His reign was the longest of all Japanese emperors, and oversaw the greatest changes to Japanese society.
He was born at the Aoyama Palace in Tokyo, the first son of then Crown Prince Yoshihito and then-Crown Princess Sadako. His childhood title was Michi no miya (Prince Michi). He became heir apparent upon the death of his grandfather, the Emperor Meiji, on July 30, 1912. His formal investiture as Crown Prince took place on November 2, 1916.
He attended the boy’s department of Gakushuin Peer’s School from 1908 to 1914 and then a special institute for the Crown Prince (Tōgū-gogakumonsho) from 1914 to 1921. On November 29, 1921, he became regent of Japan, in place of his ailing father. In 1922, Prince Regent Hirohito took a six month tour of the United Kingdom and five other European countries (France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Vatican) thus becoming the first Japanese crown prince to travel abroad.
He married his distant cousin Princess Nagako, the eldest daughter of Prince Kuni Kuniyoshi, on January 26, 1924. There were seven children from the marriage:
- Princess Teru (Teru no miya Shigeko), b. December 9, 1925, d. July 23, 1961; m. October 10 1943 Prince Morihiro (b. May 6, 1916, d. February 1, 1969), the eldest son of Prince Higashikuni Naruhiko and his wife, Princess Toshiko, the eighth daughter of Emperor Meiji; lost status as imperial family members, October 14, 1947.
- Princess Hisa (Hisa no miya Sachiko), b. September 10, 1927, d. March 8, 1928.
- Princess Taka (Taka no miya Kazuko), b. September 30, 1929, d. May 26, 1989; m. May 5, 1950 Mr. Takatsukasa Toshimichi (b. August 26, 1923, d. January 27, 1966), eldest son of Takatsukasa Nubusuke [peer].
- Princess Yori (Yori no miya Atsuko), b. March 7, 1931; m. October 10, 1952 Mr. Ikeda Takamasa (b. October 21, 1927), eldest son of former Marquis Ikeda Nobumasa.
- Crown Prince Akihito (now HM The Emperor), b. December 23, 1933; m. April 10, 1959 Miss Shoda Michiko (b. October 20, 1934), elder daughter of Mr. Shoda Hidesaburo, former president and chairman of Nisshin Flour Milling Company.
- Prince Hitachi (Hitachi no miya Masahito), b. November 28, 1935; m. October 30, 1964 Miss Tsugaru Hanako (b. July 19, 1940), fourth daughter of former Count Tsugaru Yoshitaka.
- Princess Suga (Suga no miya Takako), b. March 2, 1939; m. March 3, 1960 Mr. Shimazu Hisanaga, son of former Count Shimazu Hisanori.
On December 25, 1926, upon the death of his father Yoshihito, he succeeded to the throne and was entitled Shōwa (Enlightened Peace). He was crowned emperor on November 10, 1928 in Kyoto. The new emperor had the distinction of being the first Japanese monarch in several hundred years whose biological mother was his predecessor’s official wife.
The first part of Hirohito’s reign as sovereign (between 1926 and 1945) took place against a background of increasing military power within the government, through both legal and extralegal means. The Japanese Imperial Army and Imperial Navy had held veto power over the formation of cabinets since 1900, and between 1921 and 1944 there were no less than 64 incidents of right-wing political violence.
One notable case was the assassination of moderate Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai in 1932, which marked the end of any real civilian control of the military. This was followed by an attempted military coup in February 1936, mounted by junior Army officers; it was occasioned by a loss of ground by the militarist faction in Diet elections. The coup resulted in the murder of a number of high government and Army officials, and was put down with Hirohito angrily assuming a major role in confronting them.
Still, from the 1930s on, the military clique held almost all political power in Japan, and pursued policies that eventually led Japan to fight the second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.
World War IIIn the immediate aftermath of the war, many believed that the Shōwa Emperor was an evil mastermind behind the war while others claimed that he was simply a powerless figurehead. Many people in China, Taiwan, Korea and South-East Asia see Hirohito as Asia’s Hitler of World War II, and some feel he should have been tried for war crimes. Because of this, many Asians residing in countries that were victims of Japanese aggression retain a hostile attitude towards the Japanese Imperial Family. The central question is how much real control Hirohito had over the Japanese military during the two wars. The view promoted by both the Japanese Imperial Palace and the American occupation forces immediately after World War II had Hirohito behaving strictly according to protocol, remaining at a distance from the decision making processes. On the other hand, Herbert Bix has recently produced a large amount of evidence suggesting that the emperor worked through intermediaries to exercise a great deal of control over the military, and that he was, in fact, the prime mover of most of the events of the two wars.
On September 4, 1941, the Japanese Cabinet met to consider the war plans prepared by Imperial General Headquarters, and decided that:
Our Empire, for the purpose of self-defence and self-preservation, will complete preparations for war … [and is] … resolved to go to war with the United States, Great Britain and the Netherlands if necessary. Our Empire will concurrently take all possible diplomatic measures vis-a-vis the United States and Great Britain, and thereby endeavor to obtain our objectives … In the event that there is no prospect of our demands being met by the first ten days of October through the diplomatic negotiations mentioned above, we will immediately decide to commence hostilities against the United States, Britain and the Netherlands.
The “objectives” to be obtained were clearly defined: a free hand to continue with the conquest of China and South-east Asia, no increase in US or British military forces in the region, and cooperation by the West “in the acquisition of goods needed by our Empire”.
On September 5, Prime Minister Konoe informally submitted a draft of the decision to the Emperor, just one day in advance of the Imperial Conference at which it would be formally implemented. According to the traditional view (again, contradicted by Bix’s research), Hirohito was deeply concerned by the decision to place “war preparations first and diplomatic negotiations second” and announced his intention to break with centuries-old protocol and, at the Imperial Conference on the following day, directly question the chiefs of the Army and Navy general staffs, a quite unprecedented action. Konoe quickly persuaded Hirohito to summon them for a private conference instead, at which the Emperor made it plain that a peaceful settlement was to be pursued “up to the last”. Chief of Naval General Staff Admiral Osami Nagano, a former Navy Minister and vastly experienced, later told a trusted colleague “I have never seen the Emperor reprimand us in such a manner, his face turning red and raising his voice.”
Nevertheless, all speakers at the Imperial Conference were united in favour of war rather than diplomacy. Baron Yoshimichi Hara, President of the Imperial Council and the Emperor’s representative, then questioned them closely, producing replies to the effect that war would only be considered as a last resort from some, and silence from others.
At this point, the sovereign astonished all present by addressing the conference personally, and in breaking the tradition of Imperial silence left his advisors “struck with awe”. (Prime Minister Konoe’s description of the event.) Emperor Hirohito stressed the need for peaceful resolution of international problems, expressed regret at his ministers’ failure to respond to Baron Hara’s probings, and recited a poem written by his grandfather, the Emperor Meiji which, he said, he had read “over and over again”:
Methinks all the people of the world are brethren, then. Why are the waves and the wind so unsettled nowadays?
Recovering from their shock, the ministers hastened to express their profound wish to explore all possible peaceful avenues. The war preparations continued without the slightest change, however, and within weeks Cabinet would replace the insufficiently belligerent Konoe with the hard line General Hideki Tojo, chosen by Hirohito. On December 8 (December 7 in Hawaii) 1941, in simultaneous attacks, Japanese forces struck at the US Fleet in Pearl Harbor and began the invasion of South-East Asia. From here, there was no turning back.
Whatever his actual involvement leading up to hostilities, with the nation now fully committed to the war, Emperor Hirohito took a keen interest in military progress and did all he could to boost morale. To begin with, the news was all good. As the tide of war gradually began to turn (around late 1942 and early 1943), some people argue that the flow of information to the palace gradually began to bear less and less relation to reality, while others suggest that the emperor worked closely with Prime Minister Tojo, continued to be well and accurately briefed by the military, and knew Japan’s military position precisely right up to the point of surrender. In the first six months of war, all the major engagements had been victories. Throughout the following years, the sequence of drawn, and then decisively lost engagements were also reported to the public as great victories. Only gradually did it become apparent to the people in the home islands that the situation was very grim. U.S. air raids on the cities of Japan starting in 1944 made a mockery of the unending tales of victory.
Last days of the war
In early 1945, in the wake of the loss of Leyte, the Emperor began a series of individual meetings with senior government officials to consider the progress of the war. All but one advised continuing. The exception was ex-Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe, who feared a communist revolution even more than defeat and urged a negotiated surrender. Hirohito took the view that peace was essential but that the armed forces would have to engineer a conspicuous military victory somewhere in order to provide a stronger bargaining position. With each passing week this became less likely. Japan’s ally Germany was defeated in May 1945. In April the Soviet Union issued notice that it would not renew its neutrality agreement. In June, the cabinet reassessed the war strategy, only to decide more firmly than ever on a fight to the last man. This was officially affirmed at a brief Imperial Council meeting, to which the Emperor listened in stony-faced silence.
The following day, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Koichi Kido prepared a draft document which summarised the hopeless military situation and proposed a negotiated settlement. According to some sources, the Emperor privately approved of it and authorised Kido to circulate it discreetly amongst the less hawkish cabinet members; others suggest that the Emperor was indecisive, and that the mixed signals from the palace delayed the peace process, costing many tens of thousands of Japanese and Allied lives. By mid-June the cabinet had agreed to approach the Soviet Union to act as a mediator, though not before the bargaining position had been improved by a repulse of the coming Allied invasion of mainland Japan.
On June 22, Hirohito broke tradition once again to speak to his ministers, saying “I desire that concrete plans to end the war, unhampered by existing policy, be speedily studied and that efforts be made to implement them.” The attempt to negotiate a peace via the Soviet Union came to nothing: the Allies were determined not to settle for anything short of “unconditional surrender”, and as late as July 1945 neither the Emperor nor his government were prepared to consider that option: they insisted on at least one condition, a guarantee of the emperor’s continuing position in Japanese society.
On August 15, 1945, following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the entry of the Soviet Union into the war against Japan, Hirohito, after more hesitation, abandoned the condition of preserving his own position and finally made the radio broadcast announcing the unconditional surrender of Japan’s military forces (known as Gyokuon-hōsōō). Despite pressures to try him for war crimes by numerous leaders, among them President Harry S. Truman, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur insisted that Hirohito remain Emperor to keep him as a symbol of continuity and cohesion of the Japanese people. Hirohito was spared trial and retained the throne, but Hirohito was forced to explicitly reject (in the Ningen-sengen (人間宣言, lit. “declaration of human being”) the traditional claim that the Emperor of Japan was divine; a descendant of the Sun Goddess. According to the Japanese constitution of 1889, Hirohito had a divine power over his country, which was derived from the mythology of the Japanese Imperial Family who were the offspring of the creator of Japan or Amaterasu. The imperial title was thus transformed from ‘imperial sovereign’ to ‘constitutional monarch’ in 1946. It should, however, be noted that immediately after this explicit repudiation of divinity, he implicitly reaffirmed it by asking the occupation authorities for permission to worship an ancestress and then worshipping the Sun Goddess; this reaffirmation would have been comprehensible to all Japanese though not necessarily by the occupation authorities.
Although Hirohito was forced to reject any claims to his own divine status, his status was deliberately left vague, partly because General MacArthur thought him likely to be a useful tool to get the Japanese to accept the occupation, and partly due to behind-the-scenes maneuverings by Yoshida Shigeru to thwart MacArthur’s attempts at casting Hirohito as a European-style monarch. While Hirohito was usually seen as a head of state, there is still a broad dispute about whether he became a mere citizen or something else. Many scholars claim that today’s tennō (usually translated into Emperor of Japan in English) is not an emperor. That view determines whether Japan is a democratic republic or a constitutional monarchy.
Regardless, until his death in 1989, Hirohito was an active figure in Japanese life, and performed many of the duties we commonly associate with a figurehead head of state. The emperor and his family maintained a strong public presence, often holding public walkabouts and making public appearances on special events and holidays. He also played an important role in rebuilding Japan’s diplomatic image, traveling abroad to meet with many foreign leaders, including numerous American presidents and Britain’s Elizabeth II.
In his lifetime, he was interested in marine biology, and the Imperial Palace contained a laboratory from which Hirohito published several papers in the field.