History of Hiroshima : 1945-1995

History of Hiroshima: 1945-1995 (Part 26, Article 1)

Emperors and the A-bombed City of Hiroshima

by Tetsuya Okahata, Staff Writer

Note: This article was originally published in 1995.

This summer Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko will travel to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Okinawa to console the souls of the war dead. In this 50th anniversary of the war’s end, the trip seems to signify the royal couple’s intention to share in the historical burdens and suffering experienced by the Japanese people by visiting these sites that saw incredible devastation during the war.

Many Hiroshima citizens who endured the horrific consequences of the first nuclear attack in history still hold mixed feelings when it comes to the word “emperor.” Emperor Showa, however, visited Hiroshima six times, beginning with his first visit to the city in 1947. Back then, Hiroshima was in the midst of reconstruction. The memory of his visits remains seared in the minds of Hiroshima citizens to this day.

The Chugoku Shimbun will examine the connection between Japanese emperors and the A-bombed city of Hiroshima. In addition, we will probe Japan’s nuclear policy, which was based on the nation’s tragic experiences of the past, yet has evolved with the times.

Hiroshima citizens: Different perspectives on the “real image” of emperors

“Stirred by exhilaration and excitement, a great chorus of 50,000 people rose and roared the national anthem. The emperor’s face also betrayed his emotion as he sang the anthem together with the crowd. The people were thrilled to tears, a feeling which imbued the whole venue.”

The date was December 7, 1947 and this is how the Chugoku Shimbun described Emperor Showa’s first visit to Hiroshima since the atomic bomb was dropped. At Citizens Park in the former West Military Drill Ground site, Emperor Showa took a piece of paper from his pocket and read, “I never stop sorrowing for the catastrophe you suffered. Rather than letting this sacrifice go to waste, we must construct a peaceful Japan that will contribute to world peace.”

His words roused the fervor of the audience into a climactic response. Breaking their silence, the people waved their caps, hands, and handkerchiefs and shouted “Banzai!” at the top of their lungs. Shinso Hamai, then mayor of Hiroshima, looked back on the feverish excitement of Hiroshima citizens in his book A-bomb Mayor and wrote that their emotions were unique, like the feelings of children returning home to their parents after suffering alone.

In 1946, Emperor Showa embarked on a tour of cities that had been reduced to ashes. It was a time when the democratization of the Imperial Family was being promoted, an effort which included the emperor’s Humanity Declaration and the abolition of “lese majesty.” The emperor’s visit to Hiroshima was realized at the behest of the City of Hiroshima. He was greeted with shacks that had finally been built in the A-bomb desert, now overflowing with people engaged in reconstruction work.

It was an encounter that brought together the “human emperor” on one side and the city which suffered the war’s most devastating toll on the other. The world’s attention was drawn to how the people of Hiroshima would receive the emperor, with a contingent of foreign journalists accompanying the emperor and his entourage to Hiroshima. The emperor himself probably had torn feelings over his visit to the city. The late Sukemasa Irie, who would later serve as the Grand Chamberlain to the royal family, told Mr. Hamai: “His majesty was obviously terribly grieved about the bombing. As we travelled through San-in and Yamaguchi, he seemed to be dreading the Hiroshima stop. He was much brighter leaving.”

In Hiroshima, the emperor visited a facility for A-bomb orphans, among other places. He repeatedly made replies that seemed curt, saying “I see” to the explanations provided to him. Still, Hiroshima citizens were brimming with empathy for the human emperor, who had been freed from the cage of deification. One person, however, eyed this passionate response with mixed emotions.

Keiji Nakazawa, 56, author of the manga “Barefoot Gen,” was a third-year student of Honkawa Elementary School at the time. He was standing among the crowd, lining the streets near the Aioi Bridge as they waited for the parade featuring the emperor. A cold wind blew against his malnourished body and his bare feet in clogs.

“I was thinking how three people in my family died because of the emperor, maybe due to the fact that my father had rejected the emperor system,” Mr. Nakazawa said. “Though my teacher told me to make a small Japanese flag to welcome him, I didn’t make one.” Mr. Nakazawa heard shouts of “Banzai!” rippling toward him. Then a black car sped by. “My back got hot, like it was on fire,” he recalled. “It got so sweaty. Even now, it’s a feeling I can’t forget.” These sentiments persist in his manga work.

The war was launched under the name of the emperor. The atomic bombings came as a consequence of the war. Some questioned the emperor’s responsibility for the war. Others bit their tongues over their belief that the emperor’s decision to end the war had come “too late,” thinking that Japanese leaders had been focused on protecting the nation’s political system, or the emperor system, which led to a delay in accepting the Potsdam Declaration and, in turn, invited the atomic bombing.

In the abyss of the A-bomb-wrought misery, those who questioned the emperor’s responsibility were moved by their anger as human beings over the fact that this cruel fate had struck their loved ones. These voices, however, were not heard openly at the time.

Following visits to Hiroshima in 1947 and 1951, Emperor Showa returned to Hiroshima in 1971. He then paid his respects before the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims for the first time and commented, “Standing in front of the cenotaph, I remember, after all these years, what happened in the old days. My heart still aches.” As he gazed over the city from the top of Hijiyama Hill, he was overcome by emotion, and said that he was amazed Hiroshima had been reconstructed to this extent.

In the diary kept by Sukemasa Irie, Emperor Showa’s visit in 1971 is described in this way: “There were no disturbances, though we had been warned of this possibility. Everyone was delighted, and some were weeping.”

By “disturbances,” Mr. Irie was referring to moves made by left-leaning groups and some right-wingers as well. Those on the left had held a gathering to protest the emperor’s visit, saying, “The emperor is seeking to let himself off the hook by visiting the cenotaph, while continuing to obscure his own responsibility for the war and the atomic bombings.” On the other hand, right-wingers had declared in threatening tones that they could not accept seeing the emperor stand before the “humiliating” inscription on the cenotaph, which reads “we shall not repeat the evil.” While a sea of 270,000 people welcomed the emperor, the public’s reaction, on the whole, was distinctly different from that of 24 years before.

On October 31 of 1975, four years after the emperor’s appearance in Hiroshima, a news conference was held in a drawing room at Imperial Palace following Emperor Showa’s first visit to the United States.

Toshihiko Akinobu, 60, now the Chief Executive Director of the Television Department at the RCC Broadcasting Company, based in Hiroshima, was in the last row of the press corps, gazing intently at the emperor and empress and restraining his excitement. He asked, “How did His Majesty take the reality of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima?”

The unscripted question created a stir at the venue. But the buzz was lost on Mr. Akinobu, who was purely happy to see the emperor turn in his direction. The emperor responded, however: “I regret that the atomic bomb was dropped. Though I feel sorry for the citizens of Hiroshima, I think it was unavoidable because it took place in the midst of war.” At that moment, Mr. Akinobu noticed that the face of the empress, who was watching the emperor closely, froze.

Recalled Mr. Akinobu: “Because that year marked the 30th anniversary of the end of the war, voices were, in various fashions, questioning the emperor’s involvement in the war. As a journalist from Hiroshima, it was only natural for me to ask about the atomic bombing. The truth is, I wanted to ask him when he first learned of the bombing and what words were used to inform him.”

Initially, Mr. Akinobu had requested that something about the atomic bombings be included in the pre-selected questions from the press corps scheduled to attend the news conference. But there was already a draft of the questions. Mr. Akinobu grew puzzled when told that he would be allowed to ask a question on a related issue on the spot. When the war ended, he was in the sixth grade of elementary school. Because he had received a prewar education, which deified the emperor, questioning the man directly was an onerous task.

The day of the press conference dawned cold and rainy. The weather depressed him further. Under the strain, he felt as if all strength would leave him. And then the faces of the A-bomb microcephaly patients whom Mr. Akinobu had provided his support for the past ten years crossed his mind. “On behalf of those who suffered prenatal exposure to the A-bomb radiation and, because of their mental disabilities, have even been stripped of the power of speech and are unable to condemn the atomic bombing as criminal...” Mr. Akinobu thought.

The press conference was broadcast on television, nationwide, and caused complicated ripples among Hiroshima citizens regarding the true meaning of the emperor’s words. The Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs and the Hiroshima Congress Against A- and H-Bombs released statements, respectively, saying there was a possibility that the emperor’s words could be exploited for political purposes in order to condone nuclear weapons.

To these statements, the Imperial Household Agency issued a rare response, explaining: “It is our understanding that His Majesty regrets not having been able to stop the atomic bombings, which resulted in the choice of words ‘it was unavoidable.’” The Crown Prince (now Emperor Akihito) also spoke out, saying at a news conference, “When a situation calls for an instant reaction, there are times when I, too, am unable to express my feelings adequately.”

Right after the war ended, Emperor Showa was asked by a correspondent of a U.S. newspaper if he thought that nuclear weapons were an effective means of preventing war. But the emperor answered that the issue of peace could not be resolved with both the victor and the vanquished holding weapons in their hands. All the more because of this statement, the people of Hiroshima expected the emperor to offer more than “it was unavoidable.” But afterwards, Emperor Showa did not mention the atomic bombings again, and the curtain then fell on the “Showa” era, leaving some with a feeling of discomfort.

The number of dead in the register rises as the flame of peace leaps high beyond the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims. (The Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims)

In this peaceful time, I have visited the sick and mulled what radiation has wrought. (Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital & Atomic Bomb Survivors Hospital)

These are tanka poems shared by Emperor Akihito on New Year’s Day, 1990. Among the five poems he wrote, two featured the A-bombed city of Hiroshima. The city, which he had visited the previous fall amid various ceremonies to observe the death of Emperor Showa, surely left a strong impression on him.

Emperor Akihito first visited Hiroshima in 1949. He was 15 then and spoke publicly for the first time, reading his prepared remarks: “We must advance toward peace so that we will never again plunge humanity into this type of tragedy.” He was reportedly pleased to see that a book he had donated to a center for children’s cultural activities was well-worn from use.

Since that time, Emperor Akihito has paid another six visits to Hiroshima, also attending the Peace Memorial Ceremony held on August 6. He has displayed a deep interest in the A-bombed city, as shown by his frequent visits to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Hospital. He also refers to the days of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the anniversary of the end of the battle in Okinawa, and the anniversary of the end of the Pacific War as “days that Japan must remember.” On these days the emperor never fails to offer a silent prayer.

Akira Hashimoto, 62, an advisor for the international sports news department of the Kyodo News Service and one of Emperor Akihito’s schoolmates from Gakushuin Primary School to Gakushuin University, said, “I imagine His Majesty was wondering why the atomic bombs had to be dropped.” In his youth, Emperor Akihito harbored doubts about the path his father, Emperor Showa, had taken. However, Mr. Hashimoto added that Emperor Akihito came to understand and accept his father’s words and deeds as he perused records written by Kumao Harada, a political secretary of the former Japanese Prime Minister Kinmochi Saionji, among other documents.

“His Majesty has a profound resolve to fully accept what the regime of his father’s time brought about and to ruminate over what he can do in real life,” Mr. Hashimoto said. “But bound by the Constitution of Japan, His Majesty cannot speak out easily. So he bows his head in silence, like a pilgrim, and offers flowers.”

Emperor Akihito once whispered to Mr. Hashimoto: “The Japanese will eventually understand.”

On July 27 of this year, Emperor Akihito will again stand before the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims.

[Reference] Hirohito: Emperor of Japan by Leonard Mosley

(Originally published on July 16, 1995)