Hirohito becomes Showa, and Christmas 2017

Christmas at last…A day for feasting, resting, and whatever else.  Willam Bradford forbade game playing in the Massachusetts Bay colonies on Christmas 1621–guess that didn’t take.  Scholars tell us that the earliest possible date for any Christmas observation is 337 AD; and that 352 is the earliest date that it was known to have been celebrated–but how anyone would have figured that one is a mystery to me. A surprising number of people were born on Christmas Day, and not just the one we celebrate: Isaac Newton in 1642; Clara Barton in 1821; Conrad Hilton in 1887; Anwar Sadat in 1918; Rod Serling in 1924; and the World Wide Web in 1990. 25 December is also National Pumpkin Pie Day. But today we talk about the death of the Taisho Emperor of Japan, and about Christmas.

…it was clear that he was going to be unable to accomplish the complexities of government…

Traditionally, the rulers of Japan are the oldest continual royal line in human history. The Taisho Emperor (Taisho-tenno) Yoshihito was born on 31 August 1879, and contracted cerebral meningitis three weeks after he was born.  Consequently, he was a sickly child, unable to finish any sort of formal education. As the boy grew, even though he could be charming, and sprinkled French words into conversation with foreign diplomats, it was clear that he was going to be unable to accomplish the complexities of government. Ten of the Meiji’s children died in infancy before Yoshihito, and afterwards the Meiji produced only daughters (who could not by law ascend in their own right) from Lady Sachiko, there appears to have been little choice but to hope for the best, or for very good counselors, when he ascended.

Though the lineage had to look good on paper, there was nothing “royal” about Yoshihito’s mother, Yanagihara Naruko, and few royal houses anywhere have a completely “pure” bloodline.

In a country beset by civil war and breakneck industrialization, it seems odd that this choice was made by the painfully pragmatic Meiji, probably the one Emperor with the most influence on Japan’s history. After Yoshihito’s  birth and illness (and we may never know why the Meiji let him stay in the succession), the Meiji surely could have found another “solution” somewhere without much difficulty. Though the lineage had to look good on paper, there was nothing “royal” about Yoshihito’s mother, Yanagihara Naruko, and few royal houses anywhere have a completely “pure” bloodline. Yoshihito married in 1900 and was the father of four healthy sons before his ascension, and one of whom would succeed him, much to the relief of the palace and the government.

His 20 year old son, Hirohito, became regent in 1921.

Yoshihito became the Taisho Emperor, the 123rd emperor of Japan on 30 July 1912, when the Meiji Emperor died.  The Taisho’s enthronement in 10 November 1915 was a private matter that was celebrated with the Emperor out of the public eye: indeed, due to his neurological condition that worsened as he aged, he was rarely seen in public. After 1919 he was unable to perform any public duties. His 20 year old son, Hirohito, became regent in 1921. During this period, the “Taisho Democracy” of relative political stability and a drawdown of military budgets flourished in Japan, marred by rice riots in 1918, the Siberian Expedition that nearly ruined the economy in 1922, the Great Kanto Earthquake on 1 September 1923, and the rise of the fear of communism and other “non-Japanese” elements that would rend Japanese society into pieces in the 1930’s.

Getty Images

The Showa Emperor Hirohito in ceremonial costume

In early December 1927, when the Taisho was barely 47, he contracted pneumonia. At that time, pneumonia was far more dangerous than it is at this writing, and with a patient whose health was already lousy it turned out to be, mercifully perhaps, deadly. On Christmas Day 1927 the Taisho died, and Prince Hirohito became the Showa, the 124th Emperor of Japan. The Showa’s reign was remarkable because of its dynamic range of fortune: he inherited the ninth largest economy in the world, and the third largest navy. After less than twenty years of his reign (1945), Japan had neither an economy to speak of nor a navy, but by the end of his life (1987), the Japanese economy was once again one of the most influential on Earth.

One of the biggest problems with writing this far ahead (early October) is that it is difficult to tell what may happen in the intervening months…or if I’d even be around to see them. The biggest headlines today were a mass shooting in Las Vegas and more Trump/Republican bashing; next month may be another disaster, and the next month yet another, or the Emperor Akihito may become the Heisei Emperor (he is 83 at this writing). If my remarks here are in bad taste for present realities, my apologies.

But one of the best things about writing this blog is the research, and in my studies of Japan before 1945 I get to run into phenomenon like the featured image. This card image dates from about 1900, I’m told, so late Meiji period. Now, most people’s impression of Japan does not extend to Madonnas like this one because 1) Christianity in Japan is thought to be marginal and, 2) because…well, it’s Japan.  But the fact is that about 1% of Japan professed to Christianity (Catholic and Protestant being the largest denominations) since the “liberalization” of religious practice within the Empire under the Meiji. While Christianity was not officially encouraged before 1945. it was not suppressed as it had been earlier. Since the 1990s, more couples have opted for Christian ceremonies instead of Shinto, leading to a boom in wedding chapels in Japan.

But I want to pass to you a verse we would all do well to heed:

Once in Royal David’s City stood a lonely cattle shed,
where a mother held her baby.
You’d do well to remember the things He later said.
When you’re stuffing yourselves at the Christmas parties,
you’ll just laugh when I tell you to take a running jump.
You’re missing the point I’m sure does not need making
that Christmas spirit is not what you drink.
–Ian Anderson, “Christmas Song,” 1972

This is one of the least known Christmas songs in English, and one of the least copied Jethro Tull tunes (Anderson actually adapted it from a 19th century poem).  Since most of us want our Christmas carols and hymns to be somewhat more upbeat, its lack of popularity is hardly surprising. But, the lyrics are worth thinking about, if only briefly.

This is my last blog for the calendar year, and here’s to hoping only good things to you and yours for this holiday season. May your days be bright, you hang-overs mild, your gifts meaningful, your bills few, your snow-shoveling short, and your heart light.  See you next year.

As for Why the Samurai Lost, it’s proceeding apace. Remember to check in with us at JDBCOM.COM for more.

Ending a Nightmare

14 August marks quite a few ironies.  It was the day in 1791 that the slave revolt in Santo Domingo began, and the date in 1852 when the Second Seminole War ended in Florida.  And, in 1281, it was the day that the second divine wind–kamikaze–in the Straits of Korea wrecked much of a Mongol fleet that was headed for Japan.  And, in 1941, it was the day that the Atlantic Charter was announced after reporters found FDR and Churchill hugger-muggering in Newfoundland while the US was still neutral.  But much of the world would remember the 15 August 1945 radio broadcast that was recorded the day before: the Showa Emperor Hirohito of Japan recorded the Jewel Voice Broadcast of his Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War on 14 August 1945.

The actual date of the recording is in some dispute, but the timing and the seal imprint is dated the 14th.  The Rescript ended not just World War Two in the Pacific and East Asia, but it also ended the power of the latter-day bakufu–military government–that had dominated Japan since 1941.

The quotes in the rest of this missive are from the Rescript as it appears on WIkipedia in the entry for the Jewel Voice Broadcast.  The blather in between is from the research that Lee Rochwerger and I are doing on Why the Samurai Lost, a retooling of our original What Were They Thinking?


After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in our empire today, We have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.

This was the first time that 99.9 percent of Japan, and 99.999% of the entire world would hear the voice of Hirohito, the Showa Emperor of Japan.  The reasons for creating a recording and not doing it live were several, but the most important was that the powers behind the throne–collectively, the jushin–felt it important that a recording of his actual intent be made available just in case the Americans struck again.

We have ordered our government to communicate to the governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that our empire accepts the provisions of their joint declaration.

He refers here to the Potsdam Declaration of 26 July 1945 that, only at the end of the Declaration, is the phrase “unconditional surrender” used. The Potsdam Declaration was an official rejection of the unofficial “peace” feelers–actually offering nothing more than an armistice in place with no authority from Tokyo–that had been floating around Europe since the summer of 1944. The Potsdam Declaration did not assure the imperial polity, but that was agreed to during negotiations that started 10 August, when the Japanese embassy in Switzerland informed the Americans and British that Potsdam would be accepted if the Imperial polity would be maintained.  The Rescript, therefore, isn’t a formal surrender, but the announcement to the world that Japan would stop fighting.

To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations as well as the security and well-being of our subjects is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by our imperial ancestors and which lies close to our heart.

In this passage, the Showa is calling upon his duty–as he saw it–to keep Japan from becoming extinct, which he finally realized was a possibility after the Soviets declared war on 9 August. In the all-out fight in the Home Islands that the Army and Navy were planning  against the Soviet and American invasions that would come that fall, it was planned to turn every square inch of Japan and the surrounding waters into an abattoir.

Indeed, we declared war on America and Britain out of our sincere desire to ensure Japan’s self-preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.

He’s speaking from a victim’s standpoint, but Japan was in serious economic straits, and had been since 1920.  Not to excuse the war and Japan’s aggression, but Japan went to war in 1931, 1937 and 1941 because they desperately needed raw materials and fuel just to keep the entire economy, not just the military, going.  Japan had been a feudal, agrarian country that had an industrial impetus with a parliamentary democracy thrust on it less than a century before, and they could barely afford to feed their burgeoning population, let alone continue to build a modern industrial state.

But now the war has lasted for nearly four years. Despite the best that has been done by everyone – the gallant fighting of the military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of our servants of the state, and the devoted service of our one hundred million people – the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.

Japan had lost something like 2.7 million people in the wars between 1931 and 1945. Over forty countries eventually declared war on Japan: the last, Mongolia, on 9 August.

The phrase “…not necessarily to Japan’s advantage” was as close as he could come to “Japan has been beaten like a red-headed step-child and will not rise again.”

“Our hundred million” was a common theme in Japan starting in the 1930’s, but by 1941 there were only about 72 million Japanese in the archipelago and its possessions from the Ryukyus and the Bonins to the Marianas and Manchuria.

Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.

Yes, he is acknowledging that the A-bomb had an influence on his decision, but again, he had decided that the war had to end as early as March 1945, but for reasons outlined below he couldn’t have done this that early.

What he wanted to do was save his country from annihilation from all causes–bloody great bombs, starvation, useless sacrifice and direct combat.  The Japanese Army believed that wearing light-colored clothing would save many from the effects of the flash and heat of nuclear weapons.  But, it may have been this very idea, announced in the last Imperial Conference on 9 August, that pushed the Showa over the edge, that made him instruct the government to accept the Potsdam terms, and to endorse the Marquis Kido’s idea of a Rescript and make this recording.  It was clear that Japan’s military leadership did not want to end the war, so he knew that he had to.

Such being the case, how are we to save the millions of our subjects, or to atone ourselves before the hallowed spirits of our imperial ancestors? This is the reason why we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the joint declaration of the powers.

What’s important here is that the Showa Emperor, like his grandfather the Meiji Emperor had in 1867, had taken direct charge of the country.  That it was necessary for him to do this is a real long story…just buy our new book when it comes out.

We cannot but express the deepest sense of regret to our allied nations of East Asia, who have consistently cooperated with the Empire towards the emancipation of East Asia.

The thought of those officers and men as well as others who have fallen in the fields of battle, those who died at their posts of duty, or those who met with untimely death and all their bereaved families, pains our heart night and day.

The welfare of the wounded and the war-sufferers, and of those who have lost their homes and livelihood, are the objects of our profound solicitude.

The hardships and sufferings to which our nation is to be subjected hereafter will be certainly great. We are keenly aware of the inmost feelings of all of you, our subjects. However, it is according to the dictates of time and fate that We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.

The Showa is being absolutely sincere .  After viewing the damage done by the B-29 fire raids in Tokyo in March and April of 1945, he had become convinced that the war had to end or his people would suffer even more.  But there were young men who stalked the halls of government and the barracks who would kill anyone who would wish to get some common sense and stop the fighting.  These officers believed in the tradition of Gekokujo, roughly meaning “the lower shall rule the higher,” among other translations.  This was a centuries-old tradition in Japan that refused to die, that inspired the assassinations that exhausted and frightened the civil government in the 1930s, and that triggered the incidents that led up to the China War.  The “unendurable” and the “unsufferable” here are to stop these Shishi–young men of purpose–from fighting and acquiesce to whatever comes next.

Having been able to safeguard and maintain the Kokutai, We are always with you, our good and loyal subjects, relying upon your sincerity and integrity.

Kokutai can mean a lot of different things (click the link), but for his purposes it means “national polity.”  It was an 18th century term/concept that caused a great deal of trouble in prewar Japan because of its different interpretations.

Beware most strictly of any outbursts of emotion which may engender needless complications, or any fraternal contention and strife which may create confusion, lead you astray and cause you to lose the confidence of the world.

Let the entire nation continue as one family from generation to generation, ever firm in its faith in the imperishability of its sacred land, and mindful of its heavy burden of responsibility, and of the long road before it.

Unite your total strength, to be devoted to construction for the future. Cultivate the ways of rectitude, foster nobility of spirit, and work with resolution – so that you may enhance the innate glory of the imperial state and keep pace with the progress of the world.

Here the Showa is sincerely begging his people–Shishi included–to have courage in the days and years to come: occupation was certain, as humiliating as that would be.  The record is clear that by the time he made this recording the Showa no longer cared what happened to him personally, but he cared deeply about what happened to everyone else.  There were at least four attempts on his life by Japanese officers between 9 August and the time the recording was made in the wee hours of 14 August, and one attempt to destroy the recordings.

In all the above, I urge the reader to find the word “surrender” in any of the quotations.  This is the complete text: look it up for yourself.

The next day, when the cease-fire actually started, would be VJ Day in most of the world.  But today, we need to celebrate the fact that this frail, timid man realized that the only way to save his people was to take charge, to tell his subordinates that they were, indeed, subordinates, and tell the entire world that, like Chief Joseph, Japan would fight no more, forever.

So, to honor this auspicious day, do like Edith Shaine and Glenn McDuffie above at Times Square when they heard the news, and kiss someone with genuine relief, or joy failing that.  Just make that sure that, whoever your participant happens to be, unlike Glenn before he grabbed Edith, you know who they are before you do the smooching so that you don’t get bit, slapped or accused of sexual assault decades later.