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 On the same date, Octo­ber 9, the Amer­i­can occu­pa­tion author­i­ties repealed the May 1925 Peace Pre­ser­va­tion Law, which had given the Impe­rial Japa­nese govern­ment and its Thought Police with­in the Home Minis­try carte blanche to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 life­time “Get Out of Jail Free” 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.

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 soldiers 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 accom­plices 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

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, 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.

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, it was roughly equivalent to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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