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Thread: My Thoughts on Imperial Japan

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    Default My Thoughts on Imperial Japan

    My interest has been primarily focused on the Reich leadership, and I can pretend very little knowledge of that, particularly when confronted by really knowledgeable people. I do, however, have an interest in Japan.

    I’ve read some books about wartime Imperial Japan and its Emperor. One sought to whitewash Hirohito (Hirohito, which came out in the 1960s, I think)—the other taking the opposite approach (Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy). There is also the excellent Imperial Tragedy, which is equally divided between the opening days of the war and the last. I can recommend all three books.

    Hirohito was a prisoner of tradition and the Meijji Constitution, which theoretically gave him supreme control of the empire’s armed forces. When he toured England as crown prince, he was enchanted by the relative freedom of its royal family. One thing he took back to the Home Isles was his enjoyment of a good English breakfast, which he was forced to give up during the war.

    Theoretically, Hirohito could have stopped Pearl Harbor, even though the high-line militarists wielded the actual power.

    I come down on Hirohito’s side, because look at his conduct after the war. Can you imagine the pre-war Son of Heaven calling upon an American general? I can’t compare Hitler with Hirohito, but how would Hitler have reacted had he somehow been allowed to retain power, under a defeated Reich?

    Even someone of the eminence of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was bound up by traditions. He lived and studied in the United States for some years and enjoyed a good game of poker with Americans. He was aware of the vast potential of this country, even though at the time the U.S. army’s strength was less than that of Greece’s. Yamamoto opposed Japan’s military adventurism in invading Manchuria and the war in China—and definitely didn’t want war with the United States.

    His prediction, success for no more than six months (to a year) after Pearl Harbor, then a turnaround for the empire’s forces. Which, of course, was what happened—Midway in April 1942 halted Japanese advances in the Pacific, leading to its painful retreat.

    Even to a non-military observer such as myself, it’s obvious that Japan’s strategy, as was Germany’s, was a quick, decisive knockout punch, bringing Britain/the U.S. to the negotiating table before American factories could begin churning out their overwhelming might.
    Last edited by Gary D.; 10-10-2009 at 11:32 AM. Reason: typo

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    Default Re: My Thoughts on Imperial Japan

    Go to the original source documents, and the background to them, leading to Japan's wars in China and against the West and you'll find that Hirohito was in all of it up to his scrawny little neck.

    While you are correct in indicating that he was to some extent a captive of the militarists, and wisely wary of upsetting them to avoid his forebears' histories of being puppets or corpses of others, the fact remains that Hirohito took a great deal of interest in and pleasure from Japan's successes. He was not a passive observer but a player in formulating national war strategy.

    He changed his mind when Japan's defeat became inevitable, and Japanese history has allowed him to do that in the same intellectually and morally deficient and unconvincing way that it has presented Japan's war and war conduct to the Japanese people and the rest of the world since 1945.

    The best analysis of Hirohito, by several authors none of whom I can recall offhand, is that he was devoted to the survival of the Imperial line and acted always in that interest, whether as a supporter of the militarists or later as an advocate of surrender. When he is viewed in that light his otherwise inconsistent and extreme positions from rancid militarist to passive post-war head makes sense. And not much else does, unless one chooses to take a rather more brutal view of him as a man of no principle who always bent with the wind. Which is hardly a quality to commend him to his people or history as a worthwhile person or emperor.
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    Default Re: My Thoughts on Imperial Japan

    Quote Originally Posted by Rising Sun* View Post
    Go to the original source documents, and the background to them, leading to Japan's wars in China and against the West and you'll find that Hirohito was in all of it up to his scrawny little neck.

    While you are correct in indicating that he was to some extent a captive of the militarists, and wisely wary of upsetting them to avoid his forebears' histories of being puppets or corpses of others, the fact remains that Hirohito took a great deal of interest in and pleasure from Japan's successes. He was not a passive observer but a player in formulating national war strategy.

    He changed his mind when Japan's defeat became inevitable, and Japanese history has allowed him to do that in the same intellectually and morally deficient and unconvincing way that it has presented Japan's war and war conduct to the Japanese people and the rest of the world since 1945.

    The best analysis of Hirohito, by several authors none of whom I can recall offhand, is that he was devoted to the survival of the Imperial line and acted always in that interest, whether as a supporter of the militarists or later as an advocate of surrender. When he is viewed in that light his otherwise inconsistent and extreme positions from rancid militarist to passive post-war head makes sense. And not much else does, unless one chooses to take a rather more brutal view of him as a man of no principle who always bent with the wind. Which is hardly a quality to commend him to his people or history as a worthwhile person or emperor.
    Even if everything you say is true, and I respectfully disagree with much of it, if we had insisted that Hirohito--and the Imperial line be abolished--we would have had to sacrifice a million men--and the Japanese much more in fighting us for every inch of Japanese soil.

    I have read about MacArthur's experience with the Emperor, and believe he knew best.

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    Default Re: My Thoughts on Imperial Japan

    Quote Originally Posted by Gary D. View Post
    Even if everything you say is true, and I respectfully disagree with much of it ...
    If you're referring to my view that Hirohito was heavily involved in war planning, which is the foundation for my other views, there is ample evidence that he was, as recorded in primary documents such as the Sugiyama Memorandum. Peter Wetzler covers this reasonably briefly in Hirohito and War, at pages 29-40: http://books.google.com.au/books?id=...age&q=&f=false

    The case for Hirohito's involvement and the cover ups that allowed him and the Japanese hierarchy to present him as a puppet of the militarists to preserve the imperial line is made out in great detail in David Bergamini's 1,200 or so pages Japan's Imperial Conspiracy published in 1971.

    Writing nearly 30 years after Bergamini, Herbert Bix had the advantage of access to documents not available to Bergamini but he comes to similar conclusions to Bergamini in Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan.

    These are not the dominant post-war views in large part because MacArthur, for reasons primarily to do with managing the Occupation as painlessly as possible for the Allies, in effect conspired with the Japanese to present Hirohito as a puppet of the militarists. MacArthur had to do that because that was the only way it could be argued that Hirohito should not stand trial as the leader of the most brutal of the Axis powers. So that version suited American and Japanese interests, but not the desires of some other Allies and notably China that Hirohito be tried as the war criminal he undoubtedly was.

    Most of the world has accepted that fiction since the war. It's the best piece of propaganda that contradicts the facts and the worst piece of historical revisionism, in its adverse sense, that anyone has ever managed.
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    Default Re: My Thoughts on Imperial Japan

    I believe I read Imperial Conspiracy but wasn't persuaded by it. Undoubtedly, you have done more reading on the subject than I have, since my interest is primarily the Reich. I question if Japan's atrocities could have been any more horrible than the Nazis, even given the Nanking Massacre and the horrific 'medical' experiments. I stand by General MacArthur and the Emperor's post-war behavior. Originally, I might have shared your opinion of Hirohito, but subsequent readings have changed my opinion.

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    Default Re: My Thoughts on Imperial Japan

    Quote Originally Posted by Gary D. View Post
    I believe I read Imperial Conspiracy but wasn't persuaded by it.
    My views have been formed more by the primary than secondary sources. The secondary sources to which I referred agree with, rather than formed, my own interpretations of the primary sources.

    Hirohito pops up far too often in the primary sources as an active participant in Japan's expansionist plans to have been a mere dupe of those below him who supposedly controlled him. This is even more remarkable given the distance the Emperor had from those below him, if he wished to maintain it.

    Quote Originally Posted by Gary D. View Post
    Undoubtedly, you have done more reading on the subject than I have, since my interest is primarily the Reich. I question if Japan's atrocities could have been any more horrible than the Nazis, even given the Nanking Massacre and the horrific 'medical' experiments.
    I can't think of anything the Nazis did which came close to the Rape of Nanking.

    I think that the contempt Japan had for Allied POWs and the brutality with which it treated them distinguished it even from the Nazis. I am not aware of anything the Nazis did with POWs comparable with the Burma Railway or the hell ships to Japan or the coal mines in Japan, which represented standard treatment of Allied POWs by the Japanese, albeit often carried out by the downtrodden Koreans who finally had someone below them to abuse as they had been abused by the Japanese after Japan colonised Korea. I am not aware of an equivalent to the Bataan Death March by the Nazis, at least of Western Allied POWs although some Soviet POWs experiences might qualify. Nor am I aware of any Nazi figure comparable to Colonel Tsuji rushing around the theatre urging and participating in the execution of Allied POWs and eating their livers to gain warrior strength. I am not aware of any instances of Nazi conduct in battle which extend to the cruelties inflicted upon and cannibalism of captured Allied troops which were typical of the Japanese at times in Papua New Guinea, such as wiring Allied troops to trees and bayoneting them for hours with the intention of not killing them but making them suffer or hacking their limbs off to cause a slow death as happened on the Kokoda Track and at Milne Bay against Australian troops.

    Itís debatable whether the Japanese treatment of Chinese was equivalent to or worse than what the Einsatzgruppen did in the East, but the Sook Ching massacres in Singapore displayed, at least by European standards, a cruelty and barbarity that even the Nazis lacked.

    These differences reflect, of course, the fact that the Nazis were essentially European and the Japanese weren't, and that the Japanese treatment of European POWs reflected a particular aspect of contemporary Japanese nationalist / militarist mentality and the resurgence of a primitive warrior mentality and conduct which was absent from European conflicts (even the Nazi fascination with medieval aspects of warrior initiation nothwithstanding), so weíre not comparing apples with apples.

    Quote Originally Posted by Gary D. View Post
    I stand by General MacArthur and the Emperor's post-war behavior.
    Iím more concerned by the Emperorís behaviour before and during the war, without which there might well have been no war if he had had the courage to exercise the huge power of his office.

    While Hirohito said to American interrogators after the war that he believed he would have been killed by the militarists if he had stood in their way, this ignores the rather important, and inconvenient for "the Hirohito as militarist victim", fact that the militarists had constructed their nationalist edifice and the nation upon the basis of total loyalty to the Emperor and had also created the Emperor as a figure without which Japan could not exist. Itís a bit hard to see how the militarists could then knock him off if he didnít dance to their tune.

    Much as the Japanese might wish to avoid it, it seems probable that they had the misfortune to be burdened with a weak Emperor at a time when they needed a strong one to resist the militarist and nationalist forces which dragged Japan towards a disastrous war it could never win.

    However, these problems go back to more complex issues and especially to the virulent anti-Chinese racism, akin to but perhaps worse than the Nazi anti-Semitism, which arose in Japan in the early part of the 20th century.

    The time to stop Japanís journey to its destruction was not around 1940-41 but before it attacked in China, which in turn was something a stronger Emperor might have done, and something Hirohito did not do as he was also happily involved in Japanís expansion into China and aware of but not critical of its conduct and misconduct there.

    Hirohito strikes me as in some respects another Kaiser Wilhelm II. Where the latter was forever in military uniform and playing at being a soldier but effectively unable to serve as a soldier due to his withered arm, Hirohito ponced about in military uniform on his horse while effectively unable to serve as a soldier due to his withered character. Both are strong arguments against inherited power, and against monarchy rather than meritocracy.

    Quote Originally Posted by Gary D. View Post
    Originally, I might have shared your opinion of Hirohito, but subsequent readings have changed my opinion.
    Which readings?

    I have piloted the opposite course to you, where once I accepted unquestioningly the prevailing ďHirohito as victim of the militaristsĒ position until I started looking into primary sources and thinking about the incosistencies in the prevailing view.
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    Default Re: My Thoughts on Imperial Japan

    Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed: Secretary Morgenthal didn't get his wishes to transform Germany into an agricultural rump state, and Hirohito wasn't tried as a war criminal.

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    Default Re: My Thoughts on Imperial Japan

    Very interesting post, Rising Sun.

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    Default Re: My Thoughts on Imperial Japan

    Quote Originally Posted by Gary D. View Post
    Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed ... Hirohito wasn't tried as a war criminal.
    Iíd say more war weary and pragmatic than wise heads.

    They traded avoidance of a potentially costly invasion of the home islands and an unopposed Occupation for preservation of the Emperor. And, unfortunately, everything that went with him.

    This allowed some of the nationalistic elements which took Japan to war to continue right down to today in significant sectors of Japanese government and society, so that they still see no fault in Japanís conduct in starting the war or how it conducted its war and even consider themselves victims of the Allies.

    One consequence is that Japanís relations with its regional neighbours are still clouded by its war past and the continuing deceit about that war by significant sectors in government and society.

    Contrast this with Germany where the Allies implemented a de-Nazification program instead of, as they effectively did in some respects in Japan, allowing the Nazi regime to continue to run Germany. The consequences are that Germany is resolutely anti-Nazi nowadays and has been pretty much since the war ended but Japan even now remains at best ambivalent and at worst unrepentant about its war past.

    Truly wise heads would not have allowed this to occur. The primary reason it did occur is attributable directly to MacArthurís management of the Occupation. After all, under the terms of surrender the Emperor and Japanese government were subject to MacArthurís control, which Macarthur exercised in part to suppress information which contradicted his absurd presentation of Hirohito as a peace-loving captive of the militarists who bore no responsibility for the war. More importantly, MacArthur retained, and the Occupation administration worked through, the imperial institutions and the bureaucracy so that the Ďdemocratizationí of Japan was filtered through two of the three (the third being the military) institutions which took Japan to war and thus preserved much of the old order.

    I don't think this was fortunate, for Japan or the rest of the world.
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    Montesquieu

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    Default Re: My Thoughts on Imperial Japan

    Plenty of people throughout southeast Asia and China wanted to see Hirohito tried as war criminal. I believe he was but the US was in need of a bulwark in the post war period and didn't want to risk an invasion and its attendant casualties. The rest is history. I'm not an admirer of Macarthur either.

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    Default Re: My Thoughts on Imperial Japan

    Even someone of the eminence of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was bound up by traditions. He lived and studied in the United States for some years and enjoyed a good game of poker with Americans. He was aware of the vast potential of this country, even though at the time the U.S. army’s strength was less than that of Greece’s. Yamamoto opposed Japan’s military adventurism in invading Manchuria and the war in China—and definitely didn’t want war with the United States.
    And yet, one could argue that he was the very instigator of his own prediction by attempting the extremely complex and unnecessary Midway operation. In my limited opinion Yamamato was constricted by the Japanese obsession of a decisive battle rather that a pragmatic approach of looking at HIS strengths and US weaknesses at the time, that being the absolute Japanese advantage of having the best carrier striking force at that time in the world as opposed to using it in a diminished capacity against a limited and unrealised goal.

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    Default Re: My Thoughts on Imperial Japan

    A distinguishable difference between Hitler and Hirohito is their motives. Hitler came with his "project" and retoric enigma to power through elections and tried to implement it on the world.
    Hirohito was born as emperor. He had to make decisions outside his own schemes.

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    Default Re: My Thoughts on Imperial Japan

    Quote Originally Posted by steben View Post
    A distinguishable difference between Hitler and Hirohito is their motives. Hitler came with his "project" and retoric enigma to power through elections and tried to implement it on the world.
    Hirohito was born as emperor. He had to make decisions outside his own schemes.
    Yes and no.

    They had different powers in differently organised regimes, but each of them was devoted to ensuring the survival of their regime.

    Hirohito was the only one of the Axis power leaders who succeeded in ensuring his regime survived, albeit with the modest concession of renouncing his divine status.
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    Default Re: My Thoughts on Imperial Japan

    I think the matter of Hirohito's involvement in the Pacific War has been painstakingly researched. The commonly-held belief that Hirohito was a "prisoner of tradition" or a prisoner of the military is nonsense and primarily the result of ex-post-facto disinformation spread by MacArthur and his people. In my opinion, and supported by much research to substantiate it, Hirohito was in the war up to his eyeballs. He was a prisoner only of his own ambition. He should have been tried as the war criminal he was.

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    Default Re: My Thoughts on Imperial Japan

    The Japanese suffered from some serious hubris, believing themselves to be superior to everyone else. Yamato Nation my derriere. It is instructive in this regard, that following the initial victories against surprised and unprepared (and very distracted) enemies - who had some unrealistic pretensions of their own - Japan never again won another important or strategic victory. Nada. Niente. Nichts. From Guadalcanal onwards, it was all downhill.
    They were so blinded by their own conviction of invincibility that they could not put a pencil to paper and make the simple calculation that if the US came into the war, victory was i m p o s s i b l e. They attacked anyway.
    Last edited by royal744; 12-08-2009 at 07:00 PM. Reason: content

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