Hirohito, the Rare Decider

From the Editor’s Preface by Marius Jansen in Hirohito: The Shōwa Emperor in War and Peace, by Ikuhiko Hata (Global Oriental, 2007), pp. x-xiii:

The emperor’s personal thoughts and inclinations remain shrouded in considerable ambiguity. In the immediate post-surrender days when he broke precedent by responding to four questions posed by a New York Times reporter, he seemed to place responsibility for Japan’s failure to declare war before striking at Pearl Harbor on General Tōjō by saying that that had not been his intention. The suggestion that he was avoiding responsibility by placing it on his official advisers caused so much consternation that the Home Ministry tried to prevent publication of that response in Japan. Two days later, on 17 September 1945, when the emperor first visited General MacArthur, he took a different position by accepting full responsibility for everything that had been done in his name…. This accords with the testimony of the many diaries of court officials that have appeared in recent years. True, the Meiji Constitution of 1889 had given the emperor exclusive control as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but those forces, too, were structured and bureaucratized…. On the whole, these bodies reported to the emperor, but did not request decisions from him. Actual military decisions had been reached at Liaison Conferences beteween [sic] the Imperial Army and Navy. Those in turn had to be validated by Imperial Conferences, but those were largely ritual; the emperor remained silent, and responses to occasional questions posed by the head of the Privy Council did not constitute real discussion.

Hirohito had accepted those limitations, as was expected of him. On three occasions he had emerged with clear-cut personal opinions. At the very inception of his reign he had been appalled by the indiscipline involved in the Kwantung Army‘s arrangement of the assassination of the Manchurian warlord Chang Tso-lin, and his sharp questioning of Prime Minister General Tanaka Giichi had led to the cabinet’s resignation. But soon afterwards, he recalled, complaints were making the rounds to the effect that unnamed senior statesmen and a palace cabal had brought the government down. Alarmed senior statesmen remonstrated with the young (he was twenty-six) emperor and stressed the restraint expected from a constitutional monarch. He, in turn, had resolved to keep a lower profile in the future.

On two later occasions, Hirohito had departed from this position. The first was in 1936, when young army rebels tried to force a change in government by murdering senior statesmen and surrounding the palace. The emperor’s role in suppressing this, the subject of Professor Hata‘s first chapter, could be explained by the fact that because of the absence of a prime minister, who had been thought to be murdered, it fell to him to govern. The other came in August 1945, when the cabinet was split on the manner of surrender and the prime minister turned to the emperor to ask him to decide.

We are left with puzzles that will probably never be resolved. Clearly, as Professor Hata and others have shown, Emperor Hirohito had immense power, but the condition of retaining it was judicious restraint in exercising it. His role in the normal procedures put in place by the Meiji Constitution made it unlikely that those powers would be tested. With the military, where his will was less explicitly restrained, lines of authority were also institutionalized in General Staff and command functions. It is clear that the military, and particularly the army, authorities frequently flouted his will. It is also true that his disapproval could blight a career, as seems to have been the case with Ishiwara Kanji, the key planner in the Manchurian Incident whose brash behaviour at a Palace function is recorded in the opening chapter. The summary of planning sessions before the occuption [sic] of French Indo-China, recorded in the papers of General Sugiyama Hajime, shows the emperor as an intelligent and worried participant, asking questions about the adequacy of the preparations and about the possible reaction of the democratic powers to that momentous step. But at other times, as with the reinforcement of Guadalcanal, Professor Hata shows that the emperor’s opinion carried little weight with even field-grade officers at headquarters. Yet, as was seen in 1936 and again in 1945, the possibility of his intervention was always there.

In his monologue Hirohito pleaded constitutional restraints as explanation for his failure to intervene in 1941. ‘In truth the (American) embargo on oil placed Japan in a dilemma’, he said, and made the military call for war while it was still possible. ‘Believing at the time that even if I opposed it, it would be pointless, I remained silent.’ And yet, ‘In hindsight, I probably would have tried to veto the decision for war if at the time I had foreseen the future’, but it would have been at the possible cost of coups and violence that would have made it impossible for him to act in the final crisis in 1945; Japan might have been even worse off than it was.

On the other hand, there is every reason to think that Hirohito shared in the national exultation for the initial victories as Japanese armies stormed through Asia. A flurry of rescripts and congratulatory statements greeted the news of Pearl Harbor, Singapore, the East Indies, Manila, Burma and the Coral Sea. In each case, the warriors were assured, Chin wa fukaku kashō su, ‘We are deeply gratified’ [朕は深く嘉賞す? Is kashō 嘉賞 ‘approve’ or 過賞 ‘overpraise’?]. There is also evidence that he remained optimistic of a military victory that would provide leverage for negotiation on surrender long after it was realistic to do so, and that the slowness of his move towards the position of the peace faction, made without advance signals of any sort, lengthened the conflict and the casualty lists.

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