Emperor Showa stays within framework for constitutional head of state
Article 3 of the Constitution of the Great Empire of Japan (the Meiji Constitution) stipulates: “The Emperor is sacred and inviolable.” This means the Emperor does not bear any responsibility over decisions on national policies. Article 55 gives political responsibility to state ministers: “The respective Ministers of State shall give advice to the Emperor and be responsible for it.” It also stipulates: “All Laws, Imperial Ordinances, and Imperial Rescripts of whatever kind, that relate to the affairs of the state, require the countersignature of a Minister of State.” Legally, therefore, Emperor Showa was not responsible for the affairs of the state. The postwar government has the same view. Based on the articles of the Meiji Constitution, Osamu Mimura, then Chief of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, said at a meeting of the House of Councillors Cabinet Committee on February 14, 1989, “In terms of domestic laws, Emperor Showa does not have legal responsibility for the war.” In terms of his responsibility under international law, Mimura told the same committee, “The problem has already been settled” because the Allied Powers did not indict the Emperor at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, or the Tokyo Tribunal.
But, aside from the legal responsibility, was Emperor Showa responsible for the war in a much broader sense? In actual fact, he was deeply involved in political decisions in three critical phases. They were:
Emperor Showa later recalled that the resignation of the Tanaka Cabinet was a “very bitter lesson.” Tanaka did not fulfill his promise to harshly punish Colonel Daisaku Komoto, who was the mastermind behind warlord Chang Tso-lin’s (Zhang Zuolin’s) assassination. Emperor Showa faulted Tanaka in the matter. The Tanaka Cabinet later resigned en masse in July 1929.
The Emperor’s criticism was the first such incident in the history of Japanese constitutional politics. Hard-liners in the Army and Navy as well as nationalists were infuriated, describing it as an “intrigue in the Imperial Household.”
Kinmochi Saionji, a genro elder statesman and senior Imperial adviser who regarded a limited monarchy as an ideal system, also remonstrated with the Emperor who recalled, “After this incident, I decided to approve all things reported by the cabinet, even if I held a dissenting opinion.”
If the Emperor freely dismissed ministers—who were obliged to fulfill constitutional obligations—for their actions or intervened in such matters, the state ministers would be unable to assume their official duties in compliance with the Constitution. “For an autocratic country it may be possible, but as the head of a constitutional state, I can’t do such a thing,” Emperor Showa also said.
The order to subdue rebels involved in the February 26 Incident was issued because Prime Minister Keisuke Okada’s whereabouts were unknown and the War Ministry was too soft on the rebels.
The “divine decisions” aimed at ending the war came after Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki broke with all tradition and took the unprecedented step of asking the Emperor to give his opinion at the Imperial Supreme War Council when leaders were split on whether to surrender or continue the war. A review of the three cases in which the Emperor was deeply involved suggests he was peace-loving in nature and that the cases were somewhat exceptional.
Nevertheless, the constitutional power to appoint a prime minister was accorded to the Emperor. The customary procedure of selecting and recommending a candidate, initially by the genro senior statesman who acted as adviser to the Emperor and in later days by the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, was established before and during the war. However, sometimes the Emperor made prior requests. When the Cabinet of Makoto Saito was formed after the May 15 Incident, the Emperor requested that anyone connected to fascist forces should not be chosen.
After the February 26 Incident, he laid out three conditions to successive prime ministers:
In addition, the Emperor expressed his opinions, asked questions and tried to persuade State Ministers and Chiefs of Army and Naval General Staffs. When the Manchurian Incident occurred, he warned War Minister Jiro Minami, saying, “There will be no smooth solution to the problem if you insist all the blame lies with the opponent.”
Three weeks after the Sino-Japanese War erupted, he said to Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe: “It might be a good time now. How about solving the problem through diplomatic negotiations?” Before the conclusion of the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, he expressed misgivings that the United States would halt oil exports to Japan.
When military and political leaders were debating whether to advance southward or northward, he questioned War Minister Hideki Tojo and Chief of Army General Staff Hajime Sugiyama: “You say you’ll put troops in northern Manchuria, China and even French Indochina. You will stretch your forces in all directions, but do you really believe you can handle the Shina [China] Incident?”
At a September 6, 1941 meeting of the Imperial Headquarters-Government Liaison Conference that set the Principles for the Implementation of the Imperial Policy, expressing the nation’s readiness for war with the United States, the Emperor recited a poem written by Emperor Meiji, his grandfather, to express his feelings about peace.
Yomo no umi/mina harakara to/
nado namikaze no/tachisawaguramu
In as much as all/the seas in all directions/
seem siblings of one birth,
Why must the winds and the waves
clash in noisiness?
During a gozenkaigi meeting on December 1, which formalized the decision to go to war against the United States, the Emperor remained silent.
However, up until that stage, the Emperor had tried to prevent the war within the framework as a constitutional head of state. Some historians say Emperor Showa should bear responsibility as the Supreme Commander of Japanese forces, who was aware of the war situation and guided the war from the Manchurian Incident to the end of World War II in 1945. In some cases, however, the Emperor’s requests for details on operations were not complied with by Army and Naval General Staff members. During the closing days of the war he did not receive correct information.
Article 11 of the Meiji Constitution stipulates: “The Emperor has the supreme command of the Army and Navy.” Thus state ministers could not interfere in this field. This is the so-called independence of the supreme command. Unlike for state ministers, there were no written regulations on advice to the Emperor and countersignatures. In actuality, however, orders on military operations were drafted by the Chiefs of the Army and Naval General Staffs and other top military officers and countersigned by the Emperor. Thus, the Emperor did not have substantial supreme command authority.
After the war, Emperor Showa reportedly told General Douglas MacArthur, the head of the General Headquarters of the Occupation authorities, that he would take all responsibility for the war.
At some point, he told his aides that he would step down from the throne. It seemed that the Emperor tried to take responsibility through abdication. However, the Yomiuri Shimbun committee concluded that actual responsibility rests with the Prime Ministers, State Ministers and the Chiefs of Army and Naval General Staff who were involved in the decision-making process for the Showa War.