Hirohito: War Criminal

(Originally published at The American Catholic.  I assume that the History mavens of Almost Chosen People will find it interesting.)

A strange fascination for World War II in the Pacific overtakes many Catholic blogs in early August each year, so in line with that I throw out this question:  should Hirohito have been tried as a war criminal?  The video clip above is from the movie Emperor (2012) which depicts a fictional account of an American attempt to determine the extent of Hirohito’s involvement in the launching of Japan’s war of conquest which would claim over thirty million lives.

MacArthur had little doubt of Hirohito’s war guilt, but he also had little doubt that Hirohito’s cooperation was necessary for a peaceful occupation of Japan.  Hirohito thus served as a figure head while MacArthur, the Yankee Shogun, remade Japan.  This picture tells us all we need to know about the relationship between the two men:


MacArthur encountered considerable resistance to his decision not to prosecute Hirohito.  Belief in Hirohito’s war guilt was an article of faith in America and in the other nations that had fought Japan.  MacArthur played along with the fable promoted by the Japanese government that Hirohito had always been a man of peace, who was powerless in the face of the militarists who ran Japan.  This myth, well bald-faced lie would be a more accurate description, was surprisingly successful.  The first major scholarly attack on it was by David Bergamini’s 1200 page Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy, published in 1971.  Read a review of it here.

Bergamini, a journalist who had been a contributing editor of Life magazine, had been a guest of the Emperor along with his parents in an internment camp in the Philippines during World War II.  The occupants of the camp were scheduled for extermination and were saved by the proverbial nick of time arrival of liberating American forces.  Bergamini  retired from Life to write books.  His major project was Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy. Despite its garish title it was an in depth look at pre-war Japan and Hirohito’s involvement in leading the country to war.  Bergamini, who was fluent in Japanese, interviewed many of the then living participants in the pre-war Japanese government, as well as examining diaries kept by highly placed figures in the Japanese government and the Imperial court.  His conclusion was unequivocal:  Hirohito was an ardent expansionist whose goal was Japanese supremacy in Asia, and the decision to launch Japan’s war of conquest was his.  After the War a massive attempt to scrub the historical record had been undertaken in order to protect Hirohito.

Subsequent scholarship has supported Bergamini’s thesis, most notably Herbert Bix’s magisterial Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan.

Part of me is completely outraged that Hirohito did not end his life dangling from a noose.  I am also outraged by the attempt to do violence to the historical record to whitewash Hirohito’s responsibility for a War that ended so many lives and wreaked so much devastation.  However, I then think of my friend late friend Ollie Zivney.

Ollie was a retired Methodist minister.  In 45 he was a Navy Corpsman.  He had served with the Marines in various tropical paradise locales including Guadalcanal.  One of the first of the occupation troops sent to Japan, he helped set up a medical aid station in Hiroshima.  After his time in the Pacific Ollie was deeply skeptical that the Japanese would accept the surrender and expected to come under attack.  Instead he found the Japanese helpful to a fault, curious about America and deeply appreciative of the medicine and food he helped distribute.  Shocked by this he asked the Japanese he encountered if they would have fought if the Emperor had not ordered the surrender.  Every man, woman and child he put this question to answered yes, but that once the Emperor ordered the surrender they were happy to be friends with the Americans.  Ollie came to love the Japanese people and became deeply appreciative of their culture, and he had no doubt that if MacArthur had moved against Hirohito that the war would have been on again throughout the length and breadth of the Home Islands.

Ollie’s testimony, and my own research, sadly makes me agree with MacArthur’s decision.  Perfect justice would have called for Hirohito’s trial and execution, but perfect justice is rarely attained in this vale of tears, especially when the goal is to make certain not to add to a body count that already exceeded thirty million when the War, mercifully, came to a screeching halt 76 years ago this month.


  1. Also, the difference between Hirohito and Hitler is that Hirohito represented a traditional authority that went well beyond the militarist government itself. Hitler had taken power in 1933, in a state where the traditional sources of power had been driven out in 1918; to condemn him or (as it happened) his surviving accomplices was only to condemn their movement, and perhaps the mood of Germany that had led to their success. To condemn Hirohito would have been to condemn the entire history of Japan. It could not be done without destroying the country’s sense of self.

    • Japan without an emperor is unthinkable as the shoguns, and MacArthur, realized.

    • *nod*
      Far better to convert Japan than destroy it. (Says someone who rather likes modern Japan.)

  2. The wisdom of MacArthur’s policy has stood the test of time for over three quarters of a century.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: