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From December 7, 1941, until August 1945, the personification of America’s enemy in the Pacific War was Emperor Hirohito of Japan. Public officials, military leaders and the press rarely missed an opportunity to tie Hirohito’s name to the struggle against Japan. For example, General Douglas MacArthur, speaking in March 1942 to the Australian parliament, promised the lawmakers “there can be no compromise . . . We shall die . . . in the fight to drive Emperor Hirohito’s invasion armies back out of the southwest Pacific.” War correspondents were fond of language like, “Hirohito’s invasion hordes were reported striking peak fury down the Malaya peninsula today.”
Often, Hirohito’s name was being uttered in the same breath as the other Axis leaders: “Mr. Hirohito, Mr. Hitler and Mr. Mussolini will be entirely eliminated from the picture—and that soon!” the mayor of Pittsburgh said in a speech. “Mr. Hitler and Mr. Hirohito, take notice!” the Christian Science Monitor started a story about military preparedness. “Hirohito’s invasion hordes were reported striking peak fury down the Malaya peninsula today,” the Associated Press reported.
“Blame Hitler, Hirohito and Benito! . . .Don’t blame your grocer!” was the headline on a 1942 newspaper advertisement from Heinz, explaining why tin rationing might squeeze supplies of some of the “57” varieties.
In 1944, this ad headline in the Spokane Spokesman Review offered an incentive to buying $18.75 worth of war bonds: “How’d you like to send your compliments to Hirohito on a bomb? Well, here’s your chance . . . There’s a parachute bomb that’s all yours, just waiting for your personal greetings to be added to start it on its way.”
But while that kind of rhetoric continued, by 1945 there were hints that Hirohito might not be in the same archfiend league as Hitler and Mussolini.
The government had begun to hint at a go-easy on Hirohito policy, and some columnists were beginning to warm up to it. Direct military attacks and even propaganda attacks on him were being avoided out of concern that doing so would elevate the conflict to a religious war and increase the fanaticism of the Japanese people, and because the word for unconditional surrender would ultimately have to come from the emperor’s lips.
“We confess we are not convinced what should be done with Hirohito,” editorialized the Rock Hill Herald of South Carolina in mid-1945. “We do not know how much responsibility for the war is on his shoulders. It is possible he may be the mere figurehead he is often described to us."
This doubt was by no means unanimous, however. The Japanese capitulation came on August 15, 1945, and American occupation began August 28. Just weeks later, on September 18, Georgia Senator Richard Russell called for immediate prosecution of the emperor for war crimes. Anti-Hirohito sentiment in the U.S. was intense. Polls taken in June 1945 showed three-quarters of Americans in favor of severe punishment for Hirohito as a war criminal, with nearly 50 percent favoring execution, while only 7 percent favored leaving him in office.
A barrage of editorials and columns calling for the arrest, imprisonment and ultimate execution of the emperor continued for several months after the Japanese surrender, even though President Truman and the occupation chief, General MacArthur, had by then made clear that he would stay.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch thundered that retaining the emperor “would perpetuate…the fanatic delusion of imperial divinity and keep unbroken the thread of dynasty leading again inevitably to war.” Others focused on the fact that Hirohito had failed to use the actual word “surrender” in his broadcast to the Japanese nation. The New York Times noted that reliance on Hirohito “appears to be [strengthening] the Emperor’s autocracy.” And Roscoe Drummond, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, asked “By retaining the Emperor, are the Allies promoting anything more than a palace-approved façade of Japanese democracy, behind which the Japanese imperialists will be even freer to work than were the German militarists behind the weak Weimar Republic?”
But by early 1946, a remarkable change in sentiment had come about. In its issue of February 4, 1946, Life magazine published a photographic essay, “Sunday at Hirohito’s”, showing the emperor watering his plants and relaxing with his family. “He is a model family man,” Life wrote, “aged 44, neat and nervous, methodical, thrifty, decent, with a strong voice and handshake, and fond of his wife (a love choice), his children and his mother, who was opposed to the war. He admires Abraham Lincoln…he has read the works of Longfellow and Whittier.” In the final picture in the essay, Hirohito is shown reading The New York Times and Stars and Stripes, the newspaper for U.S. service personnel.
In May, the New York Times, in a story headlined “At Long Last, Hirohito Begins to Enjoy Life,” published a photo of the emperor and his son splashing in the surf. And U.S. opinion polls, which had shown practically no support for keeping Hirohito on the throne in mid-1945, showed in mid-1946 a 60 percent approval rating for MacArthur’s handling of the occupation, of which Hirohito’s retention was a central tenet. That support grew to 81 percent by 1949.
What changed? How did the emperor acquire these new clothes, and what transformed the attitude of US media and citizens? Indeed, why did the Allies decide to retain the emperor? And did Hirohito do anything that actually merited his lenient treatment?
To explore these questions, first it’s important to understand the Japanese perceptions at the time of the “emperor system”, or the Japanese national polity as it is often referred to.
Every country has a polity, as do many institutions such as churches. The word means a system of governance but typically it refers also to the basis of its legitimacy. In the U.S., our polity is based on the statement in the Constitution’s preamble that “We the People” are the source of all authority.
In the Japanese polity, as understood especially by Japan’s wartime military and civil leadership, all authority flowed from the emperor, and a Japanese government without an emperor was unthinkable. Contrast this with the European constitutional monarchies, where royal families are retained out of tradition and even genuine affection, but where few citizens would consider it unthinkable to switch to a non-monarchical form of statehood.
The Japanese word generally translated as “national polity” is Kokutai, but a great deal of meaning is packed into that word. The principles of Kokutai have origins deep in Japanese history, but in order to consolidate power around it, in 1937 the government ordered a committee of scholars to codify the Kokutai principles into a booklet (Kokutai no Hongi, or Fundamentals of our National Polity), millions of copies of which were distributed. Proceeding from essentially religious or metaphysical assumptions, rather than logic and reason, it became the basis for every aspect of domestic and foreign policy, as well as of Japanese civilization and culture. Kokutai implied not a constitutional monarchy, but an emperor-centered state in which the emperor was above the constitution. The “imperial way” was embedded in kokutai as a motivating theology that penetrated every aspect of Japanese life.
Lester Brooks, in his book called “Behind Japan’s Surrender”, described Hirohito’s status in this system as one of “supremely paradoxical fiction.”
Because the Emperor was head of the ‘national family’ and all Japanese (except naturalized ones) were related by blood to him, unblinking, wholehearted belief was given to such slogans as Emperor and People are One. Through ages eternal, past and future, each Japanese had a place in the supreme scheme of things. And the Emperor was the pole star by which he could orient himself and to which he could direct his devotion. It was the combination of three things deriving from this that made the Japanese character distinctly Japanese: unswerving loyalty to the Emperor system, deep conviction of their mission on earth, and belief that their inherited, divinely given qualities were superior.The Japanese constitution, “given” to his subjects by Hirohito’s grandfather, the Emperor Meiji, stated “The Emperor is Heaven-descended, divine and sacred; he is preeminent above His subjects. He must be reverenced and is inviolable.”
In other words, the Emperor was understood to be a living god. And yet, his status as supreme commander of the armed forces was a title without actual authority, and his supremacy over the civilian cabinet was similarly constrained through an elaborate set of rituals, guardians and procedural mechanisms. While the emperor’s signature was required on direct orders (called rescripts) from time to time, in actuality the emperor had no ability to control policy or actions. This had been the case, to a greater or lesser degree, for more than 1000 years until 1868, during which shoguns and samurai ruled Japan and often kept emperors in seclusion and poverty. In 1868 the Meiji Restoration eliminated the shogun and returned the country to a powerful emperor system, but with the Meiji Constitution of 1890, which remained in force through World War II, an elected parliament assumed primary authority and the emperor’s powers were limited by the requirement that any order he issued needed to be signed by a “Minister of State.” And as a practical matter, orders always originated from the government bureaucracy rather than with from the palace.
So the “supremely paradoxical fiction” of the emperor was that he was the head of state, but he was not; all authority flowed from him, but it did not. The Allies began to understand this as early as 1943, and incorporated it into their postwar planning even as they allowed the public and the media to continue another fiction, the demonization of Hirohito.
Historians have mixed views on whether Hirohito was an active participant in the pursuit of what in Japan was called the Greater East Asia War, including its antecedents the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and the war against the Republic of China launched in 1937. He did not object to either incursion, and his questions about the Chinese war dealt with how long it might take, and whether the Soviet Union might become involved. He authorized war against the United States, but said after the war that if he had not, there would have been a coup d’etat including complete with his assassination.
With his network of advisors and private intelligence channels, it’s likely that Hirohito, despite his isolation, always had a good sense of which way the wind was blowing; and by the summer of 1945, he had become convinced that Japan should end the war on any terms possible — although there is a current of historical opinion that says Hirohito actually delayed peace by waiting too long to break with his government’s militarists.
In any event, by midsummer the emperor’s views, those of his closest advisor, the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, Koichi Kido, and of the Prime Minister, Kantaro Suzuki, had begun to coincide around the view that the war needed to be brought to a close.
In early August, following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the issuance of the Potsdam Declaration by the Allies, Kido and Suzuki engineered the convening of an Imperial Conference to consider next steps. This in itself was not unusual. Typically, the conference brought together a dozen top military and civilian leaders; the emperor would listen in silence to a discussion of the issues, and would assent to whatever decisions emerged. At this conference, held late on the night of August 9 in a bomb shelter deep beneath the Imperial Palace, that’s what most in attendance expected.
The discussion revolved around possible conditions for Japan’s acceptance of the Potsdam terms, which called for Japan’s capitulation, occupation by the Allies, the reduction of her territory to the principal islands of Japan, complete disarmament, and the punishment of war criminals. Some in the Japanese leadership hoped to mitigate the impact of these terms by attaching conditions, which included the continuation of the imperial family, the disarmament of the armed forces by Japan herself, the trial of war criminals by Japan herself, and a limitation on the duration and extent of occupation.
Two hours into the imperial conference, there was no resolution in sight. Some of the leaders, including foreign minister Shigenori Togo, were realists, willing to limit the conditions to retention of the Emperor system, while others, hoping to protract the war, favored listing all of the conditions. Finally, in an unprecedented, but premeditated step, Suzuki addressed the deity seated at the head of the table: “Your Imperial decision is requested as to which proposal should be adopted, the foreign minister’s or the one with the four conditions.” Then, the emperor-god spoke to the shocked group.
“Then I will state my opinion,” he said.
I agree with the foreign minister. My reasons are as follows. After serious consideration of conditions facing Japan both at home and abroad, I have concluded that to continue this war can mean only destruction for the homeland and more bloodshed and cruelty in the world. I cannot bear to have my innocent people suffer further. Ending the war is the only way to restore world peace and relieve the nation for the terrible suffering it is undergoing.” He countered the military men’s suggestions for a final, decisive battle that might allow Japan to negotiate better terms by citing a number of specific promises and projections that the military had not lived up to.He continued,
I feel great pain when I think of those who have served me so faithfully: the soldiers and sailor who have been killed or wounded in distant battles, destitute families who have lost all their possessions — and often their lives as well — in air raids on the homeland. Indeed, disarmament of my brave and loyal military is excruciating to me. It is equally unbearable that those who have rendered me devoted service should be considered war criminals. However, for the sake of the country it cannot be helped. To relieve the people and to maintain the nation we must bear the unbearable . . . All of you, I think, will worry about me in this situation. But it does not matter what will become of me. Determined, as I have stated, I have decided to bring the war to an end immediately. For this reason I agree with the foreign minister’s proposal.He had spoken for nearly half an hour. It was the longest public speech in his life to that point. Having achieved his objective, Suzuki immediately adjourned the conference. Some of the military leaders, still hoping for a way around the imperial command, looked for ways to delay. It took five more days, and considerable palace intrigue, for the emperor’s decision to be ratified by the cabinet, for it to be transmitted to the Allies through neutral Swedish and Swiss diplomatic channels, for the allies to transmit a response, for the language of that response to be parsed and discussed, and finally for the emperor to record a message to his people for broadcast over state radio. In the meantime, a group of army colonels attempted to engineer a last-ditch coup, and actually succeeded in penetrating the imperial palace grounds with the aim of taking the emperor prisoner. They also invaded the radio headquarters, seeking to prevent the broadcast of the speech. But in the end the uprising was put down, and mid-day on August 15, for the first time ever, the people of Japan heard the voice of the sacred crane, the Showa Emperor, speaking to them directly.
It was not a message written for immediate understanding, but for the ages; and it was written in an arcane form of Classical Japanese used only at court, with many words and inflections not familiar to ordinary Japanese. Even the English translation sounds stilted:
After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in our empire today, we have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure. We have ordered our government to communicate with the governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that our empire accepts the provisions of their Joint Declaration.He went on to explain his reasons:
The war has lasted for nearly four years. Despite the best that has been done by everyone . . . the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest. Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives . . . . The hardships and sufferings to which our nation is to be subjected hereafter will certainly be great . . . . However it is according to the dictate of the time and fate that we have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.Mystified as his listeners may have been, the gist of the message was clear, the war was over. And it had been the quiet insistence of Hirohito, and his shrewd manipulation of the byzantine workings of the Japanese political system, that had at least hurried the end.
Of course, the story of Hirohito’s pivotal role would come out much later, and at the time of the surrender, the Allies were unaware of it. And certainly the American public and press knew nothing about it and continued to issue calls for a noose to be put around the emperor’s neck.
But American officials had come to the conclusion to accept the continuation of the imperial system, not because Hirohito helped end the war, but for strategic as well as practical reasons. First, U.S. occupation planners were convinced that keeping Hirohito was key to the success of the occupation. With Japanese cooperation, MacArthur projected, he could make do with 200,000 troops, as opposed to the 900,000 or more it might take otherwise. Indeed, even before occupying troops landed on the Japanese mainland, Hirohito had ordered demobilization to begin.
Secret U.S. planning for a postwar Japan began as early as 1943 and was in full swing during 1944. Early on, some zealous schemes had been put forward — for example the idea that Japan would not be allowed to surrender until it was virtually destroyed, and that that would be followed by a 25-year occupation. More rational thinking took hold, and although some of the early thinking was largely anti-emperor, a pro-emperor view gradually came to predominate: if having the emperor in place would help the development of the kind of government to which the Allies would be willing to hand over control, then the emperor should be kept on.
The reasoning went that an occupation could not happen without the involvement of Japanese officials and existing Japanese institutions; most Japanese officials viewed the Throne as the source of their own authority; and removing the institution of the emperor, or stripping him of all power, would lessen cooperation from the bureaucracy by making it feel it had lost its legitimacy.
The proponents also advanced a legal argument, based on the 1907 Hague Convention, which stipulated that an occupying power had no right to change the political institutions of an occupied country. Therefore, removing Hirohito would not alter the existence of the monarchy itself, and a successor would simply take his place.
Still, the final report of the occupation planning group made it clear that its recommendations were just that, and that the Supreme Allied Commander in Japan would have the final say. As it turned out, MacArthur, with President Truman’s support, accepted the council’s arguments. In effect, MacArthur’s policy of using the emperor to help implement demilitarization and other occupation aims coincided with the deeply-held concern kokutai beliefs of the Japanese bureaucracy.
In September, Hirohito met with MacArthur, and a widely-circulated photo of the general towering over the emperor, dressed in formal attire but hatless, was seen as signifying the monarch’s submission to MacArthur’s authority, as well as providing the first hints to the Japanese people that their emperor was a mortal being just like them. In fact, the Japanese government considered the photo so disturbing that at first they tried to ban its reproduction in the newspapers. MacArthur’s staff continued contacts with Hirohito and his advisors, and persuaded him to issue, on January 1, 1946, an Imperial rescript in which Hirohito declared his humanity. It was actually an adroit piece of communication: the English translation implied a renunciation of divinity, referring to “the mistaken belief that the emperor is divine”; while the Japanese-language version for domestic consumption had him descending only partway from heaven, stating, in esoteric language, that the emperor was not a “manifest deity”, and not touching the accepted belief that he was a direct descendant of the sun goddess. And, and in fact, language added by Hirohito to the Allied first drafts included a full quotation of the Meiji emperor’s Charter Oath of 1868, one of the founding documents of modern Japan. The Charter Oath included principles of deliberative assemblies, free enterprise, and abolition of class distinctions. Thus, the rescript served to place Hirohito back at the center of national polity, but this time with a democratic constitutional monarchy.
Of course by this time the spread in Life magazine was already in the works, and the passage of time had already begun to soften attitudes in the U.S., but the perceived renunciation of divinity was particularly well-received by some of the erstwhile anti-Hirohito editorialists and politicians in the U.S.
Also at the urging of MacArthur’s staff, the Imperial Household Ministry, which had for centuries supervised the imperial family’s affairs, began in early 1946 a series of steps to humanize and demystify the emperor. He began to travel around the country, visiting schools and factories and riding in public parades. He would tip his hat to the crowds, and on several occasions shook hands with American servicemen — both unthinkable gestures in the past. Not everyone was thrilled by this — the Soviets considered it to be monarchist propaganda, and even the Australian foreign minister expressed concern — but the travels continued. Later in the year, Hirohito addressed the Japanese Diet to urge the adoption of a new constitution that would strip him of most of his traditional powers, referring to him only as the “symbol of the state and of the unity of the people”.
U.S. newspapers that had been critical of Hirohito began to modify their stance. The Washington Post editorialized, “The notion that Japanese militarism could not be destroyed unless the Emperor, too, were destroyed, was evidently not based on any knowledge of his personal character.”
It helped, of course, that the occupation authority could keep a firm censorial grip on the kind of information and news reporting that came out of Japan, so that by and large it could be ensured that a flow of positive news about Hirohito and the imperial family would reach U.S. readers.
When Hirohito died in 1989, 159 countries sent representatives, including President George Bush and 54 other heads of state. The occasion brought out criticism, especially from veterans groups, and some countries like the Netherlands, in deference to the still-vivid memories of wartime treatment at the hands of Japanese armed forces, sent cabinet-level representatives rather than royalty or heads of state. Still, the ceremony was a final indication of the emperor’s rehabilitation, both domestically in Japan and internationally.
After his radio address in 1945, Hirohito never again made a broadcast address to the nation. It was not until March 15 of this year, in the wake of the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, that a Japanese emperor, Hirohito’s son Akihito, would again speak to the nation, this time on television. Akihito has continued the descent from heaven initiated by his father. His recent speech was delivered in standard Japanese, not the Classical Japanese of Hirohito’s speech, which is still spoken at court. He was the first emperor to marry a commoner; when he underwent prostate surgery in 2003, the public was informed — in the past the state of the emperor’s health had been kept secret. The cause of Hirohito’s death, pancreatic cancer, was not disclosed until after his death; it is unclear whether even Hirohito himself was told the diagnosis after he fell ill. Through Hirohito’s generation, royal offspring were largely raised by court-designated tutors, but Akihito and Empress Michiko actively raised their own children. The royal family and the Imperial Household Agency consciously look to European royalty for role models. To be sure, the imperial family still lives largely in isolation, and is perhaps surrounded by more ritual and stiffness than some of its European counterparts. Jokes about the royal family, commonplace in Great Britain, are out of bounds in Japan. But, although, like any royal institution, the Japanese monarchy is not without its controversial aspects and outright opponents, the Japanese people generally regard the royal family with affection and understand their emperor as a figurehead of the European kind, and no longer as a deity. In that sense, a generation later, the emperor’s change of clothes is complete.
U.S. government photo by Lt. Gaetano Faillance