JPRI Working Paper No. 61: October 1999
The Showa Emperor and Japan's Postwar Imperial Democracy
by John W. Dower

By any formal standard of judgment, contemporary Japan is a democratic society, with strong institutional guarantees of popular sovereignty and civil rights. On the other hand, the hereditary, patriarchal, and racially exclusive nature of the imperial institution points in the direction of countervailing and non-democratic values and ideals. This "emperor-system democracy" is a hybrid full of tensions and inherent contradictions that are neither new nor hidden. The struggle for a national identity runs like a deep current through the entire course of Japanese history since the Meiji Restoration--sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently. Its most recent vivid expression can be seen in the controversy over formally adopting Kimigayo as the national anthem, accompanied by the government's explicit statement this June that Kimi refers to the emperor "as a symbol of the country and the unity of the people" (Nihonkoku oyobi Nihon kokumin togo no shocho de aru tenno).

There is more than a little irony in this present expression of Japanese nationalism, since this is not a purely "Japanese" construction at all. On the contrary, the very concept and term "symbol emperor" derive from the postwar American occupation of Japan. I have addressed the many hybrid legacies of the occupation in my recent book, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. In this study I was particularly concerned to go beyond the policymakers and elites on whom I had focused in earlier writings. And I emerged with admiration for the vigor, imagination, and diversity with which Japanese at all levels responded to the challenges of creating a new society free of war and oppression. In the immediate aftermath of the war, I have argued, the ideals of "demilitarization and democratization" that the American-led victors initially promoted were embraced in an enormous variety of interesting and intelligent ways.

The dynamism of these "grass roots" responses to defeat a half century ago is worth recalling when we address the issue of democracy in contemporary Japan. No one really predicted this. On the contrary, up to the very moment of Japan's surrender, American and British "Asia specialists" routinely characterized the Japanese people as an "obedient herd" incapable of genuine self-government. At first glance, this might seem an unusually crude example of Western racism. In fact, it was a conservative, elitist observation that was reinforced by the rhetoric and practices of Japan's own autocratic leaders and ideologues. The most obvious wartime Japanese counterpart of the Anglo-American image of the "obedient herd" was "the hundred million hearts beating as one" (ichioku isshin). The Western "experts" who spoke so condescendingly about the inability of ordinary Japanese to govern themselves were essentially parroting views they had heard in Japanese propaganda and upper-class Japanese ruling circles.

In scholarly literature, the Euro-American tendency to see Asian or "Eastern" populations as essentially homogeneous and obedient "herds" is often identified as "Orientalism." What is really involved here, however--as we see in the case of Japan at war's end (and today as well)--is a "collusive Orientalism" that rests as much on class arrogance as it does on racial or cultural stereotyping. Even in 1945, after Japan's supposedly enlightened elites had led the country into unprecedented disaster, the nation's leadership--including the emperor and his entourage as well as conservative politicians like Yoshida Shigeru--still argued that the Japanese people were incapable of governing themselves as a truly "democratic" nation and could not be trusted with too many "rights."

I believe that "democracy" and "antimilitarism" both have strong roots in postwar Japan. These roots lie not in the occupation era alone, but in the deeper and more shattering collective experience of war, repression, defeat, and occupation that extended from the early 1930s until Japan regained its independence in 1952. These are not easy arguments to make to non-Japanese audiences. Skepticism about Japan runs high in Asia as well as the West--and today, as in the 1940s, it is helpful to keep the concept of "collusive Orientalism" in mind when trying to understand why much of the outside world still sees Japan as a weak democracy with unrepentant militaristic inclinations. The many non-Japanese who still regard the Japanese people as an "obedient herd" can quote countless contemporary Japanese pundits and leaders who advance Nihonjin-ron arguments and emphasize that "harmony" (wa) is the key to understanding Japanese social behavior. And the many non-Japanese who believe that the Japanese are still inherently militaristic can usually cite in detail the absurd denials of wartime atrocities by Japanese neo-nationalists and--beyond this--the decades-long difficulty the government itself has had in articulating a clear and unequivocal position on Japan's war responsibility.

Japan's Oxymoronic Democracy

The problem, of course, is that contemporary Japanese democracy is flawed and imperfect. So is contemporary American democracy (and "democracy" anywhere else in the world). But where the weakness of Japanese democracy is concerned, it is again necessary to keep in mind the peculiar binational legacies of the occupation. The institutions of participatory democracy that the early reformers introduced were from the outset offset by policies and practices that were inherently anti-democratic. I refer to this in my recent book as "oxymoronic democracy." What I have in mind are two developments in particular.

The first is "bureaucratic democracy." We usually speak of August 1945 as a great "turning point" for Japan. And, indeed, it was. At the same time, however, the occupation lasted from August 1945 to April 1952 (almost twice as long as the time between Pearl Harbor and the end of the war) and was conducted by the most rigidly hierarchical and authoritarian regime imaginable: a military bureaucracy. "SCAP" was a military command. General MacArthur was the "Supreme Commander," and his authority (like the emperor's before August 15, 1945) was unassailable. Criticism of SCAP policy--or of the victorious "Allied Powers" more generally--was not permitted.

This was a pure military modus operandi rather than an "American model" as such, and it severely impeded the maturation of genuine participatory democracy. SCAP did not merely perpetuate the model and practice of top-heavy bureaucratic control that had become so conspicuous in Japan during the war years. By working "indirectly" through the existing government, the occupation command actually gave elements within the Japanese bureaucracy even greater control than they had possessed up to the time of the defeat. For example, the elimination of the Japanese military establishment (and, with it, the Ministries of War and the Navy), served to enhance the power of the Ministry of Finance. SCAP's creation of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) in 1949 as a vehicle for Japanese "export promotion" introduced a bureaucratic actor stronger than anything the Japanese militarists themselves had succeeded in creating during the mobilization for "total war."

The other leg of postwar Japan's "oxymoronic democracy" is, of course, the already mentioned phenomenon of "emperor-system democracy." After the occupation, Yoshida Shigeru praised General MacArthur as the "great benefactor" (daionjin) of defeated Japan. What he meant by this was very clear. MacArthur, in Yoshida's view, had saved the throne and personally ensured the continued reign of Emperor Hirohito.

Years ago, when I wrote a biography of Yoshida, I introduced this comment but did not really grasp its full significance. Now, I am persuaded that Yoshida was correct. It is sometimes argued that General MacArthur's personal support for the Showa emperor derived from their first meeting (on September 27, 1945), at which the emperor impressed the general with his fine personal qualities and his willingness to take the burden of responsibility for the war upon himself. This, in my estimation, is a myth promoted by MacArthur himself. In fact, the historical record suggests that MacArthur had decided to retain the throne--and Hirohito on it--long before the war ended and he arrived in Japan. His reasons for doing this were eminently simple: he was persuaded that "the Oriental mind" (a favorite MacArthur phrase) was indeed inclined to behave subserviently to authority.

The implications of this are far-reaching: in MacArthur's eyes, it was essential to promote "imperial democracy" in postwar Japan because the Japanese people were incapable of engaging in real democracy or real popular sovereignty. They would accept "democracy" only if the emperor told them to do so. This conservative reading of the Japanese national character led MacArthur to become the emperor's daionjin in several concrete ways. First, as is well known, he insulated the emperor from any involvement whatsoever in the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. This entailed not merely protecting the emperor from indictment as a war criminal, but also exempting him from any interrogation about what he knew concerning the policies pursued in his name.

Second--and of especially great interest to us now, I think--is our growing awareness of how vigorously MacArthur and other key Americans opposed any serious discussion of whether the Showa emperor should abdicate once the surrender had been peacefully carried out. The argument that he should do so did not come from just left-wing circles. Many Japanese conservatives, including individuals close to the throne, believed that the emperor had a moral obligation to take responsibility for the huge numbers of Japanese who had died in his name. The question of abdication arose in a serious manner on three separate occasions--at the start of the occupation in 1945-46; when the Tokyo trials came to a close at the end of 1948; and when the occupation was winding up in 1951-52. Each time, the American side strongly opposed Hirohito's departure from the throne.

General MacArthur's third great intervention involving the emperor was, of course, the new postwar constitution, in which the formal concept of the "symbol emperor" was introduced--with all the previously mentioned ambiguity this entails. All nationalisms emphasize difference, and the Japanese people certainly have every right to choose the "symbol emperor" as the key to their identity. Why, then, does all this background history matter? It matters, I think, because national symbols are important not only in forging a sense of solidarity and common values within any given country, but also in shaping how that country is perceived by others. And both domestically and internationally, what these symbols really signify can only be understood by grasping how they have functioned--how they have been used or abused--in actual practice. Symbols are meaningless divorced from history.

Where Japan in concerned, it is simply undeniable that the very concept of the "symbol emperor" is inseparable from the reign and role of the Showa emperor. This is true within Japan, and it is likewise true in the eyes of the world. It is also true, unfortunately, that both the Japanese and American governments have made it difficult to see Emperor Hirohito's historical role clearly. They have consistently manipulated images and destroyed or suppressed documents to serve their own immediate political and ideological purposes--with the result that Japan's chosen symbolic identity remains exceptionally ambiguous.

This ambiguity involves the most fundamental issues of contemporary identity for Japan--namely, "democracy" and "war responsibility." That the Showa emperor presided over so many different kinds of political behavior during his long reign simply must be clarified if one is to understand what Kimi really symbolizes. And his failure to take even moral responsibility for the "Great East Asia War" (Dai Toa Senso) that devastated Asia and his own subjects will probably go down in history as a terrible mistake on the part of General MacArthur as well as the emperor himself. By failing to abdicate, Emperor Hirohito signaled that issues of personal as well as institutional "responsibility" are not taken seriously in Japan. In the eyes of the rest of the world, this is a legacy of irresponsibility that still stains Japan's reputation. (I should stress here that I admire the sensitivity with which the current Heisei emperor has attempted to deal with these issues.)

It is fair to ask whether I am not giving too much historical importance to Emperor Hirohito personally. I do not think so. The more one studies twentieth century Japan, the more the Showa emperor emerges as the nation's most interesting and influential political actor. He was, without question, a cautious and conservative man. He was also intelligent, well educated in military as well as civilian matters, opinionated, and obsessed with detail. He used people, and knowingly allowed himself to be used by them. He was extremely well informed about what was going on at the top levels of policy-making.

A Secret Message from the Showa Emperor

These are, of course, rather heretical observations. "Symbols" are not supposed to be "actors," and the mainstream of American as well as Japanese scholarship in the postwar period has tended to emphasize how "passive" and "pacifistic"--and how isolated from actual policy-making--the Showa emperor was, both before and after the defeat in 1945. I do not think the historical record bears this out. After my recent book was finished, moreover, I found in archives in the United States a curious English-language memorandum that clearly derives from court circles and that offers an unusually detailed picture of Emperor Hirohito's political views at the outset of the occupation.

Although apparently hitherto unknown to American researchers, this memo is not in fact unknown to Japanese scholars. It was mentioned and discussed in some detail by Professor Hata Ikuhiko in his valuable 1984 book, Hirohito Tenno Itsutsu no Ketsudan (Emperor Hirohito's Five Decisions). Still, in light of our ongoing fascination with the nature of "emperor-system democracy" and the role of Emperor Hirohito personally, this strikes me as a text that deserves to be reemphasized and made a part of the public record.

The document poses some unusual problems for scholars. Typed in English, classified "Top Secret," and covering a little more than three double-spaced pages, it is devoted entirely to summarizing the emperor's opinions as conveyed through an intermediary. Until the early 1970s, it was in the personal possession of MacArthur's former aide and personal confidant, General Courtney Whitney, although it is not mentioned in either Whitney's or MacArthur's memoirs. Whitney's papers were turned over to the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia, and declassified in 1978.

Not only is the memo one of the most fascinating official documents we have in English pertaining to the Showa emperor, but it also presents several tantalizing puzzles. It is not clear who wrote the memorandum on the American side, when the reported conversation (or conversations) with the emperor took place, nor who was conveying this information to the Americans. Whitney's papers were in disarray when submitted to the MacArthur Memorial. The memorandum was not filed in any meaningful way, and it also lacked the usual cover sheet identifying its origins. Like so much of the SCAP activity concerning the emperor after the defeat, this document conveys the impression (even apart from its formal "Top Secret" classification) of having been handled with exceptional secrecy and subterfuge.

Although the memorandum appeared in a file marked "1951," James Zobel and other archivists at the MacArthur Memorial speculate from internal evidence that it was probably written between April and July 1946 (roughly the same time that Emperor Hirohito was dictating his dokuhakuroku, or "Monologue," preparing for possible indictment as a war criminal, to court aides). The paper size and typing format suggest that the writer in all likelihood was someone attached to the State Department and permanently or temporarily in Tokyo (if so, possible writers would include George Atcheson, William Sebald, Robert Fearey, or Max Bishop). The source of information, carefully and obviously deliberately concealed throughout the entire memorandum, is almost certainly one of the Japanese who served as intermediaries between court circles and GHQ (logical candidates, in this case, would include Terasaki Hidenari and Matsudaira Yasumasa).

What is not in doubt is that this an authentic U.S. document recording Emperor Hirohito's opinions as conveyed by someone who was understood to be speaking at the emperor's request. The emperor emerges from behind the "chrysanthemum curtain" with unusual clarity as an individual who held strong opinions and did not hesitate to make them known to others. Much of what is said reinforces what we now know about the emperor's views from other sources such as the diary of the former vice-chamberlain Kinoshita Michio and the rare official Japanese transcript that has been uncovered summarizing the emperor's third meeting with General MacArthur (on October 15, 1946). (This transcript has been made public in two sources: the August 15, 1975, issue of Sankei Shimbun and the March 3, 1989, issue of Asahi Janaru.)

The emperor worries about labor unrest and the growing popular emphasis on "rights" as opposed to "duties and obligations." He thinks the Americans have "over-rated" the influence of Shinto as a religion. He is impressed with General MacArthur's vision and activities as supreme commander. None of this is particularly new. At the same time, it is startling to read about the emperor bluntly expressing the hope that "the Occupation would not be too short." And it is shocking, at least to me, to encounter his harsh criticism of "the Japanese mind." The fact that the emperor did not really trust his subjects also emerges in his third meeting with General MacArthur. In the official transcript of that conversation, recorded by Terasaki Hidenari, Emperor Hirohito expressed concern that "the Japanese people's cultural level is still low" (Nihonjin no kyoyo imada hikuku), thus making them dangerously receptive to left-wing emphasis on "rights" as opposed to "duties" (this striking phrase is inexplicably omitted from the official transcript published by Sankei Shimbun in 1975). In the "emperor's message" found in General Whitney's papers, his reservations about the propensities of the Japanese people come through even more strongly--and with a peculiarly perverse twist. Here, after all, is the living embodiment of yesterday's emperor worship sternly condemning his country's "feudal remnants," and especially its tradition of mindless "loyalty."

What is one to make of this? Is this the posturing of an opportunist playing up to MacArthur, or is it the opinion of a man truly lacking in any self-reflection about the role he had played during the first two decades of his reign? Why did the emperor never convey such strong opinions to the Japanese militarists and ideologues under his own command? Why, indeed, did he allow himself to be used--far more than any emperor before him had ever done--as the very symbol of such mindless "loyalty."

The Text of the Memorandum
[Verbatim reproduction of the original English typescript]

He said that the Emperor wanted him to explain the basis for the latter's remark of a couple of weeks ago that he hoped the Occupation would not be too short. The Emperor felt that there were still many remnants of feudalism in the Japanese mind and that it would take a long time to eradicate them. He said the Japanese people as a whole were lacking in education which was necessary for their democratization and also that they were lacking in real religious feeling and were accordingly easy to sway from one extreme to the other. He said that one of the feudalistic traits was their willingness to be led and that they were not trained like Americans to think for themselves. He said the Tokugawa regime had been built on the theory that people should follow their leaders and should not be given any reason therefor except loyalty. Thus the average Japanese faced a traditional handicap in trying to think for himself. With his instinct to follow rather blindly, the Japanese were now eagerly endeavoring to adopt American ideas but, as witness the labor situation, they were selfishly concentrating their attention on their rights and not thinking about their duties and obligations. Part of the reason for this stems from the long-standing habit of clannishness in their thinking and attitudes. The days when the Japanese people were divided into clans are not really over. The average Japanese considers his relatives as friends whose interests he would pursue, and other people as enemies whose interests do not merit consideration.

He said the Emperor had talked a great deal lately about the lack of religious feeling among the Japanese. The Emperor did not consider Shinto a religion. It was merely a ceremony and he thought that it had been greatly over-rated in the United States. It still had some dangerous aspects, however, because most Shintoists were ultra-conservative and they and ex-soldiers and others who had identified Shintoism with ultra-nationalism had a tendency to cling together. This was dangerous now the Government was without any means of supervusing [sic] them because of its strict observance under orders of the freedom of religion. The Emperor thought that the Shinto elements and their fellow travelers would bear watching because they were anti-American.

The Emperor felt that this was no time to talk about whatever virtues the Japanese people possessed but rather to consider their faults. Some of theirfaults were indicated in the foregoing general outline of the Emperor's thoughts which had brought him to the conclusion that the Occupation should last for a long time.

He said that the Emperor was very greatly impressed with General MacArthur and what he was doing. I said that General MacArthur was one of our greatest Americans who in his devotion to American and Allied interests at the same time, as the Emperor knew, had the best interests of the Japanese people at heart. I said that we Americans believed that Allied objectives for Japan were in the best interests of the Japanese as well as the world at large and we looked forward to the development of a democratic and economically sound Japan which would respect the rights of other nations and become a cooperative member of the commonwealth of nations.

In response to an inquiry in regard to reparations, I said that General MacArthur is extremely anxious to have this question settled as soon as possible so that the Japanese industrialists could get down to work and produce goods needed for the purpose of paying for imports of food and for consumption in this country. I said that the General and his staff were doing everything they could to hasten the achievement of economic stability in Japan and I added some remarks in regard to the industry and thrift of the Japanese people and the need that they exert their best efforts for improvement of the economic situation.

He said the Emperor appreciated very much the American attitude taken in the Allied Council, and felt that it had a stabilizing effect. But he was nowconsiderably worried over the labor situation in this country and hoped that the coal strike in the United States would be settled soon because the Japanese laborers, in their imitative way and in their selfish seeking of their rights without regard to their obligations, were being adversely affected by the American coal strike.

He said the Emperor had remarked to him several times that the name given his reign--Showa or Enlightened Peace--now seemed to be a cynical one but that he wished to retain that designation and hoped that he would live long enough to insure that it would indeed be a reign of "Splendid Peace".

He said that the Emperor was distressed over the loss by Admiral Suzuki, whom he had named to head the Cabinet to prepare for the surrender, of not only his Naval pension, which was understandable, but also his pension as a civil official. He had been Lord Chamberlain to the Emperor for a number of years, had done his job well in laying preparations for the surrender and, while his rank as Admiral and wartime status as Prime Minister naturally subjected him to purge, he was not prevented from receiving his pension due him from his position in the Imperial Household. The Emperor was perturbed not only for the sake of Admiral Suzuki personally but also because such deprivations, which were not understood by the Japanese, created anti-American feelings which were not in the interests of the Occupation or of Japan itself.

JOHN W. DOWER is Elting E. Morison Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (W. W. Norton and the New Press, 1999). A slightly longer version of this essay appeared in the September 1999 issue of Sekai.

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