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) presided over 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 his coun­try’s 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 across the Pacific Ocean to the Hawai­ian Islands by a little-used route and took up posi­tions on Decem­ber 4, 1941, 250 miles north­west of their des­ig­nated tar­gets—namely, the U.S. Pacific Fleet riding at anchor at Pearl Harbor and U.S. aircraft parked smartly at Hickman Field.

It’s no surprise to me that controversy still surrounds the pre­war and war­time role of Japa­nese Emperor Hirohito, who took the auspi­cious reign-title “Showa” (“illus­trious peace”) in 1926. One popu­lar narra­tive portrays Hiro­hito as “reigning without ruling,” a sacred but ceremonial figure in a precarious and ambiguous position who was persuaded (reluctantly at times) by an elite set of Japa­nese mili­tarists and ultra­nationalists to sanction (i.e., rubber stamp) war decisions they’d already made. An opposing narra­tive asserts that Hiro­hito was a true war leader and that he should have been charged with war crimes in a post­war mili­tary tribu­nal just as were Japa­nese Prime Minis­ter/War Minister Gen. Hideki Tōjō and other senior offi­cials who served the emperor. Herbert P. Bix, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, consigns the first inter­pre­tation to the scrap­heap 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 armed forces 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. For many readers, Bix con­vincingly demon­strates 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 victims swept up in an awful China-South­east Asia tsunami, and ending only in August 1945 when Hiro­hito & Co. could find no way out of the catastrophe they had created. As seen by many in Bix’s camp, Hirohito was the missing defendant in the Tokyo Trials of 1946–1948.—Norm Haskett

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

Soldiers on parade before HirohitoHirohito (middle) as head of the Imperial Conference, 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: Wartime photograph of Hirohito, seated in middle, in his role as presiding head of the Imperial Conference (Gozen Kaigi). 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. Liaison Con­ferences coor­dinated the war­time efforts between the Imperial Japa­nese Army and Imperial Japa­nese Navy. In terms of function, they were roughly equi­va­lent to U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Final decisions of Liai­son Conferences were formally disclosed and approved at Imperial Conferences.

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 hanged on December 23, 1948.

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