Japan’s 85 year-old Emperor Akihito is tired. The popular and charismatic king says he will retire at the end of this month, becoming the first Japanese Emperor in history to voluntarily step down from the Imperial throne. Indeed, the weight of his monarchy is heavy, weighed by the 2,600 year old Japanese tradition that says that the Emperor is divine; a direct descendent of the Sun goddess Amaterasu.
Of course, the question of divinity is problematic. Akihito’s father, the Emperor Hirohito, renounced his own divinity on New Year’s Day in 1946 on the direct orders of the commander of U.S. occupation forces in Japan. Hirohito remained on the throne, but the question remained: Could a U.S. General really force the elimination of the god-status of the Japanese Emperor?
Different questions still dog the current Emperor Akihito, who has been asked to apologize to war victims on behalf of his father Hirohito, in whose name Japanese soldiers killed 35 million people across Asia. The Emperor’s armies invaded more than a dozen countries, and committed international war crimes that became synonymous with the word ‘atrocity; war crimes with their own names, such as the Nanking Massacre, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, the Rape of Manila, and others. Less well known, but equally horrific was “Unit 731,” the Japanese biological-warfare factory in Manchuria that tortured and murdered thousands of human guinea-pigs, and manufactured and unleashed deadly epidemics on scores of Chinese cities.
The Emperor’s mystical and de-facto powers over Japan’s population and military machine became more extreme late in the war, when facing defeat, the Japanese army ordered ‘Banzai’ suicidal last-stands in Pacific battlegrounds, while the Air Force sent thousands of Kamikaze suicide pilots to literally die for the Emperor by crashing their planes into U.S. warships.
Somehow, even after the surrender, Hirohito retained his cult leader status, power and popularity, and his war responsibility was forgotten and effectively erased. An elaborate, and false myth was constructed, under U.S. design, that said that Hirohito was a pacifist who had been controlled and used by Japanese militarists, against his will. That myth has been conclusively debunked by international scholarship since the Emperor’s death.
Today most Japanese find it impertinent, and are offended, by the mere suggestion that Emperor Akihito might be asked to apologize for the sins of his father, hence this brief WWII history lesson. Even the briefest summary of this history reveals that to ask for an apology is, well, less ‘impertinent’ than the original heinous, and unprosecuted war crimes themselves. Indeed, for the last elderly surviving victims of the war, an apology from Akihito before his imminent retirement is an entirely appropriate, legitimate, and necessary gesture to rectify decades of distortion and cover-up. The survivors deserve this.
Lee Yong-soo, now 90 years old, is a former so-called “Comfort Woman,” who was kidnapped and forced into a Japanese Military slave-brothel, as one of an estimated 200,000 young girls who were trafficked by the Japanese military across their war-time empire. These euphemistically named ‘Comfort Women’ were forced to service up to 50 soldiers a day, sometimes for years, and it is thought that more than 90% of them died in captivity. I first met Lee Yong-soo in South Korea. “I am not a ‘Comfort Woman,’ which is what the Japanese military called us. I am an honorable daughter of Chosun (Korea),” she told me. She handed me a business card with a quote reading: “The Emperor must bow down on his knees in apology.”
Hindered by age, Grandma Lee is still a full time activist, and an inspiring hero to women’s rights advocates and regular citizens, around the world. I saw Grandma Lee join thousands of protestors outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, and filmed her leading the recent dedication of a ‘Comfort Woman’ memorial statue in San Francisco. She testified before the U.S. Congress in Washington D.C. In Tokyo, she petitioned the Japanese government directly at their Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and stood defiantly at the stone walls and imposing moat outside the Imperial Palace of Emperor Akihito. For Grandma Lee, it is one of her most important last wishes that the Japanese government, and the Emperor, admit their war responsibility and provide her an apology before she dies.
The quest for international justice on the world stage actually began immediately after the Japanese surrender in WWII, when the Allies held simultaneous War Crimes trials where they charged surviving German and Japanese leaders with, “Crimes against Humanity,” including, “waging aggressive war, extermination, genocide,” and a myriad of other offenses. However, at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, Emperor Hirohito was protected from any investigation, or prosecution, by order of the U.S. High Command. He would remain unprosecuted, unpunished, and revered atop the Japanese throne for another 45 years, until his death in January, 1989.
Saving the Emperor of was both the heart, and foundation of the deal that finally ended the Second World War. The U.S. agreed to the condition to protect and retain Hirohito as Emperor dependent on his agreement to not only surrender, but to serve as a U.S. puppet to guarantee a peaceful post-war occupation of Japan.
The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on the other hand provided the Emperor with an honorable public excuse to surrender to the U.S., while still ‘saving face.’ In actuality, by the time of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, almost every single city in Japan had already been reduced to rubble or ashes by U.S. conventional bombing, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, and the Emperor had still not surrendered. In fact, he did not initiate surrender until after the Soviets declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945.
Resisting the now inevitable Soviet invasion was impossible, but to surrender to the U.S. on account of the Bomb gave the Emperor a face-saving way to stop the war, to survive, and even to stay on top of the Imperial throne. It was a cynical solution that effectively denied justice to millions of war victims, and indeed entire countries, but it succeeded in securing a truce, and the rebuilding of a devastated Japan. For the U.S., the retention of the Emperor and other wartime elites also provided them permanent military base-rights in Japan for the new and developing Cold War.
It was a Faustian bargain that crippled Japanese cultural and political responsibility and awareness for war crimes that continues today: If the Emperor was not guilty of war crimes, than no one in Japan was guilty. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declared that the Japanese committed, “no war crimes during WWII,” and said that the Tokyo War Crimes Trials were merely revenge; a form of “Victor’s Justice.” Abe and other Japanese politicians have publicly denounced Lee Yong Soo and other Comfort Women survivors as liars and prostitutes.
It remains taboo in Japan to petition the Emperor for an apology, which may be merely impolite at best, and at worst is considered blasphemy by those who still consider the Emperor to be a living God. But far more taboo in Japan is to discuss Hirohito’s well-documented complicity in war crimes, which for various journalists and even politicians has resulted in death threats and violence from Japanese right-wing traditionalists.
Over the years, the last two Japanese Emperors, father and son, have both expressed their “remorse” in brief, rare moments, for the “suffering caused by the war,” but neither have ever given an actual, direct apology to the victims. The same goes for officials of the Japanese government.
On the eve of the Emperor Akihito’s resignation at the end of this month I wish that he would set precedent and take responsibility, and offer his sincere apology on behalf of his father, for the suffering of victims like Grandmother Lee Yong-soo and so many others.
To the Emperor, I would say that I too offer the Japanese an apology, and provide it here. My own father was in the U.S. military during the Pacific War, aboard a U.S. Air Force B-29 bomber. To the Emperor Akihito, and to the people of Japan, I here offer my own sincere apologies for my father’s possible role in the suffering caused by the U.S. during its war with Japan.
As a U.S. citizen, I apologize also for my government’s role as, “accessories after the fact,” by protecting from prosecution Japanese war criminals who should have been tried.
Even if we can forgive the practical decision to retain the Emperor as a useful puppet for the successful peaceful, postwar occupation of Japan, we as world citizens should not forgive the permanent retention of Hirohito on the Japanese throne.
Hirohito should, at minimum, have been the first Japanese Emperor in history to retire from the throne, as a lesson in war responsibility and justice to the Japanese people, and the entire world. If Hirohito had somehow correctly taken his war responsibility, and apologized, there would be no need for his son Akihito to apologize today before retiring. If Hirohito had taken proper responsibility, and apologized, the Japanese government today would not be denying war crimes, and the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would not be insulting war victims.
To the current Emperor Akihito, I would say that apologizing in this case is not losing face, but is in fact the opposite. It is saving face, and providing an example of responsibility, grace, and courage that will provide peace for not only the victims of the Pacific War, but for the entire world.