At the imperial conferences Hirohito presided over and approved decisions impacting not only the destiny of Japan but of China and other countries affected by Japanese policy. Since these conferences were usually convened after the liaison conferences [between the top government and military leaders], at which all the interested parties had reached decisions in which the emperor shared [passively or actively?--J.], he already knew the contents of the matters to be "decided." Essentially the imperial conference was designed to allow him to perform as if he were a pure constitutional monarch, sanctioning matters only in accordance with his advisers' advice but not bearing responsibility for his action [so in this context "sanctioning" = rubberstamping--J.]. At these meetings, civilian ministers wore morning clothes and military officers full-dress uniforms. The theatrical element of these affairs should not obscure their great importance, however. Nor were all imperial conferences the same, and the emperor's lips were not sealed at all of them [so they *were* sealed at most of them?--J.].SOURCE: Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, by Herbert P. Bix (HarperCollins, 2000), pp. 328-329
The imperial conference was the device for legally transforming the "will of the emperor" into the "will of the state." And because everyone who participated in its deliberations could claim to have acted by, with, and under the unique authority of the emperor, while he could claim to have acted in accordance with the advice of his ministers of state, the imperial conference diffused lines of responsibility. In that sense it was the perfect crown to the Japanese practice of irresponsibility, for it sustained four separate fictions: (a) that the cabinet had real power; (b) that the cabinet was the emperor's most important advisory organ; and (c) that the cabinet and the military high command had reached a compromise agreement on the matter at hand, providing the emperor with a policy that he (d) was merely sanctioning as a passive monarch [so here too "sanctioning" = rubberstamping--J.]. Reality was quite different: a powerless cabinet, an emasculated constitution, and a dynamic emperor participating in the planning of aggression and guiding the process, by a variety of interventions that were often indirect but in every instance determining. [Notice any actors missing from the "reality"? That's right! A dynamic military planning its own aggressions--not just "participating in" the planning--and directly or indirectly forcing the government to react with new policies that ranged from bad to worse.--J.]
Look, I have no interest in excusing Hirohito for his manifest sins of omission, and am fully prepared to believe that he exercised malignant leadership on many occasions. (Nor do I care one way or the other whether the Japanese imperial throne is preserved or abolished.) But I just find Bix's arguments to be more tendentious than convincing when he tries to make the case that Hirohito was a more active than passive sinner.
POSTELECTION AFTERTHOUGHT: It's interesting how much criticism newly (and overwhelmingly) reaffirmed Prime Minister Koizumi gets for *not* making decisions in the unaccountable backroom manner described above, which has long characterized Japanese politics.