Hideki Tojo

Hideki Tojo at War Crimes Tribunal, 1947
Hideki Tojo on the dock at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, 1947. Archives / Getty Images

On December 23, 1948, the United States executed a frail, bespectacled man of almost 64 years.  The prisoner, Hideki Tojo, had been convicted of war crimes by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, and he would be the highest-ranking officer from Japan to be executed.  To his dying day, Tojo maintained that "The Greater East Asia War was justified and righteous."  However, he did apologize for the atrocities commited by Japanese troops during the Second World War.

 

Who was Hideki Tojo?

Hideki Tojo (December 30, 1884 - December 23, 1948) was a leading figure of the Japanese government as a general of the Imperial Japanese Army, leader of the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, and 27th Prime Minister of Japan from October 17, 1941 to July 22, 1944. It was Tojo who, as Prime Minister, was responsible for ordering the attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. The day after the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan, officially bringing the United States into World War II.   

Hideki Tojo was born in 1884 to a military family of samurai descent. His father was one of the first generation of military men since the Imperial Japanese Army had replaced samurai warriors after the Meiji Restoration.  Tojo graduated with honors from the army war college in 1915 and quickly climbed the military ranks. He was known within the army as "Razor Tojo" for his bureaucratic efficiency, strict attention to detail, and unwavering adherence to protocol.

He was extremely loyal to the Japanese nation and the army, and in his rise to leadership within Japan's military and government he became a symbol for Japan's militarism and parochialism. With his unique appearance of close-cropped hair, mustache, and round eyeglasses he became the caricature by Allied propagandists of Japan's military dictatorship during the Pacific war.

 

At the end of World War II, Tojo was arrested, tried, sentenced to death for war crimes, and hanged.

Early Military Career

In 1935, Tojo assumed command of the Kwangtung Army's Kempetai or military police force in Manchuria.  The Kempetai was not an ordinary military police command - it functioned more like a secret police, such as the Gestapo or the Stassi. In 1937, Tojo was promoted once more to Chief of Staff of the Kwangtung Army. July of that year saw his only actual combat experience, when he led a brigade into Inner Mongolia. The Japanese defeated Chinese Nationalist and Mongolian forces, and established a puppet state called the Mongol United Autonomous Government.

By 1938, Hideki Tojo was recalled to Toyko to serve as army vice minister in the Emperor's Cabinet.  In July of 1940, he was promoted to army minister in the second Fumimaroe Konoe government.  In that role, Tojo advocated an alliance with Nazi Germany, and also with Fascist Italy. Meanwhile relations with the United States worsened as Japanese troops moved south into Indochina. Although Konoe considered negotiations with the United States, Tojo advocated against them, espousing war unless the United States withdrew its embargo on all exports to Japan.

 Konoe disagreed, and resigned. 

Prime Minister of Japan

Without giving up his post of army minister, Tojo was made the prime minister of Japan in October 1941.  At different points during World War II, he would also serve as the minister of home affairs, education, munitions, foreign affairs, and commerce and industry.  

In December of 1941, Prime Minister Tojo gave the green light to a plan for simultaneous attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Thailand; British Malaya; Singapore; Hong Kong; Wake Island; Guam; and the Philippines.  Japan's rapid success and lightning-fast Southern Expansion made Tojo immensely popular with the ordinary people.

Although Tojo had public support, was hungry for power, and was adept at gathering the reins into his own hands, he never was able to establish a true fascist dictatorship like those of his heros, Hitler and Mussolini.

 The Japanese power structure, headed by the emperor-god Hirohito, prevented him from attaining complete control.  Even at the height of his influence, the court system, the navy, industry, and of course Emperor Hirohito himself remained outside of Tojo's control.

 In July of 1944, the tide of war had turned against Japan and against Hideki Tojo.  When Japan lost Saipan to the advancing Americans, the emperor forced Tojo out of power.  After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, and Japan's surrender, Tojo knew that he would likely be arrested by the American Occupation authorities.

Trial and Death

As the Americans closed in, Tojo had a friendly doctor draw a large charcoal X on his chest to mark where his heart was.  He then went into a separate room and shot himself squarely through the mark.  Unfortunately for him, the bullet somehow missed his heart and went through his stomach instead.  When the Americans arrived to arrest him, they found him laying on a bed, bleeding profusely.  "I'm very sorry that it is taking me so long to die," he told them.  The Americans rushed him to emergency surgery, saving his life.

Hideki Tojo was tried before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East for war crimes.  In his testimony, he took every opportunity to assert his own guilt, and claimed that the Emperor was blameless.  This was convenient for the Americans, who had already decided that they did not dare hang the Emperor for fear of a popular revolt.

 Tojo was found guilty of seven counts of war crimes, and on November 12, 1948, he was sentenced to death by hanging.

Tojo was hanged on December 23, 1948.  In his final statement, he asked the Americans to show mercy to the Japanese people, who had suffered devastating losses in the war, as well as the two atomic bombings.  Tojo's ashes are divided between the Zoshigaya Cemetery in Tokyo and the controversial Yasukuni Shrine; he is one of fourteen class A war criminals enshrined there.