Hirohito: waffler or warlord?

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan
April 5, 2002

The wars of the 20th century were disastrous for monarchs and monarchies. Many kings and emperors departed in 1918, while the second world war resulted in another cull. As the head of state of a power on the losing side, Emperor Hirohito was fortunate to keep his throne. The western allies deemed, pragmatically, that the rehabilitation of Japan as a pro-western democracy required the continuity provided by the emperor, and argued that Hirohito had been more the prisoner of the militarists than the instigator of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the leader of the Japanese war effort.

Studies of the Showa emperor - "Showa", meaning enlightenment and peace, was the name Hirohito chose for his reign - have differed on the extent of his responsibility for Japanese policies in the 1930s and for the outbreak of war in the Pacific in 1941. Herbert Bix follows Edward Behr ( Hirohito : Behind the Myth , 1989) in depicting Hirohito as a man who rode the tiger of militarism and covered his tracks with the aid of General MacArthur. In this biography, he draws on an array of primary sources and the many works by Japanese historians that have been published since Hirohito's death in 1989.

Though inelegantly written, this is an important contribution to our understanding of the origins of the Pacific war, the intricacies of Japanese decision-making and the postwar role of the emperor. The assemblage of so many different but overlapping accounts of events and decisions, taken from the notes, diaries and memoirs of participants, allows us to appreciate the nuances behind the emperor's announcements and decrees and the complexities of the shifting alliances and uneasy compromises that maintained the appearance of consensus. But Bix does not succeed in establishing his main thesis of a "dynamic" emperor who "participated, directly and decisively, as an independent force in policy-making".

To the mass of his subjects and to the British and American servicemen fighting Japanese soldiers who fought tenaciously and savagely for their emperor, Hirohito appeared, until 1945, to be an absolute ruler. But his real position was much more circumscribed. It reflected the ambiguities of the Japanese constitution and the convoluted decision-making that characterised Japanese policy. The emperor was the essence of the Japanese polity, expected to reign and rule, yet responsible to the Diet. Different readings of the 1889 constitution could see all power reposed in the emperor or conceive of him as an "organ of the state". His special relationship with the army and navy, which he commanded on the advice of service chiefs, rather than the civilian government, posed a further complication.

Most writers on Hirohito agree that the young emperor desired to be a constitutional monarch on the British model. Bix largely accepts this but argues that such a model could not be applied under the Meiji constitution because the imperial house was the "one effective force for integrating state and nation, civil government and military affairs". Here, perhaps, is the basis for the main charge that can be brought against Hirohito: that he failed to assert himself sufficiently. This is the implicit subtext of much of the book, but Bix is too much the anti-monarchist to make it explicit. Whether Hirohito favoured good relations with Britain and the United States, whether or not he backed a "forward" policy in China or alliance with Germany and Italy, he failed to coordinate state and government and to ensure that decisions and strategies were rational and calculated. He allowed Japan to drift, headless, divided and overstretched towards a war it could not win.

Establishing the degree of Hirohito's responsibility is not easy. The emperor, whether in personal meetings with ministers or at meetings and conferences, did not give much away. He used the right of a constitutional monarch, as defined by Walter Bagehot, "to be consulted, to encourage and to warn". He often interrogated ministers and generals about policies and plans, but he did not give commands. Sometimes he was silent, and his wishes had to be discerned from his expressions or gestures. At the conference in September 1941 when preparations for war with the US, Britain and the Dutch East Indies were being made, Hirohito broke his silence to read a haiku that his grandfather Emperor Meiji had written at the start of the Russo-Japanese war; here was a cautious man whose mind had to be read. Whether even access to the documents preserved by the Imperial Household Agency would provide definite answers as to his influence is dubious.

Bix never proves that the emperor initiated moves towards war. His Hirohito goes along with decisions, he approves them, he questions them, but he does not initiate. He provides plenty of evidence that the emperor was involved in Japan's slide towards war, but who could have ever doubted this? The question is, did he lead or reluctantly follow?

Perhaps Hirohito's fault was that he interpreted his constitutional role too negatively and went along with the general policy of the court, which was to ensure that he was not put in situations where he would have to make a decision. This was the Hirohito portrayed in Stephen Large's Emperor Hirohito and Showa Japan (1992) - a dedicated but passive constitutionalist, nominally in charge but rarely in control, involved in decisions but seldom making them. The crucial period was the late 1920s and early 1930s when elements of the Kwantung army in Manchuria moved out of control and were backed by senior officers and nationalist elements in Tokyo. Hirohito disapproved but failed to exert his authority to curb the army's mutinous spirit and rein in its headstrong factions. He sought, with varying degrees of success, to influence cabinet appointments and to block politicians of whom he disapproved, but he was ever reluctant to offend the military. Rather than Hirohito's being the man who led Japan to war, he appears, on Bix's evidence, to have been an agonised and sceptical follower of the military.

Once the first moves towards the takeover of Manchuria had been made, the military moved out of control and, with ever deeper incursions into China, Japan had a war it was unable to finish or to quit. Worsening relations with the US and Britain followed. The US opposed Japanese expansion but did not back this up militarily. It then made demands backed by oil sanctions, which left Japan the choice of a humiliating retreat or a war its wiser admirals knew it could not win.

What made the Japanese military state such a strange phenomenon was the lack of strong leadership. No one was in charge, and there was no clear decision-making mechanism. Civilian governments bickered with the military, the army with the navy, junior officers with their superiors, while the court and influential elders exercised influences behind the scene. The term fascism, which Bix is fond of, seems of little use in the Japanese context. Militarist and nationalist are apposite and, like Italy and Germany, Japan glorified force and was torn between modernism and tradition, but there was no mass party and no charismatic leader.

Hirohito's sins were of omission rather than commission. He was inextricably involved in the decision-making process but he had neither the courage nor the will to challenge the military. Once war had begun, he was desirous of victory. He wore uniform throughout the war, was briefed on its progress and sent encouraging and patriotic messages to his servicemen. He was not backward in giving advice to his commanders and, sensibly, bewailed the lack of coordination between army and navy and, less sensibly, demanded stiff resistance rather than strategic withdrawal when the Americans advanced in the southwest Pacific. Could he have ended the war in the spring rather than the late summer of 1945 as Bix suggests? Probably, but he would have risked a military coup, and it would not have been in keeping with his view of his constitutional position. He waited until he was asked by his prime minister to decide whether to end the war.

There can be little doubt that Japanese ministers and generals together with General MacArthur connived to place the emperor's wartime role in the best light, but Bix's view that the decision to retain the emperor system and Hirohito after 1945 was mistaken seems doctrinaire. Bix has a somewhat optimistic view of democracy and disregards the positive role of monarchy in bridging the past and present and in allowing change to take place under a cloak of continuity. The removal of the emperor might have forced the Japanese to confront their past, but there is little certainty that they would have drawn the conclusions that Bix assumes.

A. W. Purdue is senior lecturer in history, Open University, and is preparing a comparative study of monarchy in the 20th century.

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

Author - Herbert P. Bix
ISBN - 0 7156 3077 6
Publisher - Duckworth
Price - £25.00
Pages - 800

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments