Newsflash or False News: the Abdication of Emperor Hirohito

The issue of imperial succession was used in political maneuvers with the foreign press in Occupation Japan.

Early succession?: The Showa Emperor and his son, then Crown Prince Akihito.
Early succession?: The Showa Emperor and his son, then Crown Prince Akihito.

by Eiichiro Tokumoto

By indicating his desire to hand over the imperial throne to the crown prince, Japan’s 82-year-old emperor set off intense debate about the state of the imperial family and the institution of the monarchy itself. What started as rumor has become a real issue for the government, as it scrambles to find a legal way to handle any succession. Press coverage has been extensive, not only in Japan but worldwide.

This is not, however, the first time in the postwar era for the subject to arise, and not the first time it has caused great consternation for the interested parties. According to declassified documents of the British government, a group of Japanese and Americans engaged in behind-the-scenes political maneuvering to bring about the abdication of Emperor Hirohito soon after the end of WWII. And, whether willingly or through deception, there were a number of foreign correspondents involved in a disinformation campaign to achieve the plotters’ aim – to change Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s Occupation policies and the state of postwar Japan.

A group of Japanese and Americans engaged in behind-the-scenes political maneuvering to bring about the abdication of Emperor Hirohito soon after the end of WWII.

It started with an article in the New York Times of May 25, 1948, under the headline “Hirohito’s reign seen nearing end.” Lindesay Parrott, the NYT’s Tokyo correspondent and a member of the Tokyo Correspondents’ Club (precursor of the FCCJ), citing “usually well-informed Japanese” as his source, wrote: “The possibility that Emperor Hirohito may abdicate within the next few months again is becoming a subject of general discussion among Japanese. . . . What has again raised the question whether Hirohito is ready to step down from his throne is the approaching verdict of the eleven-nation tribunal that for the last two years has been trying former Premier Hideki Tojo and his former colleagues as war criminals.” Parrott also wrote that if the Emperor should abdicate, his brother Prince Takamatsu, a former officer of the Imperial Japanese Navy, would assume the regency of the Crown Prince.

Two days later, on May 27, Reuters’ Tokyo correspondent followed up with a similar article, in which he wrote, “The city today buzzed with rumours that Emperor Hirohito is planning to abdicate on August 15. . . . His abdication, it is said, would be timed to coincide with the execution of General Tojo and other war leaders.”

THE SAME DAY, HOWARD Handleman, the FCCJ’s first president and Tokyo correspondent for International News Service, joined the bandwagon, writing, “Japanese sources reported that Hirohito has been persuaded to step down from the throne in favor of his son, Crown Prince Akihito, who would reign through a regency until he becomes of age.”

The timing was important. One month earlier, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, also known as the Tokyo Trials, had completed its proceedings. It was expected that former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and other Class-A war criminals would receive the death sentence, and rumors spread among correspondents that the tribunal’s ruling would be timed to the Emperor’s abdication. Their reports were circulated worldwide, resulting in a considerable reaction in Japan as well.

Sir Alvary Gascoigne was worried. Acting for the sole constitutional monarchy among the Allies, the British Political Representative in Japan harbored major concerns over the Emperor’s abdication, and met with Gen. MacArthur at his office in the Dai-ichi Building on June 12.


“I said that as far as my information went Prince Takamatsu was inclined to be reactionary and that he had certain affiliations with undesirable purgees.”


A record of their conversation, which Gascoigne sent to the British Foreign Office, can be found in the National Archives in London. In it, he wrote: “I said that I hoped that there was no truth in these rumours and that in my opinion the resulting formation of a Regency Council, in which Prince Takamatsu would presumably play a leading part, would not be desirable from the point of view of the aims of occupation. I said that as far as my information went Prince Takamatsu was inclined to be reactionary and that he had certain affiliations with undesirable purgees.”

Gascoigne’s worries stemmed from the imperial family’s make-up at the time. Crown Prince Akihito was only 14 years old at the time, so if he were to immediately succeed the Emperor, it would be necessary to name a regent. That task would have normally fallen upon Prince Chichibu, the younger brother of the Emperor, but as he was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, that was out of the question. There left the strong possibility that Prince Takamatsu would be next in line.

MACARTHUR SCOFFED AT THE reports, but seemed to agree with Gascoigne about the choice of regent. “General MacArthur replied that there was ‘not one scintilla of truth’ in the rumours regarding the Emperor’s abdication. Should there ever be in future any question of the Emperor wishing to abdicate, he would insist upon his remaining in his present position.”

The report continued. “The Supreme Commander said that he was in agreement with my estimation of Prince Takamatsu, whom he gravely distrusted. Rumours of the abdication stemmed from purgee circles in Japan, and these had been advertised by certain Wall Street elements through the medium of the American Magazine ‘News Week[sic]’.”

So why did MacArthur single out Newsweek for criticism? And furthermore, why would Wall Street have any involvement with the abdication of the Emperor of Japan? It started with an article that appeared six months earlier, in the Dec. 1, 1947 issue of Newsweek, written by American attorney James Lee Kauffman. A graduate of Harvard University who worked as a lawyer in Japan before the war, Kauffman taught at Tokyo Imperial University’s Law faculty, and had many friends in Japan’s financial circles.

In his article, Kauffman was critical of GHQ economic policies. GHQ had just recently arranged for the complete dissolution of the Zaibatsu as a step toward democracy, and had purged out not only militarists but those in financial or business circles who it considered to have cooperated in instigating the war. Their numbers were said to reach 200,000.


MacArthur told Gascoigne: “Japanese purgees no doubt hoped to have more chance of getting back into their old positions under a Regency”


Kauffman believed the purges, particularly from the private enterprises, would interfere with Japan’s recovery. He wrote, “Because of this purge both the Japanese Government and businesses have been stripped of older men of ability and experience. Japanese banks are being run by former cashiers and assistant vice presidents while business concerns are being directed by former plant managers and clerks. Young men hold the key positions in government. They are hard working, sincere and intelligent but lack the experience so desperately needed at this time.”

According to Kauffman, GHQ’s economic policies were “far to the left of anything tolerated in this country.” He was not alone in his beliefs. The so-called “Japan Lobby,” a loosely-knit group of U.S. government officials, financiers and journalists who were favorably inclined toward Japan, had begun supporting a “Reverse Course” policy, warning that efforts to dissolve the Zaibatsu and purge businessmen would weaken the Japanese economy and bolster communist influences. Among the group’s influential members were Newsweek’s foreign editor Harry Kern, Tokyo bureau chief Compton Pakenham and Kauffman himself.

MacArthur saw them as attempting to change the policies of the Occupation, by encouraging the Emperor’s abdication in accordance with the timing of the verdict of Tojo and the other defendants. He told Gascoigne, “Elements both in Japan and in America now saw an unlimited period of occupation ahead and Japanese purgees no doubt hoped to have more chance of getting back into their old positions under a Regency (in which Takamatsu took a prominent part) than under the present regime of Emperor Hirohito – they blamed the Emperor for his docile ‘yes-man’ attitude towards the severe punishment which had been meted out to them. (The General thus insinuated that big business in the States was behind the abdication rumours by virtue of its desire to see restoration of pre-war economic regime in Japan which would suit its own purposes best.)”

IN ANY EVENT, THE tribunal handed down its death sentences on the seven Class-A war criminals in November 1948, later than initially expected; their executions were carried out at Sugamo Prison on Dec. 23. Concurrent to this, rumors of the abdication dissipated.

MacArthur, it seems, had managed to squelch any moves by the abdication crowd by dealing directly with the Emperor. On Jan. 13, 1949, Gascoigne sent another report to the Foreign Office, in which he conveyed what MacArthur had said to a Canadian diplomat. “MacArthur confirmed that the question of abdication was no longer an actual one. This suggestion, he said, had been ‘artificially stimulated by foreign correspondents.’ Emperor Hirohito had asked him (MacArthur) what course he should adopt and had intimated that he would be willing to abdicate if the Allies wished him so to do. If they were not, however, anxious to see him go, he would ‘stick it out.’ Thereupon MacArthur had assured His Majesty that the whole issue was an artificial one, and that there was no necessity for him to abdicate.”

After a separate meeting with MacArthur, Gascoigne reported the General’s assessment of Emperor Hirohito as being “more democratically progressive than any of his subjects, and certainly much more so than any of the members of the present government.”

In the backdrop of the rumors over abdication soon after the war’s end were behind-the-scenes political moves by people wishing to remake the emperor to their own advantage, and it’s very likely that the Press Club correspondents were used in a plot to circulate disinformation. Since then, the young Crown Prince has grown, been crowned Emperor and now, at a venerable age, has expressed his desire to abdicate. Will the abdication issue again become ensnarled in furtive politics and press manipulation? And if so, who will the key players be?

Eiichiro Tokumoto, a former Reuters correspondent, is an author and investigative journalist.