Hirohito’s Role in Military Adventures, 1927-28

On March 24, 1927, soldiers of China’s Nationalist Revolutionary Army pillaged the Japanese Consulate in Nanking and assaulted the consul; they also attacked buildings housing the American and British Consulates. Later that same day British and American warships on the Yangtze River bombarded the city. The Japanese press immediately sensationalized the Nanking Incident, in which six Westerners died, Japanese rights were violated, and no Japanese troops had been dispatched. Against this background, in the middle of the official mourning period for the Taishô emperor, Hirohito sanctioned Japan’s first military interventions in China’s civil war. Twice, on May 28 and July 8, he gave his consent to the army’s dispatch of troops to China’s Shantung Province, ostensibly to protect Japanese residents from assaults by Kuomintang soldiers on their way north toward Peking. Less than a year later, on April 19, 1928, he consented to another deployment: this time five thousand troops of the Sixth Division, under Gen. Fukuda Hikosuke, to the port of Tsingtao, Shantung, a center of Japanese textile capital and once a Japanese protectorate. He did so after first asking Chief Military Aide Nara whether the intervention would lead to another massacre of Japanese lives such as had occurred in the Russian city of Nikolaevsk (now Pugachev) in 1920. Nara said that it would not.

When Gen. Fukuda arrived in Tsingtao, however, he decided on his own initiative immediately to proceed inland (by rail) to Tsinan. There, a few days later, the first of several clashes occurred between Japanese and Nationalist soldiers. Later, on May 8, Hirohito sanctioned without hesitation the dispatch of reinforcements to Tsinan. The Tsinan affair dragged on into early 1929, during which time seventeen thousand Japanese troops unleashed a reign of terror on the Chinese citizens of the city, wrecking chances for Sino-Japanese rapprochement. For Hirohito this incident was yet another example of Tanaka’s inadequacy as a prime minister.

Less than a month after Hirohito had sanctioned a fourth deployment of troops to Shantung Province, on June 4, 1928, senior staff officers of Japan’s Kwantung Army, led by Col. Kômoto Daisaku, assassinated the Chinese warlord and territorial sovereign, Chang Tso-lin, on whom Prime Minister Tanaka had based his Manchurian policy. This incident (and the prime minister’s alleged mishandling of it) pulled Manchuria into the turmoil of Japanese and international politics. For the young emperor and his entourage, it provided the opportunity they had long been seeking to remove Tanaka and his entire Seiyûkai cabinet.

SOURCE: Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, by Herbert P. Bix (HarperCollins, 2000), pp. 214-215

This passage illustrates what I find so frustrating about Bix’s central argument: that Hirohito wielded actual power as commander in chief of the Japanese military–or, more weakly, that he could have if he had decided to! But it also shows why I’m determined to keep plodding through the remainder of the book. (I’m roughly halfway through its 688 pages of text.)

Notice the verbs (which I’ve boldfaced) that Bix uses to describe Hirohito’s ‘actions’. He sanctioned and consented, and once even asked a question before consenting. Sanctioned is one of those verbs that can mean anything from ‘strongly advocated’ at one extreme, to ‘rubberstamped’ at the other. It is by far the most common ‘action’ that Bix attributes to Hirohito during his involvement in key decisionmaking. In most cases, Bix is reduced to accusing the emperor not of acting wrongly, but of failing to act–more specifically, of failing to rein in a military that was out of control by calling for the punishment of criminal behavior by its officers. Note the unsanctioned actions of Gen. Fukuda and the Kwantung Army officers, which I’ve italicized in the passage cited above.

Despite Bix’s repeated, often tendentious, explications of the silent emperor’s thought processes and intentions at each indirectly documented event, Hirohito never seems to be the initiator of any military action. Instead, he comes across as an irresolute, squeaky nag on his ceremonial white steed, who on nearly every occasion accepts the recommendations of his advisors. His most aggressive actions seem to be directed at civilians, when he dissolves the cabinets of unsuccessful prime ministers. Meanwhile, the military literally gets away with murder. Instead of a commander-in-chief, Hirohito acts more like a nagging national mother-in-law to each new prime minister.

On the other hand, Bix does a thorough and convincing job of answering the question, “What did the emperor know and when did he know it?” Hirohito was well informed about all key events. And Bix’s narrative also recaps clearly the step-by-step road to war between Japan and the U.S., countering two prevalent myths along the way: (1) That the U.S. pushed Japan into war while Japan was willing to compromise. In truth, every escalation of U.S. sanctions was in response to new levels of Japanese aggression in China, and Japanese refusal to compromise on China. (2) That Chiang Kai-shek’s army saved its ammo while Mao’s communists bore the brunt of the anti-Japanese resistance. If anything, it was the reverse during the 1920s and 1930s. The Nationalist army fought well against the Japanese in a number of earlier engagements, even besting them on occasion. If China had had an air force that could bombard the Japanese homeland the way the Japanese bombarded Chinese cities, it might at least have fought Japan to a draw.

At least those are my impressions after reading the first half of Bix’s tome.

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