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The Emperor

LAURENCE REES: How should we characterise the role of the Emperor and this perennial question of the guilt of the Emperor?

AKIRA IRIYE: I think there are two aspects of that. One is that war was fought and ended in the name of the Emperor, so that if there had been no Emperor or if the Emperor’s role had been defined somewhat differently then the war might not have taken place and might have been fought in a different way. But the whole educational system, mentality and everything else had been so tied to the Emperor system that it would be very hard to say that the Emperor system as such, had nothing to do with war. It was fought in the name of the Emperor. And the second question is the Emperor himself, personally. I mean he’s the one who determined and approved the mission to go to war. He’s the one who signs the declaration of war, he’s the one who admonishes the soldiers to fight and so on. And he’s also the one who ends the war. I mean his role is quite clear there, I think, and the question of war responsibility has to include that. Ultimately he’s the Head of State and to say that the Head of State is exempt from all things that took place would be to ignore him as the Head of State it seems to me. But Japan was not the Republic, Japan was not an ordinary monarchy, it was one in which the Emperor took charge of day to day affairs.

LAURENCE REES: So how much responsibility for the course of the war do you think one should ascribe to him?

AKIRA IRIYE: Well, I think there are there are certain points at which the Emperor could have expressed his views more clearly, for example the pact with Germany and whether they shouldn’t leave the League of Nations. All these missions and treaties had been approved by the Emperor, so he had many opportunities to say that he would not accept. For example, leaving the League of Nations was a very important point, or going to Manchuria which resulted in the declaration of war, though he could say he was not consulted about it, and that nobody talked to him about it. But once that had happened he might have done something to reprimand the army or to discipline some of the responsible people. Then the Axis Pact. Then of course there is the decision to go to war against the United States, because he’s the one who signs it. President Roosevelt sends a telegram to the Emperor on the 5th or 6th of December, appealing to the Emperor to wind back the clock, so to speak, to do something about preserving the peace between two countries. If that telegram had reached the Emperor before the attack had taken place that would have been a very interesting moment in which one could really talk about the clear responsibility for the Emperor for or against war.

But the cable got into the hands of the Japanese Army apparently, this was revealed in the same book I was referring to by former Ambassador Iguchi, and so the Emperor saw the telegram only after he had signed the declaration of war and it came too late - the army sabotaged the whole process. The army took a look at this cable from Roosevelt and said that they didn’t want to show it to the Emperor, which might suggest that the army was afraid that the Emperor might opt for some kind of peace or some kind of a negotiated arrangement. It would have been too late, but supposing the Emperor had read the telegram and had said I agree with Roosevelt and I want to preserve peace, would that have been too late because everything had been set in motion, the Japanese fleet was already crossing the Pacific and so on? It would have probably been too late, but he might have been able to at least articulate what he thought about it. But he was not that kind of person, I think he tended to agree with whatever happened. There are very few circumstances in which he would go against the opinion of the Supreme Command of the Army or Navy it seems. So it seems to be very difficult to say that the Emperor had nothing to do with it, because he was actually quite deeply involved in these decisions.