The Ghost of Hirohito

NEW YORK – The completion by Japan’s Imperial Household Agency of the 61-volume record of the life of Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989) has generated much interest and attention in Japan. The entire formidable work was recently opened to limited public viewing, with a plan to publish it over the next five years. But it is already clear that the new record inadvertently reflects Japan’s continuing inability to address some fundamental questions about its past.

Having taken a quarter-century to compile, the project relied on some 40 new sources, most notably the diary and notes of Saburo Hyakutake, an admiral who served as Court Chamberlain from 1936 to 1944. But, while acknowledging the enormous scale of the undertaking, specialists seem to agree that the new account offers no earth-shattering findings or innovative interpretations concerning Hirohito’s many and changing roles in the most tumultuous period of Japan’s modern history.

Perhaps this is not surprising, coming from a conservative imperial institution’s official team of editors. The record takes to new lengths the idea that the historian’s task, as Leopold von Ranke put it in the nineteenth century, is to show “what actually happened.” It is said to be an excellent chronicle of the court’s day-to-day goings-on, revealing, for example, that the emperor celebrated Christmas as a boy, that he had nose surgery in his youth, and how often he met with whom.

To be fair, such tidbits can be interesting and useful. But the new account fails to explain or analyze crucial events of Hirohito’s reign. Readers will be disappointed if they want to learn more about Japan’s entry into the Pacific War, its defeat, the Allied occupation (especially Hirohito’s relationship with General Douglas MacArthur), or Hirohito’s later reluctance to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, where Imperial Japan’s war dead, including Class-A war criminals, are honored.