Aide’s Diary Suggests Hirohito Agonized Over His War Responsibility

Emperor Hirohito in 1941.

TOKYO — Japan’s wartime emperor, Hirohito, was anguished right up until his death about his responsibility in World War II, according to a newly examined diary by one of his close aides.

The diary of the imperial chamberlain Shinobu Kobayashi, borrowed from his family and analyzed by the Kyodo News Agency, showed that the emperor was ruminating about how much people blamed him for the atrocities of World War II and the preceding Sino-Japanese War.

In an entry from April 7, 1987, just under two years before the emperor died at 87, Mr. Kobayashi recorded Hirohito as saying he had “been told about my war responsibility” and did not see any point in living longer because it would “only increase my chances of seeing or hearing things that are agonizing.”

Hirohito, the last emperor to be regarded as a deity by the Japanese people, was not among the thousands of Japanese military leaders prosecuted for war crimes. Although the Japanese waged the war in Hirohito’s name, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Allied powers’ supreme commander during the postwar occupation of Japan, helped shape a narrative that absolved the emperor of direct responsibility for the war.

Yet historians have shown that Hirohito did bear responsibility and there have been hints that he also privately acknowledged that guilt.

“Over the years, these different pieces of evidence have trickled out and historians have amassed this picture of culpability and how he was reflecting on that,” said Jennifer Lind, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College and a specialist in Japanese war memory. “This is another piece of the puzzle that very much confirms that the picture that was taking place before, which is that he was extremely culpable, and after the war he was devastated about this.”

Mr. Kobayashi’s diary showed the aide trying to reassure the emperor.

“Only a few people talk about (your) war responsibility,” the chamberlain told the emperor, according to his diary. “Given how the country has developed today from postwar rebuilding, it is only a page in history. You do not have to worry.”

In remarks to NHK, the public broadcaster, Takahisa Furukawa, a professor of modern Japanese history at Nihon University, said the diary entry shows that the emperor “gravely took responsibility for the war for a long time, and as he got older, that feeling became stronger.”

The latest insight into Hirohito’s thinking comes as his son, Emperor Akihito, is concluding his reign. Akihito plans to abdicate the throne next April, becoming the first Japanese emperor in 200 years to step down before his death.

Akihito, 84, has acted more clearly as an emissary of reconciliation by visiting surrounding Asian countries that suffered under Japan’s aggression during the war.

And in his final address on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender at a ceremony commemorating the war dead earlier this month, Akihito expressed “deep remorse” and said, “I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated.”

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