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Emperor Shōwa
(Emperor Hirohito)
Given name: Hirohito (裕仁)
Childhood name: Michi no miya
Dates of reign: 1926 – 1989
Era name: Shōwa (昭和)
Era dates: December 25, 1926 – January 7, 1989
Posthumous name: Emperor Shōwa (昭和天皇)
Born: April 29, 1901
Father: Emperor Taishō
Mother: Empress Teimei
After his decease, he was renamed by Cabinet (see " posthumous name").

His appellation is "Emperor Shōwa".

Hirohito ( Japanese: 裕仁) ( April 29, 1901 – January 7, 1989) was the 124th Emperor of Japan according to the traditional order of succession, reigning from 1926 to 1989. Since his death he has been known as Emperor Shōwa (昭和天皇 Shōwa Tennō ?) in Japan, the posthumous name given to him by order of the Japanese cabinet dated January 13, 1989. Although he is widely referred to as Hirohito, or Emperor Hirohito outside of Japan, past emperors are only referred to in Japan by their posthumous names. His reign was the longest of any historical Japanese emperor, and he oversaw many significant changes to Japanese society.

Early life

Born in the Aoyama Palace in Tokyo, Hirohito was the first son of the Crown Prince Yoshihito and then- Crown Princess Sadako. His childhood title was Prince Michi (迪宮 Michi no miya ?). He became heir apparent upon the death of his grandfather, 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 1921, Prince Regent Hirohito took a six month tour of Europe, including the United Kingdom, France; Italy, Vatican City; the Netherlands; and Belgium. By doing this he became 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:

  1. Princess Shigeko (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.
  2. Princess Sachiko (Hisa no miya Sachiko), b. September 10, 1927, d. March 8, 1928.
  3. Princess Kazuko (Taka no miya Kazuko), b. September 30, 1929, d. May 26, 1989; m. May 5, 1950 Mr. Toshimichi Takatsukasa (b. August 26, 1923, d. January 27, 1966), eldest son of Nobusuke Takatsukasa [peer].
  4. Princess Atsuko (Yori no miya Atsuko), b. March 7, 1931; m. October 10, 1952 Mr. Takamasa Ikeda (b. October 21, 1927), eldest son of former Marquis Nobumasa Ikeda.
  5. Crown Prince Akihito (now HM The Emperor), b. December 23, 1933; m. April 10, 1959 Miss Michiko Shoda (b. October 20, 1934), elder daughter of Mr. Hidesaburo Shoda, former president and chairman of Nisshin Flour Milling Company.
  6. Prince Hitachi (Hitachi no miya Masahito), b. November 28, 1935; m. October 30, 1964 Miss Hanako Tsugaru (b. July 19, 1940), fourth daughter of former Count Yoshitaka Tsugaru.
  7. Princess Takako (Suga no miya Takako), b. March 2, 1939; m. March 3, 1960 Mr. Hisanaga Shimazu, son of former Count Hisanori Shimazu.


On December 25, 1926, upon the death of his father Yoshihito, he succeeded to the throne and a new era Shōwa (Enlightened Peace) was proclaimed. 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.

Early reign

The young Emperor in his coronation robes 1928
The young Emperor in his coronation robes 1928

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 Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy had held veto power over the formation of cabinets since 1900, and between 1921 and 1944 there were no fewer than 64 incidents of right-wing political violence.

One notable case was the assassination of moderate Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi 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 of the Kōdōha who had the sympathy of many high-rank officers including Yasuhito ( prince Chichibu), one of Hirohito's brothers. This revolt 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.

When Chief Aide-de-camp Shigeru Honjō informed the Emperor of the revolt, Hirohito immediately ordered that it be put down and referred to the officers as rebels (bōto). Shortly thereafter, he ordered Army minister Yoshiyuki Kawashima to suppress the rebels within one hour, and he asked reports from Honjō every thirty minutes. The next day, when told by Honjō that little progress was being made by the high command in quashing the rebels, Hirohito told him "I Myself, will lead the Konoe Division and subdue them". This, he was not forced to do but the rebellion was suppressed following his orders on February 29.

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.

The problem of imperial responsibility

Many people in China, Taiwan, Korea and Southeast Asia see Hirohito as the mastermind behind the atrocities committed by the imperial forces in the Second Sino-Japanese War and in World War II. Some feel he, and some members of the imperial family such as princes Chichibu, Takeda, Kan'in, Asaka, Fushimi and Higashikuni, should have been tried for war crimes. Because of this, many Asians residing in countries that were subject to Japanese invasion 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 as a powerless figurehead behaving strictly according to protocol, while remaining at a distance from the decision-making processes.

However, many historians such as Akira Fujiwara (Shōwa Tennō no Jū-go Nen Sensō, 1991) and Peter Wetzler (Hirohito and War, 1998), based on the primary sources and the monumental work of Shirō Hara, have produced evidence suggesting that the Emperor worked through intermediaries to exercise a great deal of control over the military and was not bellicose nor a pacifist, but an opportunist who governed in a pluralistic decision-making process. For Herbert Bix he may even have been the prime mover of most of the events of the two wars. These historians recognize that the post-war Occidental view focused on imperial conferences and had missed numerous "behind the chrysanthemum curtain" meetings where the real decisions were made between the Emperor, his chiefs of staff and the cabinet.

The primary sources, such as a General Sugiyama memo and the diaries of Kido and Konoe, describe in detail the informal meetings Hirohito had with his chiefs of staff and ministers (For example, Prince Fumimaro Konoe had very good firsthand view of the surrender events). These documents show that the Emperor was kept informed of all main military operations and that he frequently questioned his senior staff, asking for changes.

World War II

Prior to what is formally known as "World War II", Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and the rest of China in 1937 (the Second Sino-Japanese War). The primary sources reveal that Hirohito never really had any objection to the invasion of China in 1937, which was recommended to him by his chiefs of staff and prime minister Fumimaro Konoe. His main concern seems to have been the possibility of an attack by the Soviets in the north and his questions to his chief of staff prince Kan'in and minister of the army Hajime Sugiyama were mostly about the time it could take to crush the Chinese resistance.

According to Akira Fujiwara, Hirohito even personally ratified the proposition of his army to remove the constraints of international law on the treatment of Chinese prisoners on August 5. More, the works of Yoshiaki Yoshimi and Seiya Matsuno, show that he authorized by specific orders (rinsanmei) the use of chemical weapons against the Chinese. For example, during the invasion of Wuhan, from August to October 1938, the Emperor authorized the use of toxic gas on 375 separate occasions, despite the resolution adopted by the League of Nations on May 14 condemning the use of toxic gas by the Japanese Army.

During World War II, ostensibly under Hirohito's leadership, Japan formed alliances with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, forming the Axis Powers. Hirohito, who had a predilection for England, was reluctant to form this alliance. In July 1939, he even had a bad quarrel on this subject with one of his brothers, Prince Chichibu, who was visiting him three times a week to support the treaty, and reprimanded the army minister Itagaki, but he finally gave his consent after the success of the Wehrmacht in Europe.

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 Southeast 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. On this evening, Hirohito had a meeting with chief of staff of the army Sugiyama, chief of staff of the navy Nagano and Konoe. The emperor then questionned Sugiyama about the chances of success of an open war with the Occident. As Sugiyama answered positively, Hirohito scolded him:

"At the time of the Shina [China] incident, the army told me that we could make Chiang surrender after three months but you still can't beat him even today! Sugiyama, you were minister at the time."
"China is a vast area with many ways in and ways out, and we met unexpectedly big difficulties."
"You say the interior of China is huge; isn't the Pacific Ocean even bigger than China? Didn't I caution you each time about those matters? Sugiyama, are you lying to me?"

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."

According to the traditional view, Hirohito was deeply concerned by the decision to place "war preparations first and diplomatic negotiations second", and he announced his intention to break with tradition. At the Imperial Conference on the following day, he directly questioned the chiefs of the Army and Navy general staffs, a quite unprecedented action.

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, 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 Emperor's presentation was in line with his practical role as leader of the Shinto religion.

At this time, Army Imperial Headquarters was continually communicating with the Imperial household in detail about the military situation. On October 8, Sugiyama signed a 47-page report to the Emperor (sōjōan) outlining in minute detail plans for the advance in Southeast Asia and, on the third week, gave him a 51-page document, "Materials in Reply to the Throne", about an operational outlook on the war.

As the war preparations continued, however, Konoe found himself more and more isolated and gave his demission on October 16. The army and the navy recommended at this point the candidacy of prince Higashikuni, one of the emperor's uncles. According to the Shōwa "Monologue", written after the war, the Emperor then said that if the war were to begin while a member of the imperial house was prime minister, the imperial house would have to carry the responsibility and this he opposed.

He thus choose the hard-line General Hideki Tojo, who was known for his devotion to the imperial institution and asked him to make a policy review of what had been sanctioned by the imperial conferences. On November 2, Tōjō, Sugiyama and Nagano reported to the emperor that the review of eleven points had been in vain. Hirohito gave his consent to the war and then asked, "Are you going to provide justification for the war?"

On November 3, Nagano explained in detail the Pearl Harbour attack plan to the emperor. On November 5, Hirohito approved in imperial conference the operations plan for a war against Occident and had many meetings with the military and Tōjō until the end of the month. On December 1, an imperial conference finally sanctioned the "War against the United States, England and Holland". On December 8 ( December 7 in Hawaii) 1941, in simultaneous attacks, Japanese forces struck at the US Fleet in Pearl Harbour and began the invasion of Malaysia. From this point, there was no turning back.

With the nation now fully committed to the war, Emperor Hirohito took a keen interest in military progress and sought to boost morale. According to Akira Yamada and Akira Fujiwara, the Emperor even made major interventions in some military operations. For example, he pressed Sugiyama four times, on January 13 and 21 and February 9 and 26, to increase troop strength and launch an attack of Bataan. On February 9, March 19 and May 29, he ordered the Army Chief of staff to examine the possibilities for an attack on Chungking which led to operation Gogo.

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. The chief of staff of the General Affairs section of the Prime Minister's office, Shuichi Inada, remarked to Tōjō's private secretary, Sadao Akamatsu:

There has never been a cabinet in which the prime minister, and all the ministers, reported so often to the throne. In order to effect the essence of genuine direct imperial rule and to relieve the concerns of the emperor, the ministers reported to the throne matters within the scope of their responsibilities as per the prime minister's directives... In times of intense activities, typed drafts were presented to the emperor with corrections in red. First draft, second draft, final draft and so forth, came as deliberations progressed one after the other and were sanctioned accordingly by the emperor.

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 was also reported to the public as a series of 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. Later that year, with the downfall of Hideki Tojo's government, two other prime ministers were appointed to continue the war effort, Kuniaki Koiso and Kantaro Suzuki—again, with at least the formal approval of Hirohito, but whether he agreed with their policies is still disputed. Both were unsuccessful and Japan was nearing defeat.

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. According to some accounts, Hirohito apparently 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. In April the Soviet Union issued notice that it would not renew its neutrality agreement. Japan's ally Germany surrendered in early May 1945. 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 stone-faced silence.

The following day, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Kōichi 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 delay cost many tens of thousands of Japanese and Allied lives. Extremists in Japan were also calling for a death-before-dishonor mass suicide, modeled on the " 47 Ronin" incident. 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 met 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. There was always the threat that extremists would carry out a coup or foment other violence. The Allies were determined not to settle for anything short of unconditional surrender, and as late as July 1945 the Japanese government council, the Big Six, considered that option and recommended one to three conditions, beginning with a guarantee of the emperor's continued position in Japanese society.

On August 9, 1945, following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet declaration of war, Hirohito told Kido to "quickly control the situation" because "the Soviet Union has declared war and today began hostilities against us." On August 10, the cabinet drafted an "Imperial Rescript ending the War" following the Emperor's indications that the declaration does not compromise any demande which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler.

On August 12, the Emperor informed the imperial family of his decision to surrender. One of his uncles, prince Asaka, then asked whether the war would be continued if the kokutai (national policy) could not be preserved. Hirohito simply replied "of course". On August 14, the Suzuki government notified the Allies that it had accepted the Potsdam Declaration and on August 15, Hirohito made a recording that was broadcast over the radio signifying the unconditional surrender of Japan's military forces (known as Gyokuon-hōsō).

The physical recording was hidden and preserved overnight despite a full military assault and takeover of the Imperial Palace by die-hard army fanatics which was crushed on the Emperor's order. The broadcast ordered the Japanese to "accept the unacceptable" in surrender. It was the first time the public had heard the Emperor's voice. He was purposely vague, because the Emperor of Japan was not regarded merely as a human saying "We surrender to the Americans"; he was viewed as the holy leader of Japan, so when he said "accept the unacceptable", most people sitting by the radio didn't know what he meant. Even if they had known, there was a clear difference between standard Japanese speech and the emperor's own lexicon. He used in this broadcast, according to historian Richard Storry in A History of Modern Japan, "a form of language familiar only to the well-educated" and to the more traditional samurai families. The most important immediate result of this surrender was that food relief shipments could be arranged within weeks, where otherwise the urban population of Japan was in danger of mass starvation similar to Germany and Central Europe after World War I. He was the only leader of the Axis Powers to remain alive and in power following the end of the Second World War.

Post-war reign

General MacArthur and The Emperor
General MacArthur and The Emperor

As Hirohito chose his uncle Prince Higashikuni as prime minister to assist the occupation, there were attempts by numerous leaders, among them President Harry S. Truman, to have him put on trial for alleged war crimes. Many members of the imperial family such as princes Chichibu, Takamatsu and Higashikuni pressured Hirohito to abdicate so one of the princes could serve as regent until Akihito came of age. On February 27, 1946, Hirohito's youngest brother, Takahito (prince Mikasa), even stood up in the privy council and indirectly urged the Emperor to step down and accept responsibility for Japan's defeat. According to minister of Welfare Ashida's diary, "Everyone seemed to ponder Mikasa's words. Never have I seen his majesty's face so pale."

U.S. General Douglas MacArthur insisted that Hirohito remain Emperor. MacArthur saw him as a symbol of the continuity and cohesion of the Japanese people, along with knowing the details of the surrender events. Hirohito was not put on trial, but he was forced to explicitly reject (in the Ningen-sengen (人間宣言 ?)) the traditional claim that the Emperor of Japan was divine, and 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 said to be the offspring of the creator of Japan, Amaterasu. The imperial title was thus transformed from 'imperial sovereign' to 'constitutional monarch' in 1946. Immediately after Hirohito's repudiation of divinity, he asked the occupation authorities for permission to worship the Sun Goddess. Some have seen this as an implicit reaffirmation of the claim to divine status; others have seen it as simply an expression of Hirohito's personal religious beliefs, with no political or social implications.

Although Hirohito was compelled to reject claims to his own divine status, his public position was deliberately left vague, partly because General MacArthur thought him likely to be a useful partner to get the Japanese to accept the occupation, and partly due to behind-the-scenes maneuverings by Shigeru Yoshida to thwart attempts to cast Hirohito as a European-style monarch. While Hirohito was usually seen abroad as a head of state, there is still a broad dispute about whether he became a common citizen or retained special status related to his religious offices and participations in Shinto and Buddhist calendar rituals. Many scholars claim that today's tennō (usually translated Emperor of Japan in English) is not an emperor. See the " Emperor of Japan" article for discussion of the position of Emperor of Japan.

For the rest of his life, Hirohito was an active figure in Japanese life, and performed many of the duties commonly associated with a constitutional 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 ceremonies. 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 Queen Elizabeth II. In 1975, Hirohito and his wife were honored guests at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, the first such visit by Japanese royalty.

Hirohito was deeply interested in and well-informed about marine biology, and the Imperial Palace contained a laboratory from which Hirohito published several papers in the field. His contributions included the description of several dozen species of jellyfish new to science.

Death and state funeral

On September 22, 1987, Hirohito underwent surgery on his pancreas after having digestive problems for several months. This was the very first time a Japanese Emperor underwent surgery. The doctors discovered that he had duodenal cancer, but in accordance with Japanese tradition, they did not tell him. Hirohito seemed to be recovering well for several months after his surgery. About a year later, however, on September 19, 1988, he collapsed in his palace, and his health worsened over the next several months as he suffered from continuous internal bleeding. On January 7, 1989, at 6:33 AM, Hirohito died. At 7:55 AM, the grand steward of Japan's Imperial Household Agency, Shoichi Fujimori, officially announced the Emperor's death, and revealed details about his cancer for the first time. Upon his death, he was renamed Emperor Showa (Shōwa Tennō), after the era during which he ruled. His posthumous name was determined on January 13 and formally released on January 31 by Japanese prime minister. (From January 7 until January 31, the formal appellation of Hirohito was "Taikō Tennō(大行天皇)", which means the departed emperor.)

On February 24, Emperor Showa's state funeral was held, and unlike that of his predecessor, it was formal but not done in a strictly Shinto manner. A large number of world leaders attended it, including U.S. President George H.W. Bush. The general feeling of public opinion throughout the world at this time was that Emperor Showa's regal presence on the throne had greatly helped Japan to regain economic and political stability during the postwar era. He is buried in the Imperial mausoleum in Hachioji, alongside other past emperors.

Yasukuni Shrine

Although largely refraining from becoming involved in the politics surrounding Yasukuni Jinja, Hirohito maintained an official boycott of the controversial monument from 1978 until the time of his death, after it was revealed to him that some wartime supporters of the alliance with Germany were being honored there. However, his motivations remain unclear as, even if he notoriously hated minister Matsuoka, he never blamed leaders such as Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, calling him his "loyal servant". For journalist Masanori Yamaguchi, who analyzed comments made by Hirohito in the Tomita "memo" and in his first-ever press conference in 1975, the evasive and opaque attitude of the Emperor about his responsibility for the war and his comment that the bombing of Hiroshima "could not be helped", is significant that Hirohito was afraid that the enshrinement of the Class-A war criminals would "reignite" debate over his own responsibility for the war.

This boycott has been maintained by his son Akihito, who has also refused to worship at Yasukuni since 1978.

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