear many faces. He was chief priest of State Shinto, supreme commander of the armed forces, superintendent of all the powers of sovereignty, and the nation’s teacher of morality, accountable only to his dead ancestors. Moreover, the Meiji constitution gave priority to his imperial will rather than the Cabinet’s, and it did so before prime ministers ever brought policy documents to him to approve.3 The emperor worked hard to maintain this system.

Also assisting Hirohito in strengthening the monarchy was religious myth grounded in “state Shinto” and in the notion of him as the unifier of rites and governance. Hirohito knew quite well he was not a living deity but thought it good if the people, especially his armed forces, believed he was. Thus, Hirohito can be called a leader comfortable with deceiving the public but at no time before 1946 can he be called a real constitutional monarch; nor was he one afterwards when the new American-modeled constitution redefined him as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people.”


The Jitsuroku compilers summarize historical documents and quote directly from them when it made the emperor look good. The reader is left to analyze events of Hirohito’s reign on his or her own without access to many key documents. The official history fails to provide a clear picture of Hirohito documents that remain classified. Omitted from the official history are many of the emperor’s exchanges with important foreign leaders. It is unclear, for example, whether the Jitsuroku includes the stenographic records kept by Japanese interpreters at his meetings with General MacArthur during the occupation. We need to know whether, after the new constitution went into effect, Hirohito actually lobbied MacArthur for a military relationship with the U.S. at their fourth meeting (May 6, 1947), or at their tenth meeting (April 18, 1950) pressed him to crack down on Japanese communists. Has the Jitsuroku ended speculation about what was said at these meetings?

Quite apart from its method of presenting materials, the official history fails to consider the glaring shortcomings of the emperor’s performance as a leader, and the institutional structures and legal documents on which rested his performance down to Japan’s capitulation on August 15, 1945. These included the 1889 Meiji Constitution and the 1890 Education Rescript, which confirmed his exclusive authority as the nation’s teacher of morality.

In dealing with the postwar emperor the compilers give little consideration to the meaning of the 1946 Constitution of Japan, which preserved the throne with the wartime emperor on it but stripped of political power. This incorporation of the monarchy into Article 1 of the constitution created long-term problems. It meant that postwar Japan, unlike postwar Germany, could not be reformed on the basis of a fundamental disavowal of its wartime past. That was impossible to do because the Americans preserved the single most important component of the prewar state--the emperor--and never interrogated or indicted him to face war crimes charges. So General MacArthur was free to use him for his own purposes of occupation control while Japanese ruling elites adapted to American policies and rarely stood up publicly to Washington’s policies no matter how illegal or unjust they were....

Read entire article at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus

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