Hirohito was the emperor of Japan during World War II. There is a lot of debate regarding how much responsibility Hirohito has for the actions of Japan during the war. Some believe he was heavily involved while others believe he was powerless in the face of a strong military.

Early Years

Hirohito was born on April 29, 1901 in the Aoyama Palace in Tokyo. He was the eldest son of Crown Prince Yoshihito. Hirohito was not raised by his parents but was instead raised by a retired vice-admiral for three years (until 1904). This is the norm for Japanese royalty. Even when he returned to the palace in 1904, he rarely saw his parents. He hardly ever saw his father and he was only allowed to see his mother once a week. Instead, he was raised by an imperial attendant.

When Hirohito was seven years old, he studied at the Gakushuin—a special class of twelve boys from the Japanese nobility. General Maresuke Nogi ran the class. Nogi was a famous soldier who had served with distinction in the Russo-Japanese War. Nogi attempted to instill respect for hard work, devotion to the nation, and a stoic outlook in the young prince.

Hirohito became the crown prince in 1912 when his grandfather died and his father took the throne. Hirohito studied natural history and became an expert in marine biology.

In 1921, Hirohito, along with his entourage, travelled through Western Europe for six months. This was the first time that a Japanese crown prince had travelled abroad. Hirohito’s father had been ill for some time and when Hirohito returned to Japan, he was made the regent which meant he became emperor in all but name. He ruled the country in his father’s stead.

An attempt on Hirohito’s life was made on December 27, 1923. Daisuke Namba tried to kill Hirohito but the attempt failed. Namba was captured and under interrogation claimed to be a communist although some people felt he was connected to the Japanese army

A month after the assassination attempt, on January 26, 1924, Hirohito married Princess Nagako, a distant cousin. Hirohito would end up having seven children, two boys and five girls, from this marriage.

Hirohito became the official emperor after his father died in December 1926.

The Emperor

When Hirohito first became emperor, democracy was at the highest level it had ever been in Japan. The country had just passed a law giving all males the vote (females couldn’t vote yet) and political parties were very strong.

The military’s political power was increasing and the military soon took control of the government. The military always had a strong position in Japan but after a number of assassinations, its position was even stronger.

The first prime minister during Hirohito’s reign lost support of both the military and Hirohito so he was forced to resign. The second prime minister, Osachi Hamaguchi, viewed the economy as being more important than the military and curtailed military spending and put in a number of austerity programs. The program was a disaster and an ultranationalist group attempted to assassinate him. He was shot and spent months recovering from the wounds. He eventually had to give up the post because of his wounds.

The military continued to gain power and in 1931, Japanese army officers blew up a railway and blamed it on Chinese bandits. This became known as the Manchurian Incident. This was then used as an excuse for Japan to invade Manchuria (northeastern China). The Japanese then set up a puppet government and used the captured territory as a base for raids into the rest of China.

The third prime minister for Japan was only in office for about eight months before he resigned over the economy and his inability to limit the Japanese military, particularly his inability to stop the Manchurian Incident.

In 1931, a new prime minister, Inukai Tsuyoshi (the fourth since Hirohito ascended to the throne) took power and also tried to put limits on the Japanese military. At this time, political violence in Japan was increasing with right wing groups targeting wealthy businessmen and liberal politicians.

In 1932, Inukai was assassinated by naval officers who were upset about Tsuyoshi’s attempts to limit the number of ships the navy was allowed to have. From this point, most prime ministers came from the military and almost all political power was held by pro-military factions.

The Japanese continued conducting raids into China and by 1937, war between Japan and China had begun. The Japanese did not follow any of the treaties regarding how to conduct warfare. During the battle at the city of Nanjing, it has been estimated that the Japanese army executed approximately 200,000 civilians and prisoners of war. Rape was commonplace and women were forced to act as prostitutes.

Hirohito did not order these actions but he did not punish the soldiers responsible. During the war, Hirohito did agree to the use of chemical weapons as well as the forced movement of peasants.

World War II

There is some debate over Hirohito’s position about war. Some scholars have claimed that he was a reluctant participant who could not stand up to the military while others claim he was active in planning the war in closed-door meetings with the military and his advisors.

The traditional view of Hirohito’s involvement is that he was a reluctant participant.

In September 1940, Japan entered into an alliance with Germany and Italy (known as the Tripartite Pact). Hirohito did not oppose this alliance but there is some evidence that he was not completely sure it was a good idea. The treaty stated that the three countries would come to one another’s aid if they were attacked by a country not already in the war. After the signing of the agreement, Japan sent troops into French Indochina which resulted in the United States no longer selling oil and steel to the Japanese.

He was starting to distrust the judgements of his military leaders who kept telling him that the war in China would soon come to an end.

On September 5, 1941, at the Imperial Conference, Hirohito broke protocol and asked questions to the chief army and navy officers present at the meeting. Hirohito was concerned about the plans to focus on war preparations instead of on diplomacy. Everyone at the meeting was in favour of war and on September 6, 1941, the decision was made to attack the United States. Hirohito did not oppose the move to declare war.

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and then attacked countries and territory in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Within seven months, the Japanese had conquered a lot of territory, including the Dutch East Indies, British Singapore, New Guinea, and the Philippines.

By June 1942, the Japanese success began to disappear and the Allied forces began to push Japan out of the territory it had conquered. Hirohito demanded greater effort from the Japanese military. A few months later, Hirohito signed the death warrant condemning a number of captured American pilots to death and others to life imprisonment.

Hirohito, when informed that the Japanese could not stop the American advance wanted to know where else the Japanese forces could attack and whether the Japanese forces were ever going to fight a decisive battle.

Between the years 1943 and 1945, most of the defeats Japanese suffered were reported as victories to the Japanese public. The Japanese public slowly realized the truth when they stated to experience shortages of basic goods as a result of attacks on Japanese shipping.

The Allies were soon in a position to start bombing Tokyo. The bombing further drove home the position Japan was in with regards to the war. Even though many buildings in the palace were destroyed by the bombing, Hirohito refused to leave the palace. Hirohito claimed he wanted to experience what the civilians were experiencing.

By the middle of 1944, it was evident that Japan would lose the war but they refused to surrender. Hirohito was concerned about Japanese civilians surrendering and feared that they would support the Americans by publicizing the generous treatment they would receive. During the Battle of Saipan in June 1944, Hirohito sent an imperial order commanding all Japanese civilians to commit suicide rather than be captured. Hirohito’s announcement claimed that anyone who committed suicide would be given a higher status in the afterlife. Over one thousand Japanese civilians committed suicide during this battle.

End of the War

It was now evident that Japan was in trouble and Hirohito held a number of meetings to discuss the next steps in the war. The vast majority of Hirohito’s advisors recommended continuing the war. In August 1945, the American forces dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Facing defeat, Hirohito made a historic radio broadcast to the Japanese public (Japanese emperors have never done this before) on August 15, 1945 stating that Japan was accepting the terms of surrender issued by the Americans.

After the War

Hirohito was willing to step down as emperor but General Douglas MacArthur (the man in charge of rebuilding Japan), felt it would be better for him to remain in place. A new constitution was put into placed requiring that elections would be held and political power would be held by the winners. Hirohito was also forced to admit that he was not divine. The Japanese believed that the emperor was divine and a descendent of the sun goddess Amaterasu.

There is some debate over whether he was guilty of war crimes but the American forces decided not to charge Hirohito for war crimes. They felt it would make reconstruction efforts more difficult. The debate regarding Hirohito’s war record continues up to today.

After the war, Hirohito held mainly a ceremonial position with little power. He died on January 7, 1989.