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President Nambara and the Argument that the Shōwa Emperor Should Abdicate

In which the author considers the war experiences of Tōdai’s medical students and the memories of those who were on campus and heard the emperor’s August 15 broadcast there. In contrast to the vast majority of Tōdai people who were stunned and stupefied by the defeat, one person stands out: Nambara Shigeru. The author discusses several of Nambara’s postwar speeches and the impact they had before turning to Nambara’s call for the Shōwa emperor to abdicate at an appropriate moment. He concludes by introducing the efforts of Nambara and a few Faculty of Law colleagues to hasten the end of the war.

The War Dead of the Tōdai Faculty of Medicine

In the last chapter, I wrote that to this day, even after the research of Tōdai officials, we still don’t where and how the called-up students died. A reader wrote me to report that a five-year study by the alumni association of the Faculty of Medicine turned up all the names of its war dead and the places they died and that a memorial engraved with all their names had been erected at the Yayoi Gate (across campus from the Main Gate). I went to see it.

According to that study, the war dead of the Faculty of Medicine numbered two hundred and thirty-two, and they died in all the war zones: Manchuria and China, of course, but also New Guinea, the Philippines, Guadalcanal, Burma, Attu, Iwojima, Okinawa, Siberia. Medics had to go absolutely everywhere. Simply by looking at that list and at the map of the places they died, one understands immediately how vast this war was. To my surprise, twenty-one of the dead died in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the course of research, the report says, “many painful facts became clear.” The report gives the following examples: “One of the men was a medic on Etajima [the island in Hiroshima Bay that was the site of the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy], and just after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, he followed orders, entered the bombed area, and worked on the relief effort for several days; he died after the war, having returned to school. A second man, in Manchuria after the war ended, protested sharply on the way out of Manchuria against the Soviet army’s arrests of young women and was shot through the heart on the railroad tracks; trains ran over his corpse. There was also a doctor, recently graduated, last seen operating in a field hospital in an Okinawan tomb just before Okinawa fell.” Moreover, the writer of the report reflected: “To have to listen to superficial comments of new Japanese, who sing the praises of a peace (constructed atop the deaths of those who died in the war), in which they have all the food they can eat, that these war dead are dead merely because they chose to involve themselves in an evil war, makes my grief for these classmates deeper and stronger.”[1] It’s a fact that both today and in the past, many people voice such superficial words. These people are Japan’s shame, as are the many people, both today and in the past, who have no second thoughts at all about having started the war.

At the opposite pole is Nambara Shigeru, Law professor and first postwar president of Tōdai. The greatest trauma of Nambara’s life was his powerlessness to prevent the call-up of students. He spoke again and again of his feelings at the time. First, let’s look at his memory of the send-off ceremony conducted at Tōdai for the departing students (November 12, 1943). Nambara did not attend the ceremony: “On that day the entire university assembled in Yasuda Auditorium for the send-off ceremony. President Uchida read words of farewell. I simply couldn’t bear to enter Yasuda Auditorium. … So I sat quietly alone in my office, and at last, as they all left, I stood under the arcade of gingko trees to see them off. In high spirits, I tell you, they all went out the Main Gate. It gave me an inexpressible feeling.”[2] When the war ended, Nambara was dean of the Faculty of Law. Soon after the war, there were second thoughts about the wartime order, and the storm winds of a series of internal purges arose and roared through Tōdai. When that chaos had settled a bit, Uchida resigned in the middle of his term, as was fitting. And Nambara garnered an overwhelming majority of votes and was elected president.

Yasuda Auditorium: The Emperor’s Broadcast

Here let’s quote a bit about Tōdai right after the war from the Centennial History:[3] “At noon on August 15, 1945, the Emperor’s broadcast announcing the end of the war took place. On that day, the faculty and students remaining on campus, from President Uchida on down, gathered in the auditorium and listened. The Imperial University News wrote, ‘With heads bowed, reverently, faculty and students listened to the emperor’s voice; hearing his most important words of concern for the people, his imperial solicitude, all maintained silence and were swept by heartbreak.’ Then ‘President Uchida stood up, unable to wipe away copious bitter tears,’ and made the following remarks: ‘Hearing most reverently the imperial proclamation in the voice of the emperor, even the humblest person is unable to hold back tears of gratitude toward the emperor… In obedience to the imperial proclamation, we must be united in unquestioning obedience to his wish, fulfill our duties as subjects calmly, press on with our vocation as students…and reassure the imperial heart.’”

On hearing the emperor’s broadcast announcing the end of the war, couldn’t the president of Tōdai have said something a bit less objectionable? These lamentable words of his first statement tell the measure of Uchida. A graduate in architecture, he had succeeded Hiraga in March 1943 and carried on unchanged the Hiraga line (the alignment with militarism—“The entire university pledges unanimously to repay the country with their deaths”). At the graduation ceremony that was moved up to accommodate the call-up of students, he could say this: “Our country today, united, is striving to carry the holy war to a successful conclusion, and [the fact that despite everything the students have managed to graduate] is thanks solely to the infinite benevolence of the emperor… Indeed, I hold the unshakable belief that we will redouble our determination, pledging with grateful tears to offer up our lives to the Empire.”

With the war over, what should Tōdai do? Immediately after the emperor’s broadcast, the deans all gathered in the president’s office to confer on the best policy for the future, but they had absolutely no idea how to proceed. In their haste, they simply decided on the obvious: “1. Instruction will be continued as per usual. 2. There will likely be unease among the students, so tell them ‘to apply themselves to their studies calmly and with composure.’ 3. Wartime research will be halted.” The very fact that this was all they could decide is evidence of Tōdai’s stupefaction.

One of the students listening to the emperor’s broadcast in Yasuda Auditorium was Ishizaka Kimishige, who later became an internationally famed expert on immunization and professor at Johns Hopkins University. He wrote: “The faculty and those students then on campus gathered in Tōdai’s Yasuda Auditorium to listen to the emperor’s broadcast. Up until the previous day, we had thought, ‘We’ve only a few months more to live.’ Among our classmates in middle school and higher school were some who had died as special-attack pilots. I myself thought my chances of dying were 99%, and I didn’t fight that fact. Told suddenly that the war had ended, I had no idea what to do. I was absolutely stupefied.” Everyone was stupefied.

Among a people so stupefied, the only person with a cool head, able to offer guidance on what to do, day after day, was Nambara Shigeru, dean of the Faculty of Law. It was only fitting that he should be elected the first postwar president of the university. Before becoming president, Nambara had been a great inspiration. Barely two weeks after the defeat, Nambara wrote an essay in the Imperial University News under the title, “The Destiny of the University in the Postwar World—Advice for Decommissioned Students.”

Nambara’s Historic Speech

Beginning the very first days after the war ended, demobilized student-soldiers had appeared on campus, one after the other. As I’ve said, students had been conscripted with their status as students intact, so when the war ended, they had the right to return to the university. Like everyone else, the demobilized students didn’t know how to think or what to think. The same held true for ordinary Japanese outside the university. Nambara’s essay was passed from hand to hand and had the greatest influence on people of the day. Here’s how it began:[4]

August 15, 1945: what did that day mean for us? It was the accursed “day of doom” in the glorious history of Japan, more than 2600 years. We Japanese who had lived to see that day: to what can we compare our resentment and great sorrow? It was a day our country had never before known, a day of defeat and surrender.

First, must we not face this reality squarely and, without cloaking it vainly in some mystic mantle, accept fact, honestly, as fact? The shock and bitterness we suffered are too deep, too big…

But what can resurrect Japan from the ruins? It’s probably no different in any age, but for our country now, its territory reduced, its armaments abolished, its industry most likely sharply limited, it all comes down to scholarship and education: that is axiomatic. Such being the case, the meaning and mission of the university—the nation’s highest academic institution—have never been more important. …

Our true battle as scholars began the day the military laid down the sword.

First, every one of us must become a person of free and independent spirit. Where such people are born, a state increases its inner toughness and becomes strong… We needn’t necessarily lament having too little land or too much population. Where people of autonomous spirit dwell, the world and nature will let themselves be reclaimed by them… We were defeated, but we need not engage in the slightest flattery or obsequiousness. Let us stand resolutely and walk, eyes straight ahead…

Young people! Students! Have hope. Don’t lose sight of your ideals. Your ancestors never faced a more difficult time, but then no age was ever assigned a more glorious task, either.

Soon our comrades will return from the continent, from the islands of the South Pacific. The day isn’t far off when they will fill the lecture halls once again, burning with passion and ideals for rebuilding the homeland and diligent in their studies. However, when we think of those brilliant ones who will never return, we are infinitely sad. They all fought and died as warriors, bravely. They were warriors, but to their dying day they never discarded their dignity as scholars. They believed firmly and unswervingly that in the final analysis, it is truth and righteousness that revive a country. …

For people living the reality of that age, these words of Nambara’s were like manna; they took strong encouragement from these words and remember this statement of his even today.

In the immediate post-war age, Nambara’s words had astonishing power and sank into the hearts of a desolate people. Each time Nambara spoke in his official capacity, what he said got big headlines. It’s inconceivable for those who know only a much later day in which Tōdai presidents have lost virtually all influence on society, but in that chaotic era Nambara’s words had great power and guided society.

Ishiguro Takeo, who entered the Faculty of Law right after the war and later became an attorney, writes as follows:

            Professor Nambara became president of Tōdai in the winter of 1945, the year of defeat, and from then on decommissioned soldiers returned one after the other to the university. In the burned-out city of Tokyo, there was neither food nor lodging, and though we had come back alive, albeit in tattered military fatigues, we had no textbooks, no notebooks. …

At just this moment in time, President Nambara delivered his speeches, about once a month, in Yasuda Auditorium. February 1946—Empire Day; March—ceremony for the student-dead; April—University Founding Day and the emperor’s birthday; May—convocation for new students; September—graduation. Each was aimed at the Tōdai students, but the next day’s newspapers all ran the texts in full and reported on them, and they made a deep impression on students, educators, and intellectuals across the nation. The content of the speeches naturally varied with the ceremony but bespoke Nambara’s penetrating insights into the post-defeat reconstruction of the homeland and the future destiny of the nation; I remember he preached respect and yearning for scholarly truth and the importance of building character, with an emphasis on justice. …

Among his topics was “What Will Revive the Homeland,” and a small volume of his speeches was published under that title [Feb. 1947] and sold very well. I remember buying up, with difficulty, dozens of copies, taking them home with me; people thanked me, and we discussed it and agreed that a new day had dawned.[5]

The First Postwar Celebration of Empire Day

If we pick statements that had a particularly large impact, there is first of all the speech on Empire Day, February 11, 1945. In the imperial proclamation issued at the beginning of that year, the emperor had rejected his own godhood. The emperor himself declared that the idea, commonly accepted during the war, that he was a living god was an “empty concept.” For those who believed firmly that the emperor was a living god, this proclamation must have been the greatest of shocks, and Nambara turned this human-emperor statement into Japan’s religious reformation.

In those days Nambara said continually that the greatest cause that had driven Japan to war was the fact that the Japanese people as a whole were not yet independent spiritually. That was the reason Japan had followed mistaken leaders blindly. What had to happen first of all now was that each and every Japanese become independent spiritually. In the history of Europe, the Renaissance and the Reformation had made people independent spiritually. But modern Japan had experienced no comparable development. To rebuild Japan after the defeat, Japan too needed those two elements, and the emperor’s human-emperor statement would serve as that religious reformation.

During the war virtually all Japanese had venerated the emperor as a living god and offered up to him everything, even their lives. It was as if the people had all become fanatic emperor-worshippers. With the end of the war, fanaticism departed, and free speech blossomed. “Human-emperor proclamation” equals “Japan’s Reformation”: this analysis made even former believers in emperor worship think, “Indeed, that is true.”

The Asahi carried Nambara’s speech under banner headlines:


After the Manchurian Incident, the militarists and state-supremacists gained political control…the China War occurred, the Pacific War was begun, and events led in the end to today’s catastrophe and collapse. Things got to this point not only because of the distortions brought on by a few, but also because of the people’s profound internal shortcomings. … The development of independent human nature, the establishment of a consciousness of being human had not taken place, so the Japanese people were fooled by the false propaganda of the few and came to follow their lead blindly.

Seen in this context, the imperial declaration at the beginning of this year has very great historical significance. The emperor himself denied that he was a “living deity.”…

In the European Renaissance, religious reformation was carried out; in the same way, Japan too must have religious reformation. In Japan since the Meiji Restoration freedom of religion has been guaranteed, but it is merely a form and not integrated into the lives of the people. In Japan everything collapsed with the defeat. Given this situation, what will enable Japan to rise from the ashes? We have no alternative but to create a new history.

Japanese history lies in the creation henceforth of a history; it must involve a Shōwa Restoration in the true sense, a revolution in the Japanese spirit itself. This is…an intellectual religious reform of the people’s essence.

If the Japanese people remain in this state of stupefaction and exhaustion, what awaits us is the misery of slaves and finally the doom of the nation. … Life or death? Eternal shame or the recovery of freedom and independence? We stand now at that crossroads. Which we choose is up to you.

To this point, I’ve based myself on the articles in the Asahi in order to see things as ordinary people of the time saw them; but reading the original text, I learned that the speech spoke of far greater things. Nambara gave this speech with enormous fervor. He was keenly aware that this was an Empire Day speech coming right after the emperor’s proclamation that he was not a god. Formerly in all Japan’s schools, from primary schools to universities, Empire Day was celebrated with splendor. But this was right after the human-emperor proclamation, and in 1946 virtually all schools canceled the celebration.

However, Nambara, who had only just become president, celebrated Empire Day with fanfare: “At Tōdai, too—at the time, it was still Tokyo Imperial University—most people figured not to celebrate. But I said the opposite. Our country’s first-ever defeat, the first Empire Day thereafter—celebrate the national rite, but give it a new meaning. I wanted to use it to proclaim within and without the attitude of the university: what should the university do? I proposed to the deans that we hold the ceremony, and we agreed to do so. On that day we celebrated the holiday boldly, in a big way: Hinomaru flags fluttered at the Main Gate. Students packed Yasuda Auditorium.”

In Nambara’s own words, here is what he said:

I gave that speech the title ‘Creating a New Japanese Culture’ and called for the return of the nation’s self-esteem, its confidence. The historical issue—“Is it in fact the 2600-something-eth birthday?”—should await scholarly, empirical analysis, but we shouldn’t deny meaning to the nation’s myths, its traditions. The Japanese nation’s consciousness of a divine destiny and belief in the continuity of the nation—what we might call the people’s individuality—should not be lost. A nation that loses its individuality will die. At the same time, the psychological shortcomings of the Japanese nation up till now—that each person lacked the human consciousness of being an independent person, the absence of a human ideal—led to a unique concept of the kokutai and blind obedience to the few and became the great fundamental cause of the current war and the defeat. This situation calls for deep reflection. The fact that feudal spirit and system still exist in our country and society is the best evidence. Now is the hour Japanese should carry out a Renaissance and then a Reformation. The construction of a new Japan based on world universals, not nationalism in the narrow sense, the people shaping itself as a people and simultaneously as world citizens: shouldn’t today be Year One, when we set out on that course? That was the intent with which I wanted to celebrate Empire Day, a sense different from what had gone before. [6]

Citing the original text but putting it in the simplest possible terms, this is what Nambara said: Up till now, the militarists and ultra-statists who controlled Japanese politics had used Empire Day to take Japan’s national myths and “misuse them, twist them, boast of the people’s superiority, and propagandize that Japan has a destiny to rule East Asia and indeed the world.” The slogan of the Greater East Asian War—“the whole world under one roof”—meant the construction of a world empire, that is, a greater Japanese empire with the emperor at its apex. That was “nothing else but a dogmatic chosen-people concept, a vast delusion.” That mythical consciousness of the world led to the war, led Japan to catastrophe. The era of celebrating that sort of mythical Empire Day was over.

The emperor’s “human-emperor” proclamation at the beginning of that year was “the emperor’s own liberation from that sort of Japanese theology and from Shinto upbringing, a declaration of human independence.” At the same time, it was the liberation of the Japanese and Japanese culture. Liberation from what? In terms of the past, it was “liberation from Japanese theology;” in terms of the future, it might also be called “liberation toward a new ‘universality.’” Why? Till now Japanese culture has been shackled by something “national/religious,” but Japanese culture has escaped and gained the foundation that will allow it to become from now on a universal culture understood broadly throughout the world. “The human-emperor proclamation has provided the basis whereby the people can simultaneously be a people and shape themselves as world citizens.”

If you rethink Empire Day from this viewpoint, it should no longer be a day to celebrate 2000-some years since the mythical founding, but a day to celebrate the new birth of a reborn Japan that has discarded that past. Today is Year One of the reconstruction of the homeland. Our country’s history is not in the past but in the future. Japanese history will be built from now on. We have just begun the “‘birth of a country,’ united and new.” The road to this reconstruction of the homeland must be built atop a “revolution in the Japanese spirit itself, the creation of a new national spirit.” So we need to leave “the world of the Japanese spirit” in the national and religious frame it has occupied till now and enter the “world of universal human world religion.” To that end, we must start a “spiritual revolution—internal, intellectual, religious.” By passing through this spiritual revolution, we must make it possible for “lives once considered lighter than a feather and offered up to the state” to “contribute through the homeland to world humanity.” Via “the creation of a new Japanese culture and the building of Japan as moral state,” Japan can contribute to world culture and peace. Therein lies our nation’s awakening and new life. “Our nation has committed crimes,” but when we’ve reached that point, “it will be able to recover its honor before the world.” “We become able to rejoice at being born into this nation and to love this nation boundlessly.”

Nambara concluded the speech this way: “If we remain in this condition of stupefaction and exhaustion, what awaits us is the misery of slaves and finally the doom of the nation. If, on the contrary, you students come to your senses and confront this situation with hope and self-confidence, you’ll witness within your lifetimes the rise of a people unembarrassed before the world. … Life or death? Eternal shame or the recovery of freedom and independence? We stand now at that crossroads. Which we choose is up to your own free decision.”

This speech evoked a huge response. In Nambara Recollected, there is this exchange:

Fukuda: There was a large response, wasn’t there?

Nambara: The press made it a lead item. It dominated the metropolitan news pages—probably the first time in Japan that a university president’s speech got that sort of coverage. All things considered, Japan as a whole back then was in a state of utter chaos, so I think perhaps we can say it looked to my speech for direction. I got a lot of mail in response—sympathetic and encouraging letters.

The Spiritual Underpinning Nambara’s Speech Provided

The students who heard this speech as it was given were greatly moved. Kubota Kinuko, Nambara’s last disciple, reports she was unable to hear the speech that day herself but asked about it from a disciple who did. It changed her life:[7] “Excuse my talking of personal matters, but my family was huddled together—mother and children alone, with no means of support. The defeat and the social chaos that accompanied it were particularly tough. How to survive? The suffering of daily life was one thing, but even more than that, concern about the future weighed heavily, and we continued to suffer—alternately despairing and impatient. The long cold winter passed, and Empire Day came round. At the time my younger brother was a student in the Faculty of Medicine and came home from the university ceremony. … His face alight with excitement, he told me about the president’s speech that day. This was the great speech known later as Nambara’s Empire Day speech, “Creating A New Japanese Culture.” I was able to read it in the newspaper soon after, and I, who was tormented by all the uncertainty, found in it for the first time hope and something to live for. How many times since then have I reread that speech! My future and the reconstruction of the people: they lay, I was told, in my own hands, and I swore to the early spring sky that no matter how tough things were, I’d make it through cheerfully.” She writes that the people who listened to Nambara’s speech with these emotions became the true motive force of Japan’s recovery: “At the time, the Japanese were living an animal existence, in utter confusion, having been plunged into a state of exhaustion by the shock of defeat. In this speech Nambara preached in fiery words of a new national spirit—a spiritual revolution, internal, intellectual-religious. ‘Life or death? Eternal shame or the recovery of freedom and independence? We stand now at that crossroads. Which we choose is up to you.’ So many people took encouragement from those words, recovered strength and hope to live, regained self-confidence as a nation! In a sense, it’s no exaggeration to say that they became the motive force that brought about today’s Japanese economic development.” In Japan right after the war, this speech had the same effect as Fichte’s “Addresses to the German Nation,” which in 1807 called on the German people to have pride and rebuild a state that had been utterly and totally demolished by Napoleon’s armies, forced to cede territory, and was in the depths of destruction.

The speech at the ceremony of the emperor’s birthday on April 29 evoked a similarly strong reaction. The next day’s Asahi headlined it:


It gave the following report on its content. Although it’s clear that the emperor bears no legal or political responsibility, the emperor does bear moral responsibility. He bears responsibility toward his ancestors—the successive emperors before him—and toward the people. But at the same time Nambara speculated that it is the emperor himself who feels the responsibility most acutely of all and on some future day, of his own volition, he will accept that responsibility and abdicate: “It’s clear that in this recent war the emperor bears no responsibility politically and legally, but I suspect that the emperor feels moral and spiritual responsibility most strongly toward his ancestors and toward the people for the fact that such an enormous war arose in his reign and plunged the people into the terrible situation of total defeat, the first ever in Japanese history. His ministers do not recognize ministerial integrity and do not accept their responsibility, but the fact that alone among them, the emperor has his own consciousness of responsibility is an expression of the country’s supreme morality and the reason we venerate the imperial house as the heart of the people; from now on the spiritual cornerstone in rebuilding the homeland rests solely on this. He himself is fully aware of this, will bear up quietly under the difficulties, and I conjecture that as he leads this chaotic age of historic change toward constitutional revision and beyond, if possible, to the conclusion of a peace treaty, he will fulfill his own solemn duty. The emperor’s spirit leaves me in tears.” [8]

The Emperor’s Moral and Spiritual Responsibility

Nambara didn’t speak in a straightforward manner, so his point may be difficult to grasp. But if you read this speech with the emphases I’ve added, the emperor already feels his moral responsibility in full, and that intense sense of responsibility becomes the spiritual cornerstone of Japan’s reconstruction. Moreover, in order to make that responsibility clear, he will undoubtedly abdicate when the peace treaty is signed or at some other occasion. Because Nambara surmises this, his tears come unbidden. This is what Nambara was saying.

The expression was roundabout, so even though this was what he wrote, some may doubt whether that is its true meaning. But that Nambara argued openly for the abdication of the emperor was a fact well known to the people around him. For example, there is this passage in the autobiography of Abe Yoshishige, who at the time was close to Nambara. Abe too thought that the emperor should abdicate: “The emperor had issued the declaration of war and ordered the people to fight even at the cost of their lives; now, when everyone rejects the supposed meaning of this war, there is no way he can escape that responsibility. … Fortunately, the imperial house survived, but this has been from first to last the thought I cannot banish from my mind: in terms of the true relation between sovereign and subjects, the emperor should abdicate.” For this reason, Abe even went to the home of Senior Councilor Makino Nobuaki to ask him to appeal to the emperor to abdicate. In setting this episode down, he mentions that Nambara was of the same mind: “Nambara Shigeru set out clearly the argument in favor of abdication and talked to me, too. Thus, quite recently, when there was a proposal for Nambara to give a lecture in the emperor’s presence, Nambara said he wanted to talk with the emperor one-on-one; this was probably because he wanted to make that argument to the emperor. Whether this idea of Nambara’s reached the emperor’s ear or not, talk of his giving a lecture in the emperor’s presence came to an end.”

It does appear that it was Nambara’s intent to recommend abdication to the emperor in person. In fact, we don’t even need Abe’s account: Nambara stated clearly that he thought the emperor should abdicate. He explained first his reasons for going out of his way at Tōdai to commemorate the emperor’s birthday:[9] “Of course, even then, too, the thought existed—as one university’s way of handling the issue—of not commemorating the emperor’s birthday. But I took it upon myself to hold the ceremony. The motive was, first of all, to express the people’s esteem for the emperor for his human-emperor declaration, to offer heartfelt birthday congratulations. No emperor has ever had to bear as tragic a fate as his highness, this emperor. Soon after he was enthroned, the Manchurian Incident broke out, and from then on came a succession of wars. The young emperor had to bear both the May 15 Incident and the February 26 Incident. Then came the Pacific War and defeat. During that time, from first to last, he was at the center; indeed, he saved Japan from scorched earth and ashes. That I thought merited sincere congratulations from us as a university on the emperor’s birthday. That sense is half, the first half, of the lecture I gave on the emperor’s birthday.”

The other half, he said, lay in discussing how to think about the emperor’s moral responsibility. That was because of the reality that the Tokyo trial was finally nearing its end.[10] At the Tokyo trial, those sitting in the dock were the high officials who, under the Meiji Constitution, had the “duty to advise.” They “advised” in order that the emperor not bear legal responsibility. In all matters, they kept the emperor from making subjective decisions but in his stead made the actual decisions and advised him on the formal decisions to hand down. In other words, they were the people who were assigned to bear responsibility in lieu of the emperor. The trial’s decision would be handed down in short order. It would probably be one death sentence after another. The question was how the emperor should respond:

As for the other half, the Tokyo military tribunal was about to start. I wanted to state here, for myself, that legally and politically the emperor bore no responsibility at all for the war. I said here that the emperor had conducted himself throughout wholly in accord with the constitution. And I stated how much as an individual he had loved peace. … But at the same time I surmised that the emperor himself felt moral and spiritual responsibility. That was his statement at the time of accepting the Potsdam Declaration: “No matter what happens to me….” This was gut instinct on my part. With that clue, it was not difficult to surmise that, to that extent, the emperor—newly declared a human emperor—felt great responsibility. Moreover, the fundamental cornerstone of Japan’s reconstruction undoubtedly rested on moral responsibility, on the moral issue. That cornerstone needed the emperor himself to set aright the relation between sovereign and subjects.

In the final analysis, this was a problem for the emperor himself to decide, but as a practical matter, I spoke of wanting the cabinet ministers in particular to consider it in the near future as a major point of integrity. This was the second half of my intent in holding the commemoration of the emperor’s birthday.

The last part of this speech runs as follows: “At the same time, we hope that at this historical turning point, in the midst of tempestuous change and chaos, the emperor will provide the foundation for the monumental task and, as focal point of the nation’s moral and spiritual life, make clear the emperor’s righteousness. In this way, I hope, the spiritual bonds of the nation’s morality that have been severed will be joined and this void in our brilliant history filled. And having passed, it is true, through this great darkness, the emperor’s reign will become verily an age when the daybreak of Shōwa turns into the full light of day.” Here is the sense that at some future time the emperor should abdicate (make clear the emperor’s righteousness) and restore the trust between people and emperor. If that didn’t happen, Nambara was saying, wouldn’t the spiritual bonds between people and emperor remain severed? If that didn’t happen, wouldn’t that remain as a large, unfillable void in history?

This passage is very circuitous and difficult to understand, but in Nambara Recollected, Nambara speaks of the emperor’s war responsibility in very straightforward language: “This speech was also my critique of what the then conservative faction was saying: ‘one hundred million souls repenting.’ At a time when the whole country is at war, there’s no one without responsibility, even we who have positions in the university, and the people—of all classes. But even so, ‘one hundred million souls repenting’ is an evasion of responsibility: it means that no one takes responsibility. In responsibility there is naturally a hierarchy. Naturally, there is responsibility morally/spiritually for primary school teachers as teachers, university professors as professors, and especially the emperor who represented the country. The emperor himself actually said, ‘No matter what happens to me…’ I think this issue is one of very great significance. Isn’t it an issue that still remains today? Above all, millions of soldiers died in the emperor’s name. That is a problem. In addition, one more point: in postwar Japan the concept of political responsibility became very attenuated. This point, too, merits thinking about. The issue of the source of morality remains today as before. We must show that as Takagi says, ‘Power does not trump morality.’ Isn’t this something all people of conscience agree on?”

The War-Ending Effort of the Tōdai Seven

In fact, this issue of the emperor’s abdication had already been considered just before the war ended in the efforts to end the war of seven Tōdai professors, among them Nambara. The line that appears at the end of Nambara’s statement—“As Takagi says, ‘Power does not trump morality’”—is an expression stemming from that effort. (Takagi was a central figure in the war-ending machinations.)

Fukuda: At the time you seven professors were working to end the war, had you already considered the abdication of the emperor?

Nambara: Yes. We thought of it as the final step and mentioned it to Privy Seal Kido. But in the last analysis this was a matter for the inner circle, those close to the emperor, the cabinet of the time. Because, after all, the emperor awaits advice and proposals, and such a huge issue must be announced as the emperor’s own initiative.

Fukuda: I’ve also asked Takagi about this, and he says, “Power does not trump morality—we want to have the only source [of morality] demonstrated in this way; that is our hope.” Was that an idea you held in common?

Nambara: That’s something we’d long agreed on. Even today, I think that feeling probably still lurks in each of our hearts. It’s an issue for future historians: which course would have been better? I do think it’s important for Japan’s long-term future.

As Nambara says, this issue remains today. The issue of the war responsibility of the Japanese nation still hasn’t been addressed. That’s why visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese prime ministers continue to be the most sensitive problem in Japan’s relations with China and Korea.

Let’s leave talk of the war-ending effort for later, and return to our story. The last line of “Advice to Decommissioned Students,” which I quoted earlier, applies to the student-soldiers. As we can see from that line, the call-up of the students was Nambara’s single most bitter memory. Accordingly, soon after becoming president, Nambara himself presided over a “Ceremony for the Souls of Those Who Died in the War or at Their Posts” (March 30, 1946). In his declaration at that ceremony, Nambara spoke as follows:

And yet at the outbreak of the war that followed on the long war between China and Japan and finally sealed the nation’s doom, the atmosphere on this campus—despite the victories in the opening phases—was grave rather than light, and you were not stirred up. The children “piped to you, and you did not dance.”[11] … Because particularly those specializing in the study of philosophy, politics, law, and economics knew too well from the start how absurd and reckless it was. You simply attended quietly to your own realm, your duties as students, and that’s what we teachers had advocated, taught you to do.

However, once your student deferment ended and you were called up and, summoned to fight, you exchanged the pen for the sword and set out solemnly on that brave path. At that point, not one of all the students sought to evade his duty as subject by refusing to offer his life, as did happen in other countries. You all obeyed loyally the will and order of the state. Were we who had long argued in favor of that course right or wrong in doing so? I don’t know.

But you were different from ordinary soldiers who knew nothing. You were simultaneously soldiers and students. You didn’t fight aimlessly or with arbitrary and fanatical “absolute faith in victory.”[12] Although you were at odds, of course, with the determination that the war, once decided on, “had to be won,” you prayed above all for the victory of right and truth. However, right and truth unfortunately were not on our side, but instead on the side of England and the United States. It was not simply that “might makes right;” it was the clear “verdict of reason” in world history, and we had to receive that pronouncement grimly amid the intense grief of defeat. …

When I think back, some of you came in great haste to take your leave, saying you were off for the battlefield: that was our final parting. How many times we have wept over the letters you sent us, composed so earnestly at the front! … Occasionally we couldn’t resist the impulse to call out your names and plead your case to heaven and earth.

But in this war, such was the sacrifice our people had to pay—sacrifice to atone for our nation’s guilt. In place of your fellow-countrymen, you stepped forward to pay it and went with a smile to the land of the dead. It’s as if you are speaking to us. “Now is not the time to begrudge anyone or blame anyone. Let the entire university, the entire nation unite and set about the task of rebuilding the homeland. This is our eternal, earnest prayer.” Yes, we must construct the homeland anew atop your noble sacrifice. We must not let the homeland die.

In short, the war was the national crime the Japanese people committed, and the dead student-soldiers can only be thought of as a sacrifice to atone for that crime.

The Great Tokyo Air Raid: Turning Point

I want to quote one more speech, the much later “You Who Inherit the Legacy of the Students Who Died in the War” (1963), at the ceremony commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the call-up of the students. That’s because there Nambara went into greater detail about the line in his memorial speech, “Mourning the Students Who Died in the War:” “Were we who had long argued in favor of that course right or wrong in doing so? I don’t know.” He stated: “But the doubts and apprehensions about the war of most earnest students I knew were already serious even before the beginning of the Pacific War, from the time the Axis Alliance was signed [September 1940]. At that stage, as they awaited the time when they would all lay down their pens and take the field, how could we respond to their doubts and apprehensions about the war? How could we counsel them?

“For us professors, that was the most bitter, most difficult task in the whole war. I couldn’t say to them, ‘Act according to your own consciences even if that means refusing to obey the state;’ no, I didn’t say it. Had I said that, I should first have stood up myself and criticized the country’s war policy. On reflection, it may be that I myself, out of cowardice, lacked bravery; but on the other hand, down to the present I’m still uncertain that that was the right attitude to take.”

Nambara was not a man of action, and particularly after becoming a university man, he instinctively avoided actions that had political coloration. Even when he concerned himself with the unrest in the Faculty of Economics, it never became public. After the Faculty of Economics unrest, when Tanaka, Dean of the Faculty of Law, took responsibility and resigned, many voices called for Nambara to be his successor, but Nambara held firm and did not yield. To stay in the ivory tower and continue his research: that was Nambara’s personal wish.

These were his thoughts when he had to see off the students who were being called up, and they led to the reflection that “I was a coward and lacked courage.” On March 9, 1945, succumbing to the thought that from now on he ought to take a bit more action, he became Dean of the Faculty of Law. And he embarked at the same time on the surprisingly bold action of an effort to end the war. Of course, had the war-ending effort been exposed at the time, it meant the danger certainly of arrest and possibly of death. Yet fully aware of that danger, he undertook a plot. There was one more element in the background when he embarked on this bold act:[13]

The war was only getting fiercer. Then came March 9, and now the exceptional time was at hand: I must undertake some slight service. I think it’s okay to say that was my mindset in accepting the deanship. At the time, my thought was how to stop the war. At least as the Tōdai Faculty of Law and in our capacity as professors, wasn’t there something we could do, even in secret? I told no one, but I made that resolve and accepted the deanship.

But it happened that the next day—March 10—was the morning of the unprecedented great air raid. Virtually all traffic stopped; trains were moving, barely, on only one of the Tokyo lines. I got to the university, going as far as Ueno by streetcar. On the way home, I walked as far as Mejiro. The whole stretch from Hongo to Koishikawa was a burned-out wasteland. The smell of gunpowder was still strong, and corpses lay on the roadside, covered merely with straw mats. … That air raid deepened my conviction, my deep emotion: wasn’t there something I—dean of the Faculty of Law—and the Tōdai Faculty of Law could do, even if not in an official capacity?

  1. Tōkyō daigaku igakubu sembotsu dōsōsei tsuitaku kikin saishū hōkokusho.
  2. Kaikoroku.
  3. Tōkyō daigaku hyakunenshi.
  4. RHM: Full translations of this Nambara speech and the other speeches Tachibana cites are available in Richard H. Minear, ed. and tr., War and Conscience in Japan: Nambara Shigeru and the Asia-Pacific War (Lanham [Md.]: Rowman & Littlefield and Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2011).
  5. Newsletter accompanying Nambara’s Collected Works.
  6. Kaikoroku.
  7. Newsletter accompanying the Collected Works.
  8. Asahi, April 30; emphases added.
  9. Kaikoroku.
  10. RHM: This is Tachibana’s error. The Tokyo trial had only just begun; it delivered its verdicts in late 1948.
  11. RHM: Matthew 11:17. The topic is the unfriendly reception of John the Baptist, and Jesus says (RSV): “He who has ears to hear, let him hear. But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’”
  12. RHM: “Absolute faith in victory” was a wartime slogan. Nambara seems here to speak of the Pacific War as primarily against England and the U.S., thus eliding Japan’s China war.
  13. Kaikoroku.


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Tokyo University and the War by Tachibana Takashi & Richard H. Minear is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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