Japanese reporter to Emperor Hirohito: “Your majesty, at your White House banquet you said, ‘I deeply deplore that unfortunate war.’ Does your majesty feel responsibility for the war itself, including the opening of hostilities? Also, what does your majesty think about so-called war responsibility?”

Emperor Hirohito: “I can’t answer that kind of question because I haven’t thoroughly studied the literature in this field, and so don’t really appreciate the nuances of your words.”

—Tokyo, 1975


So was Bergamini right after all? Perhaps I should explain. David Bergamini, an American journalist who was born in China and spent part of h is childhood in Japanese POW camps, published in 1971 a book of 1,239 pages, entitled Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy. For five years Bergamini had poured over “30,000 pages” of Japanese documents and US intelligence reports, “140,000 pages of collater al reading,” “272 reference books,” “50,000 pages of testimony” from the Tokyo war crimes trial, “5,613 pages of diaries” kept by high Japanese officials, and a whole lot more besides, and then had a revelation: “Countless ‘incidents’ which had once seeme d unfathomably Oriental began to make hard rational sense. Everything fell into place and reinforced my simple perception of the obvious: that Hirohito had, indeed, been Emperor.”1

In short, Bergam ini had uncovered a conspiracy. Far from being a hapless, pacific victim of “military cliques,” Emperor Hirohito and his courtiers had been plotting a war against the West since the 1920s. He “had inherited from his great-grandfather [the Meiji Emperor] a mission, which was to rid Asia of white men.” The unsavory truth, as revealed by Bergamini, was that

Hirohito had not only led his nation into war by stamping military orders but, through his coterie, had also intimidated those who oppos ed him by conniving in bizarre Oriental intrigues, including religious frauds, blackmails, and assassinations.

No sooner had the book appeared than another type of “coterie,” of American experts on Japan, sought to discredit Bergamini and his revelations. Sloppy scholarship and the odd Sax Romer–like tone of Bergamini’s prose—all those “bizarre Oriental intrigues”—made him a fairly easy target. James B. Crowley, a professor of Japanese history at Yale, led the assault in < i>The New York Times. Other heavy guns, such as the Harvard professor and former US ambassador Edwin O. Reischauer, followed. Crowley thundered: “If this latest conspiratorial view of the Pacific war gains any popular acclaim or credibility, th is reception, not Hirohito’s alleged conspiracy, deserves closer attention.”2 Bergamini died a bitter man, “driven to an early death,” according to a more sympathetic journalist and fellow biographer of H irohito, “by the weight of negative critical abuse.”3

Poor Bergamini—but was he right? Last year a book emerged from the ranks of American historians of Japan which argues that Hirohi to was indeed much more involved in wartime decisions than was previously assumed. The author, Herbert P. Bix, does not exactly prove Bergamini right, however. There was no conspiracy, nor was the Emperor always bent on war. Hirohito, in Bix’s account, wa s a ditherer, trying to restrain his army here but giving in to military adventures there, a meddler who said he wanted peace but let the war drag on, a hands-on priest-king and a keen armchair strategist who nonetheless claimed to be acting as a constitu tional monarch.

No conspiracy, then. And yet Bergamini was onto something important. He had, as it were, caught a whiff of a smoking gun, without quite knowing where it was. “I became convinced,” he wrote, “that the modern history of Japan, as pre sented since World War II, was a skillfully contrived illusion fabricated late in the war, partly by counter-intelligence specialists in the General Staff and partly by high-ranking palace courtiers.” This, as a number of serious Japanese and American his torians have shown, turned out to be absolutely correct. There was a conspiracy, of silence, secrecy, and distortion of the facts. And where there are official cover-ups, you will invariably get Bergaminis, for whom everything suddenly falls neatly into p lace.


The story of the cover-up, and the Emperor’s whitewash, contrived by General MacArthur’s staff and Japanese officials, was told well in John Dower’s Embracing Defeat.4 J apanese court officials and American experts of the “Oriental mind” (one of MacArthur’s hobbyhorses) agreed that the Japa-nese were not yet ready for popular sovereignty, and would have committed mass suicide rather than see their divine emperor held acco untable for his actions. What was needed, they wrote, was “imperial democracy,” with MacArthur acting as the temporary shogun. So it was necessary to exonerate Hirohito from any wartime responsibility.

The Emperor, in fact, already had his story r eady in case he was asked to bear witness, or, God forbid, be tried in the Tokyo trial. Responding to questions, prompted by MacArthur’s staff he blamed his most loyal generals for everything while stressing that his own intentions had always been peacefu l. He had tried his best to stop the war, but what could he do? He was only a constitutional monarch, after all. Like his subjects, the Japanese people, Hirohito had been a victim of the “militarists.”5 T his self-serving testimony, recorded for the Occupation authorities by a Japanese translator, was never published. Few people even knew it existed, until the late 1980s, when it turned up in the Japanese translator’s notes, kept in his granddaughter’s hou se in Casper, Wyoming.


On first sight, the story of Hirohito is filled with such bizarre contradictions that he might easily come across as either a devilishly clever con artist (Bergamini’s version) or a grotesque opportunist (Dower’s and Bix’s version). How could a monarch who spent much of his early career in military uniform and led his nation into one of the most destructive wars in human history claim to have been a man of peace? How could a priest-king with a sun goddess as his alle ged ancestor call himself a man of science? How could a leader who commanded the absolute obedience of his subjects, and especially of his armed forces, hide behind the impotent status of a constitutional monarch? Was he at the same time a pope as well as a dictator, a Dalai Lama and an Einstein, a Hitler and a King George V?

Bix does not claim that Hirohito was quite like any of the above. But, then, what was he? Since so much about the Japanese imperial institution is still hidden behind a thick fog of secrecy, we cannot know with any precision. Like Bergamini, Bix had to rely on the diaries and testimonies of courtiers, and the speculative scholarship of Japanese historians, who themselves don’t have very much to go on. And such is the confusion about the modern emperor’s status that Hirohito himself might not always have known what he was. Bix’s Hirohito seems as contradictory as other versions of the man, but Bix does at least have a coherent line on his subject which doesn’t rely on demonic conspiracy theories. It is largely the line of the left: the Emperor as a leading agent of reaction against liberal tendencies in twentieth-century Japan. This is persuasive, as far as it goes.

When Hirohito came of age in the 1920s, the i mperial household was not in good shape. His father, the Taisho Emperor, was generally known to be soft in the head; to credit with divine status a giggling figure who watched parliamentary proceedings through a rolled-up newspaper, as though it were a te lescope, was too much of a stretch for the public imagination. The fall of the German monarchy came as a great shock to the Japanese imperial entourage. Fresh gusts of Marxism, communism, and liberal democracy came blowing across to Japan from postwar Eur ope. Even the troops were getting restive. The army minister received a report from one of his commanders, warning that soldiers were no longer willing to be “blind followers of the orders of their noncommissioned superiors” because of “the rise in genera l knowledge and social education that enlisted men receive from newspapers and magazines, along with changes in popular thought.”

The Taisho period, lasting from 1912 until 1926, has a somewhat similar cultural image in Japan as the Weimar years in Germany. It was a time of raffish cafés, “Marx boys” and flappers, striptease parlors, slapstick movies, and jazz music, a time, that is, marked by ero, guro, nansensu, eroticism, grotesquerie, nonsense. Cartoonists copied the s atirical style of George Grosz, and filmmakers looked to Germany’s UFA as well as Hollywood for inspiration. The diminishing deference to authority, including the emperor, did not result in a freewheeling liberal democracy, to be sure, but political parti es, albeit conservative and often corrupt, were gaining some influence on government. A more open democracy was at least in sight.

Hirohito and the courtiers, mentors, and military men who surrounded him were less concerned with conquering Asia in those early years than they were with keeping control of Japan. Hirohito, who had acted as regent for his incapable father since 1922, was a pedantic though not fanatical young man. When a famous law professor was persecuted by right-wing zealots for dev eloping his theory that the emperor was a legal organ of the state more than a living deity, Hirohito took the professor’s side in private—without, however, protecting him in public. But he was also persuaded that demands for more democratic rights should be seen as expressions of “extremism,” which threatened the social order quite as much as fascism did. In this, his thinking was no different from the military autocrats who had governed Japan for centuries. Japanese rule, like Chinese imperial (or indeed Communist) rule, was based on orthodoxy, on imposing “correct thinking” on the ruler’s subjects. New ideas, whether it was Christianity in the seventeenth century or democracy and Marxism in the twentieth, “confused” people’s minds and made them un ruly, and should be checked, by forced acts of apostasy, or, if that didn’t work, by more drastic measures.


The idea that people might be capable of governing themselves through their chosen representatives was utterly alien to Hirohito and his en tourage. It would have struck them as absurd; all right perhaps for Europeans or Americans, but wholly unsuited to Japan. And even in Europe it was dubious: look what happened to poor Wilhelm II. In 1946, after the war was lost, the Emperor was still conv inced that the Japanese were like children, as far as politics were concerned. In a memorandum, prepared in English for MacArthur’s office, Hirohito said he hoped “the Occupation would not be too short,” because his subjects needed to be kept firmly in ha nd. He was worried that the “low cultural level” of the Japanese people made them dangerously receptive to left-wing concerns about “rights” as opposed to “duties.”6 But as I indicated already, Hirohito a nd the American shogun were in complete agreement on this point anyway.

Hirohito formally became the emperor of Japan in 1928. He had led a sheltered existence, and knew little about life beyond what his private tutors had taught him. And they taught him some very queer things. As Bix explains, intellectual battle lines at the time divided the “Westernizers” from the “nativists”; Hirohito’s mentors mostly belonged firmly to the latter. His ethics teacher, Sugiura Shigetake, explained that the European nations and the US “are of the same racial stock, the ‘Aryan race.’ …Our Japanese empire must be conscious of confronting the various Aryan races by our own power in the future.” He also impressed on the crown prince that Aryan monarchs ha d to use force to rule their subjects, whereas the Japanese emperor “rules the people without power.” Imperial benevolence was so deeply rooted that “the people joyfully submit themselves to the emperor.”

Nonetheless, joyfully or not, the time had come to restore order in the empire, and crack down on all the ero, guro, nansensu of free-thinking and other forms of civil disobedience. Orthodoxy, at that stage a curious mixture of Shinto mythology, neo-Confucianism, militari sm, and Darwinian nationalism, had to be reimposed. The idea of Japan as a family state, a kokutai or national polity, with the emperor as the divine patriarch of the Oriental master race, was promoted in various ways. Extreme behavior, such as jum ping to attention at the mere mention of the emperor, gradually became the norm.

As part of his enthronement ceremonies, Hirohito entered the inner sanctum of his ancestral shrine at Ise, where he adopted the fetal position and united with the spi rit of his divine progenitor, the Sun Goddess. Soon after, in a very untraditional impe-rial gesture, he traveled back to Tokyo and Yokohama to review his troops, his aircraft carriers, his submarines, and his naval fighter planes. Guns boomed, soldiers m arched, ships plowed the waves, and the national anthem sounded. The priest-king of Shintoism had been reinvented as a military supreme commander descended from the gods.

At the same time, “correct thinking” was enforced by newly appointed “though t police” agents, who went about arresting Communists and other political dissidents. And yet the first years of Hirohito’s reign were anything but orderly. They were marked by military adventurism abroad and political terrorism at home. In 1931, Manchuria was made into a Japanese colony, and Japanese soldiers began to get seriously out of hand. In the following year the Japanese navy picked a fight with Chinese troops in Shanghai. A full-fledged battle ensued, and young naval officers assassinated Prime Minister Inukai in Tokyo for his attempts to stop the war from spreading. His death meant the end of party cabinets. Henceforth Japan would be governed by military men and bureaucrats.

Bergamini described this as a putsch by Hirohito, comparable to Hitler’s power grab in 1933. The only difference between the two monsters, in his opinion, was that the former had “a thousand years of experience in intrigue to draw upon.” Bix, more plausibly, argues that Hirohito and his advisers were desperate to restore order. Right-wing terrorists, naval assassins, and rogue army units in Manchuria were creating a mess, internationally as well as at home, which destabilized the national polity. The murderers of Inukai had distributed leaflets calling for “the pu rification of the court entourage,” because they saw the court, and the Emperor himself, as insufficiently militant, and unprepared to stand up to Britain and the US. Never having been particularly keen on parliamentary politics anyway, Hirohito certainly had no confidence in the ability of party cabinets to restore discipline to his realm.

Order, much more than foreign conquest, was the Emperor’s main concern, for disorder threatened the imperial institution itself, and as Bix points out, surely c orrectly, protecting that institution was Hirohito’s primary duty, more important to him than preventing war in China, more important even than preventing the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this sense, the Japanese emperor was perhaps more like a pope than a monarch. The imperial household was his Vatican, whose interests had to prevail, whatever the consequences to his imperial subjects.

Seen from this angle, Hirohito’s behavior appears much less contradictory. It explains why h e personally intervened in 1936, when army fanatics tried to stage a coup. He dealt with the plotters harshly, because they threatened to upset the social order, including the monarchy. It explains why he wished to avoid a war with the West, but went alon g with it when not only hotheads but much of his top military brass believed it was inevitable.7 It explains why he backed the belligerent General Tojo Hideki as prime minister in 1941, for apart from any thing else, Tojo was absolutely loyal to the throne, and promised to keep his troops in order. It also explains why Hirohito was quite prepared to let Tojo take the rap for him after the war was lost. And it explains why he refused to surrender before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but gave in soon after. Before, he was afraid that unconditional surrender would mean the end of the monarchy. After Nagasaki, he feared mutinies, even a revolution at home, especially when the Soviets declared war at the last minute. Only the Americans could save him now.

Bix may not disagree with any of this, but his eagerness to prove that the Emperor was an activist produces more contradictions. Bix sees the idea of “constitutional monarchy” during Hirohito’s reign as a for m of deceit, almost a kind of conspiracy. He writes that from the beginning of Hirohito’s reign “the court group” struggled to “find a way to break through the constraints on the emperor’s powers that had developed over the nearly fifteen years of the Tai sho emperor’s debility. To that end they perpetuated the convenient fiction of the emperor as a ‘constitutional monarch.'”

But in fact the “fiction,” if that’s what it was, goes back to 1889, when the Meiji constitution was promulgated. Having use d the emperor as a figurehead in their revolution, the Meiji oligarchs wished to raise him above politics; he would reign, but not govern. This was all very fine. But the spirit of this arrangement had already been undermined by an imperial Rescript to So ldiers and Sailors, issued in 1882, which put the armed forces directly under the emperor’s supreme command. Soldiers had to be kept away from the grubby world of partisan civilian politics. If they owed their loyalty to the emperor, and not the state, th ey would not be led astray. That, at least, was the idea. And that was the contradiction inherited by Hirohito in 1928.

The Emperor was not being disingenuous when he thought of himself as a constitutional monarch, but he could not avoid be ing involved in the decisions of his government, since he and only he commanded the loyalty of his troops. This often led to tensions between the court and military leaders. At the same time, as a divine priest-king, the Emperor could not be held responsi ble for any mistakes or failures. This involved a great deal of secrecy and dissembling, as Bix points out, but not because Hirohito and his men were deliberately duplicitous. The political arrangements were flawed from the start. And when elected politicians lost all their influence in the 1930s, government became even murkier, with military, bureaucratic, and court factions all struggling to influence the increasingly erratic course of the nation.

Because Bix goes out of his way to show Hirohito’s active political participation, he is puzzled, and sometimes angry, when the Emperor turns out not to have been active enough. It’s as if Bix wants it both ways. The Emperor, he writes, should have done more to make his government support the Briand-Kel logg Pact outlawing aggressive war. He should have been more active in stopping the Kwantung Army’s adventurism in Manchuria. He should have ordered his troops to back off in China. He should have done this, he should have done that. The reason for Hirohi to’s pusillanimity, in Bix’s view, is that he actually believed the war in China was right. Perhaps, but it is also possible that the Emperor was an unimaginative, conservative, vacillating figure in a confusing constitutional position, who was prepared t o crack down on rebellious troublemakers, but not on the consensus of his trusted military and bureaucratic advisers.

Hirohito appears to have behaved as many bosses in Japan do, not as a tyrant but as a backroom schmoozer. He tried to influence th ings behind the scenes, but usually ended up bending to the mood of his strongest or most manipulative subordinates. It is a mistake to assume, as Bergamini did, and Bix does to a lesser degree, that Hirohito was like a European dicta-tor controlling even ts behind an elaborate Oriental screen. In his illumi-nating book Hirohito and War, Peter Wetzler argues that the Emperor

participated in consensus decisions as a traditional leader in Japan often does: as an important member of a g roup of prewar power brokers who made political and military decisions. But at the same time the decision-making process precluded him from unilaterally determining policies as a president or a dictator in the West would do. Therefore Hirohito could simul taneously explain himself and justify his actions, or lack of action, in terms of Western constitutional monarchy. And this, one must repeat, he did in good conscience.8

Wetzler is guessing here too, but it is at least a plausible explanation. It hardly lets Hirohito off the hook, of course. For a lack of imagination cannot excuse his silence over such atrocities as the Nanking Massacre, the 1938 campaign of terror in China, known as the “three alls policy” (burn all, kill all, steal all), bacteriological warfare, or the medical experiments forcibly carried out on civilians by the army’s Unit 731. He did not directly order these savage acts, and we do not know how much he knew about them. Bergamini is certain he knew every detail, and Bix assumes he did. But he certainly participated in a regime that allowed these things to happen. And that was bad enough.


How damaging was the whitewash of Hirohito after the war? In not telling the truth, very damaging indeed. The ability to know and tell the truth is a necessary condition for building an open, democratic society. By dressing the highest symbolic institution of the Japanese state in a cloak of lies, General MacArthur, h is reactionary Oriental “experts” (at least one of whom, his secretary Bonner Fellers, was a John Bircher), Japanese conservative politicians, as well as Emperor Hirohito himself, did great damage to postwar Japanese democracy. Not that this would have ke pt the Emperor from his sleep; democracy had never been part of his concern; but MacArthur did lecture the Japanese about democracy and free speech, even as he helped to put a damper on both. Responsibility for the war and its atrocities also became muddl ed. If the Emperor, in whose name everything was done, was innocent, then so were his subjects, who only followed imperial orders. Declaring the Emperor sacrosanct made it almost impossible for Japanese to analyze the past. For to probe was to risk l&# 232;se-majesté. And without probing, Japanese cannot fully understand what went wrong in the first place.

The lies had an effect outside Japan as well. Even the late Marius Jansen, one of the great American historians of modern Japan, stil l stuck to some of the conventional MacArthurian myths about Hirohito. In his last book, The Making of Modern Japan, Jansen writes that the Emperor “presided over Japan’s descent into aggressive war,” while “occasionally questioning policy o r procedure.”9 Even if one does not follow Bix in all his speculations, there was surely more to the Emperor’s role than that. And on the postwar whitewash, Jansen quotes without comment or dissent MacArt hur’s warning to Washington that “civilized practices would largely cease, and a condition of underground chaos and guerrilla warfare” would result, if the Emperor were made to abdicate or put on trial. He might have hinted that this view was not even sha red by everyone in the Emperor’s own immediate circle.

To be sure, the imperial institution was at least divested of some of its sacred aura. State Shinto, largely a Meiji invention to furnish modern imperialism with an ideology, was abolis hed after 1945. Hirohito told his subjects in a New Year radio broadcast in 1946 that his ties with his people did “not depend upon mere legends and myths. They are not predicated on the false conception that the emperor is divine and that the Japanese pe ople are superior to other races and fated to rule the world.”

This made a lot of Japanese right-wingers very angry. Many of them are still angry. You see the more thuggish right-wing elements racing around Tokyo in noisy sound-trucks, blaring mart ial music and calling for the imperial “restoration.” But it is doubtful that the Emperor himself was unduly bothered by this renunciation of godliness. His main duty, after all, was to protect his institution, to remain on his throne, to carry on the imp erial line, and if he could do this without acting as a god, that was all right too.

Hirohito was probably much happier acting as a scientist, pottering about the beach as a collector of rare marine specimens. In any case, he may never have been c onscious of a contradiction between Shinto and science. Part of Hirohito’s enthronement propaganda was, as Bix observes, that respect for the gods, reverence toward ancestors, and the unity of the monarch and the people were sublime human principles prove n by scientific studies. This kind of thinking was not new. Japanese nativists in the eighteenth century were already arguing that Japanese worship of the Sun Goddess, unlike Chinese imperial worship, was in line with scientific discoveries, since the earth revolved around the sun.

Unless one believes that any kind of monarchy is an impediment to achieving a liberal democracy, there is no reason to believe that Japanese cannot have a democratic government as well as a royal family. But the problem with the Japanese monarchy is that its modern status is still so fuzzy. Officially, Shinto has been privatized, as it were, but the current emperor still had to spend a night communing with the spirit of his solar ancestor before he could take his place o n the throne. People are still told to revere such ceremonies. And only a few months ago, the current prime minister, Mori Yoshiro, who was only eight when the war ended, still stated, as though it were self-evident, that Japan was “a divine nation with t he emperor at its core.” True, Mori is generally regarded as a klutz by most Japanese, but this kind of rhetoric has a constituency, one which is not on the rancid fringes of society, like German neo-Nazis, but close to the mainstream of conservative poli tics in Japan.

As long as this sort of thing is held in check by a strong parliamentary system, with a powerful liberal opposition, nothing very bad will happen. However, the Japanese parliamentary system is not particularly strong, and the opposit ion far from powerful. Politicians are generally despised, and the press has a poor record of defending freedom of speech and other civil liberties. The holy reverence that prevailed at the time of Hirohito’s drawn-out death in 1989, the almost total lack of openness in the Imperial Household Agency, the fact that a conservative (and Christian) mayor of Nagasaki was shot in that same year by militant bullies for suggesting that Hirohito bore a responsibility for the war, and the fact that few people in Ja pan are prepared to protest against these things—all this is not reassuring. Without a healthy democratic system, the imperial mystique still burns, albeit on a low flame, as an ever-present temptation to cloak illiberal policies in a quasi-ancient g arb.

It is hugely important, then, to insist that the truth be told about the past, as well as the present. The myths, concocted by Japanese as well as Americans, must be cracked open. Japanese historians are beginning to do that. Otherwise Bix wou ld not have been able to write his book. David Bergamini deserves a small salute, as well, for having made an initial stab at the subject. Bix has done a much better job. At the time of this writing, he has yet to find a Japanese publisher.

This Issue

March 29, 2001