The United States faced a momentous decision in 1945. What would it do with the Shōwa emperor—Emperor Hirohito? A good percentage of the US public favored executing him as a war criminal. And US officials discussed abolishing the monarchy and indicting the emperor in a war crimes tribunal.
The Evil Militarists
A less extreme position was to require the Shōwa emperor, Hirohito, to abdicate while Japan retained the constitutional monarchy in some form. Complete exoneration was also on the table.
And the US quickly fixated on that most-extreme position—that the Shōwa emperor was completely, and utterly, blameless on Japan’s road to war, and during its wartime efforts.
In this view, guilt and blame fell solely on a cabal of evil militarists who had manipulated the hapless monarch. The emperor would not stand trial. And he would not abdicate. Rather, the United States would attack anyone who suggested that he was in any way responsible for the war.
Now, that policy had several problems. First, it’s historically inaccurate. The Shōwa emperor wasn’t a crazed warmonger, but he certainly wasn’t a powerless bystander. And the occupation’s decision to depict the emperor as powerless rather than all-powerful created a reverse image of Japanese wartime propaganda.
The Shōwa emperor went from knowing everything to knowing nothing. That’s implausible and made it difficult—even for historians decades later—to write about the emperor as an ordinary person; someone who just happened to be a royal.
A Saintly Monarch?
Think of it this way: one probably doesn’t ask, “Is Queen Elizabeth a pure saint or a ruthless monster?” We think of the British royals as human enough to have both virtues and flaws.
But the United States—as Japan’s occupying power—insisted on an utterly powerless yet saintly monarch. And that made it difficult to think of the Shōwa emperor as a person with ordinary ambitions and hopes and fears; someone who’d made good decisions and bad.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Rise of Modern Japan. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Shōwa Emperor’s Inaction
Yet, it’s essential to navigate between the extremes of hapless victim and wartime mastermind because so much of the emperor’s troubling conduct lies in his inaction.
For example, in 1938—after Japanese troops rampaged through Nanking, China—the Shōwa emperor never summoned his generals and asked, “Have you disciplined your troops, and if not, why?” Nor did he address Japan’s war crimes.
One Japanese veteran’s group has referred to the Nanking Massacre as a stain on the Japanese army. It was met with silence from the imperial house.
In February 1940, a single brave Japanese parliamentarian named Saitō Takao gave a furious speech accusing the government of rank incompetence. Japan, he raged, had already lost 100,000 men fighting in China, a country 15 times larger than Japan. What was the plan, he had demanded to know. Why were they fighting the war, and how were they supposed to win?
He asked, “What do I tell my constituents, who are sacrificing their sons?” If Saitō knew something was deeply wrong in February 1940, why didn’t the Shōwa emperor ask a similarly punishing question of his generals?
Absolving the Emperor
The decision to absolve the emperor of any responsibility stifled serious inquiry along those lines for decades. But why did the occupation embrace this course? One argument at the time was that the Japanese people demanded it.
In January 1946, General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, wrote to army Chief of Staff Dwight Eisenhower, explaining that removing the Shōwa emperor would lead Japan to disintegrate into guerrilla warfare. “Civilized practices will largely cease,” he wrote, and the ‘mutilated masses’ would collapse into ‘some form of intense regimentation probably along communist lines’.
Even abdication would require hundreds of thousands of additional US troops to maintain order, and likely lengthen the US occupation, MacArthur argued.
But was that apocalyptic vision rooted in reality? Probably not.
The Japanese people were openly talking about abdication. The Shōwa emperor’s uncle himself declared that the emperor should abdicate to mark a new start for Japan. This opinion was written up in Japanese and American newspapers.
Former Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro also favored abdication. Konoe had no patience for the fantasy that the emperor was somehow removed from all decisions. Konoe had an especially fraught history with him. The emperor had heeded him when he was wrong, several years earlier, and ignored him when he was right, counseling Japan’s surrender a year before the war ended.
But there was no evidence that Japan would fall into anarchy because of an imperial abdication.
The Cold War
All of that notwithstanding, the decision to absolve Shōwa the emperor of responsibility for the war was an early—and extreme—symptom of the Cold War. Retaining the Shōwa emperor strengthened the most conservative elements of the Japanese society. And by stifling any exacting discussion of his wartime role, radical arguments for reshaping Japanese society were also stifled.
A key figure behind MacArthur’s support for the emperor was American general Bonner Fellers. Fellers authored a book arguing for a massive US air force that could attack Russia with impunity. He argued, “The free world can survive the deadly total Red threat if we man our air ramparts and stand by with atomic weapons.”
Hence, practically speaking, the decision to retain the Shōwa emperor had less to do with history than with a need to enlist Japan as an ally in the binary struggle between the United States and Soviet Union.
Common Questions about the US Occupation of Japan and the Exoneration of the Shōwa Emperor
A less extreme position for the US to adopt was to require the Shōwa emperor to abdicate while Japan retained the constitutional monarchy in some form.
Japanese parliamentarian Saitō Takao accused the government of rank incompetence. Japan, he raged, had already lost 100,000 men fighting in China, a country 15 times larger than Japan.
General MacArthur thought that removing the Shōwa emperor would lead Japan to disintegrate into guerrilla warfare.