Imperial Conductor? Hirohito and the Rise of Japanese Militarism


Jordan Siedall

In early August of 1945, the most destructive war the world had ever seen came to an end, after years of immense and widespread conflict. With the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan, the final remaining part of the “Axis of Evil,” to the United States, the people of the Pacific island nation found themselves under American occupation, with years of rebuilding ahead of them. The next year, the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal would assign guilt to various individuals for crimes committed during the previous years, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. The most notable individual to emerge from the tribunal unscathed was the Showa Emperor, Hirohito, whose reign began in 1926 and saw Japan rise to become a militarized world empire before crashing down under the mushroom clouds of humiliating defeat.

In the years and decades following the war, numerous historians have tackled the mystery that surrounds the Showa Emperor and the role he played in Japanese expansion and militarization beginning in 1931 and continuing on into the Second World War. However, due to the lack of sources outlining Hirohito’s exact role, a good deal of controversy has arisen as to how much responsibility the Showa Emperor bears for the decisions made before and during the war,. Out of the various books, journals, articles, and papers on the subject, two main theories emerge. The first is that Hirohito played an important and involved role in the planning and execution of Japanese military strategy, from the invasion of Manchuria to the war in the Pacific. In this line of argument, Hirohito is similar to Hitler and Mussolini in that he led the charge for militarization and conquest. As emperor, “he participated in the making of national policy and issued the orders of the imperial headquarters to field commanders and admirals [and] played an active role in shaping Japanese war strategy…” (Bix, 2000, 15.) The second theory holds that Hirohito was an unwilling participant in the pre-war military buildup, as well as the war itself. Historians in this camp argue that his involvement in the war was brought about through pressure from multiple sources, including the government and the powerful military establishment. Never, historians such as Edwin P. Hoyt argue, “is there indication of the swashbuckling conspirator that several books have made Hirohito out to be, a man intent on conquering the world and using the Imperial Army as his major weapon in so doing.” (Hoyt, 1992, ix.)

The goal of this paper is not to disprove one of these theories by shoring up the other. Refuting either of the major arguments outlined above would be difficult as they both are based upon historical facts. Rather, my purpose in writing this paper is to utilize both primary and secondary sources to combine the accurate aspects of each argument and put them together to form a clearer picture of Hirohito in wartime Japan, and in doing so, clear up some of the controversy that has pervaded this issue for decades.

With the above being said, the arguments made in this research paper are twofold. First, as the sovereign ruler of Japan during the time before and during World War II, Hirohito is not and cannot be considered blameless for the Japanese governmental and military actions that define this part of the country’s history, such as the invasion of Manchuria, expansion into China and other parts of Asia, and the decision to attack Pearl Harbor. After all, it was Hirohito’s signature that was required on the imperial rescript that committed Japan to World War II. One of the responsibilities outlined in the Meiji Constitution for the emperor was to serve as commander of the military forces, and his endorsement, whether willful or reluctant, was needed to go ahead with virtually every major military operation.

The second argument is in many ways a clarification and extension of the first. Although the emperor bears responsibility for Japan’s role in the war and the period leading up to it, he was not a driving force behind the buildup of aggression exhibited by the Japanese military leadership at the time. In many respects, he was an unwilling accessory to the expansion into Asia in the 1930’s, as well as Japan’s entrance into World War II. While Western political cartoons displayed him as a bloodthirsty and ruthless conqueror who yearned for a Japanese takeover of Asia and the wider world, the reality was much different. The Showa Emperor was a pacifistic man who preferred marine biology to war strategy, but circumstances and force applied by military leaders and government officials, among others, led to his involvement in the planning and execution of military action.


From Meiji to Showa

Before examining Hirohito’s wartime role in depth, it is important to first explore the evolution of the imperial system from the time of the Meiji Restoration to the time of Hirohito’s ascension to the throne. When the Meiji Emperor, Hirohito’s grandfather, became assumed the throne in 1867, Japan was still a feudal society that lagged behind the West in many areas. The emperors that came before Meiji, as described by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney in Ethnology,

“Were essentially shamans; human beings endowed with extraordinary power to communicate deities, but not themselves deities. Their religious and spiritual authority rested on power that had to be periodically rejuvenated through imperial rituals. The emperor was therefore divine only in a conditional sense.” (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1991, 204)

Under Emperor Meiji, Japan would go through a series of transformations to become a modern power that rivaled those in Europe and the United States. The army and navy would be reformed and modernized based upon European models, allowing for a progression of military buildup that would see Japan defeat Russia and China in war in the early 20th century and announce its relevance to the wider world. (Gordon, 2000.) However, the most important change would occur with the creation of the Meiji Constitution in 1889.

The constitution that would hold sway over the Japanese imperial system until the end of World War II contained three important changes, inspired by the European monarchy system, to the power of the emperor. First, the shamanistic characteristics of the emperor were replaced with divine powers. “Article 3 of Chapter 1 of the new constitution issued in 1889 declared that the emperor was sacred and may not be intruded upon. The emperor was defined as Manifest Destiny or Visible Deity.” (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1991, 204.) In other words, the emperor had gone from being the Japanese equivalent of the Pope to an actual god. As Ohnuki-Tierney continues, “with the Meiji reformulation, the emperor became, at least nominally, the Manifest Destiny, a bona fide deity.” (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1991, 204.) A second change involved stipulating the Japanese people as subjects of the emperor. From that point on, the citizens were designated in part by the emperor who was ruling during the year that they were born. (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1991, 205.) For example, a person born during the reign of Meiji would call himself or herself a “Meiji person.” Over time, this would lead to an intense feeling of loyalty towards the emperor that was shared by the majority of the population. To the Japanese, “the Emperor is a personification of their unity. A blow struck at him is a blow at all they hold dear, their culture, their very reason for existence; for this sense of unity is the very essence and end of life to the Japanese.” (Reischauer, 1939, 25.)

Finally, the constitution gave the emperor control over the military, designating “the emperor as commander-in-chief of the army and navy, which were referred to as the imperial force.” (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1991, 205.) More than anything else, this article would have a significant impact on Hirohito and the role he played in the war. The Meiji Constitution would help to set Japan on the fast track to modernity, but would also hold significant implications for the imperial system down the road. When Hirohito ascended to the throne, 37 years after the ratification of the constitution, he did so with the label of a living deity in control of the country’s citizens as well as its military. Soon enough, he would have to make tough decisions that would affect not only his legacy, but also the fortunes of his country for years to come.


Military Buildup and Pre-War Expansion (1928-1940)

By the time Hirohito became emperor in 1926, Japan had already seen its share of warfare in the 20th century. In 1905, Japan made history by becoming the first Asian nation to defeat a European one in battle, when it bested Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. The victory boosted Japanese confidence in the belief that the island nation could and should expand into the rest of Asia in order to achieve greater prosperity and stability in the region. (Gordon, 2000.) These ambitions would only grow with the 1929 global economic collapse. The depression made imperialism seem even more appealing to certain members of the Japanese ruling establishment, given the economic benefits that it could provide. (Gordon, 2000.)

For the young emperor, the push for expansion was a constant source of pressure and anxiety, especially from the ultranationalists and members of the military who had significant sway in the government. As Hoyt writes, “The Emperor and the civilians worried lest the army pursue its course of empire building and seize control of the government, and they wanted full disclosure of Japanese army responsibility.” (Hoyt, 1992, 61.) This was compounded by the widespread sentiment that Japan was being treated unfairly on the world political stage by the Western powers. For example, “the Western powers at the London Naval Conference of 1930 coerced Japan to accept… an unfavorable ratio of 5:5:3 for the US, Britain, and Japan respectively…for heavy cruisers.” (Gordon, 2000.)However, Bix argues that even in these early years of his rule, Hirohito was not a passive bystander in the midst of political and military machinations. He “intervened in the decisions of the party cabinets and the privy council, arbitrated indirectly disputes among the leading political parties, and even forced the parties in the Diet to halt their debates to suit his convenience.” (Bix, 2000, 208.) Bix goes on to point out that Hirohito had desired, and received, the resignation of General Tanaka Giichi, the first prime minister during his reign. Tanaka had served as prime minister since 1927, and was in office in June of 1928 when Chang Tso-Lin, a Chinese warlord with a great deal of political influence in the northern part of the country, was killed when a bomb blew up his train in Manchuria. As the area in which he was killed was considered to be under the Japanese sphere of influence, the Japanese military was suspected of orchestrating the attack (Officers in Manchuria had indeed planned the assassination.) Hirohito’s anger with Tanaka stemmed from the fact that no real effort had been made to court martial the guilty officers. With that being said, Hirohito had wanted Tanaka to resign, but did not in fact expect him to do so, according to Stephen Large. The fact that his influence ended in Tanaka’s resignation had a strong effect on the emperor, and “the legacy of his confrontation with Tanaka in 1929 was a lasting determination, bred of his constitutional scruples, to maintain a strict neutrality in dealing with the prime minister and his cabinet.” (Large, 1992, 39.)

The controversy over this incident early in Hirohito’s reign is not easily dealt with, because of the dearth of primary sources from the late 1920s regarding exactly how forcefully Hirohito dealt with the issue. What is clear is that the assassination took place without the consent of Hirohito or indeed any military superiors in Tokyo. (Reischauer, 1939, 150.) Later incidents in Manchuria would bring the tensions between elements of the military and Hirohito into a brighter light.

The Manchurian Incident, which occurred on September 18, 1931, was the first large step towards the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. An explosion occurred along the South Manchurian Railway, with the blame being placed on “Chinese subversives.” (Large, 1992, 46) Like the Chang Tso-Lin assassination, this act was undertaken without consent from Tokyo, which caused a great amount of concern and anxiety. As Large writes, “the problem for the military high command in Tokyo was how to reassert its authority over Japanese forces in Manchuria. The parallel dilemma facing the cabinet was how to restrain the military and re-establish control of foreign policy…” (Large, 1992, 46.)  In the midst of this crisis, Bix argues that Hirohito was anxious over regaining control of the army, but also saw an opportunity for Japanese expansion as well. The emperor “was not seriously opposed to seeing his army expand his empire. If that involved a brief usurpation of his authority, so be it-so long as the operation was successful.” (Bix, 2000, 240) However, testimony from Kido Koichi, who was at the time the aide to Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, seems to suggest that the emperor’s opinion was somewhat different and not as highly regarded. On September 22, several days after the explosion, Kido reports that

“The Emperor told the prime minister and the war minister that everything was satisfactory because the government had endeavored to prevent this affair from spreading. He stated that the government should make further efforts along the same line. However, it is reported that the army resented this, because the Emperor’s words suggested the advice of someone around him. Accordingly, unless there is no alternative, it would be best to not have the Emperor’s word from now on.” (Kido, 1984, 5.)

This dismissive attitude towards the emperor provides a strong indication that his opinion was held to be less important than the feelings of the military involved in the Manchurian Incident by those around him, including his advisors. More importantly, the Manchurian Incident signaled the end of “a four-month struggle between the army…and the Foreign Office, over the method to be followed in liquidating certain problems at issue between the Japanese and Chinese governments.” (Reischauer, 1939, 155.)  This meant that the army now dictated the policies it wanted to pursue, while “the major activity of the Foreign Office hence became justifying the faits accompli of the army, and presenting them in the most palatable form possible to the outside world.” (Reischauer, 1939, 155.)

The series of events in 1931 were indicative of the growing power of the military establishment in the Japanese government, as well as the desire to restrain Hirohito from voicing strong opposition to the army by those around him. In 1932, the militarist elements of the government had completed their takeover of the Japanese parliament following the May 15 assassination of Inukai Ki, the prime minister at the time. (Reischauer, 1939, 157.) Inukai had been killed by a group of young military and naval officers. The string of prime ministers that Hirohito appointed in Inukai’s stead either joined the ranks of the militarists or were killed off. (Hoyt, 1991, 75.) Try as he might, the emperor was powerless to stop the army’s rise. As the US ambassador to Japan at the time, Joseph Grew, remarked, “the military are simply taking the bit in their teeth and running away with it, evidently with a Fascist regime in view.” (Grew, 1944, 4.)

The relationship between the emperor and the military would grow even more strained as the years went on. Hirohito displayed a strong opposition to Japanese military action in Manchuria and China, but on certain occasions, he approved requests by the military to proceed with operations. For example,

“On 4 February 1933, the army chief of staff, Prince Kan’in, who had replaced Kanaya in November 1931, requested imperial sanction for strategic Kwantung Army operations against Chang Hsueh-liang’s forces in Jehol. Now hoping that would end the Manchurian Incident once and for all, the Emperor acquiesced, even though the cabinet had not given its approval.” (Large, 1992, 52.)

In this case, Hirohito saw approval of military action as a way of satisfying the military’s desire for expansion, but also “stipulated that Japanese forces should not penetrate further south than the Great Wall.” (Large, 1992, 52.) However, the military would take his agreement to continue operations and run with it. As Honjo Shigeru, Hirohito’s chief aide-de-camp at the time reported,

“When His Majesty found out that the Kwantung Army had crossed the Luan River and was rushing into China proper beyond the borders, he summoned me and asked, ‘Can the Kwantung Army be ordered to cease its advances?’ He seemed to be concerned that Japan’s integrity was being undermined by the movement of Japanese troops toward Pekin and Tientsin when the government had issued a statement to the foreign powers that the troops would not move into China proper.” (Honjo, 1982, 75.)

Hirohito’s dismay in this case is understandable, given that the army had expressly disobeyed an order given by their commander in chief. Yet it provides further evidence of the disconnect between the emperor and the military he was supposedly in control of. Hirohito seemed to grasp the limits of his influence, but at the same time he expressed irritation over being disobeyed before those limits were reached.  The next entry in Honjo’s diary includes the observation that “His Majesty does not necessarily intend to place restrictions on military strategy, but he will not condone infractions against the principles of supreme command.” (Honjo, 1982, 76)

At this point in the timeline we can see that the role of Hirohito with regards to the affairs of the military was very much regulated by the pressure and advice from people around him in the government and the army. He displayed the ability to approve military action, only to see his orders ignored by the soldiers he was supposed to have the loyalty of. For the rest of the decade, Hirohito would continue to struggle with the clash between his personal misgivings about involving the country deeper in conflict and the pressure to support the drive for expansion.

February 1936 would bring more trouble for Hirohito. Following the election of a more moderate military government on February 22, a regiment of the Imperial Army attempted an overthrow of the government (Reischauer, 1939, 171.) Following the murders of several senior members of the government, including some of his closest supporters, Hirohito was outraged, and ordered the rebellion put down by the military command. When conferring with Honjo, his intense displeasure becomes clear: “When I saw His Majesty on the 27th he frequently said, ‘If the insurgents refuse to obey the orders of the military supreme command, I will personally lead the troops against them.’” (Honjo, 1982, 170.) The revolt was eventually put down, but in the aftermath the military began a stronger push towards war that culminated in the Battle of Marco Polo Bridge in July of 1937, which signaled the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War. (Large, 1992, 86.) Grew noted in his journal that “there seems to be a complete unanimity of opinion between the cabinet, the military, the Foreign Office, the press, and the businessmen to resist any weakening of Japan’s position in North China.” (Grew, 1944, 211.) Hirohito was opposed to involvement in yet another conflict with China, but because of an almost absolute lack of information about troop movements on the mainland, his options were limited. (Hoyt, 1991, 113.) The total war between China and Japan would be the last stepping-stone before the signing of the Tripartite Pact in September of 1940, with Hirohito in opposition until the bitter end. As Large writes, “the Emperor greeted the government’s commitment to a German alliance with much apprehension and a deepening sense of personal isolation and fatalism.” (Large, 1992, 99.) Hirohito agreed to the pact despite a sense of foreboding over the prospect of war. Grew speculates that “the Emperor was most reluctant to approve the Pact and was finally led to do so only when Matsuoka [The foreign minister at the time] gave the Emperor his studied conviction that war with the United States would be inevitable if the alliance with the Axis were not concluded. “ (Grew, 1944, 354.)

Hirohito’s misgivings were well placed. Following a decade in which he had witnessed the seemingly indomitable rise of the military regime in Japan, his nation was on the brink of a war that would bring great triumphs followed by crippling defeats and millions of lives lost. However, it is inaccurate to attribute Hirohito’s apprehension for war to an overriding desire for peace. Rather, he feared that the cost of expansion, namely war with the United States, would be too great to bear.


Japan in World War II (1941-1945)

By 1941, the military establishment of Japan was gearing up for a war with the United States. Members of both the army and the navy were resolved to a conflict with their Pacific neighbor, convinced of Japan’s ability to come out on top in such a conflict. As Frederick Moore noted in 1943,

“By the summer of 1941, they had so prepared for war, both psychologically and materially, that men like General Tojo actually believed they could take and hold sufficient territory to make it impossible for American forces to dislodge them, and that ultimately we would lose heart and come to terms of peace with them.” (Moore, 1943, 50.)

Meanwhile Hirohito was filled with questions as to the efficacy of such a plan of action. At first, he called for efforts to be made to make progress through negotiations instead of only considering war. (Large, 1992, 108.) However, his difficulties were compounded when Prime Minister Konoe, a Prince, resigned his post in October of 1941. (Hoyt, 1991, 123.) In his place, Hirohito appointed general Tojo Hideki at the recommendation of Kido, who wrote, “I asserted that the most important things were the revision of the decision of the last council in the imperial presence and the unity of opinion between the army and the navy…I recommended the Tojo Cabinet as an impediment to hurried war. The Emperor approved of my answer…” (Kido, 1984, 315.) The appointment of Tojo, who was one of the strongest supporters of war with the United States, may suggest that Hirohito “now believed that war was unavoidable.” (Bix, 2000, 419.) Grew added that “the Japanese Army for the first time in recent years has openly assumed responsibility for the policies and conduct of government in Japan, which it had previously steadfastly declined to accept.” (Grew, 1944, 460.) However, according to Kido, the emperor maintained doubts until several days before the declaration of war. On November 30, however, Kido writes

“The Emperor said that he had ordered the premier to act according to the program, because of the affirmative responses of the navy minister and the chief of the Navy General Staff to his question regarding the success of the war.” (Kido, 1984, 321.)

The “program” began with the surprise attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. The United States had helped Hirohito’s decision somewhat when, through its secretary of state Cordell Hull, it “demanded the complete withdrawal of Japanese troops from China and Indochina and the scrapping of the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo axis.” (Hoyt, 1991, 125.) If Japan had accepted those terms and sacrificed its overseas holdings, Hirohito and the rest of the government would have bowed to the United States’ will and lost face in the process, “which was impossible.” (Hoyt, 1991, 125.) In issuing his imperial rescript of declaration of war, Hirohito sealed the fates of millions. Although he personally avoided the war for as long as possible, Hirohito’s message to Japan marked the point of no return: “We have therefore resolved to declare war on the United States and Britain for the sake of the self-preservation and self-defense of the Empire and for the establishment of enduring peace in East Asia.” (Hoyt, 1991, 125.) On the other side of the fence, Grew, who was now a prisoner in enemy territory, remarked, “in the long run, Japan’s defeat is absolutely certain, for the American people, once aroused, won’t let go.” (Grew, 1944, 496.)

The early period of the war, where the victories for the Japanese were seemingly constant, helped to alleviate some of Hirohito’s concerns. In a meeting during March of 1942, Kido notes that the emperor “was in a pleasant mood and said to me, ‘the excellent results of the conflict seem to be coming a little too quickly’… He was so pleased that I could hardly give congratulatory answer.” (Kido, 1984, 330.) His role as commander in chief became a bigger part of his daily routine. As Large states,

“The Emperor routinely received battle reports and followed the progress of fighting from a map room in the palace. He regularly approved campaign decisions made by the high command, although his approval was mostly perfunctory…However, at times, he actively associated himself with specific campaign decisions. For instance he sanctioned Japanese operations in the battles of the Philippines and Okinawa, expressly sharing the military’s desperate hope for a decisive victory that would compel the Allies to offer favorable terms for ending the war.” (Large, 1992, 115.)

Cognizant of the thin ice that Japan was walking on, it is clear that Hirohito was eager to see the war end as quickly as possible while still achieving victory, which led to his direct involvement in some instances. His positive attitude even extended to setbacks such as the Japanese defeat at the Battle of Midway. When Kido met to discuss it with Hirohito, he “had supposed that the news of the terrible damage would have caused him untold anxieties, yet his countenance did not show the least bit of change…he told Navy Chief of Staff Nagano to make certain that the morale of the navy did not deteriorate and that the future policy of the navy did not become inactive and passive.” (Kido, 1984, 336.)

However, the ability of the United States to out-produce Japan eventually turned the tide and put the Empire on the defensive. At this point in the conflict, Bix argues that Hirohito began a policy of stubbornly demanding victories where none were possible. “Confronted with certain defeat, he dug in his heels and refused to accept it.” (Bix, 2000, 476.) However, it might be more accurate to label General Tojo as the stubborn one, for as Large notes, Tojo “was clearly determined to fight to the finish…In some respects, Tojo ‘had become a virtual dictator…who had shorn the Emperor of the vast vestiges of power and had left him only in the role of a god who was in Tojo’s keeping.’” (Large, 1992, 117.) In February 1944, with the Japanese suffering numerous defeats as American forces island-hopped across the Pacific, Tojo requested that he be made army chief of staff in addition to prime minister. Hirohito reluctantly agreed, “describing the consolidation of power as an emergency measure necessary at that period of the war.” (Drea, 2009, 234.) But measures such as these were too little, too late. Less than half a year later, in the middle of July, Tojo resigned. (Kido, 1984, 390.) Later that month, when Kido broached the topic of possible evacuation from Tokyo to Hirohito, the emperor was resistant.

“Should I leave the capital, the nation, especially the populace in the capital, will be subject to restlessness and defeatism. Therefore, even if the supreme command considers the matter from the point of view of supreme strategy, it should not be carried out unless there is an absolute necessity. In certain quarters, sentiment may exist that I should move to the continent, because of developments in the war, but I do not agree with that. I must remain on the mainland by all means, to try desperately to protect the mainland…” (Kido, 1984, 398.)

In this sense, the emperor seems to be most concerned with the well being of his country, with much less regard for his personal safety or the desires of the supreme command. As 1944 turned into 1945 and defeat became clearly imminent, Hirohito’s desire to end the war increased, even though the resolve of the military to continue the fight never wavered. Although the army was preparing to resist an enemy invasion, Hirohito felt that “other ways had to be found to terminate the conflict…This cannot be described as a dramatic assertion of imperial influence for peace, given the typical circumspection of the Emperor’s remarks.” (Large, 1992, 123.) Indeed, in examining Kido’s notes on the final days of the war, nothing can be found that suggests hostility between Hirohito and the remaining military leadership. Following the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945,, Hirohito instructed the prime minister and the rest of the government to bring an end to the war as quickly as possible. (Kido, 1984, 444.) On August 10, Hirohito commented on the end of the war to Kido:

“Of course, there is something really unbearable when I think of the disarmament of our loyal and brave fighting forces and the punishment of those in charge of the war, since they are the people who have contributed loyal and meritorious services. Today, however, is the time to bear the unbearable, I suppose…I, holding back my tears, agree to the original plan.” (Kido, 1984, 445.)

What is interesting to note in those comments is the separation made by Hirohito between himself and “those in charge of the war.”  That seems to indicate a sentiment that he really had no control in the orchestration of the war. Another thing to take note of is the fact that Hirohito knew that the people in charge would be punished, but he personally did not expect anything bad to come from the end of the war. A few weeks following those comments, he expresses immense regret over the delivery of the suspected war criminals to the United Nations. Kido writes that it “was unbearable to him, and he would rather assume all the responsibility himself, abdicating from the Throne, than transfer them to the United Nations.” (Kido, 1984, 453.) Kido dissuades him from the notion by reasoning that “the mere abdication from the Throne would not satisfy them…and abdication might eventually ruin the foundation of the imperial family, with the result that the advocates of the republican form of government would gain an ascendancy.” (Kido, 1984, 453.)

While the end of the war brought devastation and ruin to Japan, Hirohito was left relatively unscathed. What to do with the emperor was one of the primary questions the American occupiers had to answer in the aftermath of Japan’s surrender. Grew, in a letter written in 1944, voices his opinion on the matter:

“If that institution of the Japanese throne is to be a liability and an incentive to a continuance of the military cult, it had better be scrapped. If, on the other hand, it proves to be the only cornerstone on which something peaceful and healthy can be built in future, we had better not scrap it through mere prejudice. I am inclined to think that the latter will be the case.” (Grew, 1944.)



Neither Hirohito nor the Japanese imperial institution were ever “scrapped.” While Tojo and other leading military leaders during the war were sentenced during the Tokyo War Tribunal, the Showa emperor remained above accusation. However, changes were imposed upon Hirohito as they were upon everyone else in Japan, with the biggest being the renunciation of his status as a god. In his first imperial rescript of 1946, the Showa Emperor explained that,

“We are with you, the people and wish always to share common interests, joys and sorrows, with all of you. The bondage between Us and you, the people, is constantly tied with mutual trust, love and respect. It is not brought about by mere mythology and legends. It is never founded on a chimerical conception which describes the Emperor as a living deity and, moreover, the Japanese as superior to all other races of people, thence destined to rule the world.” (Hoyt, 1991, 157.)

Hirohito was never a supporter of conflict for the sake of conflict. As emperor of Japan during perhaps the most tumultuous and devastating period in the country’s history, his actions were in many ways influenced by the military commanders and political leaders that oversaw the rise of Japan into a militaristic world power with an eye for expansion. He sat silently in many meetings of the military high command because the limits on his power dictated it. He had to deal with insubordination from the army on several occasions, as well as a violent attempt to overthrow the government. He feared entering a war against the United States because he felt that it was a war Japan could not win. Any optimism he expressed during the course of World War II was of the cautious variety, weighted with the knowledge that the best strategy was to win and win quickly before the war got out of hand. And when defeat was inevitable, he expressed regret that he had to force his brave countrymen to throw down their weapons and accept reality. The Showa emperor was a pacifist at heart who wanted the best things for his people.

Yet it would be inaccurate and irresponsible to end the story there. Under the constitution created during the reign of his grandfather, Hirohito was the supreme religious, political and military leader of his people. He alone could officially declare a war or bring one to a close. And indeed, he did both during his time on the throne. It is undeniable that the emperor had to deal with pressure from multiple sources, including the overbearing presence of the military. It is quite possible that Hirohito signed the rescript of war declaration while dozens of advisors and military leaders looked on. Yet he was the one who signed it. He approved numerous military actions that resulted in the deaths of thousands, even millions of people, many of them non-combatants. Did he personally desire the mass destruction that his directives caused? It is clear from examining the evidence that the answer to that question is a clear no. Yet much like a person who witnesses a crime and does nothing to stop it, the emperor was an accessory to warfare. Hirohito had the constitutional power to end the war earlier, or not even enter it in the first place, yet he did neither. As Grew pointed out in a 1943 letter, “whatever the facts, the Emperor, if only as a symbol, must take full responsibility for the war.” (Grew, 1943.)

So the small bespectacled man who ruled Japan for 63 years—most of them peaceful, some of them nightmarishly violent—was neither a bloodthirsty warlord nor an innocent victim of circumstance. The truth behind Hirohito and the role he played in militaristic Japan is not completely clear, and likely never will be. But the facts that are available point to an image of a man who strongly opposed the thought of war, but nevertheless served as an accessory to the greatest war the world has ever seen. The same man used the radio to convince his people that surrender wasn’t the end of the world, in a decision that was completely on his terms. It is simply a pity that such a decision came too late for too many, including the Showa emperor, a pacifist at heart.



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Large, Stephen S. Emperor Hirohito And Showa Japan: A political biography. Routledge, London, 1992.

Bix, Herbert P. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. HarpersCollins Publishers, New York, 2000.

Hoyt, Edwin P. Hirohito: The Emperor and the Man. Praeger Publishers, New York, 1991.

Kido, Koichi. The diary of Marquis Kido, 1931-45. University Publications of America, Inc., 1984.

Honjo, Shigeru. Emperor and his Chief Aide-de-Camp: The Honjo Diary 1933-36. University of Tokyo Press, 1982.

Grew, Joseph C. Ten Years in Japan. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1944.

Gordon, William. “Japan’s March Toward Militarism.” March, 2000.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. “The Emperor of Japan as Deity (Kami).” Ethnology.  July 1991: 199-215.

Moore, Frederick. “The Emperor Did Not Want War.” World Affairs. March ,1943: 45-52.

Grew, Joseph C. Letter. Atlantic Monthly. October 25, 1944.

Grew, Joseph C. Letter. San Francisco News. November 30, 1943.

5 Responses to Imperial Conductor? Hirohito and the Rise of Japanese Militarism

  1. One of many says:

    This anonymous text lacks credibility. As Max Hastings wrote in “Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45″, the picture of Hirohito as a “pacifist” is a legend and it is already discredited. This text says “the goal of this paper is not to disprove one of these theories (‘Hirohito played an important and involved role in the planning and execution of Japanese military strategyby’ and ‘Hirohito was an unwilling participant in the pre-war military buildup, as well as the war itself’) shoring up the other. Refuting either of the major arguments outlined above would be difficult as they both are based upon historical facts”, but then the text is dedicated to supporting point by point the second theory, while minimizes the first, citing again and again the apologist works (Hoyt, Large, Grew…) as if they were an undisputed truth, when in fact there are many other works which point to the opposite direction.

    From “The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia”: The weight of evidence is that Hirohito was not the pacifist he was depicted to be by postwar apologists. His ambitions were aligned with those of the military, though he was himself cautious and frightened of the risks the military were taking.

    From Professor Forrest E. Morgan “Compellence and the Strategic Culture of Imperial Japan” about Herbert P. Bix’s book: “Bix rightly dispels the emperor’s popular image as a helpless, symbolic leader, who was a virtual puppet of Imperial Japan’s military oligarchs and unaware of how his government was prosecuting the war. Drawing from previously unexamined documents, he ably demonstrates that the emperor was fully aware of Japan’s political behavior and intimately involved in military planning even at the operational level. Based on Bix’s evidence, it is clear that the emperor was an active participant in Japan’s decision making process; however, Bix overstates that evidence when he protrays Hirohito as the driving force behind those decisions. Japanese decision making was a corporate process, versus the dominant-leader model that Bix depiction implies. Hirohito was not powerless, but he was not omnipotent either. Hirohito was a nationalist with expansionist ambitions, as was nearly every other political actor in Japan’s imperial government…”.

    From Professor Kenneth J. Ruoff “The People’s Emperor”: “”If ‘war responsibility’ means participating in the policymaking process that led to the commencement and prosecution of an “aggressive” war (for many Japanese, the key issue was the responsibility for defeat, not complicity in an aggressive war), then there is growing evidence that Emperor Hirohito played a considerable role in this area. Thanks to Herbert Bix’s recent biography of Hirohito, much of this evidence is now available to the English-language reader. Even if one believes the official account that exculpates Hirohito from political responsibility by insisting that he was used by the militarists, there is the question of his moral responsibility for letting himself be used in such a positive manner as a symbol of Japan’s righteous wars. Whatever misgivings Hirohito may have expressed to his close advisors and governmental ministers…between 1931 and the surrender…he never once publicly indicated anything but support for the war. Finally, the issue of Hirohito’s war responsibility would be less significant had there not been the remarkable campaign after the surrender to remake him into a man of peace…”

    In short, this text should be less inclined toward the legend of Hirohito as “a pacifist at heart” and admit the extent of their responsibility is a very controversial and disputed matter. He had expansionist ambitions aligned with those of the military, although he had sometimes misgivings of the risks of some military campaigns. He didn’t make decisions alone, Japanese decision making was corporate, but Hirohito was actively involved in it and he was neither a pacifist nor a warmonger, but an opportunist who approved war when he believed his troops could win. This would be a balanced position for this text. Unfortunately, it had opted for apologism.

  2. Doing an assignment at the moment on Emperor Hirohito (Showa)…

    The above ^^^ photo of Hirohito was published in 1926 (according to the United States Congress Library), and theirfore was the photograph issued to represent his ‘Ascension to the Throne’ (Imperial Household Agency) – not: either of his Enthronement events, which occured two years later…

    Therefore, even the photo (which is not referenced in the bibliography below) is misused by the author of this article…

    • Istrator says:

      Thank you very much for your comment,

      The photograph was not added by the author, but by a member of our editorial staff, who obtained the photo from public domain
      The source indicates that the photo was taken in 1928, and added accordingly.

  3. One of many says:

    Well, now the article is no longer anonymous (now it is signed; in April, it wasn’t).

    Otherwise, I have noted my use of the word ‘their’ in the sentence “admit the extent of their responsibility is a very controversial and disputed matter” from my comment in April. I’m foreign (English is not my native language) and it is, obviously, an erratum: I wanted to write “admit the extent of HIS responsibility is a very controversial and disputed matter”, as I did later in the sentence “an opportunist who approved war when he believed his troops could win.” Yes, the word ‘their’ can be applicable if I were talking about the responsibility of all adult members of the Japanese Imperial Family at the time (all of them were granted immunity for criminal prosecution), but I was talking only about Hirohito.

    Apart from these two observations that should add to my previous comment, I reaffirm all my assertions written in in April.

  4. Anonymous Coward says:

    I can’t help but note that you, who are still anonymous, now lack more credibility than Jordan Siedall. Your reduction of Grew, the American ambassador to Japan in the decade leading to the Pacific War, to an untrustworthy Japanese apologist is laughable. You do not even dismiss the Emperor’s attempts to restrain the Kwantung Army; you ignore them.

    The reduction of Japanese decision-making to that of a corporate boardroom is a gross oversimplification of a delicate situation where even prime ministers had to tread carefully or face assassination – but even in a boardroom without brownshirts of dubious loyalty stationed inside, the principled opposition of a few members can easily be overturned by an entrenched majority.

    Furthermore, the essay itself already makes it abundantly clear that Hirohito, as the sovereign ruler of Japan and the prosecutor of the war, shares the war responsibility with his fellow board members. What it does not say, and which you insist it must incorporate to make it a balanced account, is the assertion that Hirohito was a craven opportunist.

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