Commentary / Japan

The ghost of Emperor Hirohito

by Eri Hotta

The completion by Japan’s Imperial Household Agency of the 61-volume record of the life of Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989) has generated much interest and attention in Japan. The entire formidable work was recently opened to limited public viewing, with a plan to publish it over the next five years. But it is already clear that the new record inadvertently reflects Japan’s continuing inability to address some fundamental questions about its past.

Having taken a quarter-century to compile, the project relied on some 40 new sources, most notably the diary and notes of Saburo Hyakutake, an admiral who served as court chamberlain from 1936 to 1944. But, while acknowledging the enormous scale of the undertaking, specialists seem to agree that the new account offers no earth-shattering findings or innovative interpretations concerning Hirohito’s many and changing roles in the most tumultuous period of Japan’s modern history.

Perhaps this is not surprising, coming from a conservative Imperial institution’s official team of editors. The record takes to new lengths the idea that the historian’s task, as Leopold von Ranke put it in the 19th century, is to show “what actually happened.” It is said to be an excellent chronicle of the court’s day-to-day goings-on, revealing, for example, that the Emperor celebrated Christmas as a boy, that he had nose surgery in his youth, and how often he met with whom.

To be fair, such tidbits can be interesting and useful. But the new account fails to explain or analyze crucial events of Hirohito’s reign.

Readers will be disappointed if they want to learn more about Japan’s entry into the Pacific War, its defeat, the Allied occupation (especially Hirohito’s relationship with Gen. Douglas MacArthur), and Hirohito’s later reluctance to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, where Imperial Japan’s war dead, including Class-A war criminals, are honored.

What is already known about Hirohito is sketchy. That he was a tragically conflicted man is not news. As a young sovereign (Imperial regent at age 20; emperor at 25), he had to assume contradictory roles: divine pater familias of the Japanese state and Supreme Commander of the Imperial armed forces that were colonizing Japan’s Asian neighbors.

He could not have been the bravest or most decisive man, given that he was unable to resist rising militarism. But to say that he was powerless (and thus blameless) or did nothing to oppose it would also be wrong.

The conflict between Hirohito’s divine and secular roles became most acute in the autumn of 1941, when Japan’s leaders debated whether to go to war with the United States and its allies. On Sept. 6, an Imperial conference was convened to approve a timetable for war mobilization in the event of a breakdown in U.S.-Japanese diplomatic talks. As was true of all imperial conferences, Hirohito was expected to remain silent and approve a policy that already had been decided.

Breaking with protocol, however, Hirohito cautioned against giving up on diplomacy too soon, and then recited his grandfather Emperor Meiji’s poem from the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War, in 1904: “Beyond all four seas, all are brothers and sisters/Then why oh why these rough winds and waves?”

Thus Hirohito might have been seeking to express his view that Japan should avoid a war with the U.S., especially given that the country had been fighting a savage and unsuccessful war of conquest in China for more than four years.

But, whatever Hirohito’s true intentions (which we cannot know for certain), the larger fact remains that he went along with the war mobilization. And, while the new official record depicts this well-known episode in some detail, it sheds no new light on how Hirohito understood his own action.

Just as he dithered over going to war with the U.S., Hirohito was hopelessly ambivalent about how to end it. The new record reports that Hirohito told his closest adviser, Privy Seal Koichi Kido, on Sept. 26, 1944: “If one could come to a peace without the question of disarmament or war responsibility, I don’t care [if] our conquered territories [are taken away].” This is reportedly the first indication in the new account about Hirohito’s desire to end the war.

But, whatever his true desire, his subsequent actions were — once again — not those of a man actively trying to find a path to peace. For months, he told himself and others that first “Japan must have another brilliant military gain” over the U.S., so that it would have a modicum of diplomatic clout in negotiating a postwar settlement.

Needless to say, many Japanese and non-Japanese lives were lost during those months of indecision.

Indeed, the very existence of the Japanese nation was endangered, as most cities were bombed, Okinawa was invaded, and atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the end, Japan was disarmed, postwar trials were held, and most of the country’s Imperial conquests were reversed. And yet Hirohito still managed to sidestep the question of his own responsibility in a war that was so obviously fought in his name. Amid the postwar devastation, he became a symbol of peace.

The most important lesson of the new Imperial record, then, might be quite different from what its compilers had intended. Japan’s notorious collective inability to come to terms with its past is deeply entwined with its inability to understand this emperor.

Admittedly, the new account makes only selective use of primary sources, quite a few of which have not been declassified in their entirety. It is possible that more revelations will emerge in the future. But, for now, Hirohito remains a singularly unfathomable and isolated character who defies common understandings — alas, to the detriment of a better understanding of “what actually happened.”

Eri Hotta is the author, most recently, of “Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy.” © 2014 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

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