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Pursuing the Truth About Emperor Hirohito

Both conspiracy theorists and those who believe Hirohito innocent of war crimes can find support for their positions.

by Bob Kerstetter

Perhaps conspiracy theories construct a framework of orderliness around the messiness of life. From the viewpoints of their creators, the structures of secret plots apparently divide the world into colluders and victims, plus a few outsiders who see and understand the truth.

Seeking Justice and Revenge

Some of the most intriguing conspiracy theories of the 1900s live on into the 21st Century. They attempt to dissect the life and legacy of the Shōwa Emperor—known in the West as Emperor Hirohito of Japan.

With minor variations, many of these premises claim the Emperor planned the details of Japanese military expansion during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. He terrorized other countries and oppressed the Japanese people, they claim. Other interpretations merely accuse the Emperor of negligence in not controlling his military.

Seeking Justice, Revenge or Both

While the advocates of these viewpoints debunk the deity of Hirohito, some attribute to him knowledge, skills and influence worthy of a god. A common complaint among the theorists centers on Emperor Hirohito escaping prosecution as a Class A war criminal deserving execution by hanging. Mostly, the theorists desire justice or revenge or both.

Examining Truth in a Movie


Both conspiracy theorists and those who believe Hirohito innocent of war crimes can find support for their positions in Emperor, a movie about the first days following the end of the Pacific War. So what is the truth? While we may never know for sure, consider these alternative views as places to start.

Summarizing Two Different Shōwa Emperor Books

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, by Herbert P. Bix reads like a conspiracy theory written about a man with god-like abilities. Bix debunks the deity of the Hirohito, but also attributes to him skill and influence only a god could possess. While Bix received the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, the book comes across as a popular polemic with an overwhelming amount of opinionated Bix showing through.

In a more scholarly work—Emperor Hirohito and Shōwa Japan, A Political Biography—Stephen S. Large presents a dispassionate view of the man, his personality and his influence. According to Large, Hirohito was not a dictator, nor did he desire the role. He was a figurehead monarch. Yes, the constitution of Japan gave him absolute powers, but it also distributed those powers to the cabinet. The emperor cult only goes back to Hirohito’s grandfather, Meiji Emperor. From that time until August 1945, the military ruled Japan by exploiting the mythology of emperor divinity.

Determining Guilt or Innocence

The guilt or innocence of the Shōwa Emperor perhaps becomes clear by the behavior of the man once he could envision freedom from the binders of military government. Driven beyond his natural timidity by the terrible destruction Japan suffered during the fire bombings and atomic attacks of the Pacific War the Emperor gained courage to force the military to surrender. From that time forward he lead Japan to become a model of economic prosperity and neighborly peace.

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