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

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.

History’s Verdict: Japanese Emperor Hirohito (Skip first 45 seconds)