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Annals of Emperor Showa – A Precious Historical Document

Dr.Rajaram Panda C3S Paper No. 2043


On 9 September 2014, the Imperial Household Agency of Japan released the 12,000-page Annals of Emperor Showa (Showa Tenno Jitsuroku) (1901-1989), providing in chronological order major developments during the turbulent Showa Era (1926-1989), including his agonies over reckless actions taken by the Imperial Japanese Army in the Manchurian Incident in 1931 and during the Pacific War, dropping of the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and Japan’s subsequent surrender and the end of the World War II. This was the front page news in all Japanese newspapers the day after it was released. Though the annals revealed many things thus far unknown, some newspapers observed that more information needed to be revealed. The work to compile the record started in 1990 and took the agency 24 years to complete.

The release of the annals was in continuation of tradition of ancient Japan. Such a practice dates back to the era of Six National Histories (Rikkoku Shi), ranging from Chronicles of Japan (Nihon Shoki) compiled in 720 to True History of Three Reigns of Japan (Nihon Sandai Jitsuroku) completed in 901. The annals of Emperor Showa are similar to those of his immediate predecessors, including Chronicle of Emperor Meiji (Meiji Tenno Ki).

Some key events in the Emperor Showa’s life are as follows: Born on 29 April 1901 as the eldest son of Crown Prince Yoshihito (Emperor Taisho), he was named Hirohito (Prince Michi). When Emperor Meiji died at the age of 59 on 30 July 1912, Crown Prince Yoshihito became the Emperor and Prince Hirohito became the Crown Prince. On 25 November 1921, Crown Prince Hirohito became prince regent. In 1926, Prince Hirohito becomes Emperor when Emperor Yoshihito died and his reign is known as the Showa Era. After the turbulent years and World War II, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender in a radio address on 15 August 1945, thereby ending the War, following the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and then Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. On 1 January 1946, in a New Year rescript, the Emperor Showa denied his own divinity when he issued his “Ningen Sengen” (Humanity declaration). His son, Prince Akihito (present Emperor, Heisei Era) was formally installed as the Crown Prince on 10 November 1952. Crown Prince Akihito married Michiko Shoda on 10 April 1959, the first commoner to marry an heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne. On 7 January 1989, Emperor Showa died of duodenal cancer, ending his 62-year-long reign. Before Japan’s defeat in World War II, Emperor Hirohito was worshipped as a living god.

The annals represent an extremely important historical document that future generations and present historians would find of extreme value in the study of Japanese and world history. Being released almost a quarter century since the transition from Showa to Heisei era, the annals provide a throwback to the tumultuous period when militarism took Japan to war, followed by the Emperor’s announcement of Japan’s surrender and subsequent reconstruction and high economic growth. The annals of Emperor Showa have been compiled following those of Emperor Meiji and Emperor Taisho. The life of Emperor Showa, who died in 1989 at age 87, has been recorded in 60 volumes comprising more than 12,000 pages. These are compiled based on reliable historical materials and thus constitute first-rate historical data in the form of daily records of the late emperor, posthumously called Emperor Showa. Roughly 3,152 articles of historical data contained in diaries written by Emperor Showa’s chamberlains and “udoneri” palace attendants on behalf of Emperor Showa were used to compile the annals. In presenting events in Emperor Showa’s life in chronological order, the editor adopted a time-series format.

The most significant information that comes out from the annals is about the ‘divine decision’ that the Emperor took to end the war, the details of which are recorded in the annals. When on 9 August 1945 the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan in violation of the Neutrality Pact even after Hiroshima was bombed on 6 August, the Emperor told Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Koichi Kido at 9.55 A.M. of 9 August, “There is a need to immediately examine and decide on how to end the war.” Later the same day, when the second atomic bomb was dropped over Nagasaki, the Imperial Council met with the Emperor in attendance to discuss ending the war by accepting the Potsdam Declaration. Earlier reports say that the meeting started at midnight but the annals inform us that it started at 12.03 A.M. of 10 August. The government and military representatives were divided. Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki asked for a “sacred” Imperial decision on the issue. The annals record the Emperor to have observed: “To rescue our people from a catastrophe and for the happiness of all humankind in the world, I have decided to accept the Potsdam Declaration on the condition proposed by the foreign minister.” The only condition was that the Emperor-centric political system be protected. When asked again to make a decision, the Emperor further observed, the annals note, “If we continue the war, there will be no future for the political system or the nation itself. An immediate cease-fire would leave the core foundation for Japan’s future development.”

On 14 August 1945, the Emperor made an Imperial ‘divine decision’ to end the war, and he recorded the Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War, starting at 11:25 p.m., amid an air-raid warning. The recording was stored in a safe at the ministry, which is now called the Imperial Household Agency. At noon on 15 August at an underground air-raid shelter at the Imperial Palace, he listened as the pre-recorded Imperial Rescript was broadcast over the radio. Such detailed information was unknown until the annals were released.

A group of army officers and few others were not happy with the decision to surrender. On the night of 14 August, this group of unhappy army officers launched a coup to seek the withdrawal of the Emperor’s decisions. They killed an Imperial Guard divisional commander and entered the Imperial Palace. Though they occupied a communications facility, they could not find the recording or the Imperial Seal. The coup ended in failure and the group was suppressed. The annals say that the Emperor expressed sadness when told of the attempted coup.

Another incident refers to the Emperor’s role in putting down the 2/26 Incident when a group of radical young officers of the Imperial Japanese Army made a coup d’etat attempt and assassinated Finance Minister  Korekiyo Takahashi, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Makoto Saito and military leaders. The annals inform us that when the Emperor was awakened by an aide at 6.20 AM on 26 February 1936 and learnt of the incident, he called Shigeru Honjo, his chief aide-de-camp 41 times between 26 and 28 February, urging him to put down the incident, showing how firmly the Emperor dealt with the incident.

The annals also reveal how the Emperor was proactive in politics of the country in the initial years after he ascended the throne. For example, in 1929, when the Cabinet led by Prime Minister Giichi Tanaka leniently punished the Japanese Kwantung Army officers allegedly involved in the previous year’s assassination of Manchurian warlord Chang Tso-lin, the emperor rebuked Tanaka, urging him to resign. The annals wrote that after doing so, the emperor “dozed off, probably due to stress,” revealing a previously unknown perspective on the emperor. The significance of the annals is that they contain some significant quotations from diaries by Emperor Showa’s chamberlains and other aides. Therefore, the document will serve as important historical materials for reviewing the 20th century.

Overall, the annals depict the entire life of Emperor Showa written in the form of daily records based on reliable data. The feelings of the emperor on the occasions of major events are also revealed. Diaries of the emperor’s chamberlains and other aides are quoted. Passages from a private diary of Saburo Hyakutake, who served as Grand Chamberlain from 1936 to 1944 brings out new facts which were not known so far. Three Japanese poems are made public for the first time, including one in which the emperor complains, “None of my ideals have been realized.”

There are some interesting revelations regarding the Emperor’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine. Emperor Hirohito visited the Yasukuni Shrine almost every year following the Manchuria Incident in 1931, which marked the beginning of Japan’s invasion of China. According to the annals, the Emperor was forced to alter the timing of visits to the shrine or cancel altogether in response to the changing times. After Japan’s surrender, the Emperor visited the shrine in November to attend an extraordinary memorial ceremony and then stopped visiting until 1952. His eighth visit after the war was in November 1975 on the 30th anniversary of the end of World War II, which he did in a private capacity. This was his last visit to Yasukuni as it provoked controversy. In 1978, Yasukuni enshrined Class-A war criminals among the war dead. The annals tell us that in a conversation with then-Imperial Household Agency chief Tomohiko Tomita on 28 April 1988, the Emperor said about the war as his most “humiliating experience” and expressed a sense of discomfort about Class-A war criminals being enshrined at Yasukuni. Between 1945 and 1975, the Emperor visited the Yasukuni Shrine eight times.

The Imperial Household Agency was initially wary of releasing the annals of Emperor Showa. What then led to the change in the decision to reveal? The annals of Emperor Meiji were published in 1968, 35 years after its completion, as an event to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Meiji era. The authentic records of Emperor Taisho have yet to be published. They were made public to meet disclosure requests filed since 2002 based on the Freedom of Information Law, but accounts related to Emperor Taisho himself were blacked out. Following criticism of this censorship, the Imperial Household Agency decided to release the annals of Emperor Showa in their entirety.

But the public want more information about the Emperor. The Imperial Household Agency selectively made public information gathered from diaries of chamberlains and ladies-in-waiting on the ground that those were private documents made by the staff on behalf of emperor and Imperial family members and therefore no requests for public disclosure can be filed for these documents. However, disclosure requests can be made for copies of such documents used to compile the annals.

Nevertheless, the records of the 87-year-long life of Emperor Showa provide an important temporal axis for research on the history of Emperor Showa and therefore an important step. The annals shed light on the critical decisions the Emperor took at various stages of the nation’s tumultuous years of history. According to the annals, the Emperor valued constitutional monarchy under the Meiji Constitution and was wary of the conduct of the military because he craved for peace. His decision to announce Japan’s surrender and thus to end the War was therefore decisive. The records confirmed this well-established image of Emperor Showa.

On certain situations, the Emperor expressed himself in a restrained manner. The editor quotes the Emperor’s words and unlike the annals of his father Emperor Taisho, none of Emperor Showa’s words were blacked out. Some researchers, however, feel that the editor of the annals may have chosen to use non-committal descriptions instead of blacking out any of his words it quotes. The Imperial Household Agency reasoned out that it cautiously considered each of his words and chose mainly to write the points of his remarks instead of directly quoting him. Others felt, the selection process of historical materials and deciding what to record and what not to record was arbitrary. There could be some validity in such criticism because the annals do not show the dates, pages and chapters of books from which it quotes information, making it difficult for researchers to conduct further study on Emperor Showa era. Yet, about 40 of a total of 3,152 historical materials used to compile the record were not available in the public domain before.

Though the Showa Era is already part of history, the Japanese people have a lot to learn from that period because many challenges the nation faces today are rooted in that era. The challenges involve politics, diplomacy, economy as well as wide diversity of matters such as lifestyles and values. The Japanese people continue to ask why Japan was unable to avoid the catastrophic war that brought unprecedented hardships and changes to both Japan and the world as they now know the situation after the war, reconstruction and Constitution that has given prosperity to the people and the nation. The annals also shed light on the human side of Emperor Showa. The release of the annals is now a common property and will serve as key materials for future research material and examination of Showa era from various angles and viewpoints.

The Annals of Emperor Showa is a link to fast-fading era. The editor has done his job with meticulous care.  The popular Vox Populi column in the Asahi Shimbun in its column on 9 September made an interesting anecdotal observation. Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901), an enlightened writer who lived through Japan’s cataclysmic transition from the feudal Edo period (1603-1867) to the modern Meiji Era (1968-1912), likened the experience to “living two lives in one lifetime”. That was exactly a similar experience for Emperor Showa and the Japanese people when the Showa Era was abruptly punctuated by the nation’s crushing defeat in World War II. The Meiji Era was already 19 years in the past when poet Kusatao Nakamura (1901-1983) wrote, “Falling snow/Meiji has faded far in the past”. Japan is now in the 26th year of Heisei. As the Showa Era is fast fading into the past, the people of Japan has now a chance to peruse through “The Annals of Emperor Showa” to project the past to understand the present and be well equipped to understand the present to project the future. The historical value and importance of the Annals can therefore be judged from this perspective.

Note: This essay is a summary of reports about the Annals that appeared in major Japanese English newspapers after they were released on 9 September 2014. The main points are highlighted in this short narrative. The author does not claim credit for any scholarly research on this topic.

Dr. Rajaram Panda is currently The Japan Foundation Fellow at Reitaku University, Chiba Prefecture, JAPAN. E-mail: rajaram.panda@gmail.com

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