Checking the galley of the endnotes to “Persona,” my biography of Yukio Mishima with Naoki Inose, I decided to augment a note on Japan’s monarchical system. The tenno institution had a singular meaning for Mishima, and I set aside substantial space in the book for the subject.

The information I added was simple. It is that in the years on the heels of Japan’s defeat in World War II, the Showa Emperor tried to express “profound regrets” for the calamity brought on during his reign. Full information on this came to light fully 14 years after his death.

Kyoko Kato, having published a biography of Michiji Tajima, was returning all the documents she had borrowed from the Tajima family, when she stumbled on an envelope she hadn’t opened. Opening it, she saw two sheets of paper in which Tajima had written the Emperor’s “apology.” It was to be issued as an Imperial rescript but never was.

Tajima at the time was director of the Imperial Household Office (Agency soon afterward). A banking professional for a number of years, he later joined a small startup as auditor, then became its chairman. The company soon morphed into Sony Corporation.

The discovery prompted Kato to write a detailed account of what might have happened. She then published it in the July 2003 issue of the monthly Bungei Shunju.

After the Showa Emperor’s proclamation accepting Japan’s defeat, on Aug. 15, 1945, calls rose for prosecuting him for “war responsibilities.” That was implicit in the Potsdam Declaration of July 26, 1945. The joint communique, threatening Japan with an “inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland,” had also promised: “stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals.”

In the United States, Capt. Robert Lee Dennison specified the navy’s terms at the House Subcommittee for the Far East and the Pacific. The U.S. should prosecute “Hirohito, Emperor of Japan,” if he abdicated, or if the Japanese people forced him to do the same, or if his prosecution did not interfere with the goal of achieving Occupation objectives.

In Japan, sentiment against the Emperor ran equally high. On top of the calamitous defeat, the press, now freed from severe censorship, flooded the country with daily tides of recriminatory exposes on military, political and financial leaders, even as it headlined, at the Occupation’s behest, Japanese atrocities during the war.

Many called for prosecuting the Emperor or else abolishing the tenno institution altogether.

The U.S. Occupation in the end neither forced the Emperor to abdicate nor put him on trial, deciding that either action would indeed interfere with the aim of achieving its policies.

But what did the Emperor himself feel about the war and his part in it? His silence and seeming non-action puzzled many.

Hajime Tanabe, for example, was blunt. “It would be at least morally natural for the Emperor, who represents our nation and rules us people, to take responsibility for the war vis-a-vis foreign countries,” the eminent philosopher wrote, in the March 1946 issue of Tembo. “Albeit with trepidation, I deplore the Emperor’s attitude on this point.”

Tanabe, who had chosen to live a hermit’s life even before the war ended, knew that the Showa Emperor was surrounded by many a councilor and aide, and that it was not the Emperor’s role to speak his mind directly to the people. The surrender broadcast was one of a kind. That’s why he added, “I cannot help but lament his misfortune of having no worthy person among his close aides.”

Still, in the aftermath of the disastrous war waged in his name, the Emperor should act more forthrightly, Tanabe clearly thought.

As Kyoko Kato clarified — if not revealed — nearly six decades later, the Emperor did give a good deal of thought on the matter, at times highly agitated. He wanted to abdicate, he told his grand chamberlain, Tanakobu Mitani. The former diplomat’s advice: Choose the decision that is more painful to you, the one you dislike more.

That was on Dec. 23, 1948, when six former military officers and one civilian were executed as a result of the judgments of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.

In this regard, Shigeru Nambara, president of the University of Tokyo, who must have known what was going on in the Imperial Household, may well have been speaking the Emperor’s mind when he said, during a ceremony for the Emperor’s birthday, on April 29, 1946: “I respectfully surmise that it is His Majesty who feels most deeply a moral, spiritual responsibility for his ancestors, and for his people, as regards his country’s complete defeat that plunged his people into utter misery.”

Michiji Tajima first believed that the Emperor should step down. But as he served him closely and came to know him, he changed his mind and started preparing a statement to reflect the Emperor’s thinking.

In fact, it was known that seven of the Emperor’s top aides each prepared a separate statement and that they discussed them the day before the Dec. 23, 1948, execution of the top-ranking “war criminals.” But they did not agree on the overall acceptability of any of them, for either domestic or foreign reasons, and Tajima’s, along with the others, disappeared.

How would Mishima have reacted had Tajima’s “composition” carefully constructed with ancient Chinese vocabulary been issued as an Imperial rescript? It expressed the Emperor’s “profound regrets under heaven” for having allowed “unprecedented calamities” to occur because of his “lack of virtue.”

This is a question worth contemplating, if only because of Mishima’s “nationalistic” or “right-wing” reputation.

Yes, he argued, in “Voices of the Heroic Souls,” that the Showa Emperor should have been a “deity” (kami) at least twice in his life, once for those “young officers” of the 2.26 Incident and once for the kamikaze pilots. But that incantatory tract also hinted at his notion of “the tenno as a cultural concept” as something not quite nationalistic.

Mishima, who as a young man decided that the tenno institution was the last bulwark of “Oriental mysticism,” argued, before his death, for completely separating the tenno from governance, limiting his role to performing rituals. In that respect, Mishima’s idea of the tenno institution was folkloric.

Mishima most likely attended the Emperor’s birthday ceremony in 1946 at his university and agreed with President Shigeru Nanbara that the Showa Emperor must feel a grave moral responsibility for what had happened.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York. His biography of Yukio Mishima with Naoki Inose, “Persona,” will appear this fall.

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