Japan a dictatorship?

I have been studying Hiroshima and other facts related to the bombing. However, many of my sources say that Japan was a military dictatorship, but the condition that peace was hitched upon was their keeping of the emperor! Was Hirohito a military dictator, I hadn’t thought so. Can anyone fill me in as to Japan’s state of government at the time?

Yes, Japan was ruled by a military dictatorship, and had been since the early 1930s. Given that Japan had been ruled by a military dictatorship (the bakufu) since 1185 CE (it can be argued that the Sengoku Jidai was military anarchy rather than military dictatorship; otherwise, there had been other types of government only at infrequent intervals), this was not too surprising.

The '30s didn’t throw up a shogun (generalissimo; in effect, acknowledged dictator) as earlier dictatorships had, but Tojo Hideki essentially played that role (and paid the price for it). The Showa emperor (a/k/a Hirohito) had apparently been brought up to believe, as had most emperors since the 9th century CE, that to use the power nominally vested in the throne was to risk losing it (suppose he gave an order and nobody obeyed?). Various strains of thought have made him out to be everything from a dupe of the militarists to a helpless prisoner of society to the evil mastermind behind World War II. MacArthur accepted the second explanation, no doubt partly for political and diplomatic reasons. Since members of the Japanese government destroyed important documents, and (I’m pretty sure) everyone who knew Showa intimately is now dead, the exact extent of his responsibility may never be known.

Oh, I know I shouldn’t attempt this, because I don’t have long legs tonight, but a quick not and then those who know more can come along and tidy up.

Japan, going into WW II, was a mess as far as government goes. It doesn’t really fit any normal model of government easily. Emperor Hirohito was the divine head of state, and he wielded a power to which the military had to pay homage. But he did not drive the foreign policy of the country - that was formulated by a fractuous military that had been steadily acquiring power since the later part of the nineteenth century and was largely motivated by a desire to get into the imperialism game. Japan had sealed itself off from the world for centuries and had only rejoined the world after Commodore Perry’s 1858 trip.

More will post, I’m sure; suffice to say that the emperor was a divine figurehead who had some, but not necessarily decisive, power. And he dealt with a military government with ill-defined, but great, power. There was not anything like a constitutional description of the military’s position and there were competing factions and murders and mini-coups, etc. As Al Gore might put it, there was “no controlling authority.”

I guess you could call it a military-industrial anarchy.

The Emperor was such a figurehead to the Japanese during WWII that when he made an announcement on the radio that the Japanese had surrendered, there had to be an announcement before he went on the air to tell people that it was indeed the emperor speaking.
No one, except for a select few people, knew what his voice sounded like.

I have nothing to add here, except to note that the issue of the divinity or otherwise of the emperor is still a big - if largely submerged - issue in Japan. Just in the last week or so, comments by the new PM about divinity have caused a major political storm.


I was gonna call it a militarily oligarchic monarchy (sort of like constitutional monarchy but with “constitution” replaced by “military oligarchy”), but then I decided that was too much of a mouthful and would mislead people into believing that I was equating oligarchy with monarchy.

In any case, if you want to make the case that it was a dictatorship and not an oligarchy, I’d be fine with that. With most decisions being taken behind closed doors, it’s hard to tell for sure who has all the power. Certainly Tojo was the most important individual in an extremely powerful military clique.

I know the Japanese emperor was quite a powerful figure until the creation of the shogunate in the middle ages. Were there any powerful emperors after that? Like, during weak or nonexistent shogunates?

Actually, the emperors were essentially powerless well before the shogunate. The Fujiwara took power from the imperial house in the late ninth century (roughly; it’s hard to date these unofficial transfers of power exactly). The abdicated emperors (joko and hoo) of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries contended with the Fujiwara, and brought some power back to the imperial clan, but not to the emperors themselves.

(BTW, “emperor” is not a good translation of the Japanese tenno. For some reason, early European explorers felt that every foreign monarch should be an “emperor”. My necromantic powers do not extend to calling up their shades and demanding that they tell me why.)

The emperor Go-Daigo overthrew the Hojo shikken (regents for nominal shogun) in 1331, and exercised some substantive power for two years. However, his policies were completely wrong-headed, giving Ashikaga Takauji cause and pretext to revolt in 1333 and establish a new shougunal dynasty. Go-Daigo’s heirs and supporters established a “Southern Court” that held out until 1392, when Ashikaga Yoshimitsu talked the last of Go-Daigo’s successors, Go-Kameyama, into abdicating in favor of the “northern” emperor, Go-Komatsu.

(Interestingly, the current emperor, Heisei or Akihito, is descended from the northern line, but the pravda is that the southern line was legitimate. However, Japanese custom didn’t require primogeniture at that time.)

Oda Nobunaga abolished the shogunate (which had by then become purely nominal, anyway) in 1573; although neither he nor his immediate successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi took the title, they didn’t allow the emperors any power, either. Hideyoshi’s successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, did have the emperor appoint him shogun in 1603; his shogunal dynasty lasted until the Meiji Restoration of 1867.

It can be argued that no emperor has exercised real power since Kammu died in 806. Meiji (or Mutsuhito, great-grandfather of the current emperor) was shrewd, but limited in power and influence by the genroku (elder advisors). His son and successor, Taisho/Yoshihito, was physically and mentally ill, and was incompetent to exercise power if he wanted it. Showa/Hirohito, as I said, seems to have been reared to believe that any atttempt to exercise power could be disasterous, and that remaining a wallflower was the better part of valor.

(FTR, in Japanese custom, the surname is given first; thus, Tokugawa Ieyasu was of the Tokugawa family. The three great warlords of the 16th century are often called merely by their given names (now that they’re safely dead): Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, Ieyasu. Imperial “names” are often okurina, honorary names assigned death. Since Mutsuhito (an actual personal name) chose “Meiji”, the okurina has also been used as a reign name, and has persisted through the reign of the emperor.)