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Piece published in the History News Network:  27 July 2015

Hirohito’s War, The Pacific War 1941-1945


Myth 1:  Emperor Hirohito was a God:  After the overthrow of the Japanese Shogunate in 1868, the four southern tribes, the Satsuma, Choshu, Saba and Tosa, sought to embed the legitimacy of their new regime by the re-promotion of an 8th Century myth that the Japanese Emperor was a ‘God’. The myths were set out in two official chronicles, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters: AD 712) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan: AD 720).

The powers of the Emperor did not survive as power shifted to the Shogun system and until 1868 the Imperial Japanese family continued to exist largely in obscurity and often in relative poverty. As often happens with revolutionary regimes, a new national identity was required to justify and embed the country’s new military rulers. An infant Emperor Meiji was adopted as the new order’s figurehead and self-justification. Japan’s new regime re-emphasized the role of the Emperor as a living ‘God’, making it the heart of an ideological indoctrination taught in the new state school education system. The Japanese Army took this further by the simultaneous incorporation of Bushido (the military scholar code) into its military programs. Thus the overthrow of the Shogun was portrayed less as a revolution and was characterized instead as the Meiji Restoration, a title that gave moral justification to a successful armed insurrection.

Myth 2:  Hirohito was simply a constitutional monarch forced into war by his generals: In March 1946, some nine months after the Pacific War had been brought to an end, Emperor Hirohito made a testament about his role in the war. In a bizarre scene, Hirohito had a single bed set up on which he lay in pure white pajamas on the finest soft cotton pillows. In eight hours of statements, the Showa Tenno no Dokuhaku Roku (Emperor’s Soliloquy: his post-war testament) Hirohito absolved himself for all responsibility for the war by claiming that he was a constitutional monarch entirely in the hands of the military: ‘I was a virtual prisoner and was powerless.’ 

This was a lie. Although by convention Hirohito behaved as a constitutional monarch, the Meiji Constitution granted him absolute power – he was after all enshrined as a ‘God’. On three separate occasions during his rule he had demonstrated his absolute powers; in 1929 he forced the resignation of his prime minister; in 1936 he overruled his military advisors to insist on the harshest treatment of the young officers involved in the coup d’etat known as the 26 February Incident and in 1945; and finally in August 1945 he overruled his advisors by insisting on a Japanese surrender. Hirohito had the power to stop Japan’s military adventurism in the 1930s but chose not to. As his former aide-de-camp Vice-Admiral Noboru Hirata conjectured, “What [his majesty] did at the end of the war, we might have had him do at the start.”

Myth 3:  Hirohito was a peace-loving scientist only interested in ocean molluscs: After the Pacific War, General MacArthur propaganda machine as well as the Imperial court went into overdrive to convince the world that the Emperor was a peace loving man, a scientist, whose main interest was the study of hydrozoa, microscopic jellyfish. Hirohito was indeed an avid gentleman scientist. However he was also a young man with an interest in the minutiae of military activity. He had a war room built underneath the Imperial Palace in Tokyo from where he could follow Japan’s military adventures in detail. Even the military hierarchy complained at the level of resources needed to update the Emperor. Throughout the war, he mainly wore military uniform and to celebrate great victories he rode a pure white charger in parades in front of the Imperial Palace. Furthermore, although the Emperor’s court papers were destroyed before the Allies could seize them, it seems clear from contemporary accounts that as Japan’s war situation deteriorated, he became increasingly shrill in his criticisms of the military, and more insistent on his own strategic suggestions.

Myth 4:  Hirohito did not know about the Rape of Nanking and the genocide in China:  The Rape of Nanking was widely reported in the Japanese Press, even relaying in gory detail a competition between officers as to who could cut off most Chinese heads. Hirohito could not have been unaware of these reports particularly as his own family was closely involved in the atrocities in China. His own uncle, Prince Asaka had commanded the Japanese troops at Nanking. As a reward Hirohito gifted Asaka a pair of silver vases and they also resumed their regular games of golf. 

In a genocide that killed 20 to 30 million Chinese, the Emperor’s relation, Field Marshal Prince Kanin, gave the authorization for the use of gas. Prince Mikasa, Hirohito’s youngest brother, even visited Unit 731 in Manchurian where live vivisection and other experiments were carried out on Chinese and western prisoners. Although unproven, it seems highly unlikely that the inquisitive Hirohito would have been uninformed by his relatives of these activities conducted by the Japanese Army. Like Hirohito, all the imperial family was excused prosecution at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

Myth 5:  Hirohito apologized for Japan’s war crimes in the Pacific War: It is variously reported that Emperor Hirohito offered to give a formal apology for Japanese war crimes including the attack on Pearl Harbor. Supposedly MacArthur, in order not to undermine the Tokyo War crimes trials refused to allow this. However if Hirohito had really wanted to issue an apology to the nations of Asia and to the United States he could surely have done so by handing a press release to the international press. In 1975, when asked about the ‘responsibility for the war’, Hirohito replied, ‘I can’t comment on that figure of speech because I’ve never done research in literature.’ It is an obfuscation that is fully reflected in the Japanese post-war historiography taught in schools and universities. 

San Diego Union-Tribune

Rethinking ‘The Bomb’ 70 years later

By FRANCIS PIKE | 4 p.m. Aug. 5, 2015

FILE - In this Sept. 8, 1945 file photo, an allied correspondent stands in the rubble in front of the shell of a building that once was a exhibition center and government office in Hiroshima, Japan, a month after the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare was dropped by the U.S. on Aug. 6, 1945. (AP Photo/Stanley Troutman, File) The Associated Press

Was dropping the “A” bomb moral, and did the technology it demonstrated make American victory in the Pacific war inevitable?

In the postwar period, some commentators have averred the United States need not have dropped an atomic bomb. They argue that it was only dropped to demonstrate American power to the Soviets and that it could have been demonstrated on unoccupied land. Furthermore, it is suggested that the bombing of a civilian city was a war crime. In other words, it was an unconscionable and immoral act.

Some contemporaneous commentators such as Adm. William Leahy, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Chester Nimitz, Gen. “Hap” Arnold and Adm. Bull Halsey thought the use of the atomic bomb was barbarous and unnecessary. These views are not convincing; the Japanese government in August 1945 was a very long way from accepting the unconditional surrender both President Franklin Roosevelt and his successor, Harry Truman, had demanded, and which the vast majority of Americans supported. Time and again, the U.S. military had been proved wrong in its anticipation of a Japanese surrender.

Japanese diplomats may have been keen to call time on Japan’s military adventurism but the die-hards were still intent on victory. Even after Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Soviet declaration of war, Japan’s war minister, Gen. Korechika Anami, suggested, “Would it not be wondrous for the whole nation to be destroyed like a beautiful flower?” Japan’s ultranationalist army leaders had built a death cult that was incomprehensible to Western logic.

Waiting for American soldiers on the shores of Japan’s four main islands were 2.5 million troops plus a vast civilian reserve. Japan had assembled a force of 11,000 planes and thousands of suicide boats to thwart the American invasion and Adm. Onishi, the main architect of the kamikaze campaign, believed victory on land was possible “if we are prepared to sacrifice 20 million Japanese lives.”

As some 12,000 Americans had been killed at the Battle of Okinawa when faced with just 80,000 Japanese troops, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff realistically estimated that the conquest of mainland Japan would cost 267,000 U.S. lives. Meanwhile, the War Department estimated up to 800,000 dead – more than double the American deaths in Europe in World War II. Japanese casualties, based on the universal refusal of their troops to surrender, were estimated at 3 million dead plus 5 million to 10 million civilians.

Presented with these forbidding numbers, no president of a democratically elected country could have spurned the use of the atomic bomb. Not using the bomb would have been greeted with utter incomprehension by nearly all Americans. As Secretary of War Henry Stimson observed, “No man … could have failed to use it [the A-bomb] and afterward have looked his countrymen in the face.”

For the GIs about to ship out to Japan, it was a reprieve. As Paul Fussell, a 21-year-old officer recalled, “We were going to live. We were going to grow up to adulthood after all.”

Furthermore, with only two atomic bombs available, a demonstration could not be afforded. Lastly, while the conspiracy theorists are adamant the bomb was used as a deterrent to the Soviet Union, the reality was that at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, President Truman was urging Stalin to attack Japan so that America alone would not bear the burden of its defeat.

If Truman’s motives for dropping the atomic bomb could be considered lifesaving and moral, was it legal? Before World War II, only Article IV of The Hague Convention of 1899, which prohibited the “discharge of projectiles from balloons,” could be described as a legal impediment to bombing. Even then, Japan was not a contracting power and in any case bombardment of conurbations was allowed if they were defended.

Finally, the use of the atomic bomb to defeat Japan has sometimes been taken as a symbol of an overwhelming economic and technological power that made U.S. victory in the Pacific War inevitable. But is it forgotten that just to get the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the only plane capable of carrying an atomic bomb, within range of Japan, the United States had to fight a war that took 1.5 million troops some 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean.

At the start of the war in 1941, it was unclear whether an isolationist America had either the will or prowess to carry out what was logistically and operationally the largest military and naval exercise in history. The defeat of Japan in the Pacific War was anything but inevitable.