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Monday, Sept. 29, 2003


Debate on Emperor's role in war lives on

NEW YORK -- Will the nearly 60-year-old debate on the Showa Emperor's role in World War II ever end?

A friend of mine in Tokyo informed me that the monthly Bungei Shunju, in its July and August issues, did a special on a "newly discovered" Imperial document: a statement composed by the Showa Emperor's top aide on his behalf of which the Emperor spoke of the "untold sufferings" brought on as a result of the "lack of my virtue" and expressed "profound remorse before the world." It is thought to have been prepared in the fall of 1948, around the time those found guilty at the Tokyo Trial were executed.

Then, another friend apprised me of another magazine special -- this one on Japan's "war responsibility." Its overall subject is the need to find some way for Japan to get around the impasse, both international and domestic, at which it has been placed because of the war waged more than half a century ago. As the editor who conceived the special plaintively asked, is war "Japan's original sin"? The collection of discussions and essays appeared in the February issue of Chuo Koron.

So I turned to a tome I had acquired earlier, "Tenno no Senso Sekinin," which comes with a convenient English title: "Hirohito's War Responsibility" (Michi Shobo, 2000). The 560-page book sets up a prosecutor, defense and judge: Two scholars with opposite views on the Emperor's culpability argue their cases, and a third tries to reach a decision. Norihiro Kato, of Meiji Gakuin University, contends that the Showa Emperor must be held responsible for the war. Daizaburo Hashizume, of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, insists that the Emperor couldn't be held responsible because he was in no position to lead a war. Seiji Takeda, also of Meiji Gakuin University, proposes abandoning the "scholastic either-or argument" to open a new way.

One thing that makes opposite views possible is the Emperor's legal status under the Meiji Constitution.

On one hand, Article 1 says that the Emperor "rules" the nation -- the word used is tochi (rule), not kunrin (reign) -- while Article 11 says that the Emperor commands the army and the navy. Thus it seems only natural to think that the Emperor was the final authority in all matters of governance and to judge, as Kato does, that he was "guilty as ruler of the invading nation and as commander of the invading army."

On the other hand, Article 55 says that each minister of state provides the Emperor with assistance and is responsible for it. Crucial here is the term "assistance" (hohitsu). In the Meiji Constitution, it meant that in administrative matters, the final authority rested with the prime minister, not with the Emperor; and in military matters, with the chiefs of the General Staff and the Naval Staff, not with the Emperor.

In this legal construct, about the only maneuverability the Showa Emperor had was to ask questions after -- and sometimes before -- a document came up for his review. And his signature was not final. For an Imperial document to take effect, it required a countersignature by the document's presenter (Article 56). Moreover, he had no "veto" power. In this, the Japanese Emperor under the Meiji Constitution was nothing like the U.S. president. The U.S. president's signature is final for the enacting of any bill passed by Congress, and every executive order he signs has the explicit phrase, "by the authority vested in me."

Thus you can argue, as Hashizume does, that the Showa Emperor as constitutional monarch had "zero" authority in the decision-making process arranged for him in administrative or military matters.

Of these views, the one that stresses the Emperor as ruler and commander is bolstered, I think, by two extraneous factors: Japan's alliance with Germany and Italy, and the decision by Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers Gen. Douglas MacArthur to exempt the Emperor from the International Military Tribunal for the Far East for obviously political reasons. Hitler and Mussolini were both fascist dictators, so the head of an equally militaristic nation, Japan, also had to be one. And whereas Hitler killed himself and Mussolini was murdered, the Showa Emperor neither killed himself nor was murdered. Instead, thanks to MacArthur's decision, the Emperor got off easy; ergo, he is suspect.

The situation is compounded by the paucity of words and thoughts directly attributable to the Showa Emperor. Unlike some of his forebears, he kept no personal diary -- or, if he did, it has yet to come to light. In consequence, assessing the Showa Emperor's role depends not just on the interpretation of his constitutional role; it also must rely on circumstantial evidence: words and writings of policymakers who dealt with him. The result is the irreconcilable schism -- among nonhistorians such as Kato, Hashizume and Takeda, and among historians.

Many American experts have judged that Herbert Bix made his case in his 800-page attempt to prove the Emperor's guilt, "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan" (HarperCollins, 2000). The book won a National Book Critics Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Still, some have pointed out that Bix is far from watertight.

In his review in the Journal of Japanese Studies, Ben-Ami Shillony, of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for example, has pointed out with some amusement that Bix unwittingly reveals the shakiness of his argument. After marshaling great numbers of quotations from secondary sources, the historian almost destroys his case by concluding that the Showa Emperor's position, like that of his father and his grandfather, was so uncertain that he, like them, was in effect "used" by those who helped him to rule.

Similarly, my friend who sent me the Chuo Koron special thinks Bix has made an eminently persuasive case. But Ikuhiko Hata, of Nihon University, who wrote one of the essays in the special, dismisses the Bix book as "a pastiche in English translation of main points picked from the writings" of four Japanese "leftist historians." My friend thinks Hata is being emotional in this instance and is, for once, "a disappointment." But Hata at least shows that two diametrically opposed cases can be made about the Showa Emperor's role.

So many wars have happened since the idealistic, if not highfalutin, rules were conjured for the Tokyo Trial that today's debate on Japan's and the Showa Emperor's "war responsibility" does, at times, seem "scholastic." But history is political. The Bengei Shunju editor's wish for the question to "land" safely, somewhere, will remain just that, a wish. It will continue to be raised until doing so brings no benefit, either political or academic.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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