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(PD) Photo: Library of Congress
Hirohito in dress uniform, 1935

Hirohito (裕仁) or the Showa Emperor (昭和天皇 Shoowa Tennoo, 1901-1989) was the 124th emperor of Japan, 1926-89, and had the longest reign. He was the symbolic leader of his nation through prosperity (1926-29), the Great Depression (1929-41), victory and defeat in the Pacific War (1937-45), the American Occupation (1945-50), and the rapid recovery of Japan to become an economic superpower (1950-86).

Early Life

Hirohito was born at Aoyama Palace, Tokyo, April 29, 1901, son of Emperor Yoshihito (嘉仁), the Taisho Emperor (大正天皇 Taishoo Tennoo). He was raised by Count and Countess Kawamura, in accordance with the Japanese custom that imperial princes should be reared in a normal household unaffected by the elaborate ceremonial tradition of the royal palace. The Kawamuras also were given charge of Prince Chichibu (秩父), Hirohito's younger brother and Kawamura treated them as he would his own grandchildren, subjecting them to a careful discipline. When Hirohito was five years old he and Chichibu were returned to the palace, where a kindergarten was arranged. At the age of eight Hirohito was sent to the Peers' School, where emphasis was placed on discipline, frugality, and diligence. There he was initiated into military training. He also proved an excellent pupil, showing a strong early interest in marine biology, as well as geography and history.

Upon the death in 1912 of his grandfather, Emperor Mutsuhito (明治天皇 Meiji Tennoo 'Meiji Emperor'), Hirohito became heir-apparent to the throne and was commissioned a second lieutenant in both the army and navy. After his graduation in 1914 from the Peers' School, the Crown Prince's Institute was opened for his higher education, which required seven years; five sons of Peers' were his classmates. Upon his graduation in 1921 he became the first imperial prince ever to tour Europe, from March to September of 1921, to see how constitutional monarchies worked in Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy. The public discovered Hirohito had surprisingly democratic qualities, an eager intelligence, and a shy, quiet manner (the last partly ascribed to his self-consciousness and myopic eyesight). The crown prince returned from his tour to find his father failing rapidly in health, and in November 1921 Hirohito was entrusted with the affairs of government as prince regent. On Jan. 26, 1924, he married Princess Nagako Kuni (良子久邇 Kuni Nagako), who became the Empress Kojun (香淳皇后 Koojun Koogoo).


On the death of Yoshihito, Dec. 25, 1926, he became emperor but was not formally enthroned until November 1928. Upon becoming emperor he adopted the reign name of Shoowa, meaning "Enlightened Peace," an increasingly ironic term as the increasing military dominations of Japan's government led the country into war, first with China and then with the Western powers.

His father had been physically and mentally incompetent, and power had drained away from the throne. In 1928 to 1931 the young emperor and his close advisers, Nobuaki Makino, Kantaro Suzuki and Taketsugu Nara, were most preoccupied with reasserting the power and prestige of the throne, and establishing the 'imperial will' as distinct from the policy of the government. Hirohito's removal of support for Giichi Tanaka's cabinet in 1929 was key to its downfall. His forthright opposition to the coup attempted by army officers in the 26 February Incident in 1936 did much to facilitate its suppression. In general, his role was more symbolic than powerful, but everything was done in his name, and he formally signed off his approvals. During Japan's period of "ultranationalism," 1931-45, Hirohito's constitutional obligations kept him from implementing his peace-oriented ideas in the face of almost total opposition from powerful advisers.

World War II

By the late 1930s, Hirohito moved squarely into the camp of the 'renovationist' group who were tending toward an ever expanding war in China. However, he opposed going to war with the United States in 1941, not out of pacifist tendencies but because he had a realistic concern about a probable Japanese defeat. He pressed for talks with Washington and welcomed the neutrality agreement with Moscow in April 1941 as a means of avoiding a recurrence of dangerous border clashes with the Soviet Union. He strongly opposed joining Germany in its war against the Soviets in June 1941, and helped replace the hawkish foreign minister.[1] Yet because his power was so circumscribed by the decision-making structure of the government, and he had no answer to the American oil embargo, by late summer 1941 he became fatalistic about going to war. He had little role in the replacement of Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe by the war cabinet of General Hideki Tojo (東条英機 Toojoo Hideki, 1884-1948), who demanded war. Hirohito continued to oppose going to war until the last minute, but pressure from his military bureaucracy forced his hand and Tōjō had his way and the attack was made on Pearl Harbor.[2]

The emperor played an increasingly influential role in the war; in eleven major episodes he was deeply involved in supervising the actual conduct of war operations. Hirohito pressured the High Command to order an early attack on the Philippines in 1941-42, including the fortified Bataan peninsula. He secured the deployment of army air power in the Guadalcanal campaign. Following Japan's withdrawal from Guadalcanal he demanded a new offensive in New Guinea, which was duly carried out but failed badly. Unhappy with the navy's conduct of the war, he criticized its withdrawal from the central Solomon Islands and demanded naval battles against the Americans for the losses they had inflicted in the Aleutians. The battles were disasters. Finally, it was at his insistence that plans were drafted for the recapture of Saipan and, later, for an offensive in the battle of Okinawa.[3]

He became publicly visible trying to maintain military and civilian morale as the islands came under heavy air attack in 1944-45 and food shortages mounted. With the Army and Navy bitterly feuding, he settled disputes over the allocation of resources. He helped plan military offenses.[4]


Hirohito's main adviser was Koichi Kido (木戸幸一 Kido Kooichi, 1889-1977), who as the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal was the manager who controlled the information flow between the emperor and other officials, thereby helping to overthrow the Tōjō cabinet in 1944 and convincing the emperor to sue for peace. In April 1945 he helped bring in an elderly new prime minister Kantaro Suzuki (鈴木貫太郎 Suzuki Kantaroo, 1868-1948), who was told to hold the armed services in line while peace initiatives were set in motion. Germany surrendered on May 8 and the imperial palace was burned down during an air raid on 25 May, underscoring the urgency, but Hirohito supported a quixotic effort to have the Soviet Union mediate a peace, unaware that it planned to declare war on Japan. The issue of an American guarantee of Hirohito's continuation as emperor prevented the prompt acceptance of the Allies' Potsdam terms, and led to the deployment of two atomic bombs and the Soviet declaration of war in early August. The extreme national emergency now made it possible for the emperor to intervene effectively on behalf of surrender; he told foreign minister Togo that "since we could no longer continue the struggle, now that a weapon of this devastating power was used against us, we should not let slip the opportunity [for peace] by engaging in attempts to gain more favorable conditions." Hirohito unexpectedly spoke out at a deadlocked conference on August 9, saying "the time has come when we must bear the unbearable....[so I] give my sanction to the proposal to accept the Allied Proclamation." The military continued to stall even as their military position in Manchuria collapsed. The emperor lined up more supporters and on August 14 he forced the government to agree to surrender. His radio broadcast on August 15 calling on all Japanese to surrender was immediately accepted by the people and the military (though a few die hards tried and failed to stop the broadcast, and many senior army officers committed suicide). Hirohito had ended the war, rescued his throne, and saved the lives of millions of Japanese citizens. The "Greater East Asia War," as the Japanese called it, resulted in 1,675,000 Japanese army deaths, 429,000 navy deaths, and more than 300,000 civilian deaths in Japan, not to mention millions of enemy soldiers and civilians killed.[5]

Asada (1998) microscopically reexamines Japan's decision-making process, focusing closely on the days between the Hiroshima bomb and surrender in August 1945. An increasingly powerful "peace party" saw in the bomb the external pressure that could be used as leverage to counter the army leaders who clamored for the decisive homeland battle, and who were preparing civilians to fight invaders with wooden spears. To such leaders as Koichi Kido, Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, and Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai, the bomb was of major help in their efforts to end the war, but the army remained intransigent. Hirohito sided with Togo: Only his "sacred decision" could enable the badly divided government finally to accept the Potsdam Declaration that called for immediate surrender but left the status of the emperor ambiguous. The shock of the atomic bomb enabled military leaders to accept surrender without loss of face; they thought of it as a scientific rather than a military defeat. Asada concludes that the bomb, rather than Soviet entry into the Pacific War, was the decisive and necessary factor in Japan's surrender.[6]

American Occupation and new status

The State Department in Washington, not General Douglas MacArthur, made the decision to retain Hirohito and the imperial institution; the decision evolved by 1944 out of a wartime assumption that the emperor was not personally guilty but was essential for American plans for postwar Japan.[7] Rather than a flash of inspiration from the supreme commander, American policy toward the emperor represented a confluence of motivations that crystallized in the early days of the occupation.[8] MacArthur agreed with the policy and orchestrated dramatic public displays, as well as real changes, that made it clear a new era had arrived and that militarism and emperor worship had ended.[9]

MacArthur and Hirohito at their first meeting, Sept. 1945. MacArthur asserts himself as the older, informal and dominant leader; Hirohito appears younger, formal, subservient, and very clearly not a god.

Hirohito moved rapidly to ensure surrender by all army units, and to demobilize his soldiers, a decision that facilitated the American Occupation and demonstrated his willingness to cooperate. The Americans responded by deciding not to control Japan directly (as they controlled Germany), but to keep the Imperial government in place and operate through it. In an interview with American newspapers, Hirohito said that he was not responsible for Pearl Harbor and did not intend a sneak attack, exactly the right message to help rehabilitate his image in the U.S. Hirohito and MacArthur got along well, which was a signal for all their subordinates to follow suite. The Americans did not give orders; they made suggestions which the Japanese quickly accepted.

Hirohito met with MacArthur in a highly publicized visit on September 27, a few days after his arrival as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP). The photograph showed MacArthur to be older, informal and dominant, and Hirohito to be younger, subservient, and very clearly not a god.[10] The Japanese government told newspapers not to publish the humiliating photograph. MacArthur intervened and ended the system of police surveillance and thought control in Japan, allowing for the first time criticism of the emperor. The photograph was published, the government resigned and a new government took over the task of cooperating smoothly with MacArthur's general headquarters, the GHQ. A series of decrees in October, 1945, liberated women, freed the labor unions, democratized education, and broke up the old business monopolies. The military organization was closed down and the Shinto religion was disestablished. Hirohito cooperated with these radical reforms and the transition to a liberalized Japan went smoothly.[11]

On January 1, 1946, just ten years after his imperial title had been changed to Dai Nippon Teikoku Tennoo (大日本帝国天皇), meaning "Heavenly Ruler of the Greater Japanese Empire," Hirohito reversed course and disclaimed his divinity in a statement to his people. The Japanese saw it as a turning point in their history. American newspapers hailed him as the leader of reform in Japan--a gross exaggeration that worked well for him and GHQ. Hirohito got across to the Japanese people another message as well: that the monarchy had always been compatible with democracy and the current democratization of Japanese society marked a continuation of ideals inscribed in the Five Article 'Charter Oath' of the Meiji Restoration.

Later career

After 1946, Hirohito played a minor role in decision-making, However his important symbolic role was continued and Hirohito moved the imperial family closer to the people. In 1958 this change in attitude was reflected in the choice of a commoner, Michiko Shoda, as a bride for Crown Prince Akihito. This broke a 1,500-year tradition requiring future empresses to be from noble families; Hirohito's wife, the Empress Kojun, repeatedly lamented Akihito's marriage as a disgrace to the imperial family, but Hirohito's approval was widely hailed in Japan. In 1962 Hirohito published the first of several books on marine biology, a subject in which he did considerable research. In 1971 Hirohito visited Europe, the first visit abroad by a reigning Japanese emperor, and one that showed Europeans had long memories of wartime atrocities. In 1975 Hirohito paid an official state visit to the United States, where the wartime hatreds had dissipated. After a long illness, Hirohito died at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Jan. 7, 1989 and was succeeded by Prince Akihito (明仁).

Image and memory

Following longstanding tradition, from his death everyone in Japan referred to him as the Showa Emperor, and his reign as the Showa Period (昭和時代 Shoowa jidai). Outside Japan, he is still usually known as Hirohito, a name which was never used in Japan as a form of address.

Hirohito was violently hated and loathed outside Japan during the war, and was often depicted as a subhuman monster and head of an evil empire.[12] Brands (2006a) examines the shift in American public opinion regarding him after the surrender. In June 1945 three out of four Americans wanted him tried as a war criminal; only 7% thought he should be allowed to stay in power. The media attacked anyone thought to be mildly disposed to Hirohito. MacArthur, however, found Hirohito's compliance with the occupation valuable in bringing democratic government to Japan. Hirohito became "humanized" in the American media; stories about his family began to appear, he was photographed in Western dress, and he renounced imperial divinity. News stories out of occupied Japan were censored or slanted to stress reconciliation rather than vengeance, and by June 1946 Americans were accepting the story of Hirohito as a pawn of Japan's military leaders and at the same time were coming to see the Japanese people as willing to accept American political and cultural influences.[13]

Inside Japan following his death discussions of the emperor's image and his role as a symbol of his times focused largely on the issue of his responsibility for World War II according to Finnish historian Olavi K. Fält. One side of his dual image, that of a constitutional monarch, represented the favorable, democratic connotations that had arisen since the war, while the view that he had been responsible for Japan's involvement in the war represented the postwar critical image that he had acquired. The interpretation of these images and of his symbolic significance is complicated still further by the question of what was meant by "responsibility". The Japan Times explained how the foreign media interpreted this predominantly in legal and constitutional terms, while for many Japanese it was mostly an emotional matter that was quite separate from anything that he as a person might actually have done. It was a question of symbolic authority such as is vested in the head of a family, a company, or a nation. The dichotomous nature of the Shōwa emperor's image, as possibly responsible for the course of events that led Japan into the war and at the same time as a symbol of unity, representing peace and democracy, would seem - in the light of the articles in the press - to have been understood as synonymous with the spirit of the times. In this sense he was a symbol of his age: whatever the symbol of the emperor was, the same could be said of the times in which he reigned. Although there was much discussion of his responsibility for the war, one might still ask whether this was really the most serious problem in practice. Was it not more important to resolve the issue of his responsibility as the head of the nation? As the emperor was felt to be a symbol of his age, should he not have automatically borne responsibility for the war in the eyes of the majority of Japanese people, or even served in an essential sense as the symbol of the whole nation's guilt with respect to the war?


  1. Stephen S. Large, Emperor Hirohito and Showa Japan (1992) p. 103-8.
  2. Noriko Kawamura, "Emperor Hirohito and Japan's Decision to Go to War with the United States: Reexamined." Diplomatic History 2007 31(1): 51-79.
  3. Herbert Bix, "Emperor Hirohito's war," History Today, (Dec 1991), Vol. 41, Issue 12
  4. Herbert P. Bix "Japan's Delayed Surrender: a Reinterpretation." Diplomatic History 1995 19(2): 197-225. In Ebsco.
  5. Herbert P. Bix, "Japan's Delayed Surrender: a Reinterpretation." Diplomatic History 1995 19(2): 197-225; Stephen S. Large, Emperor Hirohito and Showa Japan (1992) pp. 121-30.
  6. Sadao Asada, "The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan's Decision to Surrender: a Reconsideration." Pacific Historical Review 1998 67(4): 477-512. in Jstor.
  7. American planning for the postwar world began in 1939. Joseph Ballantine and George H. Blakeslee, directors of the State Department's Far East unit, were influential planners along with historian Hugh Borton and especially Joseph Grew, who had been the US ambassador in Tokyo for ten years.
  8. MacArthur in early 1946 warned Washington that a war crimes indictment of Hirohito "will unquestionably cause a tremendous convulsion among the Japanese people, the repercussions of which cannot be overestimated. He is a symbol which unites all Japanese. Destroy him and the nation will disintegrate." Guerrillas would take to the hills and "a minimum of a million troops would be required . . . for an indefinite number of years" to stop the rebellion. Tojo was put on trial instead and hung. Quoted in Tetsuya Kataoka, The Price of a Constitution: The Origin of Japan's Postwar Politics (1991) p.37 online.
  9. Hal Brands, "Who Saved the Emperor? The Macarthur Myth and U.S. Policy Toward Hirohito and the Japanese Imperial Institution, 1942-1946." Pacific Historical Review 2006 75(2): 271-305. Issn: 0030-8684 Fulltext: Ebsco.
  10. On the photograph see primary source activities.
  11. See Herbert P. Bix, "Inventing the 'Symbol Monarchy' in Japan, 1945-52," Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), pp. 319-363 in JSTOR
  12. Kiyoko Takeda, The Dual-Image of the Japanese Emperor (1988) examines British, Australian, Canadian and Chinese images of Hirohito.
  13. Hal Brands, "The Emperor's New Clothes: American Views of Hirohito after World War II". Historian 2006 68(1): 1-28.

See also