Emperor Hirohito of Japan

Emperor Hirohito in 1935.

Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Hirohito, also known as the Emperor Showa, was Japan's longest-serving emperor (r. 1926 - 1989). He ruled the country for just over sixty-two extremely tumultuous years, including the build-up to World War II, the war era, post-war reconstruction, and Japan's economic miracle. Hirohito remains an extremely controversial figure; as the leader of the Empire of Japan during its violently expansionist phase, many observers considered him a war criminal. Who was Japan's 124th emperor?

Early Life

Hirohito was born on April 29, 1901, in Tokyo, and was given the name Prince Michi. He was the first son of the Crown Prince Yoshihito, later Emperor Taisho, and Crown Princess Sadako (Empress Teimei). At the age of just two months, the infant prince was sent away to be raised by Count Kawamura Sumiyoshi's household. The count passed away three years later, and the little prince and a younger brother returned to Tokyo.

When the prince was eleven years old, his grandfather, Emperor Meiji, died and the boy's father became the Emperor Taisho. The boy now became the heir apparent to the Chrysanthemum Throne and was commissioned into the army and the navy. His father was not healthy and proved a weak emperor compared with the illustrious Meiji Emperor.

Hirohito went to a school for children of the elites from 1908 to 1914, and the went into special training as the crown prince from 1914 to 1921. With his formal education completed, the Crown Prince became the first in Japanese history to tour Europe, spending six months exploring Great Britain, Italy, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. This experience had a powerful effect on the 20-year-old Hirohito's worldview, and he often preferred western food and clothing afterward. 

When Hirohito returned home, he was named as Regent of Japan on November 25, 1921. His father was incapacitated by neurological problems, and could no longer rule the country. During Hirohito's regency, a number of key events took place including the Four-Power Treaty with the US, Britain, and France; the Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1, 1923; the Toranomon Incident, in which a communist agent tried to assassinate Hirohito; and the extension of voting privileges to all men 25 and older. Hirohito also married the imperial princess Nagako in 1924; they would have seven children together.

Emperor Hirohito

On December 25, 1926, Hirohito took the throne following his father's death. His reign was declared the Showa era, meaning "Enlightened Peace"—this would turn out to be a wildly inaccurate name. According to Japanese tradition, the emperor was a direct descendant of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, and thus was a deity rather than an ordinary human being. 

Hirohito's early reign was extremely turbulent. Japan's economy fell into crisis even before the Great Depression hit, and the military assumed greater and greater power. On January 9, 1932, a Korean independence activist threw a hand grenade at the emperor and nearly killed him in the Sakuradamon Incident. The prime minister was assassinated the same year, and an attempted military coup followed in 1936. The coup participants murdered a number of top government and Army leaders, prompting Hirohito to demand that the Army crush the rebellion.

Internationally, this was also a chaotic time. Japan invaded and seized Manchuria in 1931, and used the pretext of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937 to invade China proper. This marked the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Hirohito did not lead the charge in to China, and was concerned that the Soviet Union might oppose the move, but did offer suggestions about how to carry out the campaign.

World War II

Although in the aftermath of the war, Emperor Hirohito was depicted as a hapless pawn of the Japanese militarists, unable to stop the march into full-scale war, in fact he was a more active participant. For example, he personally authorized the use of chemical weapons against the Chinese, and also gave informed consent prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. However, he was very concerned (and rightly so) that Japan would over-extend itself in trying to seize essentially all of East and Southeast Asia in the planned "Southern Expansion."

Once the war was underway, Hirohito required that the military brief him regularly, and worked with Prime Minister Tojo to coordinate Japan's efforts. This degree of involvement from an emperor was unprecedented in Japanese history. As the Imperial Japanese armed forces swept through the Asia-Pacific region in the first half of 1942, Hirohito was thrilled with their success. When the tide began to turn at the Battle of Midway, the emperor pressed the military to find a different route of advance.

Japan's media still reported every battle as a great victory, but the public began to suspect that the war was actually not going well. The US began devastating air raids against Japan's cities in 1944, and all pretext of imminent victory was lost.  Hirohito issued an imperial order in late June of 1944 to the people of Saipan, encouraging Japanese civilians there to commit suicide rather than surrendering to the Americans. Over 1,000 of them followed this order, jumping from cliffs during the final days of the Battle of Saipan.

During the early months of 1945, Hirohito still held out hope for a grand victory in World War II. He arranged private audiences with senior government and military officials, almost all of whom advised continuing the war. Even after Germany surrendered in May of 1945, the Imperial Council decided to continue to fight. However, when the US dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, Hirohito announced to the cabinet and the imperial family that he was going to surrender, so long as the surrender terms did not compromise his position as the ruler of Japan.

On August 15, 1945, Hirohito made a radio address announcing Japan's surrender. It was the first time that ordinary people had ever heard their emperor's voice; he used intricate, formal language unfamiliar to most commoners, however. Upon hearing of his decision, fanatical militarists immediately tried to stage a coup and seized the Imperial Palace, but Hirohito ordered the uprising quelled immediately.

Aftermath of the War

According to the Meiji Constitution, the emperor is in full control of the military. On those grounds, many observers in 1945 and since have argued that Hirohito should have been tried for the war crimes committed by Japanese forces during World War II. In addition, Hirohito personally authorized the use of chemical weapons during the Battle of Wuhan in October of 1938, among other violations of international law.

However, the US was afraid that die-hard militarists would turn to guerrilla war if the emperor was deposed and put on trial. The American occupation government decided to that it needed Hirohito. Meanwhile, Hirohito's three younger brothers pressed him to abdicate and allow one of them to serve as regent until Hirohito's eldest son, Akihito, came of age. However, US General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan, nixed that idea. The Americans even worked to make sure that other defendants in the war crimes trials would down-play the emperor's role in wartime decision making, in their testimony.

Hirohito did have to make one large concession, however. He had to explicitly repudiate his own divine status; this "renunciation of divinity" did not have much effect within Japan, but was widely reported overseas.

Later Reign

For more than forty years after the war, Emperor Hirohito carried out the duties of a constitutional monarch. He made public appearances, met with foreign leaders in Tokyo and abroad, and conducted research on marine biology in a special laboratory in the Imperial Palace. He published a number of scientific papers, mostly on new species within the class Hydrozoa. In 1978 Hirohito also instituted an official boycott of the Yasukuni Shrine, because Class A war criminals had been enshrined there.

On January 7, 1989, Emperor Hirohito died of duodenal cancer. He had been ill for more than two years, but the public was not informed of his condition until after his death. Hirohito was succeeded by his eldest son, Prince Akihito.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Emperor Hirohito of Japan." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/emperor-hirohito-of-japan-195661. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). Emperor Hirohito of Japan. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/emperor-hirohito-of-japan-195661 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Emperor Hirohito of Japan." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/emperor-hirohito-of-japan-195661 (accessed June 7, 2023).