Professor Stephen Large
Oriental Studies, University of Cambridge

from: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/iaps/tomlinson.htm

Pro Vice-Chancellor, Lady Tomlinson, Professor Aldrich, ladies and gentlemen: I am very honoured by the invitation to give this year’s Tomlinson Memorial Lecture; it is a great pleasure to be here today and to see this beautiful campus.

Emperor Hirohito is one of the most controversial figures in modern Japanese history. His long reign of 'Showa', or 'enlightened peace', lasted from Christmas Day 1926, when he ascended the throne at the age of twenty-five, until his death on January 7, 1989. But although it encompassed Japan's remarkable post-war recovery and emergence as an economic power, it is fair to say that most people today still associate Hirohito primarily with war. The main question about him is, how far how far did he share responsibility for the wars which Japan fought in his name, from the Manchurian Incident in 1931 through the 1941-1945 Asia-Pacific War?

This is a very hard question to pursue, for not only are the relevant primary sources in Japanese often contradictory, they are also incomplete; many were destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II or by the Japanese themselves, in anticipation of defeat and occupation by the enemy. What is more, the 'Chrysanthemum Curtain' maintained by the Japanese authorities makes it impossible to find new documents in the imperial archives which might shed further light on Hirohito's career. We still don't know, for example, whether he kept a diary. If he did, historians would give their eye teeth to read it.

Now, this problem, of sources, and the contested public memory of Hirohito, has given rise to all sorts of myths about him which rely for the most part on inference, rather than on hard evidence. Our job, as historians, is to test these myths against the available documents, in order to try and move Hirohito from the realm of myth to the realm of history, and it is with this in mind that I would like to discuss, in a necessarily general fashion, two of these myths, because of their great influence on how people tend to see Hirohito and his place in history.

The first is what I will call the ‘good emperor myth’, which exonerates Hirohito from significant war-responsibility. Among the chief proponents of this myth were General MacArthur, who presided over the post-war Occupation; Mrs Elizabeth Gray Vining, the well-known Philadelphia Quaker who served as tutor to the young Crown Prince Akihito, with MacArthur’s approval; the imperial household agency, which managed court affairs after the War; and indeed, many of Hirohito’s pre-war advisors, such as the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, Kido Koichi, who told a colleague in 1939: ‘The present emperor is a scientist and very much a liberal as well as a man of peace. Therefore, if the Emperor’s ideas are not changed...the great gap between His Majesty and the right-wing groups will grow’.

The essence of the ‘good emperor myth’ is that Hirohito was a gentle, timid, man more at home in his laboratory examining marine specimens through his microscope than he was in affairs of state; a pacifist who was loathe to go to war, especially with the Anglo-American powers; and finally, a powerless figurehead who was cynically manipulated by military elites bent on war. In this portrayal of Hirohito, the greatest moment in his career was his decisive intervention on behalf of peace in August, 1945, when the military leadership stubbornly refused to admit that Japan had lost the War. From this perspective, it was right and proper that he was retained on the throne, to legitimate the democratic reforms of the Occupation.

Secondly, there is the very different ‘evil emperor myth’, as I shall call it , which was expressed in lurid terms by our tabloids as Hirohito lay dying: ‘Hell’s Waiting for this Truly Evil Emperor’, proclaimed the Sun, while the Star described him as ‘The Sinking Sun of Evil’. More reasoned, although to my mind unpersuasive, versions of this myth are found in journalistic accounts by David Bergamini, the author of Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy, and Edward Behr, and in the published works of such historians as Herbert Bix and John Dower, to name only two. I would guess that with such notable exceptions as Laurens Van Der Post, a great many British and other Allied soldiers who suffered horribly in Japanese prison camps quite understandably see Hirohito through the prism of the ‘evil emperor myth’, as do people all across Asia who likewise suffered at the hands of the Japanese during the War.

To put it briefly, this myth contends that Hirohito played a major role in orchestrating a vast ‘imperial conspiracy’ for war; that in this project he actively cooperated with the military and willingly symbolized Japan’s war effort, for example when in uniform and astride his white horse, he reviewed the troops; and that he cleverly let others take the blame for his share of war-responsibility, both before and after Japan’s defeat in 1945. It follows that he should have been tried, convicted, and possibly even executed by the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, for war crimes which, in the event, were ‘covered up’ by MacArthur, allowing Hirohito to escape from justice.

Of course, I have deliberately simplified the ‘good emperor’ and ‘evil emperor’ myths, in both of which there are various gradations of interpretative emphasis and nuance, but my purpose is to illustrate how polarized people are in their assessments of Hirohito. What I would like to try and do now is to address three key questions arising from these competing claims about Hirohito: Just how much power did he have, to influence national policy one way or another? What kind of man was he---that is, how did his personality, temperament and political style affect his political role? And, what, if anything, was his contribution to Japan's decisions for war? Needless to say, what follows is very much my own perspective, based on my reading of the relevant primary sources in Japanese.

First, the crucial issue of Hirohito’s power is very enigmatic, to put it mildly. On paper, the Meiji Constitution, promulgated by his grandfather Emperor Meiji in 1889, gave the emperor vast prerogatives, to make war and peace, to appoint ministers, to run the government, and to exercise the right of supreme command over the armed forces. But what complicates this picture is that again on paper, and in practice, the emperor was limited at every point by the principle that he would exercise his prerogatives through his ministers of state, who alone bore responsibility for governmental policy, or on matters of defence, through the Army and Navy Chiefs of Staff, who had direct access to the throne, bypassing the cabinet.

What was left, then, for the emperor to do? Basically, his main role was to symbolize the State, to try and hold the government together, and ultimately to ratify national policy by formally declaring it as the ‘imperial will’, which he did by virtue of his supreme sacred authority as the lineal descendant of the Sun Goddess. This last role was not new: as you may know, Japan’s emperors had always sanctioned the policies of the shoguns from medieval to early modern times. Only now, they performed this legitimating function in the unprecedented context of constitutional monarchy.

My point is that like his grandather and his father, Emperor Taisho, who was ill during most of his reign, Hirohito---known in death to the Japanese as Emperor Showa---was not a free agent, politically, and it is far from clear that he himself had the power to ensure either war or peace. He was called 'emperor', or tenno, a title which connoted the mighty power of a Caesar, a Tsar, or a Kaiser, but a better term would have been 'Mikado', which conveys the sense of 'exalted gate', or symbol, of government. In other words, Hirohito reigned over, but did not rule, Japan in his own right; he and his advisors at the imperial palace comprised but one of many elites who shared power collectively. The implication in the ‘evil emperor myth’, that he had the power to orchestrate an ‘imperial conspiracy’ for war, grossly exaggerates his real powers.

Yet, this does not mean that Hirohito was just a ceremonial puppet of other elites, as implied in the ‘good emperor myth’. It was open to him to intervene in times of extreme national crisis, providing, I must emphasize, that he had the significant support of other political elites, as when Hirohito knew he could call upon mainstream army leaders and the imperial navy to help suppress the notorious Army rebellion of February, 1936. He acted decisively on that occasion because he was pledged to defend the Meiji constitutional order, which the rebels, who tried to kill the prime minister and install a general in power, were resolved to overthrow.

His other well-known intervention, which I mentioned earlier, was to end the War in 1945, when the government was completely deadlocked over whether to keep on fighting or surrender after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and after Russia had declared hostilities and overrun Manchuria. But on this occasion, too, Hirohito could intervene only because the Prime Minister, Admiral Suzuki Kantarø, and the ‘peace faction’, invited him and made it politically possible for him to do so. Even then, it was a close call, for many army and navy leaders still were prepared to fight to the last man. By contrast, in November 1941, when the government decided on war, the political circumstances were very different. With the Washington talks at a final impasse and as the American oil embargo threatened to bring the Japanese military to a standstill, all of Japan's civilian and military leaders---including by then Emperor Hirohito, as well--- agreed that total war was unavoidable, to save the Japanese empire.

Besides these rather rare imperial interventions, there is a more subtle, yet important, sense in which Hirohito was not a mere puppet of other elites: the whole policy-making process of 'working through the court' to declare the formal 'imperial will' enabled him to exert considerable imperial influence, as opposed to power, behind the scenes at court, where he was expected to referee conflicts in the cabinet, the armed services, and so forth. The asking of 'imperial questions' (gokamon) during discussions with political and military leaders was his chief means of exerting this informal influence, in hopes that the policies he would ultimately be called upon to ratify reflected his personal desires, as far as possible.

Here, the emperor’s role broadly resembled that of the British Sovereign, whose duty was to consult with, to encourage, and to warn the government, as Walter Bagehot once described it. How Hirohito performed this role, and to what ends on the critical issue of war or peace, brings me to my second question: what kind of man was he---how did his personality, temperament and political style affect his political role? Let me try and answer this fascinating question as briefly as I can.

Having been raised in the closed, conservative, world of the imperial court, Hirohito was trained to perform his duties conscientiously, with due respect for all the tradition, precedent and protocol that defined the complex rituals of court life.
Accordingly, his eagerness to maintain the great dignity of his office made him rather stiff and formal, as well as very cautious in handling affairs of State. Nothing in his background encouraged him to take the initiative, politically.
But if his preparation for the throne was very traditional, Hirohito was also a 'modern' emperor, in that he was by avocation a dedicated scientist who eventually became an acknowledged authority in the field of marine biology. His assidous concern for
order in performing the arcane religious ceremonies of the court, especially the blessing of the annual harvest, was reinforced by his scientific interest in discovering the orderly processes which he discerned in the laws of nature and it is therefore not surprising that he believed, by extension, that good government was government in which each ministry functioned properly within its own jurisdiction and according to the rule of law, to the benefit of the State as a whole.

This is why, at a time when conservative nationalists asserted that as the source of sovereignty the emperor embodied the State, Hirohito himself suscribed to the 'emperor-organ' theory, then prevalent at court, which held that the emperor was only one, albeit the most supreme, of many organs comprising the State. Although he saw it as his duty to play the public role of a 'manifest deity', as the nation-wide emperor cult demanded, Hirohito was too much of a scientist to think of himself as a 'god'. In 1935, Professor Minobe Tatsukichi, the leading advocate of the 'emperor-organ' theory, was widely attacked by nationalists for compromising the absolute nature of imperial rule. Hirohito did not feel free to defend Minobe publicly, but privately, he told one of his advisors: 'To hold that sovereignty resides not in the State', as Minobe had asserted, 'but in the monarch is to court charges of [imperial] despotism'.

He went on, referring to the fanaticism of Minobe's opponents, 'if matters of faith and belief are used to suppress scientific theories, then world progress would be hindered; theories such as evolution would have to be overturned'. He said that 'faith and belief were important but belief and science must move forward side by side.' In the event, Minobe's theory, which appealed to Hirohito's scientific instincts, was roundly rejected by the government, in favour of a virulent emperor-centered nationalism that increasingly held sway in Japan until the end of World War II. In this emotionally-charged atmosphere, most Japanese thought that their emperor was fully in charge of national policy. They did not know the true situation.

Clearly, Hirohito was ill-equipped to deal with the realities of Japanese political life. Instead of order, conflict prevailed all around him: conflict within the cabinet, which changed with alarming frequency; conflict between the civil and military branches of government; and conflict between the army and navy, over national defence priorities in foreign policy. By interfering in political affairs, both services, especially the army, made a mockery of Hirohito's belief that each component of government should operate strictly within its own jurisdiction, as defined by the Constitution.

Where the issue of war was concerned---which was most of the time in the 1931-1945 period---the evidence shows convincingly that Hirohito endeavoured behind the scenes at court to exert imperial influence to prevent war, for example, against China in the 1931-1932 Manchurian Incident; against China again in the undeclared Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945, which the Japanese euphemistically called the 'China Incident'; against the Soviet Union in the Changkufeng and Nomonhan Incidents of 1938 and 1939, when Japanese and Russian units fought savage border wars in the wastes of northeast Asia; and finally, against America and Britain in 1940 and 1941. But in every case, Hirohito's informal interventions were to no avail. The interesting question is, why?

Well, for one thing, the military made a point of concealing its intentions from Hirohito and often acted unilaterally, in total defiance of the government. When this happened, for instance in the military fait accompli of the Manchurian Incident, Hirohito was left to complain at court: 'I believe that international justice and good faith are important and I am striving to preserve world peace, but the forces overseas do not heed my commands and are recklessly expanding the Incident. This causes me no end of anguish... When I think of all these problems, I cannot sleep at night'. He added, later: 'The indiscipline and violence of themilitary and their meddling in domestic and foreign affairs is something which, for the welfare of the nation, must be viewed with apprehension. Be mindful of my anxiety'.

Then, too, Hirohito's own advisors at court---like the venerable Prince Saionji Kinmochi and Kido, the Privy Seal, to whom I alluded earlier---deliberately restrained him, fearing that if he became involved in divisive conflicts over national policy, this would undermine the transcendental authority of the imperial house and the principle of ministerial responsibility. The upshot was that they sought to keep the emperor 'above the clouds' of political conflict and they, too, withheld information from him at key junctures. As Saionji once told a colleague: 'It is not necessary to lie but tell the Emperor things that will please him, in order to ease his mind'.

Above all, Hirohito constrained himself and thereby weakened his own attempts to exert informal influence for peace. Being a timid, cautious, man who disliked personal confrontations of any sort, he typically understated his views during audiences with Japan's military and political leaders. When he disagreed with them, instead of speaking bluntly, he would ask an 'imperial question', usually in a vague way. Sometimes, people knew where he stood. In 1940, the Army Chief of Staff, General Sugiyama Hajime, wrote in his diary, after an audience with Hirohito: 'His Majesty's questions today indicated that he is filled with a desire to avoid recourse to force no matter what. I plan to use whatever opportunity that may arise to change his thinking on this matter'.

More often than not, though, Hirohito's very indirect political style led to serious misunderstandings. This was likewise true when he often chose to remain silent, to signal his disapproval of this or that aggressive policy. The problem was that both his elliptical 'imperial questions' and his enigmatic silences could be, and often were, interpreted as signifying his approval of policies leading to war. In this respect, Hirohito was like the mirror---one of the three imperial regalia, along with the sword and the jewel, allegedly bequeathed by the Sun Goddess to the imperial line---in which others could see the reflection of their own wishes.

Perhaps the best illustration of Hirohito's indirect political style is an episode which took place in early September, 1941, after the so-called 'liaison conference', including Japan's top military and political leaders, had decided to wage war against America and Britain by the end of October, if by then American remained implacably opposed to Japanese aggression in China and to Japan's entry into the Axis Alliance with Germany and Italy the previous year. I should explain here that Hirohito never attended the sessions of the liaison conference, but he did attend the 'imperial conferences' which routimely followed each meeting of the liaison conferences, and at which he was expected ritually to sanction liaison conference decisions by declaring them as the formal 'imperial will'. He was not supposed to say anything at these imperial conferences: it was sufficent that the decisions of the liaison conference were 'reported' to him, whereupon they became official policy.

However, at the meeting of the imperial conference on September 6, 1941, Hirohito departed from custom and surprised everyone present by reciting a poem written by Emperor Meiji on the eve of the Russo-Japanese War, in 1904. It read: 'All the seas, in every quarter/ Are as brothers to one another. / Why, then, do the winds and waves of strife/ rage so turbulently throughout the world?'

His purpose was to urge the government to persevere with the Washington talks, to give diplomacy a chance even as the government prepared for total war. The military agreed, because the deadline for war by the end of October still applied, although, as it happened, the final decison for war was not made until late November. But for my purposes here, the significance of this episode is that it reveals how far Hirohito relied upon very indirect ways to express his point of view. Reciting a poem was scarcely a bold intervention on his part.

Now, I do not wish to suggest that because Hirohito tried, however ineffectually, to exert imperial influence for peace, he was the pacifist that the 'good emperor myth' makes him out to be. To be sure, he had been appalled to witness the horrors of war when touring various World War I battlefields on his visit to Europe as Crown Prince in 1921. However, from an early age, he took a keen interest in military affairs and as emperor, he always insisted on being briefed by military leaders. He seldom participated in planning specific military operations, but at one point late in World War II, he did advocate 'one last big battle', in the Philippines, hoping desperately that victory there would enable Japan to sue for a more advantageous peace later.

So, I would stress that Hirohito was no pacifist, despite his personal opposition to war, particularly war with Britain and the United States. Instead, we should see him for what he was: a committed nationalist, like everyone else in the government, who
was determined to preserve the formal empire he had inherited, which at the beginning of his reign included Korea and Taiwan, and other lesser territories. To reiterate, in late November 1941, he thus agreed that war with the Anglo-American powers was imperative.

He was also pleased by the stunning success of the Pearl Harbor attack and by Japan's early victories elsewhere in the Pacific and in Asia. This, I believe, is readily understandable: once war had begun, he was determined that Japan should win it, since the fate of the monarchy, the nation and the empire was at stake. Later, when Japan was defeated, and when it was fairly plain that the Allies would retain the monarchy, Hirohito at least could say, in the radio broadcast of his imperial rescript on August 14, 1945 announcing the end of the War: 'Having been able to safeguard and maintain the structure of the Imperial State, We are always with ye, Our good and loyal subjects...' The retention of the monarchy was probably his only consolation for a disastrous war which he had tried so unsuccessfully to prevent in private meetings with government leaders.

We shall never know what might have happened, had Hirohito abandoned all caution and risked his life in a public confrontation with the armed forces on behalf of peace-- for example, when he formally opened the proceedings of the Imperial Diet, Japan's legislature. Conceivably, men like General Tojo Hideki, the Prime Minister from October 1941 to July 1944, who were brought up to view the imperial house with great awe, might have been led to think twice about going to war in 1941, had Hirohito publicly opposed war.

Considering the catastrophic loss of life on all sides in the Sino-Japanese and Asia-Pacific Wars, he arguably should have tried to face down the military in this way, even though he and his advisors at court feared that this might trigger another attempted military coup and perhaps his replacement on the throne by his brother, Prince Chichibu, whose greater sympathies with the army were well-known. As Hirohito reflected later, 'I probably would have tried to veto the decision for war, if at the time I had foreseen the future. But there would have been a great rebellion within the country, the men whom I trusted around me would have been killed and my own life would not have been guaranteed.' This fear was not unfounded. Still, what strikes me is that Hirohito did not have it in him to risk a dramatic public show-down with the military. He was not cut out to be a hero.

The time has come to turn to my final question, and relatedly, the big issue of Hirohito's war-responsibility: what, if anything, was his contribution to Japan's decisions for war in the period from 1931 to 1941?

In brief, while I do not think that Hirohito led an 'imperial conspiracy' for war, the fact that he formally sanctioned nearly every decision for war, notwithstanding his personal preference for peace, means that he should have been held accountable for his share of war-responsibility. Whether Hirohito, or anyone else for that matter, should have been executed for war crimes is another question, but given the symbolic importance of the monarchy, it seems to me that by exempting Hirohito from the Tokyo War Crimes trial, and by pinning the blame for war on a selected number of 'Class A' war-criminals like Tojo, MacArthur in effect discouraged the Japanese people from ever confronting their own collective support for war which had been fought in the name of the Emperor. That very few Japanese protested earlier this year, when a conference of Japanese revisionist historians publicly declared that the 'rape of Nanking', in 1937, never took place, suggests what is at stake in this failure to confront the past. Unfortunately, the 'denial' of history is not confined to the likes of David Irving, whose recent court case was widely-reported in the British media.

Owing to the political context in which he operated, Hirohito may have had no choice but to sanction war. Yet, his role in this regard had as much to do with his own self-image as a constitutional monarch as it did with what Japan's elites expected of their emperor. He recalled, in 1946: 'As a constitutional monarch in a constitutional political system, I had no choice but to sanction the decision by the Tojo cabinet to begin the War'. He reasoned: 'If I were to have sanctioned it because I personally liked it, or if I had not sanctioned it because I personally disliked it, I would have been no different from a tyrant'. By contrast, in August 1945, when Prime Minister Suzuki asked him to end the war, 'for the first time I was offered an opportunity to state my opinion freely, without infringing anyone's field of responsibility. Therefore, I stated my convictions, which I had been storing up, and asked [the government] to end the war'.

These sentiments can of course be interpreted as an attempt to evade war-responsibility. However, if MacArthur is to be believed, in their first meeting, in September 1945, Hirohito offered to take all responsibility for the War, to spare Tojo and other Japanese leaders. What we have here, then, is not simply a statement of self-justification to avoid retribution by the Allies, but rather, the expression of Hirohito's true belief in the principles of constitutional monarchy, as he understood them.

This true belief sprang from many sources: the precedent, to which he often referred, of Emperor Meiji's acceptance of constraints upon his prerogatives; the advice of men like Prince Saionji, who saw constitutional monarchy as a means of keeping the Emperor 'above the clouds' of political conflict; and perhaps most importantly, Hirohito's long-standing admiration for the British model of constitutional monarchy, dating from his visit to this country in 1921, just before he was appointed Regent for his ailing father, Emperor Taishø. In particular, the King took the young Hirohito aside and influenced him to believe that a constitutional monarch was obliged automatically to approve the policies of his government, whether or not he personally liked them. This was also the thrust of a special lecture to Hirohito, presented by the historian Professor R.J. Tanner, when Hirohito visited Cambridge, where he was awarded an honourary degree.

Due to these and other influences, so seriously did Hirohito take the King as his model, as if he thought Japan was the same as Britain, that he absolutized the principles of constitutional, or limited, monarchy, even to the extent of feeling guilty about having intervened to suppress the Army rebels in 1936: 'As a constitutional monarch, I overstepped my authority; [rather than declaring martial law] I should have asked the cabinet to order their suppression'.

In retrospect, the point of no return in Hirohito's constitutional self-constraint occurred not with the decision for war in 1941, but earlier, in January 1938. By then, the Sino-Japanese War, which first erupted in July 1937, was already under way and Japanese troops had run amok, in the infamous 'rape of Nanking', the Chinese capital, in December 1937. (I would note in passing that there is no evidence, as some writers claim, that Hirohito authorized the terrible massacre at Nanking, although his brother Prince Mikasa, later reported it to him. Nor is there any hard evidence that Hirohito authorized other wartime atrocities committed by Japanese forces. If he was fully informed of these atrocities, there was probably little he could have done to prevent them, given the almost complete breakdown of civilian control of the military, earlier).

To return to my story, in January 1938, the government wrestled with the question of whether to escalate the war with China, to crush the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek, or to pursue an advantageous settlement through negotiations with Chiang, who had fled from Nanking to Chungking, in the Chinese interior. The Prime Minister, Prince Konoe, and the then Army Minister, General Sugiyama, strongly advocated escalation, but others in the Army, notably the Army Chief of Staff Prince Kani'in and the Vice-Chief, General Tada Shun, held out for negotiations, fearing--correctly as it transpired---that Japanese troops would soon be bogged down in China and therefore unable to cope with the 'real enemy', which they thought was the Soviet Union.

The meetings of the liaison conference, where this issue was debated, were very long and acrimonious. Finally, on January 14, the day after it was finally decided to escalate the war in China, Army Chief Kan'in sought a private audience with Hirohito, to persuade him to reverse this decision using his prerogative of supreme command. However, Hirohito flatly refused to see Kan'in that day because, as he later told the Prime Minister, 'I judged that this might surely be a plan to overturn what had already been decided [by the government]'.

Hirohito apparently thought that he should take a principled stand, to uphold the rule of law and the sanctity of the government's decisions when on so many other occasions, the military had flouted the government. This political priority, it seems, was more important to him than stopping the 'China Incident', which might have been possible since an imperial intervention would have had the powerful support of the Army Chief and the Vice-Chief. But as it was, Hirohito allowed his own constitutional scruples to neutralize the throne politically and therefore missed this last opportunity for peace, with tragic consequences for both Japan and China.

To conclude, throughout the 1931-1945 period it was Emperor's Hirohito's misfortune, and Japan's, that by consistently sanctioning decisions for war, he played straight into the hands of those who eagerly exploited the authority of his office to wage holy war in his name, while knowing that he personally wanted peace. Myths like the 'good emperor' and 'evil emperor' myths scarcely illuminate the great complexity of his historical role, especially the huge gap between his intentions and the effects of what he did, or did not, do, in the stormy early years of his reign.

© Stephen Large, 2000
(publication on the IAPS website does not preclude publication elsewhere)


Stephen S. Large, Emperor Hirohito and Showa Japan: A Political Biography, Routledge: London and New York,

Stephen S. Large, Emperors of the Rising Sun: Three Biographies, Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York and
London, 1997.