Should the United States Be Blamed for Japan’s Historical Revisionism?
General Douglas MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito.
Image Credit: U.S. Army/Lt. Gaetano Faillace

Should the United States Be Blamed for Japan’s Historical Revisionism?


Given the controversy surrounding Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, it is perhaps worthwhile to briefly reexamine some of the root causes that lead to conservative Japanese revisionism. (Yesterday, I gave an interview to Asia News Weekly on the same subject.)

While it is of course reductionist to focus on one single cause for Japanese conservatives’ difficulties in dealing with Japan’s wartime past, I would like to briefly discuss the American decision to exonerate Hirohito, the 124th Emperor of Japan, and the entire imperial family for the policies and actions of the Empire of Japan during the 1930s and 1940s.

In short, this decision was a grave mistake and my reasoning is simple: If the commander in chief of Japan’s imperial forces and the most revered personality by all Japanese was absolved from any wrongdoing during the war, why should individual soldiers and politicians feel any obligation to take responsibility themselves?

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As the historian John W. Dower once put it: “Emperor Hirohito became postwar Japan’s preeminent symbol, and facilitator, of non-responsibility and non-accountability.”  In fact, the American occupation command was careful to exculpate Hirohito from even any moral responsibility for Japan’s actions during his reign, as Dower points out.

Of course, this had something to do with how the Western powers understood (or rather misunderstood) Japan’s political culture and the importance of the emperor for the average Japanese citizen.

Yet other reasons were more practical.

After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the Australian government intended to bring Hirohito to trial as a war criminal. However, American General Douglas Mac Arthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied powers, disagreed. He thought that establishing a peaceful allied occupation regime in Japan would be facilitated by the emperor’s ostensible cooperation with the Allied powers.

As a consequence, by the time the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, aka the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, was first convened in April 1946, the decision had been made to exclude any possible evidence that would incriminate the emperor and his family – including Prince Yasuhiko Asaka, a career officer who commanded the final Japanese assault on Nanjing in 1937. This decision made the allied prosecution team a de-facto “defense team for the emperor,” according to Dower.

During the two weeks separating the capitulation of Japan in August 1945 and the arrival of the Allied occupation forces, the country’s ruling elite staged a carefully planned campaign to link Hirohito to the idea of peace and started destroying as much incriminating evidence of the emperor’s role in waging the war as possible.

Indeed, the American military allowed major suspected war criminals to coordinate their stories in order to protect the Imperial family from prosecution, in what Dower calls a “remarkable act of collusive intrigue that brought together high occupation officers, court circles, members of both the prosecution and defense staffs (…).”

Of the hundreds of Japanese arrested as potential “Class A” war criminals (defendants charged with “crimes against peace”) only 28 were indicted, resulting in the execution of seven – including former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo – and life sentences for 16 others (two defendants died in captivity and one was excused due to mental illness). The burgeoning Cold War and political expediency led General Mac Arthur to release the remaining 42 “Class A” suspects in 1947 and 1948. (Cold War considerations also led to the suppression of evidence concerning the notorious Unit 731.)

In addition, unlike in post-war Germany, no indigenous system to put war criminals on trial was ever established in Japan in the years following the end of World War II. While not all of this can be directly linked to the decision not to prosecute the Imperial family, the immunity of Hirohito nevertheless severely called into question the legitimacy of any legal proceedings against anyone involved in facilitating Japan’s war effort and war crimes.

It has been historically proven, without any reasonable doubt, that Emperor Hirohito was instrumental in formulating and sanctioning Japan’s foreign and military policies in the 1930s and 1940s, as the historian Herbert P. Bix succinctly summarizes:

For war crimes committed by Japan’s military forces, which were the authorized servants of the emperor-state during the undeclared Japan-China War, Hirohito, as commander-in-chief, bore the strongest share of political, legal, and moral responsibility. He gave post-facto sanction to Japan’s take-over of Manchuria in violation of international treaties and agreements. He later participated actively in the planning and waging of Japan’s total war of aggression in China. (…) He also ordered and monitored the bombing of Chinese cities, use of poison gas, and annihilation campaigns to wipe out the entire populations of contested areas in North and Central China.

For the war crimes and other violations of international law committed by Japan’s military forces after December 7, 1941, the largest share of responsibility may again be attributed to Hirohito as both commander in chief and head of state. At every stage on the road to Singora, Kota Bharo, and Pearl Harbor he was free to choose alternative courses of action rather than accept the thinking of his military chiefs. (…) Over the next four years, until mid-1945, whenever confronted with the option of peace, he chose war.

By letting the Imperial Japanese Army and its commanders, rather than the emperor, take the blame for Japan’s misdeeds during World War II, the Americans also vicariously helped turn the prosecuted military commanders into heroes for conservatives since in their eyes the officers sacrificed themselves for Hirohito and the empire. It also indirectly exculpated suspected civilian war criminals and accelerated their return to the reins of power – including Nobusuke Kishi, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s maternal grandfather.

Thus it is fair to say that the American decision to exonerate Hirohito helped the Liberal Democratic Party and Japan’s conservatives promote their distorted vision of history. By hiding the true nature of Japan’s aggression and the complicity of the emperor thereof, it is also fair to say that the United States partially provided the pulpit from which Japan’s revisionists can preach their morally ambiguous and historically incorrect interpretation of Japan’s role during World War II.

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