Hirohito (1901-1989), known posthumously as Showa, was emperor of Japan during World War II and Japan’s longest-serving monarch in history.
Hirohito was born in Tokyo during the reign of his grandfather, a transformative time in Japan known as the Meiji Period. His father ascended the throne in 1912. In 1921, Hirohito visited Europe, a first for a crown prince. He was married in 1924 and became emperor in 1926 (after being regent for his father).
The emperor was regarded by many as a divine figure, an ideology backed up by Buddhist and Shinto sects in Japan. The Japanese nation and race were also seen as divinely chosen and protected. The divinity of the emperor was a key component of the concept of the “imperial way,” or kodo, an ideology comparable to manifest destiny in the United States. Kodo promoted subordination of the individual to the state and encouraged imperialist expansion. Hirohito’s government advocated this philosophy throughout the run-up to World War II, including teaching it in schools.
Hirohito presided over the invasion of China, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and eventually, the Japanese surrender to the Allies. Many historical sources have portrayed Hirohito as powerless, constrained by military advisers that were making all the decisions. Some have even portrayed him as pacifist. Hirohito was not tried for war crimes, as many members of the Japanese government were. Some leaders of the occupying Allied forces, thinking that preserving the emperor’s office would be useful for carrying out governmental change, went to great lengths to corroborate his innocence.
THE DEBATE OVER HIS ROLE
But a growing number of scholars, including Herbert P. Bix in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, have said that Hirohito wielded more power than he is given credit for. They attribute public perception of his powerlessness to a concerted effort in Japan at the end of the war to exonerate the emperor by portraying him as not responsible for the state’s actions. There are clear historical examples, however, where Hirohito decisively exercised his power. In 1936, for example, he moved swiftly to put down a coup among Japanese military leaders. When Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe stepped down in 1941, Hirohito rejected Konoe’s nomination of a replacement. This cleared the way for the elevation of the hawkish and dictatorial Hideki Tojo.
Bix and others also fault Hirohito for some of the more egregious crimes committed by the Japanese military. The emperor’s office apparently signed off on uses of chemical weapons during the war in China. He also knew about mistreatment of prisoners of war, and about killings of civilians in Nanking, but did nothing to stop the practices or punish military leaders (which he could have done). These cases fit a larger pattern of Hirohito being blamed for inaction.
This inaction persisted even where action could have prevented war. The invasion of Manchuria started without orders from Tokyo, but Hirohito acquiesced after being assured that the military could succeed in expanding his empire. Before the war with the US, he underestimated American objections to his foreign policy of formally allying himself with Germany and Italy. He also indicated initial reluctance to go to war, but later confirmed the plan to attack Pearl Harbor over the objections of some of his advisers. He even increased his control over military affairs in the lead-up to Pearl Harbor, attending the Conference of Military Councillors (which he usually did not) and asking for additional details on the plans for attack. According to an aide, he showed visible joy at the news of the success of the surprise attacks.
THE SURRENDER DECISION
Pearl Harbor was Hirohito’s first point of tangency with the history of the Manhattan Project (as the war accelerated the research effort and was later used as part of President Truman’s rationale for using atomic bombs on Japan). His second connection came with the discussion of surrender in 1945. Hirohito had a chance to end the war earlier, as it became clearer that Japan could not win. Konoe gained his first audience with the emperor in years in February and implored Hirohito to start discussing terms of surrender. He did not surrender then, and maintained a hope through August that the Soviet Union could serve as an intermediary for a negotiated peace. Maintaining the emperor’s office was also a key concern of many other Japanese officials, which caused them to reject demands for unconditional surrender, including the Potsdam Declaration.
Hirohito learned of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima about 12 hours after the fact, at 7:50 pm, Japan time, on August 6, 1945. Two days later, the emperor admitted that the war could not continue. But neither the emperor nor the Japanese Cabinet accepted unconditional surrender at that time. On August 9, the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and the Soviet Union began its invasion of Japanese territory. That night, at a meeting with other leaders, Hirohito declared his intention to accept the Potsdam Declaration.
This was not yet the official end to the war. Cabinet officials continued to debate conditions of surrender, including how parts of imperial power could be preserved. There was also an unsuccessful coup attempt by a group wanting to continue the war. But Hirohito’s decision proved decisive: his loss of faith in the war effort corralled both politicians and military men who might have prolonged the war.
Hirohito announced the surrender to the nation in an historic radio broadcast, the first time an emperor had ever addressed the nation in such a manner. The “Jewel Voice Broadcast,” delivered in formal, florid Japanese, was notable both for what Hirohito did not say―he never used the word “surrender”―and what he did say. He both continued to justify Japan’s earlier aggression, and put forth a new national mission that was very different than the ideology of kodo: “To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations as well as the security and well-being of our subjects.”
The Jewel Voice Broadcast also made reference to “a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to damage is indeed incalculable,” but historians have debated how much the bomb influenced the surrender decision. Bix does not dispute the impact of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but he also emphasizes the Japanese leaders’ fears of a popular uprising. Others, including Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, have argued that the Soviet invasion was even more influential. The invasion destroyed Hirohito’s last hope of a negotiated peace (a vain hope, since the Soviets had been planning an invasion for months).
AFTER THE WAR AND LATER LIFE
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Hirohito renounced the divinity of the emperor, and signed a new Constitution drafted by the US that reduced his power to that of a figurehead. He visited Hiroshima in 1947 and continued to publicly mourn the deaths in the two cities throughout his life. He also expressed some contrition for his role in the war. In 1971, he expressed that there were parts of the war that he felt “personally sorry for.”
After the war, Hirohito became more open than any emperor had been before, regularly appearing in public and making details of his life publicly available. He visited the US in 1975, meeting with President Ford and placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He pursued research in marine biology, a life-long interest of his. The emperor died in 1989 at the Imperial Palace and was succeeded by his son Akihito. He is posthumously referred to in Japan as “Showa,” the name for his era that was chosen early on in his reign.