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    Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stands beside the Japanese characters of kanji which make up Reiwa, the new imperial era

    New Japanese Imperial Era Begins, But Why Did US Not Smash Empire in 1945?

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    Japan has officially named its new imperial era - which will begin when Crown Prince Naruhito becomes emperor. But Sputnik looks at why Japan was allowed to keep its imperial family after their controversial role in the Second World War.

    On Monday, 1 April, the Imperial Household in Japan finally confirmed the name of the new era — Reiwa, meaning order and harmony.

    Reiwa will begin on 1 May when Crown Prince Naruhito formally succeeds his 85-year-old father, Akihito, who has taken the highly unusual step of abdicating from the Chrysanthemum Throne because of ill health.

    Akihito's reign, which began in 1989, was known as Heisei — which meant "becomes peace" — and followed on from Shōwa.

    Last month Sarah Hightower, an independent researcher on Japan, said Heisei was supposed to be even better than the late Shōwa period but economic stagnation had led to a "lost generation."

    ​Shōwa — which means "Japanese glory" — began in 1926 when 25-year-old Hirohito became Emperor.

    Under him Japan became more and more militaristic and expanded into China before the attack on Pearl Harbor triggered war with the United States.  

    During the Second World War the cult of the emperor rose to fanatical levels with soldiers, sailors and airmen — including the famous kamikaze — going into battle for the honour of defending the Emperor and having their spirits enshrined at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo.

    The Japanese empire eventually extended as far as Burma, Singapore and Indonesia.

    If the head of the Nazi or fascist states in Germany or Italy had been captured alive by the Allies they would certainly have been put on trial and probably executed, but the ruler of the Japanese Empire was given very different treatment.

    In this undated file photo, Japan's Emperor Hirohito rides a horse at the imperial palace in 1940. A newly released memo by a wartime Japanese official provides what a historian says is the first look at what was on the minds of Emperor Hirohito and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo on the eve of the fateful 1941 attach on Pearl Harbor that thrust the U.S. into World War II.
    © AP Photo / AP file photo
    In this undated file photo, Japan's Emperor Hirohito rides a horse at the imperial palace in 1940. A newly released memo by a wartime Japanese official provides what a historian says is the first look at what was on the minds of Emperor Hirohito and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo on the eve of the fateful 1941 attach on Pearl Harbor that thrust the U.S. into World War II.

    In 1945 after the Japanese people had heard their Emperor's voice for the first time — when he announced the nation's surrender after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the Americans decided to grant clemency.

    They created a narrative which portrayed Hirohito as an innocent pawn in a cunning plan by extreme militarist nationalists like General Hideki Tojo, who was prime minister from 1941 to 1944.

    The Americans, who occupied Japan after the war, failed to delve into the secrets of the Imperial Household and portrayed Hirohito as some sort of prisoner who had been held hostage by the military and was kept in the dark about atrocities such as the Nanking Massacre or the bestial treatment of allied prisoners of war or Korean "comfort women" — who were forced into becoming prostitutes for Japanese soldiers.

    ​When the International Military Tribunal for the Far East began in 1946 there was little mention of the Emperor's role in the war and most of the wartime leaders who were on trial remained deeply deferential towards Hirohito and had no intention of dragging him into the proceedings, even if it meant sparing their lives.

    But why did the Americans — who had suffered 111,606 deaths among US servicemen and seen another 21,000 undergo horrific treatment as prisoners of war — go to such lengths to spare the Emperor and retain him as the supreme power in Japan?

    "American policy toward Japan from August 1945 was dominated by fears of the communist strategic threat to Asia. It is sometimes suggested that General Douglas MacArthur, as the Allies' supreme commander, imposed his personal will to spare Hirohito. MacArthur certainly acted autocratically, but the contemporary documentation shows that Washington's view marched with his own in rating the stabilisation of Japan above all other considerations," Max Hastings, a military expert and former newspaper editor, told the HistoryNet website.

    By the time Tojo and six other wartime leaders were hanged at Sugamo prison in Tokyo in December 1948, Japan was rebuilding its shattered economy and Hirohito had become a constitutional monarch, rather than a demi-god.

    Hirohito knew he had been lucky to escape with not only his life but his considerable wealth and luxurious lifestyle too.

    Mamoru Shigemitsu signs the unconditional surrender papers for Emperor Hirohito, thus committing Japan to accept the Potsdam Declaration.
    © AP Photo /
    Mamoru Shigemitsu signs the unconditional surrender papers for Emperor Hirohito, thus committing Japan to accept the Potsdam Declaration.

    He played the game — keeping a low profile and smiling beatifically as successive conservative governments rebuilt capitalism and became a dutiful ally of the United States during the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict.

    Was communism ever really a threat?

    Unlike in Korea or China there was never a military threat from communists in Japan and they posed little risk of taking over politically either.

    In the 1949 general election the Japanese Communist Party, won three million votes and 35 communist MPs were elected.

    ​But it was only the fourth biggest party and was overshadowed by the more moderate Socialist Party.

    During the McCarthy era and at the height of the Cold War the JCP's chairman Kyuichi Tokuda was persecuted by the Americans and forced to go into exile in China in 1953.

    His successor Sanzō Nosaka remained the JCP's leader until 1982 but despite getting around five million votes throughout the 1980s it remained a minor player as the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) held sway.

    But unlike communist parties in Europe and elsewhere the JCP has hung on doggedly and at the last general election in 2017 more than four million Japanese voted communist and it won 12 seats.

    Related:

    Japan's Next Imperial Era to Be Named 'Reiwa' - Reports
    As Japanese Emperor Prepares Handover, What's Next for the 'Lost Generation'?
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    Emperor Hirohito’s Memories Auctioned to Alleged Holocaust Denier
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    emperor, empire, atrocities, war crimes, Naruhito, Emperor Akihito, Japan, United States, Hiroshima
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