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Born April 29, 1901
Died January 7, 1989
124th emperor of Japan
Hirohito's reign as emperor of Japan—the longest of any monarch in modern times—was a period of great turmoil and change. Although he chose as the name for his reign the word "Showa," which means "Enlightened Peace," he ruled during one of the least peaceful periods in history. Hirohito's enemies considered him the head of a brutal, militaristic country and felt that he should be punished as a war criminal for atrocities (extreme cruelty and violence) committed by the Japanese military against Chinese citizens during World War II. But others now argue that Hirohito was powerless to prevent the war with the Allies, that he was not in charge of the military campaigns, and that he personally opposed the war. He was a shy, self-conscious person whose life had been devoted not to governing a country but to playing the mainly symbolic role of emperor.
A privileged but lonely childhood
Born at Aoynama Palace in Tokyo, Hirohito was the son of Crown Prince Yoshihito and grandson of Mutsuhito, known as the Meiji ("Enlightened Ruler") Emperor. His mother was Princess Sadako, a member of a family that had provided royal brides for many centuries. When he was less than three months old, Hirohito was sent to live with foster parents, the Count and Countess Kawamura Sumyoshi. In accordance with a long-standing custom, he was to be raised in a normal family away from the ceremonial trappings of palace life, and he was to be treated (and disciplined) like any other child of that family.
Count Kawamura Sumyoshi died when Hirohito was five years old, and the boy was returned to his parents' official residence, Akasaka Palace, which had been modeled after France's famous Versailles palace. But Hirohito and his two brothers rarely saw their parents. Growing up in the palace, he had little contact with children outside the family. Hirohito was a small, weak, very shy little boy with a shuffling walk and an extremely solemn manner.
Two schools for royalty
At the age of eight, Hirohito was sent to the Peers' School and became a member of a class of twelve boys whose parents were also members of the Japanese royalty. There he studied modern languages, military and technical sciences, politics, and history. He developed a special (and, as it turned out, lifelong) interest in marine biology, and when he complained that he could not conduct field work with so many servants and other people hanging around him, he was allowed to go out alone in a little boat to collect specimens. Hirohito's beloved headmaster, Count Maresuki Nogi, taught him to practice the values of discipline, hard work, loyalty, and bravery.
With the death of the Meiji Emperor, Hirohito's father took the throne and Hirohito became the crown prince. Hirohito graduated from the Peers' School in 1914 and went on to the Crown Prince's Institute, located right on the palace grounds. His class was made up of five other royal students. It was during these seven years of study that Hirohito expressed some doubt that his family really was descended from gods, a belief that was rooted in Shinto (the dominant religion) tradition.
Engagement and overseas travel
In 1918 Hirohito became engaged to Princess Nagako. This was a somewhat controversial match, because she was not a member of the famous bride-supplying family, like his mother. Nevertheless, after a six-year engagement (during which they met only nine times, and never without a chaper-one) the two were married. Over the years they had seven children (one of whom died at age two).
After graduating from the Crown Prince's Institute in 1921, Hirohito broke with tradition by becoming the first crown prince to go on a six-month tour of Europe. Following stops in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Cairo, he visited Belgium, France, and Italy. But his favorite place was England, where the family of King George V warmly welcomed the shy, bespectacled prince. Hirohito was especially impressed with Great Britain's constitutional monarchy, in which the role of royalty was mostly to put the stamp of approval on policies determined by other government leaders. This model strongly influenced Hirohito's ideas about his own role in Japan.
A reign of "enlightened peace"?
Returning from his journey in November 1921, Hirohito found his father in poor health, and he was appointed regent (acting emperor). Yoshihito died in late 1926, and Hirohito took the throne as the latest in a line of divinely descended emperors that stretched back more than two thousand years. He chose Showa, "Enlightened Peace," as the name of his reign. No longer was he to be treated as an ordinary mortal—now doctors used silk gloves when they treated him, tailors were not allowed to touch his body, and food tasters tested his food before he ate.
Soon after Hirohito became emperor, Japan's economy went into a slump. At the same time, the military was growing in strength and hoping to extend Japan's reach into other parts of Asia, especially China. Meanwhile, although Hirohito was emperor, his role in governing the country was limited to his silent attendance at "Imperial Conferences," where his presence meant that the "Imperial Will" approved of whatever policy was being discussed. Government matters were decided by the prime minister and other government and military leaders, without Hirohito's involvement. Hirohito did take a more active role on a few occasions. For instance, in 1936 he recommended quick and harsh punishment for some military officers and soldiers who had tried to take over the government.
Moving toward war
With Hirohito's approval, Japan went to war against China in July 1937; in fact, he took a great interest in the military conflict. In September 1939 Germany started World War II by invading Poland, and Japan's military leaders and aggressive prime minister, Hideki Tojo (1884-1948; see entry) began to make their own plans for war against the West. Their main target was the United States, which had been trying to stop Japan from expanding its empire. The Japanese military believed that through aggressive actions they could force the United States into allowing Japan to control East Asia.
During an Imperial Conference on December 1, 1941, Hirohito's advisors recommended going to war against the United States. He approved the plan, but he later said that this did not reflect his own wishes. Ever since his visit to Great Britain as a young man, Hirohito had believed in cooperation with Western powers, including the United States. But according to his own ideal of constitutional monarchy, he did not think it was his right to intervene; in later years, he wrote that he was also sure he would have been assassinated if he protested.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945; see entry) sent Hirohito a personal note on December 6, urging Japan to keep the peace. Tojo rejected the note, and Hirohito did not have a chance to reply. The next day, Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, destroying many ships and airplanes and killing thousands of people. Hirohito's request that the United States be given notice of the attack had been ignored, so it came as a complete surprise.
The war goes downhill
During the war, Hirohito remained on the palace grounds in Tokyo, despite frequent bombings by Allied planes. He was often confined to a stuffy, thick-walled air raid shelter that was adjacent to the royal library. By June 1942, Japan had suffered several major defeats in battle, and it appeared they might lose the war. Tojo wanted the Japanese people to try harder to win, so he began to mention the emperor often in his public announcements, calling on citizens to make sacrifices in Hirohito's name.
By the summer of 1945 it was obvious that Japan could not win the war, but many Japanese leaders wanted to continue the fight. On August 6, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, with immediate and devastating effects. Another bomb fell on Nagasaki on August 9, and on the same day Soviet forces (the Soviets were fighting with the Allies) invaded Japanese-held Manchuria in northern China.
In Tokyo, leaders debated about Japan's next step: surrender or keep fighting. Finally, in a meeting that took place in the emperor's air raid shelter, Tojo asked Hirohito to make the most important decision of his life. Convinced that Japan would be completely destroyed if the war continued, Hirohito chose surrender. His own fate, he knew, would be in the hands of whatever Allied commander led the forces that would occupy Japan.
Japan surrenders and rebuilds
At 7:21 A.M. on August 15, the Japanese people were informed that, for the first time in history, they were about to hear the voice of their emperor. In a poor but audible radio transmission, Hirohito told his people that they must "endure the unendurable" and surrender to the Allies.
The officer chosen to head the occupation government in Tokyo and to put Japan on the path toward a democratic society was U.S. general Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964; see entry). There had been much talk around the world about whether Hirohito would be tried as a war criminal, but MacArthur had already decided that Hirohito should not be punished—that his respected position with the Japanese people could be used to enforce the reforms that would have to be introduced.
Hirohito, however, did not know that MacArthur had already made a decision on this issue. He asked MacArthur to meet with him, and at their meeting made the following statement: "I come to you, General MacArthur, to offer myself to the powers you represent as the one to bear sole responsibility for every political and military decision made and action taken by my people in the conduct of the war."
MacArthur later wrote that he was "moved … to the very marrow of my bones" by "this courageous assumption of a responsibility" that could lead to Hirohito's death, since many war criminals were executed. The general informed Hirohito that he would not be held responsible for the war, but that he would play an important role in Japan's recovery. Over the next few years, the two men met often, and MacArthur gave Hirohito credit for helping his people adjust to a new kind of government and way of life.
Japan's new constitution abolished Shintoism as the official state religion, and on January 1, 1946, Hirohito made a public statement declaring that he was not a descendant of gods. (This was actually a relief to Hirohito, who considered himself a scientist and had never believed the myth anyway.) Instead, the emperor was now "a symbol of the state and of the unity of the people."
A peaceful twilight
During the rest of Hirohito's life, the Japanese government tried to bring the emperor into much closer contact with his people. Still shy, awkward, and self-conscious, Hirohito made many public appearances. He also found time for his study of marine biology; he published the first of his several books on the subject in 1962. In 1959, another long-standing Japanese tradition was broken when Hirohito's son, Crown Prince Akihito, married a woman who was a commoner (not royalty).
When Hirohito traveled to Europe in late 1971 and early 1972 (the first Japanese emperor to go abroad) he found that there were some people around the world who still considered him a war criminal. But he had a friendly reception from U. S. president Richard M. Nixon, whom he met during a stopover in Anchorage, Alaska. In 1975, Hirohito made an official state visit to the United States. He was given a Mickey Mouse watch as a gift, and this watch—along with his beloved microscope—was buried along with him when he died of stomach cancer in 1989.
Where to Learn More
Behr, Edward. Hirohito: Beyond the Myth. New York: Villard Books, 1989.
Crump, Thomas. Death of an Emperor: Japan at the Crossroads. Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1991.
Hoobler, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. Showa: The Age of Hirohito. New York: Walker, 1990.
Hoyt, Edwin P. Hirohito: The Emperor and the Man. New York: Praeger, 1992.
Mosley, Leonard. Hirohito, Emperor of Japan. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1966.
Powerless to prevent his country from entering World War II, Hirohito played an important role in Japan's surrender to the Allies in 1945.
The Shinto Religion
Shinto is the traditional religion of Japan. It has existed since ancient times, even before the arrival of Buddhism (another major religion practiced in Japan), and is still practiced today. After World War II, however, when a new constitution calledfor the separation of church and state and freedom of religion, the role of the Shinto religion in Japanese life changed.
Shinto involves the worship of a variety of gods and forces called kami, which are honored with ceremonies performed in shrines as well as festivals and other activities. The most important deity is Amaterasu, the "great heavenly illuminating goddess." Although there are no specific doctrines (official beliefs) or scriptures (written documents), followers of Shinto believe that their religion creates unity and harmony among the people of Japan.
From ancient times until the reign of Hirohito, Japanese emperors were considered direct descendants of Amaterasu, and their duties included not only political activities but religious service. In the nineteenth century, the Meiji government took steps to make Shinto a national religion (even though the Japanese constitution guaranteed freedom of religion) by building shrines, teaching about Shinto in public schools, and making Shinto festivals national holidays. By 1945, there were 218 national shrines in Japan.
At the end of World War II, an occupation government arrived in Japan to help the country rebuild itself as a democracy, which meant that church and state would have to exist separately. Hirohito had to announce to his people that he was not, in fact, a descendant of a Shinto goddess. The Japanese government had to break its ties (including giving public funds) with the shrines.
Some Japanese felt that this change went too much against Japan's cultural traditions, while others tried to find ways to keep the important role of Shinto in Japanese life strong without threatening religious freedom. By the 1980s, there were about 80,000 Shinto shrines in Japan, and about 75 million believers.
Hirohito (1901-1989) was the 124th emperor of Japan. He reigned during a period of internal turmoil, foreign expansion, international war, and national defeat, and presided over the transformation of the Japanese monarchy into a purely symbolic institution. As the occupant of Japan's throne for 63 years, he was the longest living monarch in modern history.
Childhood and Education
Hirohito was born on April 29, 1901. He was the first son of Crown Prince Yoshihito, who later became the Taisho emperor, and the grandson of Mutsuhito, the Meiji emperor. Following long-established custom, Hirohito was separated from his parents shortly after birth. He was cared for under the guardianship of a vice admiral in the imperial navy until November 1904, when he returned to the Akasaka Palace, his parents' official residence.
Even from early years, Hirohito was trained to act with the dignity, reserve, and sense of responsibility his future role would require. He grew into a shy and grave young boy. In April 1908 he was enrolled at the Gakushuin (Peers School) in a special class of 12 boys, among them two of his imperial cousins. The head of the school was Gen. Maresuke Nogi, a celebrated soldier of the Russo-Japanese War. He took a personal interest in the education of the young prince and attempted to instill in him respect for the virtues of stoicism, hard work, and devotion to the nation.
Appointed Heir to Throne
Hirohito was appointed heir apparent on September 9, 1912, shortly after the death of his grandfather Mutsushito and the accession of his father Yoshihito to the throne. Hirohito lost his mentor when Nogi and his wife committed ritual suicide on the day of Mutsuhito's funeral. His education was continued under another military hero, Adm. Heihachiro Togo, who had won the victory over the Russian navy in 1905. But Hirohito never became as close to Togo as he had been to Nogi. In his studies he also had little patience with his tutor in history, who taught that the early myth of the founding of Japan by the sun-goddess was historical fact. Skeptical by nature and scientific in his interest, he found natural history more to his liking. Under the guidance of his natural-history tutor, who remained a lifelong mentor, he began to develop an interest in marine biology, a field in which he became an acknowledged expert.
Crown Prince and Regent
On February 4, 1918, Hirohito became engaged to Princess Nagako, daughter of Prince Kuniyoshi Kuninomiya. Aritomo Yamagata and others raised objections to the match on the grounds that Nagako was descended from the daimyos of Satsuma, who had a strain of color blindness. The defect, they said, would taint the imperial line. But the imperial wedding finally took place on January 26, 1924. The imperial couple later had five daughters, the first born in December 1926, and two sons, the first born in December 1933.
In March 1921 Hirohito, accompanied by a large retinue, set off for a tour of Europe. The event was unprecedented, for it was the first time a crown prince of Japan had visited abroad. Although Hirohito traveled in France, the Netherlands, and Italy, his visit to England made the deepest impression on him. He was attracted by the freedom and informality of the English royal family. On Hirohito's first day at Buckingham Palace, King George V paid him an unexpected breakfast visit in suspenders and carpet slippers, and Edward, Prince of Wales, played golf with him and accompanied him on a round of official gatherings.
On November 25, 1921, shortly after his return to Japan, Hirohito was appointed to serve as regent for his father, who had begun to show increasing signs of mental derangement. In December 1923 Hirohito escaped an attempt on his life by a young radical.
Emperor of a Restless Nation
Hirohito acceded to the throne on December 25, 1926, and his formal enthronement took place in accord with ancient rituals in November 1928. He took as his reign name Showa ("Enlightened Peace"), and he was formally known as Showa Tenno.
The choice of reign name proved highly ironic for, shortly after Hirohito became emperor, Japan's relations with the outside world began to deteriorate. In 1927 Japanese army officers arranged the assassination of Marshal Chang Tso-lin, warlord of Manchuria, in hopes of provoking a Japanese takeover of the area. The young emperor, angered at the event, urged Premier Giichi Tanaka to discover and punish the culprits. He was equally indignant in September 1931, when elements in the Japanese army engineered the occupation of southern Manchuria under their own initiative. Encouraged by advisers like Count Nobuaki Makino and Prince Kimmochi Saionji, the Emperor privately urged moderation and caution on the army as it continued to deepen Japan's military involvement on the Asian mainland.
The Manchurian incident ushered in a period of profound domestic unrest. Dissident young military officers, often with the covert encouragement of their superiors, allied with civilian right-wing radicals to plot a series of unsuccessful coups d'etat and a number of successful assassinations. They hoped to overthrow party cabinets in order to establish a military regime that could govern in the name of "direct imperial rule."
Hirohito, however, believed himself to be a thoroughly human monarch, bound by the constitution his grandfather had promulgated in 1889. He saw himself as an organ of state rather than a personal autocrat and believed that the leaders of government should be men of moderation and non-militaristic in outlook.
During the military insurrection of February 26, 1936, when elements of the First Division occupied large areas of downtown Tokyo and assassination bands murdered many leading public officials, the Emperor urged swift suppression and punishment of the mutinous soldiers and the assassins. The uprising was crushed, and a number of ranking generals who were thought to have encouraged the rebels were forced into retirement.
Road to War
The country nevertheless continued its drift toward war. In July 1937 hostilities with China broke out. During the late 1930s Hirohito's advisers in the palace bureaucracy had urged him to remain aloof from direct intervention in politics lest he compromise the position of the imperial family. The Emperor followed this advice, giving his consent to whatever policies the increasingly belligerent governments decided upon.
There is every evidence that the Emperor felt uneasy about the unfolding of events, particularly after 1940. He did not favor the alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, but he made no effort to oppose it. Similarly, he had grown distrustful of the judgments of the military leaders who kept assuring him of a quick end to the war in China. But when the final decision on war with the United States was made on September 6, 1941, his opposition was confined to an oblique reference to one of his grandfather's poems, which expressed hope for peace.
During the war Hirohito refused to leave the imperial palace at Tokyo, even after air raids began to demolish the city and fires destroyed many buildings on the palace grounds. He wished to share the hardships of his subjects.
By the summer of 1945 it was clear to most informed public officials, including many military leaders, that defeat was inevitable. But the decision to surrender did not come until after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At a historic imperial conference on August 9, 1945, the Emperor made clear his determination to "endure the unendurable" and expressed his opinion in favor of surrendering to the Allies.
Following Japan's formal surrender in September 1945, there was much speculation about whether the Emperor would be punished as a war criminal. Hirohito himself frequently expressed his willingness to abdicate as a token of his responsibility for the war. But the American authorities, including Gen. Douglas MacArthur, decided that it would better serve the goals of domestic stability and internal reform of Japan to let him remain as ruler. On January 1, 1946, however, the Emperor once and for all gave up any claims to being a sacred monarch by issuing a rescript that denied his divinity as a descendant of the sun-goddess.
Emperor's Life as a Mortal
During the years of the occupation and afterward, every effort was made to "democratize" the throne by having the Emperor mingle with the people. At first, the Emperor was inept and ill at ease when he met his subjects. He won the nickname "Mr. Is-that-so?" because of his perfunctory comments on visits to factories and schools. Even though he was personally aloof and somewhat awkward in public, the Emperor nevertheless became a popular figure. Pictures of the imperial family and stories of their activities became steady grist for weekly magazine and newspaper copy.
A respected marine biologist with a number of books on that subject to his credit, the Emperor lived a modest, sober, and retiring life when not engaged in official functions. His son Crown Prince Akihito married a commoner in 1959, and the line of succession was assured through their son Prince Hiro. In 1972 Hirohito traveled to Europe and was met with hostile demonstrations. A 1975 trip to the United States resulted in a more friendly reception. Hirohito died on January 7, 1989, at the age of 87. Symbolic of his interest in science and in modernizing his country, Hirohito reportedly was buried with his microscope and a Mickey Mouse watch.
The most complete biography of Hirohito in English is by Leonard Mosley, Hirohito, Emperor of Japan (1966). A journalistic sketch of Hirohito was written during the war by Willard Price, entitled Japan and the Son of Heaven (1945). Reading on the troubled years of the 1930s is provided by Robert J. C. Butow, Tojo and the Coming of the War (1961), and James B. Crowley, Japan's Quest for Autonomy: National Security and Foreign Policy (1966). The Emperor's role in the surrender decision is related in Robert J. C. Butow, Japan's Decision to Surrender (1954).
In 1996, Time published two retrospective articles by Carl Posey about Hirohito's life: "The God-Emperor Who Became a Man" and "From Militarist to Beloved Monarch." Time, Oct. 21, 1996.
Large, Stephen S. Emperors of the Rising Sun: Three Biographies, Kodansha International, 1997 [biographies of Hirohito, his father, and his grandfather]. □
Hirohito was the 124th emperor of Japan. He reigned during a period of internal unrest, foreign expansion, international war, and national defeat. As the occupant of Japan's throne for sixty-three years, he was the longest living ruler in modern history.
Childhood and education
Hirohito was born on April 29, 1901. He was the first son of Crown Prince Yoshihito, who later became the Taisho emperor, and the grandson of Mutsuhito, the Meiji emperor. Following long-established custom, Hirohito was separated from his parents shortly after birth. He was cared for by a vice admiral in the imperial (of the empire) navy until November 1904, when he returned to the Akasaka Palace, his parents' official residence. Even after his return to the palace, he was only allowed to see his mother once a week and hardly ever spent time with his father.
From early on, Hirohito was trained to act with the dignity, reserve, and sense of responsibility his future role would require and he grew into a shy and serious young boy. In April 1908 he was enrolled at the Gakushuin (Peers School) in a special class of twelve boys. The head of the school was General Maresuke Nogi, a celebrated soldier of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05; a conflict with Russia over Manchuria and Korea). He took a personal interest in the education of the young prince and attempted to introduce him to respect the virtues of hard work, the importance of devotion to the nation, and the practice of stoicism (the ability to ignore pleasure or pain).
In 1912 Mutsishito died and paved the way for Hirohito's father Yoshihito to take the throne. Hirohito then began an intense study of natural history. Under the guidance of his natural history tutor, he developed an interest in marine biology, a field in which he became an acknowledged expert.
On February 4, 1918, Hirohito became engaged to Princess Nagako, daughter of Prince Kuniyoshi Kuninomiya. The imperial wedding finally took place on January 26, 1924. The imperial couple later had five daughters, the first born in December 1926, and two sons, the first born in December 1933.
In March 1921 Hirohito, accompanied by a large group of attendants, set off for a tour of Europe. Never before had a crown prince of Japan visited countries abroad. Although Hirohito traveled in France, the Netherlands, and Italy, his visit to England made the deepest impression on him. He was attracted by the freedom and informality (without ceremony) of the English royal family.
On November 25, 1921, shortly after his return to Japan, Hirohito was appointed to serve as regent (acting ruler) for his father, who had begun to show increasing signs of mental instability. In December 1923 Hirohito escaped an attempt on his life by a young radical.
Emperor of a restless nation
Hirohito took the throne on December 25, 1926. He took as his reign name Showa ("Enlightened Peace"), and he was formally known as Showa Tenno. However, the choice of reign name would not hold true. Shortly after Hirohito became emperor, Japan's relations with the outside world began to fall apart. In 1927 Japanese army officers, without the agreement of Emperor Hirohito, sparked conflict with Manchuria and later occupied parts of that country. Hirohito soon found his military deeply involved on the Asian mainland.
The Manchurian incident ushered in a period of serious unrest within Japan. Young military officers plotted a series of unsuccessful takeovers as well as a number of successful assassinations (secretly planned murders). They hoped to overthrow parts of the government in order to establish a military regime that could govern in the name of "direct imperial rule." In other words, Hirohito would still be called emperor and would be the head of the government, but the military would actually be in control. Hirohito, however, saw himself as part of the state rather than a sole ruler and believed that the leaders of government should be men of moderation and nonmilitaristic in outlook.
During the military revolt of February 26, 1936, elements of the First Division occupied large areas of downtown Tokyo, and assassination bands murdered many leading public officials. Emperor Hirohito urged swift end to the revolt and punished those involved. The uprising was crushed, and a number of ranking generals who were thought to have encouraged the rebels were forced into retirement.
Road to war
Nevertheless the country continued to drift toward war. In July 1937 hostilities with China broke out. During the late 1930s Hirohito's advisers in the palace urged him to stay away from direct involvement in politics or be forced to compromise the position of the imperial family. The emperor followed this advice, and agreed to whatever policies the governments decided upon.
There is every evidence that the emperor felt uneasy about the unfolding of events, particularly after 1940. He did not favor the alliance with Germany and Italy in World War II (1939–45), but he made no effort to oppose it. Similarly, he had grown distrustful of the judgments of the military leaders who kept assuring him of a quick end to the war in China. But when the final decision on war with the United States was made on September 6, 1941, he barely opposed it.
During the war Hirohito refused to leave the imperial palace at Tokyo, even after air raids began to demolish the city and fires destroyed many buildings on the palace grounds. He wished to share the hardships of his subjects.
By the summer of 1945 it was clear that defeat was at hand. But the decision to surrender did not come until after atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At a historic imperial conference on August 9, 1945, the emperor made clear his opinion in favor of surrendering to the allied powers led by the United States.
Following Japan's formal surrender in September 1945, there was much discussion about whether Emperor Hirohito should be punished as a war criminal. Hirohito himself frequently expressed his willingness to step down as a token of his responsibility for the war. But the U.S. authorities, including General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964), decided that it would better serve the goals of Japanese stability to let him remain as ruler. On January 1, 1946, however, the emperor once and for all gave up any claims to being a sacred ruler by issuing a law that denied his god-like status as a descendant of the sun goddess.
Emperor's life as a mortal
During the years of the occupation and afterward, every effort was made to "democratize" the throne by having the emperor mingle with the people. Even though he was personally distant and somewhat awkward in public, the emperor nevertheless became a popular figure. Pictures of the imperial family and stories of their activities became a steady part of weekly magazine and newspaper copy.
A respected marine biologist with a number of books on that subject to his credit, Emperor Hirohito lived a modest, sober, and retired life when not involved in official functions. In 1972 he traveled to Europe and was met with hostile demonstrations. A 1975 trip to the United States resulted in a more friendly reception. Hirohito died on January 7, 1989, at the age of eighty-seven. Symbolic of his interest in science and in modernizing his country, Hirohito reportedly was buried with his microscope and a Mickey Mouse watch.
For More Information
Bix, Herbert P. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.
Hoyt, Edwin Palmer. Hirohito: The Emperor and the Man. New York: Praeger, 1992.
Mosley, Leonard. Hirohito, Emperor of Japan. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966.
Severns, Karen. Hirohito. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
Hirohito privately but unsuccessfully opposed Japan's undeclared war with China, beginning in July 1937, and Japan's entry into the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in September 1940, fearing that this would lead Japan into an unwanted war with the United States and Great Britain. However, he was a nationalist, not the pacifist some accounts imply, and when the United States ended oil exports to Japan on 1 August 1941 in retaliation for Japan's military occupation of French Indochina, Hirohito eventually accepted that war was inevitable. That Japan formally declared war on the United States only after it attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 had not been his intention.
During the Pacific War, even as he publicly exhorted his countrymen to sacrifice their lives for victory, Hirohito instructed Prime Minister Tōjō Hideki to work for peace. Ironically, Hirohito may have prolonged the war, first by protecting the die‐hard Tōjō, upon whom he relied politically, from critics until Tōjō finally resigned in July 1944 following the fall of Saipan; and second, by advocating the last “decisive” Battle of Okinawa, which he hoped would strengthen Japan's position in any forthcoming peace negotiations.
Ultimately, when the war was clearly lost, but with the government deadlocked over whether to accept the Allies' Potsdam Proclamation (26 July 1945) calling for Japan's “unconditional surrender,” Hirohito personally intervened and Japan capitulated 15 August 1945. In September, when he first met Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander in Japan, Hirohito offered to take responsibility for the war. However, he was exempted from standing trial as a war criminal and retained on the throne so that the occupation could use his authority in the demilitarization and democratization of Japan. The new 1947 Constitution stripped him of all prerogatives, leaving a purely ceremonial role.
Despite Hirohito's formal apology for the war, made years later (1975) during a state visit to the United States, many Americans regard him as a controversial figure. However, there is no evidence that Hirohito knew in advance of, or sanctioned, the great many atrocities committed by Japanese forces during the Pacific War.
[See also Japan, Peace Treaty with; Pearl Harbor, Attack on; Potsdam Conference; World War II, U.S. Air Operations in: The Air War Against Japan; World War II, U.S. Naval Operations in: The Pacific.]
Toshiaki Kawahara , Hirohito and His Times: A Japanese Perspective, 1990.
Stephen S. Large , Emperor Hirohito and Shōwa Japan: A Political Biography, 1992.
Stephen S. Large
Hirohito was the emperor of Japan from 1926 to 1989. His reign encompassed a period of Japanese
militarism that resulted in Japan's participation in world war ii, the United States' dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the United States' military occupation of Japan following Japan's defeat. After World War II, Hirohito's authority changed, and he was reduced to a ceremonial figure.
Hirohito was born in Tokyo on April 29, 1901, and was educated in Japan. He became emperor on December 25, 1926, at a time when Japanese parliamentary government suggested that democracy and international cooperation would continue to grow. However, forces within the military sought to dominate the government and embark on a course of expansionism within Asia. Though he had private misgivings about the rise of militarism, Hirohito took no action to stop the generals. His advisers were concerned that imperial opposition would lead to the military overthrow of the monarchy.
As the 124th direct descendant of Japan's first emperor, Jimmu, Hirohito was considered sacred and was referred to as Tenno Heika, meaning "son of heaven." Because Hirohito was unwilling to exercise his divine authority against the military, the Japanese army invaded China in 1937 and in 1940 joined in a military alliance with the Axis powers. The alliance led to Japan's participation in World War II and its attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States on December 7, 1941.
The attack on the United States led to severe consequences for Japanese Americans. On February 19, 1942, President franklin d. roosevelt issued executive order No. 9066, forcing the relocation of all 112,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast (including 70,000 U.S. citizens) to detention camps in places such as Jerome, Arkansas, and Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Roosevelt issued the order after U.S. military leaders, worried about a Japanese invasion, argued that national security required such drastic action.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the forced relocation in korematsu v. united states, 323 U.S. 214, 65 S. Ct. 193, 89 L. Ed. 194 (1944). Justice hugo l. black noted that curtailing the rights of a single racial group is constitutionally suspect, but in this case military necessity justified the exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. In retrospect historians have characterized the removal and detention as the most drastic invasion of individual civil rights by the government in U.S. history.
Hirohito gradually became more open, within the inner circles of government, about his desire to end the war, especially after the United States inflicted numerous military defeats on Japan. But many members of the military wished to fight until the very end. With the United States' dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, Hirohito pushed for the surrender of Japan. On August 15 he broadcast Japan's surrender to the Allied forces. He broadcast to the Japanese people additional messages that were credited for the smooth transfer of power from Japan to the U.S. military occupation force, under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur.
Although Hirohito was implicated in Japanese war plans, he was exonerated in the war crimes trials of 1946–48. He had changed the importance of the monarchy in 1946, when he publicly renounced his divine authority. The 1947 constitution that was written for Japan by MacArthur and his advisers had transformed Hirohito from a sovereign with supreme authority into a "symbol of the state," and placed control of the government in the hands of elected officials. Hirohito had endorsed the change, which reduced the emperor to a ceremonial figure.
Hirohito embraced the ceremonial role. He traveled widely and became more accessible. He also pursued his interest in marine biology. He died on January 7, 1989.
Bix, Herbert P. 2000. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. New York, N.Y.: HarperCollins.
Executive Order No. 9066. 1942. Federal Register 7:1407.
Hirohito (hērō´hētō), 1901–89, emperor of Japan. He was made regent in 1921 and succeeded his father, Yoshihito (the Taishō emperor), in 1926. He married (1924) Princess Nagako Kuni (1903–2000); a son and heir, Prince Akihito, was born in 1933. For 20 years he reigned as sovereign as Japan went to war in China and the Pacific, and in 1945 he made an unprecedented radio broadcast announcing Japan's unconditional surrender to the Allies. Under Allied occupation, he retained the throne, but was transformed from imperial sovereign to democratic symbol. The constitution of 1946 made him
"symbol of the state and of the unity of the people,"
and he became familiar as a marine biologist, family figure, and greeter of foreign heads of state. His Showa (
) reign was the longest and one of the most turbulent in Japan's history.
See D. Irokawa, The Age of Hirohito (1995); H. P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (2000).