Tokyo, Japan · November 5, 1941

Early in September 1941 Japanese officials gave their diplo­mats until Octo­ber to reverse the policy of the West­ern powers—prin­ci­pally the U.S., Great Britain, and the Nether­lands—of restricting Japan’s access to vital South­east Asian resources, among them oil, rubber, tin, tim­ber, and rice. The restric­tions had been im­posed the pre­vious month after Japan had stationed troops in Vichy French Indo­china. For its part, the U.S. had frozen Japa­nese assets in the U.S. and embar­goed oil and gaso­line exports to Japan. At an Im­perial Con­fer­ence of Japa­nese offi­cials (Gozen Kaigi) attended by Shōwa Emperor Hiro­hito on this date in 1941, Gen. Hideki Tōjō—war min­is­ter, home min­is­ter, and since Octo­ber 17 prime min­is­ter as well—said Japan must be pre­pared to go to war with the West, with the time for mili­tary action ten­ta­tively set for Decem­ber 1 if diplo­macy with the U.S. and Euro­pean colo­nial powers failed to im­prove rela­tions and reverse trade sanc­tions. The Japa­nese foreign min­is­ter didn’t see that hap­pening, telling the august assem­bly that the pros­pects for diplo­matic suc­cess are, “we most deeply regret, dim.” Hiro­hito, who two days earlier had been briefed about the planned attack on U.S. military installations at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, readily assented to the oper­a­tions plan for war against the West­ern nations. He held meetings with Tōjō and the mili­tary leader­ship until the end of Novem­ber. Mean­while the Japa­nese Diet (parlia­ment) approved a reso­lu­tion of hos­tility against the U.S. Late that month Kichisa­burō No­mura, Japan’s ambas­sador to Wash­ing­ton, failed to over­come Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt’s in­sis­tence that Japan must with­draw from China and stop its aggres­sive South­east Asian in­cur­sions before the U.S. would resume trade with his coun­try. On Decem­ber 1, another Impe­ri­al Con­fer­ence offi­cially sanc­tioned war against the United States, Great Britain, and the Nether­lands. Con­tin­ued talks in Wash­ing­ton to heal the breach between the two nations were a smoke­screen for Vice-Adm. Chūi­chi Na­gu­mo’s Striking Force (Kido Butai) of six air­craft carriers as they made their way to the Hawai­ian Islands by a little-used route and took up posi­tions on Decem­ber 4, 1941, 250 miles north­west of their des­ig­nated tar­gets: the U.S. Pacific Fleet riding at anchor at Pearl Harbor and U.S. aircraft parked smartly at Hickman Field.

It baffles me that there remains any con­tro­versy surrounding the pre­war and war­time role of Japa­nese Emperor Hiro­hito, who had taken the auspi­cious reign-title “Shōwa” (“illus­tri­ous peace”) in 1926. Some would like us to believe Hiro­hito was a pas­sive ruler reluc­tantly manip­u­lated by an elite group of Japa­nese mili­tarists and nation­alists who con­trolled the levers of power. Others boldly assert he was a co-con­spi­rator and should have been charged with war crimes in a post­war mili­tary tribu­nal as were Gen. Hideki Tōjō and others who regularly reported to him. Herbert P. Bix, in his Puli­tzer Prize-winning book Hiro­hito and the Making of Modern Japan, consigns the con­tro­versy to the ash­can of his­tory. Bix asserts that Hiro­hito, as com­mander in chief of his coun­try’s armed forces, must bear the strongest share of poli­ti­cal, legal, and moral respon­si­bi­lity for the crimi­nal con­duct of his mili­tary in the Asia Pacific Thea­ter in the 1930s and ’40s, and he cer­tainly bears direct respon­si­bility for sanc­tioning the bombing of Chi­nese cities and Japan’s use of poi­son gas on Chi­nese sol­diers and civil­ians. Bix demon­strates to my satis­fac­tion that Hiro­hito was a repeat vio­lator of inter­na­tional peace, starting in 1931 with Japan’s illegal sei­zure of Man­chu­ria in north­eastern China, con­tinuing for more than a dozen years for mil­lions of peo­ple swept up in the grue­some maelstrom of war, and ending only in August 1945 when he and his asso­ci­ates could find no way out of the bloody mess they had made in South­east Asia. Hiro­hito was the missing defendant in the dock during the Tokyo Trials of 1946–1948. —Norm Haskett

Emperor Hirohito and His Wartime Prime Minister, Gen. Hideki Tōjō

Soldiers on parade before HirohitoHirohito (middle) as head of the Imperial General Headquarters, 1943

Left: Soldiers parade before Shōwa Emperor Hiro­hito, a revered sym­bol of divine status. While per­petu­ating a cult of reli­gious emperor wor­ship, Hiro­hito also bur­nished his image as a war­rior in photos and news­reels riding Shirayuki (White Snow), his beau­ti­ful white stal­lion. One news agency reported that Hiro­hito made 344 appear­ances on Shirayuki.

Right: Shōwa Emperor Hirohito, seated in middle, as head of the Imperial Con­ference (Gozen Kaigi), Janu­ary 1, 1945. Convened by the Japa­nese govern­ment in the presence of the Emperor, the Imperial Con­ference was an extra­consti­tutional con­ference that focused on foreign affairs of grave national impor­tance. Hirohito was also a mem­ber of the Imperial General Head­quarters-Govern­ment Liai­son Con­ference. The Liaison Con­ferences coor­dinated the war­time efforts between the Imperial Japa­nese Army and Imperial Japa­nese Navy. In terms of function, it was roughly equi­va­lent to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. The final decisions of Liai­son Con­ferences were formally dis­closed and approved at Imperial Con­ferences over which the Emperor presided in person.

Tokyo Trial defendants in dockGen. Hideki Tōjō, 1940

Left: Defendants at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (1946–1948). Gen. Hideki Tōjō (1884–1948), former war minis­ter and prime minis­ter of Japan, is fifth from left in first row of the defen­dants’ dock. Alluding to Emperor Hiro­hito’s suc­cess in dodging indict­ment as a war crimi­nal, Judge Henri Ber­nard of France con­cluded that the war in the East “had a prin­ci­pal author who escaped all pro­se­cu­tion and of whom in any case the present Defen­dants could only be considered as accomplices.”

Right: Tōjō in military uniform. On July 22, 1940, Tōjō was appointed Army Minis­ter. During most of the Pacific War, from Octo­ber 17, 1941 to July 22, 1944, he served as Prime Minis­ter of Japan. In that capa­city he was directly respon­si­ble for the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the war Tōjō was arrested, sen­tenced to death for war crimes during the Tokyo Trials, and was hanged on December 23, 1948.

Part I of BBC Documentary on Emperor Hirohito’s Role in Japanese Aggression in World War II