War Responsibility and Historical Memory: Hirohito’s Apparition

Since the appearance of Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan in 2000, the unearthing in Japan of new information on the Asia-Pacific war has proceeded apace. Historical war narratives using new documentary evidence and drawing on the insights of various disciplines continue to appear. Oral history, women’s history, studies of war prisoners and international law, even theories of postwar "reconciliation," have widened the perspectives of Japanese historians. Thanks to the work of many progressive historians the ethical dimensions of military history are being opened up and explored as never before. [1] But in no fundamental way have these scholarly efforts altered the picture of Hirohito as the activist, dynamic, politically empowered emperor who played a central role in Japan’s undeclared wars. The following discussion recapitulates some of the arguments that I presented earlier when analyzing Hirohito’s leadership at the policy level, then goes beyond them to address problems of historical memory. [2] The same Nuremberg and Tokyo principles of individual and state responsibility for war crimes, however, inform this essay just as they did my book.


Japan’s wars of the 1930s and early 1940s inflicted on the peoples of Asia and the Pacific tremendous human and material losses. Over ten million Chinese died from the effects of the war that began in 1937, with some estimates of actual deaths running twice as high. Within countries occupied after 1941 by Japanese forces and later fought over by the Allies, massive numbers of combatants and non-combatant civilians died, including over a million Filipinos. Tens of thousands of war prisoners fell into Japanese hands. Many of them died in captivity and many others from US "friendly fire." Japanese forces detained 130,000 to more than 140,000 civilians for the duration of the war. [3] At its end, Japan itself lay prostrate, its cities in ruins, its people demoralized. Official Japanese government underestimates say that 3.1 million Japanese died in the Asia-Pacific War. Of that number about 800,000 were non-combatant civilians, most of them victims of American fire bombing and atomic bombing in the war’s final months. [4] American combat deaths of about 123,000 in the Pacific pale in comparison. [5]

The individual who oversaw these wars and in whose name they were fought, Hirohito, was forty-one-years-old when Japan unconditionally surrendered its armed forces. Two decades earlier, upon ascending the throne, he had taken the auspicious reign-title "Showa" ("illustrious peace"). But for the emperor and his subjects, and especially for the people of Asia and the Pacific, there would be no peaceful times in the two decades that followed.

Hirohito: Japan’s Last Empowered Emperor

In the years between November 1921 and December 25, 1926, before the shy, taciturn Hirohito succeeded his ailing father, the Taisho emperor, he had been displayed to the Japanese nation as the dynamic representative of "young Japan," the embodiment of Japanese morality, the person destined to invigorate the imperial house. Two years later the Showa emperor and his entourage strengthened the monarchy’s links to state Shinto through year-long enthronement ceremonies that mixed Western-style military reviews with nativistic religious rites while elevating Hirohito to the status of a living deity.

Hirohito’s enthronement helped to move Japan in a more nationalistic direction. It was based on the theocratic myth of an imperial house whose destiny was defined by the emperor — a human in form but actually a deity ruling the country in an uninterrupted line of succession. No matter what project the emperor undertook, his "subjects" were presumed and required to be absolutely loyal in "assisting" him from below. In newspapers and on the radio the message echoed throughout the land that Japan had broken with its immediate past; it now had a monarch cast in the mold of his illustrious grandfather, Emperor Meiji, who (in the words of Hirohito’s first imperial rescript) had "enhanced the grandeur of our empire."

For Hirohito, like most Western heads of state, empire, national defense, and national greatness were primary. Given his opportunistic nature, he would extend Japan’s control over China w

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