Daily Archives: 10 June 2022

Hirohito’s War Information Sources

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 81-82, 108:

At home in Japan, the defeat at Midway only sank in slowly, partly because of reluctance to lose face, and partly because of continued problems with communication and cooperation among the different services. “I did not hear of the Midway defeat till more than a month after it occurred,” Prime Minister Tōjō said after the war. Hirohito, by contrast, was informed immediately about the disastrous defeat, including the loss of the four aircraft carriers. With access to more unbiased information than perhaps any other person in his empire, he was the only one to receive reports from the chiefs of staff of both the Army and the Navy, whereas the services were usually careful not to volunteer information to each other. This placed Hirohito in his own private tragedy: fully aware of how desperate the situation was becoming, but unable to do much about it.

On December 12, Emperor Hirohito went to the Grand Shrine at Ise, a city west of Tokyo. It was one of the holiest places for the official Shintō religion, and a suitable venue for the ruler to consider the position of the nation that saw him not just as a leader but a god, and had already sustained terrible sacrifices in his name. Performing rites going back many generations, he was now staring down into an abyss darker than any of his ancestors ever had to contemplate. The night before, he had spoken with complete candor to his military aide-de-camp, Colonel Ogata Kenichi. The emperor had recounted the numerous battles that had consumed Japan for more than a decade, beginning in Manchuria, then in the rest of China and now all of the Pacific. “It is easy to start a war but hard to end it,” the dejected ruler had said.

The fall months, filled with interminable and increasingly hopeless fighting in the deep south far from Japan’s own shores, had seen Hirohito subtly change his mind about the war. The setback on the Kokoda Trail had come as a particular shock. “From the time our line along the Stanley Mountain Range in New Guinea was penetrated, I was anxious for peace, but we had a treaty with Germany against concluding a separate peace, and we could not violate an international commitment. This was the dilemma that tormented me,” Hirohito told close collaborators after the war. Even small victories could not lighten his mood. After the Santa Cruz battle, in which his warriors had sunk the Hornet, he had congratulated them in a statement, which, however, also carried a cautionary note: “We believe the war situation is critical. Officers and men, exert yourselves to even greater efforts.”

The start of the year 1942 had seen the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy in triumphant mode. As the months passed, it had begun to take on the form of an annus horribilis. However, as his view of the war turned bleaker, Hirohito decided to up the ante. Gamblers come in two categories. There are those who decide to cut their losses when their fortunes fail them, and then there are others who raise the stakes. The Japanese ruler belonged to the latter type. On the last day of the year he met with his senior commanders and agreed that the Guadalcanal operation must be called off. Instead, greater emphasis would be placed on New Guinea. Hirohito was hoping for, if not actively seeking, a big all-or-nothing battle with the Americans that could shock them, and their casualty-averse public, into agreeing to a negotiated end of the war. The year 1943 would put that notion to the test.

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