【PART 3】 The Mystery of the Security Treaty Village (1): The Showa Emperor and the Constitution of Japan


【9】 Fiction of “no war responsibility”


A reader of Rediscovering Japanese History after World War II Series remarked that it was very interesting but added: “I wonder why schools in Japan do not teach post-war history.” One of the biggest reasons is the Showa Emperor issue. The problem is not only that, despite having other options, he chose the path of slavish military and diplomatic obedience to the U.S.; equally important is that he did not take responsibility for the war.

Under normal circumstances, the Showa Emperor would be obligated to bear some degree of war responsibility. It is impossible for him to have no responsibility at all. It would never be accepted that he did not have practical power or that he did not want to start war, because the “Imperial War Rescript” (the declaration of war against the U.S. and Britain) had been issued under his name.

Bonner Fellers, Brigadier General and aide to General MacArthur, was given the task of investigating the Showa Emperor’s war responsibility and confirmed that responsibility in his report. By strongly opposing bringing the Showa Emperor to trial for war crimes, Fellers is said to have played the critical role in the survival of the Emperor system. Even he wrote plainly that, “The Imperial War Rescript, 8 December 1941, showed the inescapable responsibility of the Emperor who, as the head of a then sovereign state, possessed the legal right to issue it” (Memorandum to the commander-in-chief, October 2, 1945). Around that time, on October 8th, it was confirmed in Treatment of the Person of Hirohito, Emperor of Japan (SFE126/1-3: a statement of basic U.S. basic policy which had been revised at various times), that “the Emperor Hirohito is not immune from arrest, trial, and punishment as a war criminal.” The Emperor, in short, was liable for opening the war even if he had not committed an internationally wrongful act, or the pre-emptive attack on Pearl Harbor without declaration of hostility. That was the common understanding among the Allies at the end of WW2.

There had been a very similar precedent only two dozen years before, at the end of WW1. Despite a shaky foundation in international law, the German Emperor, Wilhelm II, was held responsible for the war; as the head of Germany, the country instigating the war, Wilhelm’s criminal liability was assumed. Bringing him to international tribunal was specified in article 227 of the Versailles Treaty(*) (“The Prosecution of the Ex-Kaiser after World War I” by Shimizu Masayoshi in Hakuoh Study of Law Issue No.21 [2003]).

Japan also signed this treaty. Moreover, as one of the major victorious countries (specified along with Britain, the U.S., France, and Italy in Article 227), Japan was determined to send a judge to the trial. (The trial, however, was not convened since Wilhelm II fled to the Netherlands.)

Therefore, the Showa Emperor would not have been able to claim immunity from the responsibility for starting the war. Based on this assumption, Fellers strongly justified the “immunizing” of the Emperor by saying, “We asked the Emperor’s cooperation to achieve the bloodless invasion into Japan. Thanks to the Emperor’s command, seven million Japanese soldiers were disarmed and demobilized smoothly, so that tens of thousands of American soldiers’ lives were saved and the war ended earlier than planned. Despite of using the Emperor’s authority in that way, if the Emperor gets convicted as a war criminal, Japanese people will regard it as treachery… It will be inevitable that the governing system in Japan collapses and rebellions take place all across Japan if the Emperor is put to trial.”

(Occupation of Japan 1: Emperor System, edited by Akira Yamagiwa and Masanori Nakamura, translated by Ryonosuke Okada and published by Ohtsuki Shoten)

It was a fiction created jointly by the Japanese ruling class and GHQ that the Showa Emperor did not bear any war responsibility. This fact is very important in order to understand various events taking place during the first half of the occupation period. From that time until 1948, the issue of the war responsibility of the Showa Emperor was the primary cause behind significant proclamations and events such as “The Declaration of Humanity,” the establishment of the Constitution of Japan, and the Tokyo war crimes tribunal.

The Showa Emperor himself knew better than anyone that he was liable for the war. In fact, many times after the war he tried to step down in order to take responsibility (Five Decisions of Hirohito Emperor by Ikuhiko Hata published by Kodansha). Many people, including his aides, members of the imperial families, and MOFA executives, advocated the Emperor’s abdication.

In the end, however, MacArthur did not permit this. There was a potent scenario in the works, to control post-war Japan by using the Showa Emperor early on, and it went well beyond other occupation policies.

Examples of those favoring the scenario included Edwin O. Reischauer. He was an admirable U.S. ambassador to Japan, favored by the Japanese people. American officials who, like Reischauer, spoke Japanese were usually asked by the Department of State during wartime to devise strategies against Japan. In September 1942, one year after the start of war, he had already proposed to the Department of the Army that making a “puppet gregime with Hirohito” in Japan would be beneficial to the U.S. after winning the war.

There were many opinions similar to this. In June 1942, the Psychological Warfare Branch of the U.S. Military Intelligence Service planned to use “the Emperor as a symbol of peace” when they occupied Japan (Japan Plan) (The Origin of the Symbolic Emperor Institution by Tetsuro Kato published/Heibonsha). At any rate, it was believed, the loyalty of the Japanese people to the Emperor was absolute. Therefore, their obedience should be put to use rather than being squandered by allowing the Emperor to abdicate.


* ・・・ The Treaty of Versailles (i.e., the Treaty of Peace between the Allied and Associated Powers and Germany), Article 227 reads as follows:
TheAllied and Associated Powerspublicly arraignWilliam II of Hohenzollern, formerlyGerman Emperor, for a supreme offence against international morality and the sanctity of treaties.
A special tribunal will be constituted to try the accused, thereby assuring him the guarantees essential to the right of defense. It will be composed of five judges, one appointed by each of the following Powers: namely, theUnited States of America,Great Britain,France, ItalyandJapan…. (Italics added by author)