Gaps in record of late Emperor’s life

The Imperial Household Agency has made public a multi-volume record of the life of Emperor Hirohito — posthumously known as Emperor Showa — who reigned from 1926 to 1989. The 61-volume, 12,000-page record, whose compilation took more than 24 years, follows the late Emperor’s activities day by day, including the tumultuous years of the Sino-Japanese War of the 1930s and ’40s, and World War II.

The early part of his reign was characterized by the rise of militarism in Japan, which led the nation on the path to war. Although the record contains only a few new discoveries, studying the life of Emperor Hirohito cannot be separated from the act of taking a hard look at and deeply reflecting on what Japan did in its war years.

As next year marks the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in WWII, it will be all the more important for us to learn historical lessons by carefully studying the record, which will be published over a period of five years beginning next March.

To compile the record, the agency collected its daily records and other official documents, diaries written by close aides of the late Emperor and documents written by others so far not open to the public. It also checked documents held by other government organizations, local governments and records kept in other countries like Britain and the United States, which the Emperor visited. It also interviewed nearly 50 people who were close to the Emperor, including his chamberlains.

But because the agency concentrated on recording objective facts and refrained from directly quoting the Emperor’s remarks verbatim, the record is rather flat and lacks verve.

In the days leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Emperor Hirohito is described as expressing concern over starting a war with the U.S. But in a conference in his presence on Dec. 1, 1941, which decided on the opening of hostilities against the U.S., the Emperor is described as completely passive and silent. In contrast, the Emperor is described as actively working to end the war, expressing his opinions clearly in conferences on Aug. 10 and 14, 1945, for example.

There has been keen interest among historians and writers in what the record would have to say about Emperor Hirohito’s 11 meetings with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in occupied Japan from Sept. 27, 1945, to April 15, 1951. But the record only carries details of the conversation between the Emperor and MacArthur in their first meeting, as quoted in a Foreign Ministry material already made public. The Imperial Household Agency says the full record of the conversation has not been found. For the other 10 meetings, the record carries only general outlines of the conversation.

The Emperor’s statement that he accepted full responsibility for all the political and military decisions and actions in the execution of the war is taken from MacArthur’s memoir, not from materials kept by the Imperial Household Agency. It will be necessary to delve into records of the Emperor’s remarks kept in official U.S. documents as well as try to find new materials to shed more light on the exchange between him and MacArthur.

In quite a few cases, the record refrains from making direct quotations from the Emperor’s remarks that were mentioned in diaries kept by his close aides or uses only abstract expressions about facts that are already known through news reports and such diaries.

For example, it is known through a memorandum written in the 1980s and left by the late Tomohiko Tomita, who served Emperor Hirohito as Imperial Household Agency grand steward, that the Emperor was strongly displeased with Yasukuni Shrine’s decision to enshrine 14 Class-A war criminals in October 1978 and that this act prompted him to stop visiting the shrine, to which he had paid a pilgrimage eight times after the war. But the record’s entry for the Emperor’s April 1988 meeting with Tomita only says that the Emperor talked about the enshrinement of Class-A war criminals to Tomita, without showing what he actually said.

In each entry, the record refers to materials used but does not indicate what part of the description has been taken from which part of what material.

Over many years after the war, close aides of the Emperor wrote down what he said about Japan’s war in the 1930s and ’40s and his intention to abdicate after Japan’s defeat in WWII. But the record does not include these statements. The Imperial Household Agency says that the records of such statements could not be found. If the agency is correct, it apparently did not make serious efforts to keep all records that documented what the Emperor actually said about important events in Japan’s modern history.

It is imperative that the agency and the government, for that matter, establish a reliable method to manage and keep historical records.

The agency unearthed so-far unknown materials, including a diary kept by Saburo Hyakutake, who served the Emperor as grand steward from 1936 to 1944. But the agency has not yet fully disclosed daily records kept by chamberlains and other close aides of the Emperor as well as other documents, on the grounds that they are private documents belonging to the Imperial Family.

The materials used in compiling the record numbered more than 3,000, but it appears that these materials were not fully drawn upon in writing the record.

While the record will serve as an important resource for understanding Japan’s history in the Showa Era, there remain many blanks on what Emperor Hirohito said or did during his reign. The agency should disclose as much material as possible so that people will be able to know the accurate history of his era and hand down lessons from it to future generations.

  • David L

    The biggest mistake America made was that it failed to prosecute Hirohito as a war criminal.

    • phu

      From an entirely literal and idealistic standpoint, I could agree with this. However, dealing with humans means a lot of messy compromise and nasty things like feelings and tradition.

      Japan was dealt with quite severely (with good reason); trying the emperor, though, could have pushed it beyond “damn, we lost” and “crap, we shouldn’t have done that” into “they’re attacking our Emperor, REVOLT,” or at very least even further souring the next several decades of relations between Japan and the rest of the world.

  • phu

    Unfortunately, you make a good point about the failure to honor a right to accountability being standard worldwide. It continues to get worse as our governments simply give themselves more and more power over us while simultaneously removing or denying our avenues for disclosure or recourse.