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Emperor Hirohito

LAURENCE REES: From the research you did for your wonderful book 'Nemesis' what conclusion did you come to about Hirohito?

MAX HASTINGS: I don’t think anybody has ever tried to compare Hirohito to Hitler or Mussolini, it was just that it was a completely different situation. It was almost like trying to compare King George VI with Churchill or Roosevelt. Everybody knew that Kings and Emperors don’t start wars. Hirohito’s personal position in Japan was always tremendously complex, even to himself. Nobody was ever quite sure what the Japanese constitution allowed him to do or to not do, but Japan had been effectively run by the army since the early 1930s and it was effectively a military dictatorship. But because Hirohito was worshipped as a god, and possessed this extraordinary popular respect, it is probably true that if he had been a stronger personality, and if he possessed more personal courage, that he might have been able to keep Japan out of the war and he certainly might have been able to get Japan out of the war and surrender sooner. But it was only in August 1945 at the last extremity that Hirohito mustered the personal strength to insist that the war must be ended, and for that he deserves some credit.

It is characteristic of monarchs, especially in the 20th Century, that seeing so many other monarchies collapsing around them, Hirohito all the time was not really asking himself what was best for the Japanese people. He was asking himself: what should I do in order to maintain the great Japanese Imperial Dynasty? And again and again the evidence suggests that Hirohito was consulting what he felt able to do within these very narrow constraints, and he was a very timid self effacing man. Certainly the best explanation of his behaviour in the 1930s and in the early 1940s is that he felt that in order to preserve his dynasty and in order to avoid a very likely contingency of army officers breaking into the palace and shooting him and ending the whole business, or putting in another puppet, he had to go along with a lot of this.

So nobody could say that Hirohito’s role was distinguished or honourable, but on the other hand it remains very uncertain whether, even if he displayed the will, how much he’d actually have been able to do to hold the military down. The military were running Japan by that stage and Japan had been a highly militarised country since the end of the 19th Century.

The one thing I do think is important - and discreditable to Hirohito - is that there is a lot of evidence that he knew, and certainly most of his family knew, about some of the unspeakable barbarities that the Japanese Army was inflicting. In particular, there’s clear evidence that his brothers saw movies produced by the Japanese Biological Warfare Unit 731 which was deliberately spreading Typhus and plagues throughout China and conducting the most unspeakable experiments on Chinese prisoners. The Japanese Imperial Family knew all this because they watched movies about it produced by the Japanese Army, and it seems reasonable to reckon that if the Imperial Family knew about it then so did Hirohito. So I don’t think one can hold Hirohito personally responsible for Japan coming into the war, but one can hold him personally accountable for the fact that he was privy to some of the most terrible things that Japan did in his name, and as far as we know he made not the smallest attempt to check them until that day in August 1945 when he finally recognised that the gig was up and he insisted, still in the face of stiff resistance from his war minister, that Japan must surrender.