Q: When Japan surrendered to the Allies, how was it possible that the Emporer [Hirohito] was allowed to stay Emporer? Wasn’t he a war criminal? If Hitler or Mussolini were captured alive they would have been executed.
– Sean, Portsmouth UK
To borrow comedian Dave Chappelle’s warning before leading into combustible social topics, answering this question enters “deep waters.”
The Allies, specifically the United States, had several major goals in rebuilding post-war Japan:
- Transform Japan into a representative, liberal western style democracy.
- Help Japan build the foundation of a prosperous East Asian economy.
- Ensure Japan could no longer pose a military threat to the U.S. or it’s Asian neighbors by creating a new national constitution, formally renouncing war as a means of foreign policy.
- With the quickly ensuing Cold War at the time, the Western Allies sought to make Japan a stalwart anti-Communist ally.
That all seems pretty straightforward, right?
There are any number of ways the Allies might have tackled these objectives, yet none of them would be easy. Japan, like most of the world, was shattered following their surrender. Consequently, the Allies needed all the help they could recruit to achieve a nation rebirth along the aforementioned lines. Despite how it may sound at first, the one person who might prove most useful was also public enemy number one in the US following Pearl Harbor, Emperor Hirohito.
Following Imperial Japan’s official surrender on September 2nd, 1945, the Allies quickly realized their occupation faced a very sticky situation in the form of the defeated monarch. Foremost, Hirohito was the single surviving Axis lhead of state available for prosecution as a war criminal. Complicating matters, however, was the fact that the Emperor was worshiped as a living god in the eyes of the Japanese people. Reconciling these two extremes judicially in a way that satisfied the Allied powers, while simultaneously using the symbolic power of the Emperor for rebuilding Japan was a daunting task.
So how could the Allies even suggest that Hirohito retain his throne? The answers boils down to the stark differences in personality and style of rule between the Emperor and the two other Axis warlords.
Who was Hirohito the Man? Who was Hirohito the Emperor?
The best way to answer this question is stating what Hirohito was not. To begin, Hirohito’s personality did not posses the bellicosity demonstrated by Hitler or Mussolini. One would never see him wild-eyed in a state of self-important zeal atop a makeshift pulpit, rallying a crowd to his cause. Japanese Emperors simply did not behave in such a fashion.
Emporers did not “go out” among their subjects to foment unrest because, in contrast to the other Axis leaders, Emperor Hirohito did not come from the subject Japanese people at all. Hirohito was raised, educated and lived in the isolation of the imperial court. Japanese emperors lived apart and above their empire.
A salient demonstration of Hirohito’s complete isolation from his subjects was observed as he addressed his people directly for the first time during the so-called “Jewel Voice Broadcast,” explaining Japan’s capitulation to the Allies. Hirohito was delivering the speech in a highly formal and largely archaic form of Japanese that many had trouble understanding him. This was not a leader who experienced contact with commoners.
In person Hirohito was reserved and precise in his manner, with clearly practiced royal etiquette. His interests include taking great intellectual joy studying the natural sciences. Hirohito might have made for an excellent, albeit stiff, dinner companion. However a strong armed, populist despot Hirohito was not; despite embodying ultimate authority in the empire. All told, he filled the role of a ceremonial democratic monarch far better than one of supreme divine mandated authority to which he had been born. Hirohito was very refined by both Eastern and Western standards. As such, MacArthur seemed to take a personal liking to Hirohito. No doubt that helped Hirohito’s personal fortunes a great deal, given MacArthur was Supreme Commander of Allied Powers – the top authority – during the post-war occupation.
For all the personal contrast between Hirohito and his slain Axis partners, the most crucial political difference was how Hirohito asserted his power.
Emperor Hirohito: The Inherent Ambiguity of Ruling vs. Reigning
Emperor Hirohito, primarily by virtue of the post-Meiji imperial institution itself, employed a very different style of leadership than those of Japan’s erstwhile totalitarian Axis partners. Japanese Emperors by design presented a blurred distinction between a monarch that was actively reigning or passively ruling. Hirohito must appear as the divine monarch possessing ultimate authority; while also appearing to his subjects above the fray and vulgarity of politics.
This dynamic on a functional basis meant Hirohito very rarely, if ever, delivered explicit edicts on policy matters. Post-Meiji restoration Emperors would appoint a Prime Minister to act as Head of Government in his name. Therefore an Emperor’s influence can best be described as a tacit or passive form of personal imprimatur. Ministers in the Japanese government would visit with Hirohito, where he provided a wink and nod approval regarding the subject a minister presented to him. The arrangement allowed an Emperor to appear detached from politics, while maintaining realistic authority, and ultimately insulating him from failure or misdeeds. In relative contrast, Hitler and Mussolini were far more involved, by exercising their authority directly.
The distinction greater than all others however is that Hirohito was not just any monarch. The Japanese Emporer was worshipped a god incarnate.
A Divine Mandate
As the inhabitant of the Chrysanthemum Throne, Japanese Emperors were believed to be direct decedents from the Shinto Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Talk about divine-right rule, one cannot achieve a greater level of authority than those officially held by a Japanese Emperor in pre-war Showa Dynasty Japan. It meant that if Hirohito were mishandled by the Allies, he might well become a revanchist martyr. Conversely it was also an opportunity, that with Hirohito’s active cooperation, he might unite the shattered nation in line with Allied objectives.
These issues specifically made the decision on how to rebuild Japan going forward very complex for the Allies. Raising legitimate questions of what Hirohito knew about the conduct of his nation at war, his realistic involvement in policy making, and the possibility of executing a living god.
Hirohito’s Post-War Potential: Serving the Ends of the Allies and a New Japan
There is no question that as an Absolute Monarch, living god or not, Hirohito as Head of State held the ultimate responsibility for the deeds of his nation at war. However, MacArthur and the Truman Administration saw Hirohito’s potential usefulness to the Allied powers in rebuilding a shattered Japan as more important than retribution for his personal culpability.
If nothing else, the Japanese Emperor was looked to by their nation for moral guidance, and nothing could be more helpful in a time of great uncertainty for the recently defeated Japan. Moreover, the Japanese people’s absolute devotion to their Emperor, serving as a symbolic Head of State, was a potential avenue to put the nations rebirth on a strong initial footing.
The symbolism of the Emporer cooperating with the Allies embodied great significance, communicating to his vanquished subjects to no longer resist their former enemy. The famous picture of Hirohito standing next to MacArthur – who stood no less than 7 inches taller than Hirohito – very powerfully communicated that Japan should think of the occupying powers as no less than their equals. It was quite a leap of logic for a nation nourished on themes of ultranationalism and universal Japanese racial superiority. When coupled with the overarching concept that the co-operation of Hirohito helped legitimize Allied post-war occupation, his personal value was clear.
The Complicated Political Realities of the Post-War Occupation of Japan: Emperor Hirohito & the Allies Make for Strange Bedfellows
For all of the aforementioned potential for Hirohito in rebuilding Japan, he would have only been useful insofar as his personal character was in no way impugned by his perceived role during the war. Moral authority must be accompanied by the highest perceived moral track record. Ensuring that moral high ground was never compromised, Hirohito and the entire imperial family received immunity from war crime prosecution at the post-war International Military Tribunal for the Far East, better known as the Tokyo warcrimes tribunals. Had the tribunals pursued legal retribution against Hirohito, as Head of State, he would have been tried as a war criminal on the same level as Hitler, had the former German dictator not committed suicide in the Führerbunker.
Hirohito’s cooperation came at a high price, as many were calling for Hirohito to be tried and executed for war crimes. China was unequivocal in their demands for his execution, as the Chinese endured almost a decade of barbarity at the hands of the Japanese invader – losing over 10 million of their own. Also by providing immunity for the imperial family, Prince Asaka escaped justice for presiding over the Nanjing massacre. Clearly these were odious political choices.
The Absolution of Emperor Hirohito & Immunity for the Imperial Family from Post-War Prosecution: What did Hirohito Really Know about the Conduct of Japan at War?
With very different and conflicting approaches to the occupation being wrangled with at the time, the question of what Hirohito knew personally about Japanese atrocities remains hotly debated today. Was the emperor at times kept at a distance, left deliberately ignorant of various aspects of his nations misdeeds? It would seem to an extent likely that was so, and such things were far from unheard elsewhere.
In the practical debate over what Hirohito knew and when is in many respects beyond the point. Even the pre-war Meiji Constitution, if interpreted strictly through the lens of rule of law, puts culpability squarely at the feet of the Emperor:
“Article 4. The Emperor is the head of the Empire, combining in himself the rights of sovereignty, and exercises them, according to the provisions of the present Constitution.”
“Article 11. The Emperor has the supreme command of the Army and Navy.”
“Article 13. The Emperor declares war, makes peace, and concludes treaties.”
Even by his nations own legal measure, Hirohito was technically dead to rights regarding his responsibilities as Emperor.
With all of this in mind, one must ask themselves: “If Hirohito was powerful enough to enact Japan’s surrender, why was he not powerful enough to halt the decision for war when it was initiated?” It was an inconveinient rhetorical question for the decisions that were taken next.
To overcome these very inconvenient but pressing matters, much was done in collaboration with the victories Allies to create the narrative that Hirohito had clean hands throughout the war. In their historical whitewashing of Hirohito, the Allies used the Tokyo Warcrimes Tribunal as the forum to project this revised narrative. A narrative that focused heavily on the guilt of former Prime Minister, General Hideki Tojo.
One could not reasonably call Tojo a scapegoat, as he played a central role in wartime decision making. The revised Allied narrative for Hirohito’s wartime role was that Tojo in particular initiated war with the Allies in an act of supreme insubordination. However, suggesting that Tojo would ever act contrary to the expressed wishes of his emperor – unambiguously desiring peace – is impossible to accept.
Tojo was fully willing to take the fall for Hirohito during the warcrimes tribunal; indeed Tojo would have done anything at his Emporer’s behest. Therefore, it is inconceivable that Tojo would have ever acted contrary to known wishes of Hirohito. Tojo, as well as the other Japanese officials indicted, all proactively cooperated with the Allies to ensure their testimony in no way compromised Hirohito or contradicted the new party line.
With the problem of ensuring Hirohito presented clean hands publicly, there was one additional problem the victors needed to tackle on the interallied front – the policy of unconditional surrender.
Hirohito & Allied “Unconditional Surrender”: When Politics are the Continuation of War by Other Means
From the Casablanca Conference in 1943, the policy of unconditional surrender by the Axis powers echoed on all fronts. The unconditional surrender policy held firm during the war in Europe; a policy mostly adopted to reassure Stalin that the Western Allies would not make a separate peace with Hitler. Unconditional surrender became problematic later against the Japanese.
Japan at wars end had one stipulation to accept surrender: they maintain their Emperor. Considerable portions of the Allies felt accepting the Japanese stipulation a serious violation of their unconditional surrender edict. When viewing the Japanese demand through the scope of realpolitik, it appears reasonable enough to cease further bloodshed. Potsdam Conference deliberations in July 1945 saw much British and American wrangling on this issue. Initially, the Americans wished to try and execute Hirohito. British representatives conversely sought to make Hirohito a ceremonial monarch, foreseeing his cooperation would create far more benefits than Hirohito dangling from a rope. Britain’s stance uktimately won out in the end, keeping Hirohito on the throne as a figurehead.
To accommodate both Allied policy while pursuing the best realistic option to end the war, it was creative thinking by President Truman that made accepting this surrender stipulation possible.
President Truman, to his credit, found a brilliant solution to this quandary. Along the British line of thinking, Truman proposed Japan could keep their Emperor, but the Allies would dictate how Japan retained him. Specifically, Hirohito was made to publicly renounce his divine status, serving as a constitutional monarch within Japan’s new pacifist democracy.
Japan’s new government model was extremely reminiscent of U.K. parliamentary democracy, with it’s monarch operating as a symbolic Head of State. In fact, the current Japanese constitution was actually written by the Allies themselves; as Japan continually presented a constitution little different than its pre-war model. This Allied decision, despite its odious and unconscienable realities, proved successful.
In light of the Japan that emerged from the post-war ashes, one must draw their own conclusions if it was worth the price.
- “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan” by Herbert P. Bix
- “Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945” by Rana Mitter
- “Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy” by Eri Hotta
- “Hirohito” (2005) Timewatch, BBC
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