The Emperor's New Clothes: American Views of Hirohito after World War II

By Brands, Hal | The Historian, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Emperor's New Clothes: American Views of Hirohito after World War II


Brands, Hal, The Historian


ON SEPTEMBER 18, 1945, Georgia Senator Richard Russell delivered an address on U.S. policy toward Emperor Hirohito under the newly begun occupation of Japan. Russell called the emperor the "head and heart" of Japanese expansionism, blasted the Truman White House for its reluctance to imprison or execute Hirohito, and advocated immediate war crimes proceedings against the emperor. Russell's was no lone voice; in response to his speech, the Senate introduced, by unanimous consent, a resolution calling for Truman to have the emperor arrested. (1)

Policy toward Hirohito, however, did not proceed along these lines. Seeking to maintain Japanese political and social stability, Truman decided that punishing the emperor would be so unpopular in Japan as to jeopardize the success of the occupation. In June 1946, U.S. officials in Tokyo quietly announced that Hirohito would be exempt from prosecution as a war criminal. Joseph Keenan, the chief U.S. war crimes prosecutor, went into little detail on the decision, saying only that the choice had ultimately been made at "high political levels." (2)

Given the enthusiasm that greeted Russell's earlier call for a harsh policy toward Hirohito, one might have expected that Keenan's announcement would elicit anger and widespread disagreement. The emperor had been almost universally hated in the United States during the war and the first weeks of the occupation, with commentators calling for his arrest or execution. Surprisingly though, Keenan's news received a muted public reaction. Rather than shock and outrage, inattention and indifference characterized the domestic response to news that Hirohito would not be punished. War crimes policy toward the emperor--the mention of which in September 1945 had produced broad agreement on the need for a vengeful, punitive stance--had become a nonissue.

The lack of protest against--or even attention to--Keenan's announcement in June 1946 raises a fundamental question regarding American opinions on the postsurrender settlement with Japan: Why did domestic anger toward Hirohito, so prominent in the fall of 1945 and throughout the war, disappear so suddenly in the first months of the occupation? Antiemperor sentiment was one of the most notable aspects of American antipathy to Japan during the war, and its rapid diminution provides a striking contrast to general domestic views on the occupation. A poll taken in the fall of 1945 showed that 61 percent of those surveyed believed that the occupation to date had been "not tough enough," and only one percent believed that the occupation had been "too tough." (3) At a time when majority of Americans favored a harsh occupation and desired the destruction of Japan's social and political order, U.S. public acceptance of a lenient policy toward the emperor seems strangely out of place.

Focusing on American public discussion of the emperor between the outset of the occupation and June 1946, this article attempts to answer the question posed above--in short, to explain why antiemperor sentiment dissipated so quickly and completely. (4) If, at first glance, the lack of domestic resistance to retention seems somewhat counterintuitive, a closer look at American occupation policy and press coverage of the emperor in the ten months between Japan's surrender and Keenan's announcement reveals how the lenient stance ultimately decided upon became acceptable to the U.S. audience. This remarkable decrease in antiemperor sentiment represented a convergence of trends in American perceptions of Hirohito and Japan--some obvious and plainly pragmatic, others reflecting subtle emotional impulses, cultural biases, domestic political trends, or even outright manipulation of the emperor's image in the United States. Within these multiple contexts, American occupation policy and media discussion of Hirohito between September 1945 and early 1946 framed the emperor issue in a way that encouraged Americans to forget, redirect, or overcome their long-standing animosity on the subject. …

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