Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy Revisited

The recent kerfuffle over the publication of Ben Hills’ book Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne recalls an earlier book on the Imperial Family, which caused much deeper controversy.  Released in 1971, David Bergamini’s 1200+page opus Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy set out to destroy the myth that Emperor Hirohito was a passive puppet of the wartime military. Bergamini was much criticized after the book’s release and he was dismissed as a crank and worse by conservatives, but its key point: that the Showa Emperor played an active role in the planning and fighting of the Pacific War, has been immeasurably strengthened by the publication of Herbert Bix’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. Greg Clark here takes another look at a book that seems to have, in his words, “disappeared from the collective memory of Japan Inc.”  

I ‘m not sure I should be writing this book review.  

Bergamini saw Japan’s former Emperor Hirohito as a convinced militarist, artful plotter, and consummate dissembler. So did I, once. I was brought up in wartime Queensland. Like Sir William Webb, the chief judge at the 1946-48 Tokyo Military Tribunal who wanted to have Hirohito tried for war crimes, who also came from Brisbane, and who writes the book’s introduction, I too lived through imminent invasion threats, bombing attacks, blackouts, food rationing, forced evacuations (‘Yes, Taro, Japanese children were not the only ones to suffer’) and news reports of atrocities against captured Australian nurses and soldiers,  I too believed the Emperor and his nation were evil personified. 

But the only direct contact I ever had with this source of Imperial evil came much later. I had been summoned to meet the then rather timid and naïve crown prince, Naruhito, cloistered away in Akasaka among an army of middle-aged flunkeys. We spent a long and rather boring two hours talking about mountains. Not much evil there, I concluded. 

Maybe I was asked to do the review because our editors discovered I am one of the few people around FCCJ to have a copy of the Bergamini book. Our library copy has disappeared mysteriously.  Even more mysterious is the way this book has disappeared from the collective memory of Japan Inc. When the book first hit our desks back in 1971 the thump of its 1239 pages (including 144 pages of notes, glossary, bibliography and index) almost matched our gasp as we wondered how Japan would react to its Emperor being condemned in such detail. The title, ‘Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy’ left little to the imagination. The contents even less. Surely, we thought,  there would be a host of Emperor admirers and others out there keen to rebut the details of alleged plans by Hirohito and his relatives beginning well back in the 1930’s to commit Japan to aggressive war not just in Asia but even against the West. 

But Japan was not interested. As far as I know no attempt was ever made to translate the book into Japanese – something rare in those days when almost any book by gaijin about Japan soon found its way in Japanese into the bookstores. Apart from a few reviews in overseas journals the silence was complete. And yet here was a book that for wealth of detail and seemingly original research went beyond anything any one had done, before and since. (For an excellent summary of the book go to http/ 

Bergamini’s background was unusual. The son of an architect working first in Japan (who had built St Luke’s Hospital) and then in China, he found himself wondering even as a young boy how the gentleness of the Japanese he had known in Japan could transform into the barbarity he saw in China. Evacuated in 1939 to the Philippines, and interned there after Pearl Harbor, his camp was just rescued from total extermination in February 1945 by the sudden arrival of US forces. 

From there he was to spend the next twenty years getting a university education, working for Life magazine, writing books about science, math and Australian wildlife, plus two novels,  until sometime in the 1960’s he decided to write a book about Hirohito and the war. His approach is generally without malice.  His references are excellent. In particular, he makes good use of the Sugiyama memorandum (named after the Imperial Army Chief of Staff) which only emerged in 1967 (NYT says 1971) and which shows very clearly that Hirohito had full knowledge and was closely involved in the plans for the Pearl Harbor attack, even if at one stage he had brief doubts whether Japan would succeed.  (That memorandum, like Bergamini’s book, was also to be largely ignored in Japan.)

He also makes much use of the Kido Dairy, kept by Marquis Koichi Kido, who had been Lord Privy Seal and chief civilian advisor to Hirohito in the years between 1940 and 1945, the “Saionji-Harada Memoirs” – the notes of the liberal Prince Kinmochi Saionji, who until November 1940 advised the Emperor about various matters, and the dairy of General Shigeru Honjo, who led the conquest of Manchuria between 1931-36.

The detail is meticulous.  For example:

“At 3.30 Prime Minister Tojo was received in audience by Hirohito, with Kido standing by. After that Navy Minister Shimada and Navy Chief of Staff Nagano conferred with the Emperor for about two hours. Kido waited restlessly outside the Imperial Study, talking with the chief-aide-de-camp at 4.00. Finally at 6.35 Kido was summoned to the Imperial Presence” (where, as it turns out, Hirohito tells Kido to tell Tojo to go ahead with the Pearl Harbor attack, having received answers to his brief doubts from the two navy people)

Given all this detail, how does Japan today still manage to convince itself that its Emperor was a helpless puppet in the hands of the militarists and quite free from war guilt? True, Japanese resentment over the mistakes of the postwar war crimes trials is one factor.  We also need to realize how many Japanese believed, and still believe, that Western prewar misbehavior in Asia gave Japan little choice but to counterattack. And there is of course the lese majeste, Queen Bee factor. No one, in Japan especially, wants to see their national head besmirched. The closest I have ever come to anyone of note willing to discuss Emperor guilt is Shintaro Ishihara of all people.  He will say, with bushido fervor, that the source of many of Japan’s postwar troubles was the Emperor’s refusal to abdicate after the war to take responsibility for the millions who had died in his name. 

Then there was the man angry because in the name of the Emperor he and his squad had been abandoned in the New Guinea jungle and reduced to cannibalism. They locked him up after he had tried to slingshot the Emperor with a ball-bearing during the Imperial New Year’s public appearance (they now have ball-bearing proof glass to protect the Imperial dias). But he did manage to publish a book giving his reasons, and that made some impact at the time. 

But why has the Bergamini book had such little impact among our Japan-watchers — less for example than Herbert Bix’s monumental Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan  (688 pages plus 90 pages of citations) which also concludes that “Hirohito was personally and actively involved in Japan’s aggressive war policies during World War II.”

True, the critics are probably right to say the book has mistakes. Shumpei Okamoto writing in the Journal of Asian Studies, has given specific examples where he says Bergamini seriously misquoted documents, the Kido Dairy especially. This may be true. But it also seems typical of the Japanese approach to all exposes of past misbehavior, the Unit 731 affair especially.  Instead of trying to deny the undeniable you peck around the edges as if some small mistake here or a misplaced photo there proves that maybe the undeniable is deniable after all.  

Misquotes or not, there is enough in the Bergamini book to refute any of the standard claims that Hirohito was simply a weak puppet figure controlled by his militaristic advisers until the final moments in August 1945 when he valiantly summoned up from nowhere the will to put an end to the hostilities. Both Bergamini and Bix paint a picture of an intelligent activist with a close interest in what was going on around him.

Maybe Bergamini’s journalistic instinct to reconstruct conversations and give nicknames to leading characters detracts from the authenticity of narrative. Maybe the lack of academic qualifications is a problem. Even so, his book is important. He provides the detailed China dimension crucial to understanding wartime Japan but missing in most accounts. With the 70th anniversary of the Nanking massacre about to descend on us, the detailed evidence not just of the killings there but of the involvement and condoning by the Imperial family is ugly.  Elsewhere there is no hint that Hirohito or his powerful relatives did anything to stop barbarity – the true crime in Japan’s Imperial expansion. But then again, what did US President Lyndon Johnson do to stop My Lai and other atrocities? 

Of special interest are the details behind the 1931 Mukden incident and Japan’s move into Manchuria which arguably led directly to Nanking, Pearl Harbor and everything else in between.  Here Bergamini’s account of how the militarists dragged the politicians and public opinion behind a rather pacifistic Japan is excellent. 

But there is a strange lack of detail about the even more important 1937 Marco Polo Bridge incident, which led to the crucial decision to attack into China proper. He mentions the misunderstandings and mix-upover the disappearance of the urinating soldier.  But like many others, he then seems to assume that it simply triggered an existing Tokyo plot to move south into China anyway, even though firm plans to move north into Siberia also existed.  

True, Bergamini did not have the minute, blow-by-blow detail of how the soldier’s toilet stop came to be so significant – detail given in Ikuhito Hata’s book on the incident (Hata appeared at the Club recently to give us an update of his book, departing somewhat from his previous neutrality to support rightwing claims that a Chinese communist plot to encourage an attack against Nationalist forces in China was involved). Either way, and but for that decision to go south rather than north, the Soviets were rescued, first at Moscow and then at Stalingrad. Otherwise Germany would have conquered in the west and then helped Tokyo consolidate its victories in the east. The rest of us now would all be speaking German or Japanese. And all because an anonymous Japanese soldier needed a toilet stop?  If true, it is a fantastic story. But Bergamini does not give us more. 

The book has an interesting introduction by Webb, who says that given the lack of investigation into Hirohito’s war responsibility the Tokyo tribunal should not have handed down death sentences.  He then adds that the only mistaken guilty verdict (leading to execution) was on Matsui Iwane, the general involved with Nanking, though others argue convincingly that the execution of former Foreign Minister Koki Hirota too was a serious miscarriage of justice.

Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy, by David Bergamini (Heinemann, London)


1.  Both Webb’s daughters ended up with Japan connections. One, Rachael, was the wife of Geoff Miller, a former Australian ambassador to Japan.  The other was Kate Webb, the recently deceased and much-missed correspondent most of us bumped into at one time or another around Asia.

2. Bergamini gives much praise to research help from a young Doshisha University student, Hijino Shigeki. Many of us knew the same Hijino as an active FCCJ member, working with TBS on the Japanese translation of Encyclopedia Britannica. 

3. I will donate my copy of the book to the Club library. The very interesting reference to Hijino is on page xxiv of the preface.