Hirohito: String Puller, Not Puppet

Hirohito: String Puller, Not Puppet


As we remember the 73rd anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor today (Dec. 7, 1941), a new, 12,000 page, 61-volume biography of Japan’s Emperor, Hirohito may, or may not shed additional light on his role and influence regarding Japan’s WWII military strategy. Herbert Bix, Emeritus Professor of History and Sociology at Binghamton University and the author of: “Hirohito And The Making Of Modern Japan,” had an Op-Ed in the September 29, 2014 New York Times, discussing the contents of this upcoming release of historical documents concerning the Emperor’s service during WWII. Professor Bix noted that “a large team of scholars and civil servants had been preparing since 1990, the year after his death.”

Professor Bix was asked to “examine an embargoed excerpt from this enormous trove; and then, comment on the emperor’s perspective on various events — including Japan’s 1937 expansion of its conflict in China, and its decision four years later to go to war with the United States and Britain; the trial of war criminals; the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and, the American military occupation of post-war Japan.”

“But, there was a condition,” Professor Bix writes. “I could not discuss Hirohito;s “role and responsibility” in WWII, which would be strictly outside the scope of the newspaper’s reporting. Having devoted years of my life to examining precisely this topic — I refused,” he wrote.

“The release of Hirohito’s official biography should be an occasion for a reflection around the world,” Professor Bix notes, “on a war that, in the Pacific theater, took the lives of at least 20M Asians (including 3M Japanese); and, more than 100,000 citizens of the Western Allied nations, primarily the United States and Britain.”

“Instead,” Mr. Bix argues, “Japan’s Imperial Household Agency, abetted by the Japanese media, has dodged important questions about events before, during, and after the war. The new history perpetuates the false, but persistent image — endorsed by the Allied military occupation, led General Douglas MacArthur — of a benign, passive, figurehead.”

“As I and other scholars have tried to show,” Professor Bix writes, “Hirohito, from the start of his rule in 1926, was a dynamic, activist, and conflicted monarch who operated within a complex system of irresponsibility…inherited from his grandfather, the Meiji emperor, who oversaw the start of Japan’s epochal modernization. Hirohito (known in Japan as Showa, the name of his reign) represented an ideology and an institution — a system constructed to allow the emperor to interject his will into the decision-making process; before Prime Ministers brought cabinet decisions to him…for his approval. Because he operated behind the scenes, the system allowed his advisors to later insist that he had acted only in accordance with his advice.”

“In fact,” Professor Bix argues, “Hirohito was never a puppet. He failed to prevent his army from invading Manchuria in 1931, which caused Japan to withdraw from the League of Nations; but, he sanctioned the full-scale invasion of China in 1937, which moved Japan into a state of total war. He exercised close control over the use of chemical weapons in China; and, sanctioned the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Even after the war, when a new, American-modeled Constitution deprived him of sovereignty, he continued to meddle in politics.”

Professor Bix writes, “from what I’ve read, the new history suffers from serious omissions in editing, and the arbitrary [cherry-picking] selection of documents. This is not just my view,” Professor Bix emphasizes. “The magazine Bungei Shunju asked three writers, Kazutoshi Hando, Masayasu Hosaka and Michifumi Isoda, to read parts of the history. They pointed out, in the magazine’s October issue, significant omissions. Only the first of the emperor’s 11 meetings with Gen. MacArthur was mentioned in detail. Instead, the scholars noted Hirohito’s schoolboy writings and commented on trivialities like the discovery of the place where his placenta was buried.”

“That does not mean the project is without merit,” Professor Bix recognizes. “Researchers collected 3.152 primary materials, including some previously not known to exist, such as the memoirs of ADM. Saburo Hyakutake, the emperor’s aide-de-camp from 1936 to 1944. They documented Hirohito’s messages to Shinto deities, fleshing out his role as the chief priest of the state religion. They collected vital materials on the exact times, dates, and places of imperial audiences with civil and military officials and diplomats.”

“Hirohito was a timid opportunist, eager above all to preserve the monarchy he had been brought up to defend. War was not essential to his nature, as it was for Hitler, and Europe’s fascists. The new history details his concern over harsh punishments enacted in 1928 to crush leftist and other opposition to Japan’s rising militarism, and unilateralism. It elaborates on his role in countering a coup attempt in 1936 by young Army officers who wanted to install an even more right-wing, militaristic government. It notes that he cried for only the second time in his life — when his armed forces were dissolved,” Professor Bix wrote.

“The official history confirms Hirohito’s bullheadedness in delaying surrender — when it was clear that defear was inevitable. He hoped desperately to enlist Stalin’s Soviet Union to obtain more favorable peace terms. Had Japan surrendered sooner, the firebombing of its cities, and the two atomic bombings….might have been avoided,” he writes.

“Why does all this matter, nearly 70 years since the end of the war?” he asks.

“Unlike Germany, where acceptance for the Nazis’ crimes is embedded in government policy, Japan’s government has never engaged in a full-scale reckoning of its wartime conduct,” Professor Bix observes. “This is partly because of the anti-imperialist dimension of the war it fought against Western powers; and, partly because of America’s support for European colonialism in the early Cold War. But, it is also a result of a deliberate choice — abetted by the education system and the mass media, with notable exceptions — to overlook, or distort issues of accountability.”

“The new history comes at a politically opportune time,” Professor Bix contends. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party government is waging a campaign to pump up nationalist pride. Mr. Abe has made no secret of his desire to enhance the monarchy’s status in a revised “peace constitution” that would rewrite Article 9, which prohibits Japan from maintaining offensive [military] forces.”

“The very idea of a carefully vetted official biography of a leader fits within the Sino-Japanese historical tradition; but, raises deep suspicions of a whitewash, as well as issues of contemporary relevance,” Professor Bix concludes. “Okinawans cannot take pride in the way Hirohito sacrificed them, by consenting to indefinite American military control of their island. Japan’s neighbors, like South Korea and the Philippines, cannot be reassured by the way its wartime past is overlooked, or played down; but, neither can they be reassured by America’s confrontational militaristic approach towards Chinese assertiveness.” I would beg to differ with Professor Bix on that assertion; but, that’s an argument for another topic.

“After Hirohito died, in 1989, there was an outpouring of interest in his reign; and a decade-long debate about his war responsibility,” Professor Bix concludes. “Now, after decades of mediocre economic performance, generational divides have deepened, and the Japanese may not take much note. If so, a crucial opportunity to improve relations with Asian neighbors and deepen understanding of the causes of aggression…will have been lost.”

I hope Professor Bix gets a second shot at the apple and can lend his vast historical knowledge to other, yet to be released documents relating to Hirohito’s pre-conflict, wartime, and post-conflict influence and decisions. V/R, RCP

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