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Sorting Out Ukraine, Hirohito and the Poisonous Legacy of WWII

Fact-check Sorting Out Ukraine, Hirohito and the Poisonous Legacy of WWII
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Video producer Nik Yarst

Sergiy Korsunsky

Sergiy Korsunsky

Ukraine’s ambassador to Japan

"This shot uses a photograph of the Emperor of Japan, who had nothing to do with the outbreak of war and fascist ideology.”


On April 1, the Ukrainian government posted a video to Twitter about the “ideology of contemporary ruscism,” which it described as “a mixture of all Russian imperial ideologies.”

The video aimed to counter Moscow’s claims that its war aims to “de-nazify Ukraine.” The implication is that Russia itself has become a totalitarian state.

The video states: “Fascism and Nazism were defeated in 1945.” And it shows photos of Nazi Germany’s leader Adolf Hitler, Italy’s fascist leader Benito Mussolini, and imperial Japan’s wartime leader Hirohito (Emperor Showa after his death).

The Japanese government objected, as did Ukraine’s ambassador to Japan.

On April 24, Masahisa Sato, director of the foreign affairs division of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said on Twitter that he had asked Japan’s Foreign Ministry to take “immediate action” over the video.

Japan’s Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki later told reporters:

"It is utterly inappropriate to treat Emperor Showa in the same way as Hitler and Mussolini. It's extremely regrettable.”

Sergiy Korsunsky, Ukraine’s ambassador to Japan, concurred.

“This shot uses a photograph of the Emperor of Japan, who had nothing to do with the outbreak of war and fascist ideology. The Japanese are very offended because it is not fair and does not correspond to historical facts. We urge you to correct. [Japan] is one of our greatest allies,” he tweeted.

To say Hirohito had nothing to do with the outbreak of war, however, is misleading.

Ukraine’s government nonetheless apologized for the video, reposting it to Twitter on April 24 with the image of Hirohito deleted.

Japan’s aid to Ukraine, including nonlethal military equipment, is seen as unprecedented for a country whose constitution outlaws war. That incentivizes Kyiv to not offend Tokyo.

But was Ukraine wrong to compare Hirohito to Hitler and Mussolini?

In fact, debate continues over what fascism actually means and whether imperial Japan could be described as fascist.

Robert Paxton, a Columbia University professor and fascism expert, argued that imperial Japan is better understood as “an expansionist military dictatorship with a high degree of state-sponsored mobilization,” rather than “a fascist regime.”

David Ambaras, a professor of history at North Carolina State University who researches the social history of modern Japan and its empire, has argued otherwise.

“Informed scholars understand fascism to be a mobile assemblage of ideologies and political and aesthetic practices centered on the valorization of empire, war, and the nation, along with a nominal rhetorical anticapitalism,” he tweeted.

“Japan clearly was part of this system; fascism intensified its imperialism and militarism.”

But that may be hairsplitting.

Regardless of how fascism is defined, and whether the label applies to imperial Japan, its past militarism and war crimes are facts of historical record.

Imperial Japan was allied with Hitler’s Germany and fascist Italy during the Second World War.

Hirohito was the head of state during Japan's campaign of imperial expansion, including the Japanese army’s 1931 seizure of Manchuria (mostly in northeast China), which some historians consider the true start of the war.

Japan’s national charter at the time stated that “[t]he Emperor is the head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty, and exercises them, according to the provisions of the present Constitution.”

Japan invaded, occupied and/or carried out campaigns of systematic violence and cultural suppression against most of its neighbors. Imperial Japanese massacres, atrocities and forced labor killed millions across the Asia-Pacific region.

What role Hirohito played in this is debated. A bigger player was Hideki Tojo, the general and prime minister during World War II who was central to Japan’s expansionist policies and war effort. Tojo ultimately was executed for war crimes.

A number of netizens wrote that Tojo, not Hirohito, should have appeared in the Ukraine video.

Others, like Amy Stanley, a social historian of early modern and modern Japan at Northwestern University, argues that inclusion of Hirohito or Tojo in the video would have been problematic for Japanese nationalists.

When Hirohito’s official biography was released in 2014, an Associated Press report noted “the emperor was criticized for letting himself be used as a spiritual symbol for Japanese militarism,” but added, “[M]ost historians portray him as largely a powerless figurehead.”

A separate Associated Press report noted that “Hirohito’s role in World War II was never firmly established, as he was shielded from indictment in the Tokyo war crimes trials by a U.S. occupation that wanted to use him as a symbol to rebuild Japan.”

Yet, prominent historians say Hirohito was no innocent. Among them is Herbert P. Bix, whose biography on Hirohito won a Pulitzer Prize.

“[Hirohito] was never a puppet,” Bix wrote. “He failed to prevent his army from invading Manchuria in 1931, which caused Japan to withdraw from the League of Nations, but he sanctioned the full-scale invasion of China in 1937, which moved Japan into a state of total war.

“He exercised close control over the use of chemical weapons in China and sanctioned the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Even after the war, when a new, American-modeled Constitution deprived him of sovereignty, he continued to meddle in politics.”

For varying reasons, others agree.

Japanese historian Akira Fujiwara argued the belief that the Emperor could not have reversed Japanese cabinet decisions “is a myth fabricated after the war.”

Historian Peter Wetzler said Fujiwara did not present “enough evidence to document this conclusion,” but argues that Hirohito’s role in shaping imperial army and navy plans “emphatically supports” Fujiwara’s claim.

Picture released on August 1945 of Japanese soldiers laying down arms in front of Soviet officers. (AFP)
Picture released on August 1945 of Japanese soldiers laying down arms in front of Soviet officers. (AFP)

A memo by an imperial Japanese official that surfaced in 2018 supported the view that Hirohito was at least partially responsible for starting the war.

That memo suggested the idea that Hirohito feared starting a war was exaggerated and that his unwavering support for the government’s decision to abandon diplomacy encouraged Tojo.

Takahisa Furukawa, a Nihon University expert on wartime history, described Tojo as a “bureaucrat who was incapable of making [his] own decisions.” That led him to turn to Hirohito “as his supervisor.”

“That’s why he had to report everything for the emperor to decide. If the emperor didn’t say no, then he would proceed,” Furukawa told the Associated Press.

Contemporary Japan continues to struggle with its past.

Japan has been at loggerheads with its wartime victims, particularly China, for attempts to downplay the military’s involvement in forced sexual slavery, whose victims are described as “comfort” women, as well as the scope of atrocities committed during the Nanjing massacre.

Moreover, Ukraine has its own troubled history with fascism during the war.

One prominent and controversial Ukrainian figure, Stepan Bandera, led a nationalist movement for Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union. Bandera cooperated with Nazi Germany at the beginning of the war but was later arrested by the German Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp.

Some within Ukraine view Bandera as a freedom fighter, while others see him as a Nazi alley who's organization, the Order of Ukrainian Nationalists, carried out massacres against Poles and Jews.

Clarification: This fact check has been edited to clarify Amy Stanley's position that inclusion of Hirohito or Tojo in the video would have been problematic for Japanese nationalists.