Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Hirohito a string-puller, not puppet

Last month, I received a startling e-mail from an employee at one of Japan’s largest newspapers, about a development I’d long awaited.


Guanyu 道 said...

Hirohito a string-puller, not puppet

By Herbert P. Bix
04 October 2014

Last month, I received a startling e-mail from an employee at one of Japan’s largest newspapers, about a development I’d long awaited.

The government was about to unveil a 12,000-page, 61-volume official biography of emperor Hirohito, which a large team of scholars and civil servants had been preparing since 1990, the year after his death.

I was asked if I would examine an embargoed excerpt from this enormous trove and then comment on the emperor’s perspective on various events, including Japan’s 1937 expansion of its conflict in China and its decision four years later to go to war with the United States and Britain; the trial of war criminals; the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the American military occupation of post-war Japan.

But there was a condition: I could not discuss Hirohito’s “role and responsibility” in World War II, which would be strictly outside the scope of the newspaper’s reporting. Having devoted years of my life to examining precisely this topic, I politely refused.

The release of Hirohito’s official biography should be an occasion for reflection around the world on a war that, in the Pacific theatre, took the lives of at least 20 million Asians (including more than three million Japanese) and more than 100,000 citizens of the Western Allied nations, primarily the US and Britain.

Instead, Japan’s Imperial Household Agency, abetted by the Japanese media, has dodged important questions about events before, during and after the war. The new history perpetuates the false but persistent image - endorsed by the Allied military occupation led by General Douglas MacArthur - of a benign, passive figurehead.

As other scholars and I have tried to show, Hirohito, from the start of his rule in 1926, was a dynamic, activist and conflicted monarch who operated within a complex system of irresponsibility inherited from his grandfather, the Meiji emperor, who oversaw the start of Japan’s epochal modernisation.

Hirohito (known in Japan as Showa, the name of his reign) represented an ideology and an institution - a system constructed to allow the emperor to interject his will into the decision-making process, before prime ministers brought Cabinet decisions to him for his approval. Because he operated behind the scenes, the system allowed his advisers to later insist that he had acted only in accordance with their advice.

In fact, Hirohito was never a puppet. He failed to prevent his army from invading Manchuria in 1931, which caused Japan to withdraw from the League of Nations, but he sanctioned the full-scale invasion of China in 1937, which moved Japan into a state of total war. He exercised close control over the use of chemical weapons in China and sanctioned the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Even after the war, when a new, American-modelled Constitution deprived him of sovereignty, he continued to meddle in politics.

From what I’ve read, the new history suffers from serious omissions in editing, and the arbitrary selection of documents. This is not just my view. The magazine Bungei Shunju asked three writers, Kazutoshi Hando, Masayasu Hosaka and Michifumi Isoda, to read parts of the history.

They pointed out, in the magazine’s October issue, significant omissions. Only the first of the emperor’s 11 meetings with Gen MacArthur was mentioned in detail. Instead, the scholars noted Hirohito’s schoolboy writings and commented on trivialities such as the discovery of the place where his placenta was buried.

That does not mean that the project is without merit. Researchers collected 3,152 pieces of primary material, including some previously not known to exist, such as the memoirs of Admiral Saburo Hyakutake, the emperor’s aide-de-camp from 1936 to 1944.

Guanyu 道 said...

They documented Hirohito’s messages to Shinto deities, fleshing out his role as chief priest of the state religion. They collected vital materials on the exact times, dates and places of imperial audiences with civil and military officials and diplomats.

Hirohito was a timid opportunist, eager above all to preserve the monarchy he had been brought up to defend. War was not essential to his nature, as it was for Hitler and Europe’s fascists.

The new history details his concern over the harsh punishments enacted in 1928 to crush leftist and other opposition to Japan’s rising militarism and ultra-nationalism. It elaborates on his role in countering a coup attempt in 1936 by young army officers who wanted to install an even more right-wing, militaristic government. It notes he cried for only the second time in his life when his armed forces were dissolved.

The official history confirms Hirohito’s bullheadedness in delaying surrender when it was clear that defeat was inevitable. He had hoped desperately to enlist Stalin’s Soviet Union to obtain more favourable peace terms. Had Japan surrendered sooner, the firebombing of its cities and the two atomic bombings might have been avoided.

Why does all this matter, nearly 70 years since the end of the war?

Unlike Germany, where acceptance of responsibility for the Nazis’ crimes is embedded in government policy, Japan’s government has never engaged in a full-scale reckoning of its wartime conduct.

This is partly because of the anti-imperialist dimension of the war it fought against Western powers, and partly because of America’s support for European colonialism in the early Cold War. But it is also a result of a deliberate choice - abetted by the education system and the mass media, with notable exceptions - to overlook or distort issues of accountability.

The new history comes at a politically opportune time. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party government is waging a campaign to pump up nationalist pride. Mr Abe has made no secret of his desire to enhance the monarchy’s status in a revised “peace Constitution” that would rewrite Article 9, which prohibits Japan from maintaining offensive forces.

The very idea of a carefully vetted official biography of a leader fits within the Sino-Japanese historical tradition, but raises deep suspicions of a whitewash, as well as issues of contemporary relevance. Okinawans cannot take pride in the way Hirohito sacrificed them, by consenting to indefinite American military control of their island. Japan’s neighbours, like South Korea and the Philippines, cannot be reassured by the way its wartime past is overlooked or played down, but neither can they be reassured by America’s confrontational, militaristic approach towards Chinese assertiveness.

After Hirohito died in 1989, there was an outpouring of interest in his reign and a decade-long debate about his war responsibility. Now, after decades of mediocre economic performance, generational divides have deepened and the Japanese may not take much note.

If so, a crucial opportunity to improve relations with Asian neighbours and deepen understanding of the causes of aggression will have been lost.