HIROHITO, EMPEROR SHOWA. 1901-1989. Autograph Manuscript in Japanese, Showa Tenno Dokuhakuroku 昭和天皇独白録 "The Emperor's Monologue," transcribed by Terasaki Hidenari,

Emperor Hirohito's explosive war confession revealed the private thoughts of the man who was born a god. Barak Kushner investigates

The Japanese Emperor Hirohito died in January 1989. Discussion about his responsibility for WWII had waned over the decades of peace that followed. However, within a year, everyone was talking about his 'monologue', Dokuhakuroku as it is known in the Japanese language.

Dokuhakuroku is the only known extant memoir, in the emperor's own words, that details his beliefs and unease just after the end of the war, while he was reflecting on his participation in the expansion of empire and the evolution of the conflict. Over several days in March 1946, Emperor Hirohito sat down with a handful of his closest advisors and spoke directly and frankly. At this point, he was still not sure whether he would be pursued as a war criminal;
in some ways, these interviews were designed to help any later potential defence.

Of the three Axis leaders during WWII, only Hirohito survived long into the 20th century. When he died, he was still vilified by those who believed he played a decisive role in Japan's aggressive war on the Chinese continent and then against the West. Others chose to focus on his post-war activities as the 'people's emperor'. This title
was bestowed on him for having abandoned his divinity at the behest of the American Occupation authorities. During frequent visits around the ravaged countryside, he would just mumble "Oh, is that so?" in response to any query, thereby earning himself the sobriquet of
the 'ah so' emperor.

Ultimately, Hirohito was not arrested, nor was he ever called to testify in court, and these memoirs never saw the light of day because no close confidant believed it was right to air such potentially incriminating material.

Hirohito showed no sign of becoming a military dictator at the start of his reign. During the 1910s and early 1920s he was the toast of imperial Europe, especially during his trip abroad as Crown Prince in 1921. His fondest memories of this era, when he took over the reins of the imperial house due to his father's ill health, were travelling to Britain and enjoying an English breakfast with ham and eggs. It was a momentous occasion, not least because he was the first member of the imperial family to leave Japan and travel to a foreign land.

Ironically, given the escalating conservatism of Japanese politics through the 1930s, in some of his behaviour the emperor stayed anglicised – he continued to request that beloved English breakfast for the rest of his life. At the same time, he transformed the sexual politics of his palace, choosing not to sleep with one of the dozens of potential concubines, as his grandfather, the Meiji Emperor, had done to make sure the royal bloodline would continue. Hirohito remained faithful to his wife and, for that reason among others, he was a very modern and internationally minded leader.

Regardless of his supposed post-war transformation – from military savant leading Japan toward victory in its 'sneaky' attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 to humbly bowing to foreign dignitaries on their visits – Emperor Hirohito remains a deeply enigmatic figure. In part, he represents Japan's shift from militarism to economic powerhouse over the 70 years that followed the country's sudden surrender in August 1945. However, perplexing questions remain over the crucial role of the emperor in Japan's opening of hostilities, as well as whether or not he influenced the army to support his push to end the war during the hot summer days of 1945.

The Americans were wary of further antagonising the Japanese after the horror of subduing the islands of Okinawa in the spring of 1945. There Japanese civilians chose to throw themselves and their children off cliffs rather than surrender. American soldiers walked slowly around a landscape virtually denuded even of plant life, aiming long streams of fiery gas from flamethrowers into caves where Japanese soldiers had dug in for suicidal last stands. General Douglas MacArthur, leader of the Occupation, was loath to pursue the Emperor for war crimes, anxious that the Japanese would never lay down arms under such provocation. It meant that the actual influence the Emperor wielded remained veiled in mystery.

While Japan's empire had supposedly been acquired in the name of the Emperor, the early post-war period was built on protecting his image. One group of Japanese former naval officers banded together to assist those who testified at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal to falsify evidence, obscure the truth, and avoid at all costs implicating the Emperor. For these reasons, delving into the actions of the Emperor during the war became a taboo wrapped in an enigma and stored in a hermetically sealed historical coffin. That was until 1991.

The monologue – which is to be offered by Bonhams New York in December – comprises the Emperor's unembellished, personal responses to questions. It was transcribed by Terasaki Hidenari. Terasaki was a career diplomat, fluent in English from spending a decade in the United States, and married to an American woman from Tennessee, Gwen Harold. When Terasaki died in 1951, he entrusted his papers to his wife and his daughter Mariko, neither of whom could read Japanese.

A 1961 film, Bridge to the Sun – which tackled the issue of an interracial marriage when it was widely frowned upon – was based on Gwen's idealised memoir of their whirlwind romance and life together. Terasaki was incarcerated when the war began, and Gwen chose to return with him to Japan, enduring the hardships of the war.

Gwen and Mariko did not realise the significance of the historical manifesto they had been handed. Terasaki's papers remained under family lock and key for almost half a century before a series of scholars informed the family of what they possessed, and a Japanese publisher used them to produce a bombshell of a book that immediately became a bestseller in 1991. Releasing it on the Emperor's death, almost at the same time as Japan's economic bubble burst, meant that everyone was suddenly paying attention once again to the Emperor and his role in WWII.

What the Emperor's personal thoughts ultimately reveal is still being debated decades later, especially as a new official diary by the Emperor has recently been released from the Imperial Household Agency. But in this monologue the Emperor's own voice demonstrates that he was neither a puppet of the military, nor entirely pleased with being their toady as military power expanded. Rather, he felt trapped in an imperial position that afforded much prestige but little actual ability to transform that into effective political or even military authority.

That the Emperor was rarely allowed to speak openly and in public shows what a different world the Japanese imperial family inhabited, compared to their UK counterparts. The Japanese royal leaders never learned to contend with political opposition or even the media, a fact that remains relevant to this day. Even the Emperor's voice during the surrender was not played live – it was recorded – but to hear it at all was shocking to most Japanese, since his utterances were previously sealed off from the common man or woman, as well as being mostly incomprehensible since he used a rather archaic form
of Japanese.

In effect, it was really only in 1991, through the Emperor's monologue, that the first glimpse could be caught of the true emperor as an individual struggling with Japan's decision to create and then abandon an empire. After Japan's surrender and the Emperor's transformation into a 'symbolic monarch', public appearances increased, but so did the distance between the Emperor and investigations into what he had actually done during the war. The monologue revealed the inner workings long, long after the events had finished, suggesting that Japan's post-war reckoning did not actually end in 1945, in tandem with the conclusion of hostilities. Arguably, it dragged on for decades until Emperor Hirohito's death in 1989 and then, more importantly, the revelations made by his aides and those around him concerning his actual apprehension about Japan's future.

When Hirohito died, most Japanese no longer revered the throne as they had during the war, but insight into the imperial house is still in very short supply. It remains a topic that is mostly off limits. Those in Japan who venture towards that subject fear retribution from the right-wing, and even TV stations have to follow unwritten prohibitions concerning how one broadcasts and edits commentary and scenes about the imperial family. Some people still speculate that, although this version of the monologue is pretty much complete, the Imperial Household Agency holds further volumes of interviews that have never been opened to the public. Whatever the case, Terasaki's version of the Emperor's monologue remains to date the closest we can come to hearing directly from Hirohito himself about his most personal thoughts on the war and its denouement.

Barak Kushner is an expert in modern Japanese history, whose books include Men to Devils, Devils to Men: Japanese War Crimes and Chinese Justice.

Sale: Voices of the 20th Century
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Wednesday 6 December at 1pm
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