The foremost Western authority on the life and times of Emperor Hirohito — known posthumously as the Emperor Showa — here talks openly with staff writer ERIC PRIDEAUX about the role of Japan’s former “living god” in both wartime and peace; and of his place in history in comparison with the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, and George W. Bush.
In 2000, historian Herbert P. Bix shocked readers with a biography of Emperor Showa (called Emperor Hirohito during his reign) that shattered the image of him as a mere figurehead who was detached from Japan’s imperialist warmongering in the first half of the 20th century.
Bix argued in “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan,” which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2001, that Emperor Showa was in fact intimately involved in the decision-making behind his military’s ruthless campaigns. Hence, Bix strongly contends, the Emperor bore heavy moral, legal and political responsibility.
TIMEOUT is running an exclusive interview with Bix, in which he explains why Japan will be unable to realize its full democratic potential without re-evaluating Emperor Showa. Bix also asks in this hard-hitting piece what lessons today’s world leaders can learn from a study of this enigmatic figure.
At the postwar Tokyo war crimes tribunal, the Allies indicted 28 Japanese war leaders for “crimes against peace,” “violations against the laws and customs of war” and “crimes against humanity,” including the Nanking atrocities in 1937-38 and the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Seven were hanged.
Bix maintains that Emperor Showa was shielded from trial by Allied commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his staff, who feared communists and wanted to harness the Emperor’s domestic popularity to hasten Japan’s recovery, and so suppressed damning evidence of his war involvement.
Though “Hirohito” attracted criticism from rightwing academics in Japan, Bix (who is married to a Japanese, Toshie) reserves his most pointed criticism for his own government in Washington. Asked to compare recent events with those of Emperor Showa’s reign, Bix condemned the invasion of Iraq as “an act that will live in infamy” — one that was “far worse than Pearl Harbor.”
Herbert P. Bix
How did you come to write “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan?”
I wanted to write a history of modern Japan. I was interested in the Emperor and I wanted to situate the Emperor and the imperial institution in the entire modernization process.
I wanted to show the development of the Emperor’s personality, his ways of thinking, his whole involvement in all aspects of national life.
Did you set out to determine whether he was a dictator who should be held accountable for Japan’s role in World War II?
I knew from the very outset that he wasn’t a dictator, and dictatorship was not in the Japanese historical experience. The Emperor [Hirohito] was sort of a participant in a pluralistic decision-making system. So I always knew that. But I did feel it amazing that nobody questioned his responsibility for the war, given the central position he played in national life.
Crown Prince Hirohito on July 20, 1923
The Emperor died in January 1989, just when the Cold War order was collapsing and the new era of instability was setting in. That’s when some important material started to become available. I got a copy of Kinoshita Michio’s diary of the [wartime] imperial entourage published by Bungei Shunju in 1990. And I was also sent a copy of the Showa Emperor’s monologue [the justification of his wartime role that he dictated for the Occupation authorities early in 1946] that Bungei Shunju published at the end of 1990.
When I read those, I said, Aha! Here is a human being like the rest of us, and . . . with this new material I could return to the study of the institution, because previously I had only written about the emperor system very schematically and abstractly — the way most people did.
I think all this new evidence made me want to revise outdated and erroneous views. And I think Japanese people — and the world — had been told only about the Emperor’s innocence in starting the Pacific War and his heroism in ending it. And I didn’t buy that; I was very skeptical about it.
And I thought, too, to describe the Emperor in the postwar period as a powerless symbol, that needed to be investigated. In other words, I started off in search of the real Hirohito because I had all these doubts about the official view. And . . . I found that none of the claims about him could stand careful scrutiny.
Did you feel there was a vacuum in Japanese scholarship regarding Hirohito?
Emperor Hirohito on Nov. 30, 1943
I think Americans actively abetted the re-emergence of the “chrysanthemum taboo” — the taboo on discussion of the Imperial institution and the role of the Emperor before, during and after the war.
And I think that American psychological warfare propaganda directed against Japan from late 1943 onward also promoted the official Japanese view of the Emperor.
So, for different reasons, Americans and Japanese during the last two years of the war were working hard to shield him from criticism.
How would you contrast Hirohito’s militarist responsibility with that of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini? In other words, did Hirohito bear responsibility for the onset of fascism in the same way as those European dictators?
I argued [in the book] that he bore moral, legal and political responsibility of the highest degree for the war — and that responsibility extended also to war atrocities.
Emperor Hirohito at a military parade in May 1937
Hirohito stood at the center of a system of power that disciplined the Japanese people to be loyal subjects of the emperor state. And I think that he, more than any other Japanese, epitomized the politics of irresponsibility under the Meiji Constitution.
In no way was he a dictator. In no way was he comparable to a Hitler or a Mussolini, to a Churchill or a Roosevelt or any other Western leader. He stood at the head of a so-called modern state and was considered to be a living deity. What other modern state at that time was headed by a living deity?
Here was a man who lived, himself, under a fabricated image of the ideal monarch. The idealized Emperor Meiji was his model.
In one of the early chapters [of the book], I use the term “cognitive dissonances” in relation to his personality. Remember, he was given an education in idealized Confucian norms and in Bushido. He was taught above all to be a benevolent monarch and he wanted to live up to those ideals.
I think I show that Hirohito was usually very active behind the scenes, and he was sharper than most historians and political observers gave him credit for being.
I say right at the outset that the idea of Hirohito as a mere figurehead is pure myth. Similarly the idea of him as a normal constitutional monarch is outrageous; that was never the case.
Mickey Mouse looks on as Emperor Hirohito enters Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif, on Aug. 8, 1975.
Hirohito was Imperial Japan’s hereditary head of state; he was the supreme commander of his forces. He was also a religious leader and he was the nation’s chief pedagogue. He lived in a world of high politics. So, naturally, he engaged in politics. Officials who exercise power and influence always operate under pressures — internal and external pressures. Hirohito was no different. He made choices. His choices had consequences.
In Hirohito’s case, the domestic pressures on him came from the political parties, the military, his close advisers and from the Japanese people. And also from the international community. They came, too, from the colonies.
Here is a man who bore enormous responsibility for the consequences of his actions in each of his many roles. Yet, this man never assumed responsibility for what happened to the Japanese and Asian peoples whose lives were destroyed or harmed by his rule. He was a head of state and supreme commander who never assumed responsibility for having connived at actions, such as not punishing officers who disobeyed his orders or committed crimes.
Hirohito often gave orders without issuing commands. This isn’t unique to Japan. It is the “voiceless order” tech nique that high officials in most countries around the world routinely employ.
In your book, is this what you call his “wishes”?
It’s acting by not acting — and we see this in American history as well.
I gave the examples of the Nanking Massacre [in 1937], which I believe Hirohito had to know about. And I talked about his roles in helping to undermine political parties and the rule of Cabinet government, and in delaying surrender. In every period, he plays a role in politics and military decision-making — but he comes to military decision-making gradually.
Emperor Hirohito at a garden party in 1988.
For example, regarding the delayed surrender. At the end, in 1945, the army and the navy and the Supreme War Leadership Council and the Cabinet, they all had reasons to bring the lost war to an end short of Japan’s further destruction and unconditional capitulation to the Anglo-Americans. But only the Emperor had the sovereign power to resolve the issue, and he was more concerned about preserving an empowered monarchy — with himself on the throne — than he was about saving the lives of his people.
And at the end, during the entire month of June and into July, when the American terror bombing of Japanese civilian targets reached its peak, Hirohito resisted and showed no determination whatsoever to bring the war to an end.
Long after the war, in 1975 I think, at a staged press conference — because all his press conferences were, of course, staged — he was asked a general question that had been submitted in advance about his view of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And he gave this answer: “It is very regrettable that nuclear bombs were dropped, and I feel sorry for the citizens of Hiroshima. But it couldn’t be helped because that happens in wartime.”
He never took responsibility for the war that was carried out in his name. And of course Japanese people, the young men, went to war believing that they were defending their country, showing their loyalty to him. But he never acknowledged loyalty to his subjects. He only acknowledged responsibility to his ancestors.
I made clear what I thought about him. Morally, I thought he was a very weak person. He lacked backbone, and I think his reign was a tragedy for the Japanese people.
But, I wrote my book in an era when all sorts of things were changing in Japan; I wrote it in the 1990s. The war and occupation had become history. And then the long Cold War had come to an end and we were moving toward a new century. Everything was changing when I wrote my book. And it affected me, but I didn’t go into detail on the new era that was about to dawn, the new era of ideological extremism, of a new militarism, a new imperialism. I didn’t go into that.
In the book, you portray a coterie of officials raising Hirohito to be the hands-on, authoritarian leader that his own father, Emperor Taisho, never was. Should Hirohito’s upbringing, in which he appears to have been the product of intense indoctrination, not absolve him to some degree from responsibility for the militarist departure from the “Taisho democracy” movement and for Japan’s wartime atrocities?
I never said that he was groomed to be an authoritarian leader. I wrote that he was socialized to be a benevolent monarch.
“Authoritarianism” was assumed in the Japanese political context. But Emperor Meiji was his model, not his father, and he was the product of an intense socialization and indoctrination process. But I don’t think this absolves him, to any serious degree, from responsibility for the destruction of Taisho democracy.
Why not? Surely, many liberal thinkers today would argue that someone who grows up in an authoritarian environment, and later becomes authoritarian themselves, cannot be held entirely to blame, due to the experience of their upbringing.
Yes, there were extenuating circumstances, but that didn’t absolve him from political, or moral, or legal responsibility. Particularly in the case of his sanctioning wars of aggression.
I imagine that many Japanese rightists reading your book would say, “What right have you to come and tell us we shouldn’t have done this, when we were living in an era of violent, global Western imperialism? This was the only way for the Emperor to defend his nation.”
Well, it wasn’t. My answer is that it wasn’t the only way; a different foreign policy could have been pursued in Japan in the late Meiji Era [1868-1912], in the Taisho Era [1912-26] and in the early Showa Era [1926-89] — a different foreign policy vis-a-vis Korea, China and the Western countries. But Japan’s leaders in each period chose not to do so.
In Meiji and most of Taisho, the so-called realist decision-makers of Imperial Japan acted prudently. The problem was that at the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the ’30s they lost their bearings and made one error after another. But there were always options. Japan always had options; it didn’t have to become a rogue state.
Do you see any similarities between the way Hirohito and his key advisers went about their business and the conduct of today’s world leaders?
If we look at Japan today — certainly since the rise of the Koizumi Cabinet — we see a world shaped by a new militarism that has arisen in the United States, a new imperialism, a government in Washington composed of ideological extremists and demonstrable war criminals who have initiated wars of aggression.
The United States after 9/11 launched a war against Afghanistan and then a few years later against Iraq. It has spread bases now throughout Central Asia, the Persian Gulf and Iraq. It is distrusted; it has lost all ideological legitimacy in the eyes of most people in the world — especially in the Middle East and across Central Asia and the whole Islamic world. So we have this government, headed by George W. Bush, in 2003 ignoring the Security Council and launching an illegal war against Iraq.
Here, you can bring in Japan — you might say the Americans’ preventive war against Iraq was worse, in many ways far worse, than Japan’s attack on an American military base, in an American colony, in December 1941 — far worse than Pearl Harbor.
Stop and think about it: It [Pearl Harbor] was an act of aggression and it initiated the Pacific War, but here was the world’s only hyperpower initiating the same type of infamous act of aggression against a defenseless country, and doing so for reasons that are truly despicable.
Oil and revenge were factors, certainly, in the decision of the Bush administration. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.
But in the new 21st century, in the era of the new militarism, the new imperialism and the rise of the ideological extremists in decision-making positions in the United States, we can look back on the Asian-Pacific War. If we do so carefully, we won’t be justifying what Japan did and what Japan’s war leaders were punished for doing — all except for Hirohito — but we can see that in both cases government, individuals in positions of official power, planned and prepared and initiated and waged wars of aggression.
The problem is — and this really upsets many Japanese regardless of whether they’re from the left or right — Japan’s leaders were subjected at the [International Military Tribunal for the Far East] Tokyo trials to charges of crimes against “civilization.” They were punished for crimes against peace, crimes against humanity and of course, war crimes. But there was a double standard, because the Americans didn’t apply the same standards to themselves. This rankles.
This civilization theme is a myth. But I still think the Tokyo tribunal wasn’t wrong. It had shortcomings by contemporary standards and it operated with a view of history that wasn’t always correct. But by and large, it did more good than harm. Of course, the right has a different view.
Do you think Hirohito should have been tried and punished, and if so, how?
In the book, I never said he should, and when I went around and spoke I never said that either.
What I said was that the Japanese people should have been allowed to freely discuss his role, and that he should have been allowed to abdicate. Abdication should have been the aim. That’s my answer. He should have been encouraged to abdicate, and the Japanese people should have been encouraged to freely debate the Emperor’s role and the role of the Imperial institution. But instead, Gen. MacArthur and the Truman administration shielded the Emperor and documents were placed off limits.
I think the joint efforts of Americans and Japanese so-called realists to preserve the Imperial institution, each for different reasons in what I call a de-facto partnership, had horrible consequences.
But I want to come back to the present. When the Bush government launched its illegal war against Iraq, Japan’s LDP [Liberal Democratic Party] government, the government of Junichiro Koizumi, dutifully supported the United States, just as other Japanese Cabinets had supported other U.S. interventions since the Korean War.
China and France and Germany and Russia, among others, did not. Koizumi did. Where Japan’s military relationship with the United States is concerned, I’ve said this conservative LDP regime lacks independence of thought and will, and they’re likely to continue cooperating with the United States militarily and to view China in terms of the primacy of their ties with the United States.
What I’d like to see is Japanese journalists begin to reopen investigations of how the security treaty with the United States is harming Japan both economically and politically. I’d like to see investigative journalism focus on this as much as Yasukuni Shrine.
And this is important because restorationist impulses are today stirring beneath the surface of conservative politics. After all, it’s a new world and the younger generation of Japanese people won’t remember the war and they’re open to all sorts of manipulation.
What do you mean by the relationship with the United States “harming Japan both economically and politically”?
First of all, let’s go back a moment. When I speak of restorationist impulses stirring again, look at the efforts to revise Japan’s Basic Education Law of 1947. Look at the efforts to restore an official state connection to Yasukuni Shrine and to promote neo-nationalist views of the lost war.
I think Japanese conservatives may not be happy with this strategic partnership with Washington, but they’re not pushing for an independent militarization. What they want to do is revise the peace constitution, particularly [war-renouncing] Article 9, so that Japan can once again wage war. And yet this is the great achievement of the Japanese people: their embrace of the principle of pacifism.
Do you believe a segment of the Japanese conservative leadership actually wants to wage war again?
Well, they want to be able to wage war without restriction. They call it being a “normal” state. Of course this is highly regressive, because Japan remains a leader precisely because it has the non-nuclear principles and it’s not a major exporter of arms to other countries.
But the conservatives are frustrated and dissatisfied with Japan’s long subordination to the United States. Japan has a sort of satellite, or client, relationship with Washington. A person like the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, he attracts that wing of the party that is quite dissatisfied, and he transfers his frustration to China. I think this only adds to the complication of [diplomacy] in East Asia. Where China is concerned, I don’t see [Japan] acting independently of the United States.
You see the conservatives using every opportunity to exploit fear — fear of North Korea, fear that Japan might be invaded. Japan has a pretty strong armament capability and large military that is perfectly capable of defending itself. It’s inconceivable that a foreign country would invade Japan.
But we’re seeing politics here. We’re seeing an effort on the part of the conservatives, the LDP, to revise the Constitution. . . . I think calls to elevate the status of the Emperor to head of state are less important than efforts to eliminate Article 9. I would like to see the Imperial Family move out of Tokyo and go back to Kyoto. That would be very positive.
Because it would reduce their roles?
Yes, as long as this Imperial institution exists, it’s going to be used. There’s no question. It exists now to be used. And the pressure is there.
Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone recently proposed (as chairman of an LDP constitutional review subcommittee) declaring the Emperor the head of state. How significant is that, in light of your view in “Hirohito” that the prewar elevation of the Emperor dramatically undermined democratic currents of the day?
In the years that Nakasone was prime minister, late 1982-87, he did many things for which he had to apologize, and he made statements that he had to retract. He was constantly putting his foot in his mouth. Visiting Yasukuni Shrine in his official capacity in 1985 was one such stupid thing. And I think that proposing that the Emperor be elevated to the head of state is another.
Nakasone is also a strong backer of writing a new Basic Education Law. The current one is in tune with the ideals of the peace Constitution. But he and others envision a new type of Constitution that will allow the ruling elites to resume waging war.
Does Nakasone’s proposal represent a drift away from democracy?
Well, Japan has a type of formal, talk-down democracy, like in the United States. We see more clearly than ever at the start of the 21st century the shortcomings of this low-level, talk-down form of democracy. If Japan is ever to deepen its democracy, it would have to move away from this.
What significance do you see in Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s long-held insistence on visiting Yasukuni Shrine?
That question really goes back to how we define the era in which we’re living, because, as I said, the Koizumi Cabinet was born at the start of the 21st century. Not only is the Asia-Pacific War “history,” but the Occupation is history, and the postwar period is history. The Cold War is over. The political situation is one of searching for a new threat so as to impose discipline and reorder things.
In this new environment, I think Koizumi’s behavior isn’t so odd. I think it reflects the fact that the Japanese people remain divided on the meaning of their whole trans-war experience. It reflects the fact that memories of the Asia-Pacific War have evolved: A younger generation with no experience of war has come on the scene, and a minority of influential elites — overrepresented, of course, in the LDP — have asserted publicly an affirmative view of the war.
I think the actions of the prime minister and likeminded conservatives in his Cabinet have to be set against this lack of national consensus, but also have to be set in terms of the opportunities the new international configuration of powers offers to change Japan.
To change Japan in what ways?
To change Japan so it is a more active participant in the American project, supporting American hegemony, supporting more actively the United States in its wars, which are now increasingly focused on resources — on poor, weak nations.
So the visit to Yasukuni Shrine, and the Cabinet’s approval of history textbooks that whitewash crimes committed in past wars, these things take on a certain meaning in this context, and it is nonsensical when the prime minister and other ministers insist that foreigners shouldn’t criticize their actions, because remembrance of the war dead, and what gets taught in Japanese classrooms, are essentially domestic matters.
But Japanese historical consciousness about the lost war isn’t a matter solely for Japanese, and I think the majority of Japanese people sense this and they don’t approve of his continuing to insist on visiting Yasukuni Shrine.
I think it’s demonstrably untrue that the Japanese people have never changed their views of the last, lost war. But Koizumi’s actions allow many Chinese and Korean people, and other peoples in Asia, to have that false view. It’s wrong. But the political stance of a ruling class has an enormous influence on how the rest of the world views a country.
Nonetheless, Germany seems to have fared better than Japan in grappling with its wartime past. What must Japan do to put World War II behind it once and for all, and normalize relations with Asian neighbors?
I’m often asked that question, and I think the German elites found it in their national interest to gain the trust of their European neighbors, and to quickly reintegrate into western Europe. Over the last quarter century, I’d say they’ve done a fairly good job in grappling with their legacy of their war criminality and overcoming the past.
But the circumstances for Japan were entirely different — always have been different.
During the early years of the Occupation, Japanese intellectuals went much further than their German counterparts in grappling with issues of war responsibility. They did a much better job. It’s not appreciated.
But the Pacific had become an American lake after World War II, and U.S. power predominated. And once the U.S. decided to pressure Japan to take sides in the Cold War, and to cut off relations — both diplomatic and trade ones — with China and turn its back on Asia, the way the Meiji oligarchs did at the end of the 19th century, once that happened, I think we get this regression, and you get influential persons backtracking in confronting issues of war responsibility. That needs to be pointed out.
But at the same time, I would say that there is no collective, unified “Japan” adhering to erroneous views of the past. Every generation of Japanese has revisited World War II, and will continue to do so.
There will always be people who will deny history. Such people are always going to find — as they did in Japan, starting in the latter half of the 1950s — a public space to air their views.
The Japan Times: Aug. 7, 2005
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