Launching the War? Hirohito and Pearl Harbor

A newly released memo sheds light on Japanese Emperor Hirohito's role in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

WWII buffs don’t usually mention Hirohito in the same breath with Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. We tend not to see him as a dictator as such, or even as much of a militarist. Japanese tradition considered the emperor to be divine in Japanese tradition, and gods don’t get their hands dirty in day-to-day politics. Think about it: The Allied war-crimes trials didn’t execute the emperor for deciding to attack Pearl Harbor and launch aggressive war in 1941. They targeted, convicted, and executed his prime minister, Hideki Tojo, instead. Insofar as Hirohito cuts much of a public figure in the west, it’s as a ruler who was against the war in 1941, who decided to end it in 1945 (commanding the Japanese people to “endure the unendurable” and surrender), and who lived out the rest of his long life as a beloved, gentle, and rather eccentric butterfly collector.

But history marches on and fresh information constantly comes forth. There’s a newly released memo floating around, written in 1941 by Japanese Vice Interior Minister Michio Yuzawa. Early on the morning of December 7, just hours before the Japanese strike at Pearl, Yuzawa attended a meeting with Tojo and his top aides. Tojo had just briefed the emperor, and he seemed quite happy with the results. The emperor had heard the plans for the attack and approved. “The emperor seemed at ease and unshakable once he had made a decision,” Yuzawa quotes Tojo as saying. “If His Majesty had any regret over negotiations with Britain and the US, he would have looked somewhat grim.” But that hadn’t happened. “There was no such indication, which must be a result of his determination,” Tojo says in the Yuzawa memo. “I’m completely relieved. Given the current conditions, I could say we have practically won already.”

A bookseller, a man named Takeo Hatano, owns the memo, and had kept it under wraps for nearly a decade. Hirohito’s wartime role remains controversial in Japan, and the emperor still has his share of defenders. Hatano was “afraid of the backlash,” he says. Yakahisa Furukawa, a Japanese scholar from the University of Nihon, has verified the memo, however, and points out that there is little possibility Tojo could have proceeded with plans to attack the United States if Hirohito had not given at least tacit agreement. Tojo was “a bureaucrat who had to report everything for the emperor to decide,” Furakawa points out.  “If the emperor didn’t say no, then he would proceed.”

The debate over the role Hirohito played seems destined to go on, and frankly, that’s the way it should be. In Voltaire’s immortal words, "To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.”



Robert Citino, PhD

Robert Citino, PhD, is the Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian in the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. Dr. Ci...
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