Tokyo, Japan · October 9, 1945

On this date in 1945 in Tokyo, Baron Kijūrō Shidehara became Prime Minis­ter of Japan at the head of a consti­tu­tional govern­ment com­mitted to pur­suing a peace­ful future. Before the war Shide­hara had been a pro­mi­nent Japa­nese diplo­mat and a leading pro­po­nent of paci­fism in Japan. On the same date, Octo­ber 9, the Amer­i­can occu­pa­tion author­i­ties repealed the May 1925 Peace Pre­ser­va­tion Law, which had given the Impe­rial Japa­nese govern­ment and its Thought Police with­in the Home Minis­try carte blanche to out­law any form of poli­ti­cal and reli­gious dis­sent, as well as arrest over 70,000 people between 1925 and 1945. The Amer­i­can author­i­ties also removed from their posts roughly 200,000 per­sons who were deemed responsible for leading the war effort.

The 1946–1948 Inter­na­tional Mili­tary Tri­bu­nal for the Far East, or Tokyo Trials—equi­va­lent to the Nurem­berg Trials in post­war Ger­many—sen­tenced six­teen former minis­ters, gen­er­als, and am­bas­sa­dors in Japan’s mil­i­tary-domi­nated govern­ment to impri­son­ment. Seven former mili­tary and poli­ti­cal leaders were sen­tenced to death, chief among them war­time prime minis­ter and war minister Hideki Tōjō, who was hanged in 1948. Japa­nese Emperor Hiro­hito (post­humously referred to as Emperor Shōwa) and all mem­bers of the Im­perial fami­ly, such as Prince Yasuhiko Asa­ka who was im­pli­cated in the 1937 Nan­king Mas­sacre in China’s capi­tal city, were not pro­se­cuted for in­volve­ment in any war crimes—both the Truman ad­min­is­tration and Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur, Supreme Com­man­der for the Allied Powers in Japan, gave Hiro­hito a free life­time “Get Out of Jail” card, believing that occu­pa­tion reforms would be imple­mented more smoothly if, instead of deposing and prosecuting the emperor, they used him to legitimize their changes.

Amer­i­can and Japa­nese leaders moved almost as one to white­wash Hiro­hito’s war­time role to justify keeping him on his throne—this had been the chief sticking point in moving Japan to accept un­con­di­tional sur­render. By col­luding, the U.S. occu­pa­tion regime and the postwar Japa­nese govern­ment con­tri­buted to the mem­o­ry loss of the Japa­nese peo­ple for the hor­rific role their nation played in the first half of the 20th cen­tury, a memory loss that the sons and daughters of Japan’s neigh­bors must deal with as Japan moves to claim a leadership role in Asia and the Pacific.

I know 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. Was he a pas­sive ruler reluc­tantly manip­u­lated by an elite group of Japa­nese mili­tarists who con­trolled the levers of power or was he him­self a co-manipu­lator? Could he legiti­mately be described as a war crim­i­nal like those who reported to him were found to be in post­war military tri­bunals? Herbert P. Bix, in his Pulit­zer Prize-winning book Hiro­hito and the Making of Modern Japan, settles the issue for me and I believe the majo­rity of us: Hiro­hito, as com­mand­er in chief, 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 my satis­fac­tion 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 was the missing defendant in the dock during the Tokyo War Crime Trials of 1946–1948.—Norm Haskett

Gen. Hideki Tōjō and His Emperor

Tokyo Trial defendants in the docketGen. 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, Tōjō 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.

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

Left: Soldiers parading 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 Gene­ral Head­quarters in 1943. As part of the Su­preme War Coun­cil, the Impe­ri­al Gene­ral Head­quarters coor­di­nated war­time efforts between the Impe­ri­al Japa­nese Army and the Impe­ri­al Japa­nese Navy. In terms of func­tion, the Impe­ri­al Gene­ral Head­quarters was roughly equivalent to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Contemporary Documentary on the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, 1946–1948