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An activist Emperor, pulling the strings

by Jeff Kingston

HIROHITO AND THE MAKING OF MODERN JAPAN, by Herbert P. Bix. New York: HarperCollins, 2000, 800 pp, $28 (cloth).

This is a blistering and persuasive reassessment of Emperor Showa’s reign, debunking the various myths that have accumulated about his allegedly powerless role in Japan’s prolonged period of aggressive expansion between 1931 and 1945.

Herbert Bix, professor of history at Hitotsubashi University, points out that the unmasking of Emperor Showa began 25 years ago, led by Japanese scholars angry about the systematic historical distortions aimed at obscuring his close involvement with the conduct of a war waged in his name and to his greater glory. This magnificent book draws heavily on the accumulated research of these and other scholars and on a variety of primary sources, some of which have only become available since the Emperor’s death in 1989.

The Emperor who emerges from these pages is a man who saw millions die at his behest and then shamelessly spent the last 45 years of his reign participating in the concoction of a history designed to both exonerate him and immunize him from the consequences of his actions.

The book is divided into four sections — the formative years (1901-1921), the context of the Emperor’s rise to power (1922-1930), the war years (1931-1945) and the postwar coverup (1945-1989). The war years are covered in 300 pages, more than twice as long as any of the other sections. There are also 100 pages of notes, with references to back up the controversial assessments and assertions.

It builds on many of the arguments in David Bergamini’s “Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy,” but less sensationally and with a more convincing array of references.

It is telling that the young Emperor’s education involved considerable attention to military studies in preparation for the role that the court expected him to play as the supreme commander of the armed forces. But it also included heavy doses of Social Darwinism and associated notions of racial hierarchy, racial conflict and imperial rivalry. The lessons of the Enlightenment were truncated insofar as they proved inconvenient to absolutism. The 18th-century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, for instance, was “described as a rootless, self-indulgent character who could never keep a job and was worthy of no admiration at all.”

A 1921 tour of Europe proved a key formative experience for the young crown prince, opening his eyes to the world he was protected from as much as possible by court officials. He met King George V, the British monarch, and came away with a favorable impression of “an activist monarch who judged the qualifications of candidates for prime minister and exercised his considerable political power behind the scenes (always pretending, of course, to be neutral and above the fray).”

Bix argues that this became a model for an activist Emperor eager to exercise his prerogatives (which had waned under his mentally ill father) and shape the nation’s policies to his will.

As regent in 1925, Emperor Showa supported the assignment of active-duty officers to classrooms around the country to instill military discipline and loyalty to the Emperor and to serve as thought police aimed at halting the rising tide of liberalism. In doing so, “he inadvertently endorsed the egoistic assumption of military officers that they were ideally fitted to be the moral leaders of society. In the process, he sanctioned a major step forward in preparing the nation for the mobilization of all its resources in the event of war.”

From the very beginning of the Showa era, the Emperor’s court played a key facilitating role in both his active intervention in policymaking and the obscuring of this role. Bix argues that “the chief task of the court group . . . was to ensure that the party Cabinets accepted both Hirohito’s supervisory role and the need to shield him from either credit or blame for his actions in that role.”

The diaries of Emperor Showa’s closest advisers expose as a total sham the popular myth of the Emperor as a powerless victim of circumstances, manipulated by evil militarists. The real Emperor was no passive, out-of-the-loop onlooker. He intervened in the decisions of party Cabinets, halted Diet deliberations and essentially fired Prime Minister Giichi Tanaka in 1929.

The consequences of the Emperor’s actions and choices in the 1930s were devastating both for Japan and for its Asian neighbors. Part III of “Hirohito,” titled “His Majesty’s Wars,” is the case for the prosecution against Emperor Showa that was never made at the Tokyo war-crimes trials. In devastating detail, Bix marshals convincing evidence that the Emperor was intimately involved in the planning and conduct of Japan’s war in China, the expansion into Southeast Asia and the fateful decision to attack the United States.

The documentary evidence (which survived the government’s efforts to burn the damning paper trail in the wake of surrender) proves that “Hirohito not only involved himself, sometimes on a daily basis, in shaping strategy and deciding the planning, timing and so on of the military campaigns, but also intervened in ongoing field operations to make changes that would not have occurred without his intervention. He also monitored, and even occasionally commented on, orders issues by area commanders to their subordinate units. . . .”

In short, Emperor Showa could get his way, when he insisted on doing so, throughout the war and on all the fronts. He often admonished his generals and admirals, second-guessed their decisions, insisted that they keep on the offensive when a defensive strategy made more sense and specifically ordered attacks that were carried out.

He was informed about serious breaches of discipline by military officers and widespread atrocities, but did nothing to punish or restrain those involved. It is worth bearing in mind that at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East held in Tokyo, defendants found guilty of failing to prevent crimes against humanity were hanged.

Bix has little patience with the prevailing view among Japanese conservatives that Japan was victimized by this tribunal. “Victors’ justice” has become shorthand for criticisms that the court railroaded the defendants, ran roughshod over legal principles and imposed an overly critical, one-sided version of events.

The author argues that the trials were indeed a travesty, but mostly because there was an emperor-size hole in the proceedings. In addition, the court did not even consider extensive evidence of certain war crimes, such as the use of poison gas, a scorched-earth policy in China, biological war experiments on POWs, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian “romusha” and the sexual enslavement of so-called comfort women. Instead, “victors’ justice” really meant covering up excesses and serving up a handful of scapegoats to assume the burden of guilt for the entire nation.

Bix argues that the reluctance of the Japanese and of their government to assume responsibility for the war and make amends is a consequence of this failure to hold Emperor Showa accountable. Why, he asks, should those who obeyed his wishes face a judgment that he assiduously avoided?

The conspiracy to obscure Emperor Showa’s role in the war and protect him from prosecution for war crimes involved the top echelons of the U.S. Occupation authorities, especially Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and the Japanese political elite. There were vigorous efforts on both sides to shield the Emperor from implication in and responsibility for the war.

The U.S. sought to use him to support extensive reforms and saw no purpose in making him a martyr for ultranationalists. Emperor Showa and his entourage of supporters and coconspirators had a vested interest in retroactively erasing his actual role during the war; protecting the throne was their priority.

In addition, calls for abdication from within his own family, one of many glimpses of a tense sibling rivalry, pushed the Emperor to cultivate MacArthur’s support and become an advocate of Occupation reforms. Ironically, these included a Constitution mandating that he limit himself to the very role he unconvincingly claimed to have fulfilled during the war: that of powerless symbol of the state.

Gen. Hideki Tojo, one of the Emperor’s closest wartime confidants, was the designated fall guy, and to this end his testimony at the war-crimes trials was scripted (and thus suborned) to ensure that Emperor Showa’s real role was never revealed. Instead, the Emperor and his minders were busy airbrushing the record and creating the myth of a passive leader committed to pacifism who was artfully manipulated by a militaristic clique.

Bix argues that Emperor Showa needlessly prolonged the war with the U.S. out of concern for his own postwar position and acted to end the war mostly because he feared a domestic backlash from war-weary Japanese that might lead to a revolution from below.

He is portrayed as callously disregarding the welfare of his troops and subjects, forcing them to endure merciless bombings because he could not accept defeat. He still thought until mid-June 1945 that a decisive blow would turn the tide and win Japan a more favorable negotiated peace.

His last desperate gamble was the attempt to convince the Soviet Union to broker a peace in July 1945. As early as February 1945, senior advisers had tried vainly to persuade him to sue for peace. Had he done so, the fire bombings of Tokyo, the massacres of Okinawans by Imperial troops, hundreds of thousands of military and civilian casualties and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki might never have occurred. This is the troubling legacy of Showa that has been buried under a sustained propaganda campaign.

According to Bix, “it was not so much the Allied policy of unconditional surrender or ‘absolute victory’ that prolonged the Asia-Pacific war, as it was the unrealistic and incompetent actions of Japan’s highest leaders. The wartime emperor ideology that sustained their morale made it almost impossibly difficult for them to perform the act of surrender.”

Above all, it was crucial to find “a way to lose without losing — a way to assuage domestic criticism after surrender and allow their power structure to survive.”

Bix effectively juxtaposes exonerating versions of the Emperor’s actions with the damning documentary evidence, revealing how the record has been distorted to protect him.

Certainly, this damning portrait will shock readers used to the image of a self-effacing, avuncular monarch with a penchant for marine biology. Yet the architects of denial will be hard pressed to counter such a carefully argued, thoroughly researched tour de force by a historian at the peak of his craft.