Tokyo, Japan November 5, 1941

On September 6, 1941, Japanese officials, in a decision endorsed by Shōwa Emperor Hiro­hito, gave their diplo­mats until mid-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, bauxite, timber, and rice. The restric­tions had been im­posed by the West the pre­vious month after Japan had stationed troops in Vichy French Indo­china with the agree­ment of the German collab­o­ra­tionist govern­ment of Marshal Philippe Pétain. For its part, the U.S. had frozen Japa­nese assets in the U.S. and embar­goed oil and gaso­line exports to Japan. Unable to extri­cate him­self from the deci­sion of the pre­vious month, Prime Minister Fumi­maro Konoe resigned his office on Octo­ber 16 when the Japa­nese Army and Navy high com­mands, over whom Konoe, a civilian, had no author­ity, pressed him to take action when the mid-October deadline for going to war with the West arrived.

At an Imperial Conference of Japa­nese offi­cials (Gozen Kaigi) attended by Emperor Hiro­hito on this date, Novem­ber 5, 1941, Gen. Hideki Tōjō—war min­is­ter, home min­is­ter, and since the resig­na­tion of Fumi­maro Konoe Japan’s prime min­is­ter as well—said the coun­try must be pre­pared to go to war with the West, with the time for mili­tary action ten­ta­tively reset 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 were, “we most deeply regret, dim.” Even the emperor was aware twenty days earlier, when he appointed the war­hawk Tōjō to the top cabinet posi­tion, that he just might have gambled away peace if this final attempt at negotiations in Washington failed.

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 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.

There remains an element of con­tro­versy in the pre­war and war­time role of Japa­nese Emperor Hiro­hito, who had taken the aus­pi­cious reign-title “Shōwa” (“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 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, believes the latter narrative is correct. In Bix’s view Hiro­hito, as com­mand­er in chief of all Japanese armed forces (daigensui), bears the strongest share of poli­tical, legal, and moral re­spon­si­bil­ity for the crimi­nal behav­ior 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. Bix demon­strates to the satis­fac­tion of many readers that Hiro­hito was a repeat vio­la­tor of inter­na­tional peace, starting with Japan’s illegal sei­zure of Man­chu­ria in 1931, con­tinuing for more than a dozen years for peo­ple swept up in the grue­some mael­strom of war, and ending only in August 1945 when he and his cronies could find no way out of the tragic mess they had made in South­east Asia. Hiro­hito, in Bix’s bio­graphy, was the missing defen­dant in the dock during the Tokyo War Crime Trials of 1946–1948.—Norm Haskett

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

Japanese 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 being (shinkaku). 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, 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, there were roughly equiva­lent to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Final decisions of Liai­son Conferences were formally disclosed and approved at Imperial Conferences.

Tokyo Trial defendants in the 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. As spokes­man for the Japa­nese Army high command, Tōjō was the leading advo­cate of war in the cabi­nets in which he served, and was instru­mental in forcing Prime Minis­ter Konoe’s resigna­tion. During most of the Pacific War, from Octo­ber 17, 1941 to July 22, 1944, Tōjō served in the post of prime minis­ter. In that capa­city he was directly respon­si­ble for the Japa­nese sneak 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)