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Hirohito / Emperor Shōwa
裕仁 / 昭和天皇
Hirohito in dress uniform.jpg
Emperor of Japan
Reign December 25, 1926 –
January 7, 1989
Enthronement November 10, 1928
Predecessor Taishō
Successor Akihito
Prime Ministers
Spouse Empress Kōjun
Princess Teru
Princess Hisa
Princess Taka
Princess Yori
Emperor Akihito
Prince Hitachi
Princess Suga
Full name
Hirohito (裕仁)
House Imperial House of Japan
Father Taishō
Mother Teimei
Born (1901-04-29)April 29, 1901
Aoyama Palace, Tokyo, Japan
Died January 7, 1989(1989-01-07) (aged 87)
Fukiage Palace, Tokyo, Japan
Burial February 24, 1989
Hachiōji, Tokyo, Japan

Hirohito (裕仁), posthumously referred to as Emperor Shōwa (昭和天皇 Shōwa-tennō, April 29, 1901 – January 7, 1989) in Japan, was the 124th Emperor of Japan according to the traditional order, reigning from December 25, 1926, until his death in 1989. Although better known outside of Japan by his personal name Hirohito, in Japan he is now referred to primarily by his posthumous name Emperor Shōwa. The word Shōwa is the name of the era that corresponded with the Emperor's reign, and was made the Emperor's own name upon his death. The name 裕仁 means "abundant benevolence".

At the start of his reign, Japan was already one of the great powers — the ninth-largest economy in the world after Italy, the third-largest naval power, and one of the four permanent members of the council of the League of Nations. He was the head of state under the limitation of the Constitution of the Empire of Japan during Japan's imperial expansion, militarization, and involvement in World War II. After the war, he was not prosecuted for war crimes as many other leading government figures were, despite his involvement. During the postwar period, he became the symbol of the new state and Japan's recovery, and by the end of his reign, Japan had emerged as the world's second largest economy.

Early life

Hirohito in 1902 as an infant
Emperor Taishō's four sons in 1921 : Hirohito, Takahito, Nobuhito and Yasuhito

Born in Tokyo's Aoyama Palace, Hirohito was the first son of Crown Prince Yoshihito (the future Emperor Taishō) and Crown Princess Sadako (the future Empress Teimei). His childhood title was Prince Michi (迪宮 Michi no miya). In 1908, he began elementary studies at the Gakushūin (Peers School).

Prince Hirohito and British Prime Minister Lloyd George, 1921

When his grandfather, Emperor Meiji, died on July 30, 1912, Hirohito's father, Yoshihito, assumed the throne; Hirohito became the heir apparent. At the same time, he was formally commissioned in both the army and navy as a second lieutenant and ensign, respectively, and was also decorated with the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Chrysanthemum. In 1914, he was promoted to the ranks of lieutenant in the army and sub-lieutenant in the navy, then to captain and lieutenant in 1916. He was formally proclaimed Crown Prince and heir apparent on November 2, 1916; but an investiture ceremony was not strictly necessary to confirm this status as heir to the throne.

Hirohito attended the Y.M.C.A. of Gakushūin Peers' School from 1908 to 1914 and then a special institute for the crown prince (Tōgū-gogakumonsho) from 1914 to 1921. In 1920, Hirohito was promoted to the rank of Major in the army and Lieutenant Commander in the navy. In 1921, Hirohito took a six-month tour of Europe, including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium, becoming the first Japanese crown prince to travel abroad. After his return to Japan, he became Regent of Japan ( Sesshō) on November 29, 1921, in place of his ailing father who was affected by a mental illness.

During Hirohito's regency, a number of important events occurred:

In the Four-Power Treaty on Insular Possessions signed on December 13, 1921, Japan, the United States, Britain, and France agreed to recognize the status quo in the Pacific, and Japan and Britain agreed to terminate formally the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The Washington Naval Treaty was signed on February 6, 1922. Japan withdrew troops from the Siberian Intervention on August 28, 1922. The Great Kantō earthquake devastated Tokyo on September 1, 1923. On December 27, 1923, communist Daisuke Namba attempted to assassinate Hirohito in the Toranomon Incident but his attempt failed. The General Election Law was passed on May 5, 1925, giving all men above age 25 the right to vote.

In 1923, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the army and Commander in the navy, and to army Colonel and Navy Captain in 1925.

Marriage and issue

Prince Hirohito and his wife Princess Nagako

Prince Hirohito married his distant cousin Princess Nagako Kuni (the future Empress Kōjun), the eldest daughter of Prince Kuni Kuniyoshi, on January 26, 1924. They had two sons and five daughters. (see Issue)

The daughters who lived to adulthood left the imperial family as a result of the American reforms of the Japanese imperial household in October 1947 (in the case of Princess Higashikuni) or under the terms of the Imperial Household Law at the moment of their subsequent marriages (in the cases of Princesses Kazuko, Atsuko, and Takako).


On December 25, 1926, Hirohito assumed the throne upon his father, Yoshihito's, death. The Crown Prince was said to have received the succession (senso). The Taishō era's end and the Shōwa era's beginning (Enlightened Peace) were proclaimed. The deceased Emperor was posthumously renamed Emperor Taishō within days. Following Japanese custom, the new Emperor was never referred to by his given name, but rather was referred to simply as "His Majesty the Emperor" (天皇陛下 tennō heika), which may be shortened to "His Majesty" (陛下 heika). In writing, the Emperor was also referred to formally as "The Reigning Emperor" (今上天皇 kinjō tennō).

In November 1928, the Emperor's ascension was confirmed in ceremonies (sokui) which are conventionally identified as "enthronement" and "coronation" (Shōwa no tairei-shiki); but this formal event would have been more accurately described as a public confirmation that his Imperial Majesty possesses the Japanese Imperial Regalia, also called the Three Sacred Treasures, which have been handed down through the centuries.

Early reign

Emperor Hirohito after his enthronement ceremony in 1928, dressed in sokutai
Imperial Standard as Emperor
Hirohito in his early years as Emperor

The first part of Hirohito's reign took place against a background of financial crisis and 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 political violence.

Hirohito narrowly missed assassination by a hand grenade thrown by a Korean independence activist, Lee Bong-chang in Tokyo on January 9, 1932, in the Sakuradamon Incident.

Another notable case was the assassination of moderate Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi in 1932, which marked the end of civilian control of the military. This was followed by an attempted military coup in February 1936, the February 26 incident, mounted by junior Army officers of the Kōdōha faction who had the sympathy of many high-ranking officers including Prince Chichibu (Yasuhito) one of the Emperor's brothers. This revolt was occasioned by a loss of political support by the militarist faction in Diet elections. The coup resulted in the murder of a number of high government and Army officials.

When Chief Aide-de-camp Shigeru Honjō informed him of the revolt, the Emperor 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 rebellion within the 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, the Emperor told him "I Myself, will lead the Konoe Division and subdue them." The rebellion was suppressed following his orders on February 29.

Sino-Japanese War and World War II

The Emperor and the Imperial stallion Shirayuki (literally: 'white-snow')

Entering World War II

Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and parts of China in 1937 (the Second Sino-Japanese War). Hirohito never really objected to China's invasion. it had been 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 Soviet Union in the north. 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 Chinese resistance.

According to Akira Fujiwara, Hirohito personally ratified the Japanese Army's proposal to remove the constraints of international law on the treatment of Chinese prisoners on August 5. And the works of Yoshiaki Yoshimi and Seiya Matsuno show that the Emperor authorized, by specific orders (rinsanmei), the use of chemical weapons against the Chinese. 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 Japanese use of toxic gas.

On September 27, 1940, ostensibly under Hirohito's leadership, Japan formed Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, forming the Axis Powers. Before that, in July 1939, the Emperor quarreled with his brother, Prince Chichibu, who was visiting him three times a week to support the treaty, and reprimanded the army minister Seishirō Itagaki. But after the success of the Wehrmacht in Europe, the Emperor consented to the alliance.

On September 4, 1941, the Japanese Cabinet met to consider war plans prepared by Imperial General Headquarters, and decided that:

Our Empire, for the purpose of self-defense and self-preservation, will complete preparations for war ... [and is] ... resolved to go to war with the United States, Great Britain, and the French if necessary. Our Empire will concurrently take all possible diplomatic measures vis-à-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 French.

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, the Emperor had a meeting with the chief of staff of the army, Sugiyama, chief of staff of the navy, Osami Nagano, and Prime Minister Konoe. The Emperor questioned Sugiyama about the chances of success of an open war with the Occident. As Sugiyama answered positively, the Emperor scolded him:

—At the time of the 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 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."

Emperor Hirohito riding Shirayuki during an Army inspection in August 1938

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, the Emperor directly questioned the chiefs of the Army and Navy general staffs, which was quite an 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 Emperor 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.) 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":

The seas of the four directions—
all are born of one womb:
why, then, do the wind and waves rise in discord?

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 into Southeast Asia. During the third week of October, Sugiyama gave the Emperor a 51-page document, "Materials in Reply to the Throne", about the operational outlook for the war.

As war preparations continued, Prime Minister Konoe found himself more and more isolated and gave his resignation on October 16. He justified himself to his chief cabinet secretary, Kenji Tomita :

Of course His Majesty is a pacifist, and there is no doubt he wished to avoid war. When I told him that to initiate war was a mistake, he agreed. But the next day, he would tell me: "You were worried about it yesterday, but you do not have to worry so much." Thus, gradually, he began to lean toward war. And the next time I met him, he leaned even more toward. In short, I felt the Emperor was telling me: my prime minister does not understand military matters, I know much more. In short, the Emperor had absorbed the view of the army and navy high commands.

The army and the navy recommended 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 he was opposed to this.

The Emperor as head of the Imperial General Headquarters in 1943

Instead, the Emperor chose the hard-line General Hideki Tōjō, 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. Emperor Hirohito gave his consent to the war and then asked: "Are you going to provide justification for the war?" The decision for war (against United States) was presented for approval to Hirohito by General Tōjō, Naval Minister Admiral Shigetarō Shimada, and Japanese Foreign Minister Shigenori Tōgō.

On November 3, Nagano explained in detail the plan of the attack on Pearl Harbour to the Emperor. On November 5, Emperor Hirohito approved in imperial conference the operations plan for a war against the Occident and had many meetings with the military and Tōjō until the end of the month. On December 1, an Imperial Conference sanctioned the "War against the United States, United Kingdom and the Kingdom of the Netherlands." On December 8 (December 7 in Hawaii) 1941, in simultaneous attacks, Japanese forces struck at the US Fleet in Pearl Harbour and in the Philippines and began the invasion of Malaysia.

With the nation fully committed to the war, the Emperor took a keen interest in military progress and sought to boost morale. According to Akira Yamada and Akira Fujiwara, the Emperor 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 on Bataan. On February 9, March 19 and May 29, the Emperor 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 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 Tōjō, 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.
The Emperor with his wife empress Kōjun and their children in 1941

In the first six months of war, all the major engagements had been victories. As the tide turned in the summer of 1942 with the battle of Midway and the landing of the American forces on Guadalcanal and Tulagi in August, the Emperor recognized the potential danger and pushed the navy and the army for greater efforts. In September 1942, Emperor Hirohito signed the Imperial Rescript condemning to death American Fliers: Lieutenants Dean E. Hallmark and William G. Farrow and Corporal Harold A. Spatz and commuting to life sentences: Lieutenants Robert J. Meder, Chase Nielsen, Robert L. Hite and George Barr and Corporal Jacob DeShazer. When informed in August 1943 by Sugiyama that the American advance through the Solomon Islands could not be stopped, the Emperor asked his chief of staff to consider other places to attack : "When and where on are you ever going to put up a good fight? And when are you ever going to fight a decisive battle?" On August 24, the Emperor reprimanded Nagano and on September 11, he ordered Sugiyama to work with the Navy to implement better military preparation and give adequate supply to soldiers fighting in Rabaul.

Throughout the following years, the sequence of drawn and then decisively lost engagements was 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 Tōjō's government, two other prime ministers were appointed to continue the war effort, Kuniaki Koiso and Kantarō Suzuki—each with the formal approval of the Emperor. Both were unsuccessful and Japan was nearing defeat.

Civilian deaths and suicides

As the war turned against the Japanese, Hirohito personally found the threat of defection of Japanese civilians disturbing because there was a risk that live civilians would be surprised by generous U.S. treatment. Native Japanese sympathizers would hand the Americans a powerful propaganda weapon to subvert the "fighting spirit" of Japan in radio broadcasts. At the end of June 1944 during the Battle of Saipan, Hirohito sent out the first imperial order encouraging all Japanese civilians to commit suicide rather than be taken prisoner.

The Imperial order authorized Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito, the commander of Saipan, to promise civilians who died there an equal spiritual status in the afterlife with those of soldiers perishing in combat. General Tojo intercepted the order on June 30 and delayed its sending, but it was issued anyway the next day. By the time the Marines advanced on the north tip of the island, from 8–12 July, most of the damage had been done. Over 10,000 Japanese civilians committed suicide in the last days of the battle to take the offered privileged place in the afterlife, some jumping from "Suicide Cliff" and "Banzai Cliff".

Emperor and atomic bomb

Japan was doing basic research on the atomic bomb, However, even if according to one Japanese source, Hirohito would have been opposed to the atomic bomb plan from the beginning and thought that use of an atomic bomb would bring about the extermination of mankind , the Navy (F-go) and Army (Ni-go) atomic bomb research projects were in operation until the end of world war II.

On August 15, 1945, after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he made apparent reference to the atomic bomb in his Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War: "Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should We continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization." However, in his first ever press conference given in Tokyo in 1975, when he was asked what he thought of the bombing of Hiroshima, the Emperor answered: "It's very regrettable that nuclear bombs were dropped and I feel sorry for the citizens of Hiroshima but it couldn't be helped ( Shikata ga nai) because that happened in wartime."

Last days of the war

In early 1945, in the wake of the losses in Battle of Leyte, Emperor Hirohito began a series of individual meetings with senior government officials to consider the progress of the war. All but ex-Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe advised continuing the war. Konoe feared a communist revolution even more than defeat in war and urged a negotiated surrender. In February 1945, during the first private audience with the Emperor which he had been allowed in three years, Konoe advised Hirohito to begin negotiations to end the war. According to Grand Chamberlain Hisanori Fujita, the Emperor, still looking for a tennozan (a great victory) in order to provide a stronger bargaining position, firmly rejected Konoe's recommendation.

With each passing week a great victory 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 strategy was officially affirmed at a brief Imperial Council meeting, at which, as was normal, the Emperor did not speak.

The following day, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Kōichi Kido prepared a draft document which summarized the hopeless military situation and proposed a negotiated settlement. According to some commentators, the Emperor privately approved of it and authorized Kido to circulate it discreetly amongst less hawkish cabinet members; others suggest that the Emperor was indecisive, and that the delay cost many tens of thousands of lives. Extremists in Japan were also calling for a death-before-dishonor mass suicide, modeled on the " 47 Ronin" incident. By mid-June 1945, the cabinet had agreed to approach the Soviet Union to act as a mediator for a negotiated surrender, but not before Japan's bargaining position had been improved by repulse of the anticipated Allied invasion of mainland Japan.

On June 22, the Emperor met with 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. On July 26, 1945, the Allies issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding unconditional surrender. The Japanese government council, the Big Six, considered that option and recommended to the Emperor that it be accepted only if one to four conditions were agreed, including a guarantee of the Emperor's continued position in Japanese society. The Emperor decided not to surrender.

On August 9, 1945, following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet declaration of war, Emperor 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 did not compromise any demand which prejudiced the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler.

On August 12, 1945, the Emperor informed the imperial family of his decision to surrender. One of his uncles, Prince Asaka, asked whether the war would be continued if the kokutai (national polity) could not be preserved. The Emperor simply replied "of course." On August 14, the Suzuki government notified the Allies that it had accepted the Potsdam Declaration. On August 15, a recording of the Emperor's surrender speech was broadcast over the radio (the first time the Emperor was heard on the radio by the Japanese people) signifying the unconditional surrender of Japan's military forces. The historic broadcast is known as the Gyokuon-hōsō ("Jewel Voice Broadcast").

Objecting to the surrender, die-hard army fanatics attempted a coup d'état by conducting a full military assault and takeover of the Imperial Palace. Known as the Kyūjō Incident, the physical recording of the surrender speech was hidden and preserved overnight, and the coup was quickly crushed on the Emperor's order.

The surrender speech noted that "the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage" and ordered the Japanese to "endure the unendurable" in surrender. It was the first time the public had heard the Emperor's voice. The speech, using formal, archaic Japanese was not readily understood by many commoners. According to historian Richard Storry in A History of Modern Japan, the Emperor typically used "a form of language familiar only to the well-educated" and to the more traditional samurai families.

Issue of the Emperor's responsibility for war crimes

Many historians see Emperor Hirohito as responsible for the atrocities committed by the imperial forces in the Second Sino-Japanese War and in World War II and feel that he, some members of the imperial family such as his brother Prince Chichibu, his cousins Prince Takeda and Prince Fushimi, and his uncles Prince Kan'in, Prince Asaka, and Prince Higashikuni, should have been tried for war crimes.

The issue of Hirohito's responsibility for war crimes is a debate regarding how much real control the Emperor had over the Japanese military during the two wars. Officially, the imperial constitution, adopted under Emperor Meiji, gave full power to the Emperor. Article 4 prescribed that, "The Emperor is the head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty, and exercises them, according to the provisions of the present Constitution," while, according to article 6, "The Emperor gives sanction to laws and orders them to be promulgated and executed," and article 11, "The Emperor has the supreme command of the Army and the Navy." The Emperor was thus the leader of the Imperial General Headquarters.

What is known is gas weapons, such as phosgene, were produced by Unit 731 and authorized by specific orders given by Hirohito himself, transmitted by the chief of staff of the army. For example, Hirohito authorised the use of toxic gas on 375 separate occasions during the battle of Wuhan from August to October 1938.

In 1971, David Bergamini showed how primary sources, such as the " Sugiyama memo" and the diaries of Kido and Konoe, describe in detail the informal meetings Emperor Hirohito had with his chiefs of staff and ministers. Bergamini concluded that the Emperor was kept informed of all main military operations and that he frequently questioned his senior staff and asked for changes.

Historians such as Herbert Bix, Akira Fujiwara, Peter Wetzler, and Akira Yamada assert that the post-war view focusing on imperial conferences misses the importance of numerous "behind the chrysanthemum curtain" meetings where the real decisions were made between the Emperor, his chiefs of staff, and the cabinet. Historians such as Fujiwara and Wetzler, 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 neither bellicose nor a pacifist, but an opportunist who governed in a pluralistic decision-making process. American historian Herbert P. Bix argues that Emperor Hirohito might have been the prime mover of most of the events of the two wars.

The view promoted by both the Japanese Imperial Palace and the American occupation forces immediately after World War II portrayed Emperor Hirohito as a powerless figurehead behaving strictly according to protocol, while remaining at a distance from the decision-making processes. This view was endorsed by Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita in a speech on the day of Hirohito's death, in which Takeshita asserted that the war had broken out against (Hirohito's) wishes. Takeshita's statement provoked outrage in nations in East Asia and Commonwealth nations such as the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. For historian Fujiwara, however, "the thesis that the Emperor, as an organ of responsibility, could not reverse cabinet decision, is a myth fabricated after the war."

In Japan, debate over the Emperor's responsibility was taboo while he was still alive. After his death, however, debate began to surface over the extent of his involvement and thus his culpability.

In the years immediately after Hirohito's death, the debate in Japan was fierce. Susan Chira reported that, "Scholars who have spoken out against the late Emperor have received threatening phone calls from Japan's extremist right wing." One example of actual violence occurred in 1990 when the mayor of Nagasaki, Hitoshi Motoshima, was shot and critically wounded by a member of the ultranationalist group, Seikijuku; Motoshima managed to recover from the attack. In 1989, Motoshima had broken what was characterized as "one of (Japan's) most sensitive taboos" by asserting that Emperor Hirohito bore responsibility for World War II.

Kentaro Awaya argues that post-war Japanese public opinion supporting protection of the Emperor was influenced by U.S. propaganda promoting the view that the Emperor together with the Japanese people had been fooled by the military.

Postwar reign

Gaetano Faillace's photo of General MacArthur and the Emperor at Allied GHQ in Tokyo. September 17, 1945.

As the Emperor chose his uncle Prince Higashikuni as prime minister to assist the occupation, there were attempts by numerous leaders to have him put on trial for alleged war crimes. Many members of the imperial family, such as Princes Chichibu, Takamatsu and Higashikuni, pressured the Emperor to abdicate so that one of the Princes could serve as regent until Crown Prince Akihito came of age. On February 27, 1946, the emperor's youngest brother, Prince Mikasa (Takahito), 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 Emperor Hirohito retain the throne. MacArthur saw the emperor as a symbol of the continuity and cohesion of the Japanese people. Some historians criticize the decision to exonerate the Emperor and all members of the imperial family who were implicated in the war, such as Prince Chichibu, Prince Asaka, Prince Higashikuni and Prince Hiroyasu Fushimi, from criminal prosecutions.

Before the war crime trials actually convened, the SCAP, the IPS, and Japanese officials worked behind the scenes not only to prevent the Imperial family from being indicted, but also to slant the testimony of the defendants to ensure that no one implicated the emperor. High officials in court circles and the Japanese government collaborated with Allied GHQ in compiling lists of prospective war criminals, while the individuals arrested as Class A suspects and incarcerated solemnly vowed to protect their sovereign against any possible taint of war responsibility. Thus, "months before the Tokyo tribunal commenced, MacArthur's highest subordinates were working to attribute ultimate responsibility for Pearl Harbour to Hideki Tōjō" by allowing "the major criminal suspects to coordinate their stories so that the Emperor would be spared from indictment." According to John W. Dower, "This successful campaign to absolve the Emperor of war responsibility knew no bounds. Hirohito was not merely presented as being innocent of any formal acts that might make him culpable to indictment as a war criminal, he was turned into an almost saintly figure who did not even bear moral responsibility for the war." According to Bix, "MacArthur's truly extraordinary measures to save Hirohito from trial as a war criminal had a lasting and profoundly distorting impact on Japanese understanding of the lost war."

Imperial status

The Emperor visited Hiroshima in 1947.

The Emperor was not put on trial, but he was forced to explicitly reject (in the Ningen-sengen (人間宣言)) the State Shinto claim that the Emperor of Japan was an arahitogami, i.e., an incarnate divinity. This was motivated by the fact that, according to the Japanese constitution of 1889, the Emperor had a divine power over his country, which was derived from the shinto belief that the Japanese Imperial Family was the offspring of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Hirohito was however persistent in the idea that the emperor of Japan should be considered a descendant of the gods. In December 1945 he told his vice-grand chamberlain Michio Kinoshita: "It is permissible to say that the idea that the Japanese are descendants of the gods is a false conception; but it is absolutely impermissible to call chimerical the idea that the emperor is a descendant of the gods." In any case, the "renunciation of divinity" was noted more by foreigners than by Japanese, and seems to have been intended for the consumption of the former. The theory of a constitutional monarchy had already had some proponents in Japan. In 1935, when Tatsukichi Minobe advocated the theory that sovereignty resides in the states, of which the emperor is just an organ (the tennō kikan setsu), it caused a furor. He was forced to resign from the House of Peers and his post at the Tokyo Imperial University, his books were banned and an attempt was made on his life. Not until 1946 was the tremendous step made to alter the Emperor's title from "imperial sovereign" to "constitutional monarch".

Although the Emperor had supposedly repudiated claims to 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 him as a European-style monarch.

While Emperor 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.

The Empress, First Lady Betty Ford, the Emperor and U.S. President Gerald Ford at the White House prior to a state dinner held in honour of the Japanese head of state for the first time. October 2, 1975.

For the rest of his life, Emperor 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.

The Emperor and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Tokyo, November 9, 1983

Emperor Hirohito also played an important role in rebuilding Japan's diplomatic image, traveling abroad to meet with many foreign leaders, including Queen Elizabeth II (1971) and President Gerald Ford (1975).

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

Yasukuni Shrine

Emperor Hirohito maintained an official boycott of the Yasukuni Shrine after it was revealed to him that Class-A war criminals had secretly been enshrined after its post-war rededication. This boycott lasted from 1978 until the time of his death. This boycott has been maintained by his son Akihito, who has also refused to attend Yasukuni.

On July 20, 2006, Nihon Keizai Shimbun published a front page article about the discovery of a memorandum detailing the reason that the Emperor stopped visiting Yasukuni. The memorandum, kept by former chief of Imperial Household Agency Tomohiko Tomita, confirms for the first time that the enshrinement of 14 Class A War Criminals in Yasukuni was the reason for the boycott. Tomita recorded in detail the contents of his conversations with the emperor in his diaries and notebooks. According to the memorandum, in 1988, the emperor expressed his strong displeasure at the decision made by Yasukuni Shrine to include Class-A war criminals in the list of war dead honored there by saying, "At some point, Class-A criminals became enshrined, including Matsuoka and Shiratori. I heard Tsukuba acted cautiously." Tsukuba is believed to refer to Fujimaro Tsukuba, the former chief Yasukuni priest at the time, who decided not to enshrine the war criminals despite having received in 1966 the list of war dead compiled by the government. "What's on the mind of Matsudaira's son, who is the current head priest?" "Matsudaira had a strong wish for peace, but the child didn't know the parent's heart. That's why I have not visited the shrine since. This is my heart." Matsudaira is believed to refer to Yoshitami Matsudaira, who was the grand steward of the Imperial Household immediately after the end of World War II. His son, Nagayoshi, succeeded Fujimaro Tsukuba as the chief priest of Yasukuni and decided to enshrine the war criminals in 1978. Nagayoshi Matsudaira died in 2006, which some commentators have speculated is the reason for release of the memo.

For journalist Masanori Yamaguchi, who analyzed the "memo" and comments made by the emperor in his first-ever press conference in 1975, the emperor's evasive and opaque attitude about his own responsibility for the war and the fact he said that the bombing of Hiroshima "could not be helped","-Does your majesty feel responsibility for the war itself, including the opening of hostilities ? -I can't answer that kind of question because I haven't thoroughly studied the literature in this field, and so I don't really appreciate the nuances of your words." could mean that the emperor was afraid that the enshrinement of the war criminals at Yasukuni would reignite the debate over his own responsibility for the war.

Death and state funeral

Hirohito's tomb in Hachiōji, Tokyo

On September 22, 1987, the Emperor underwent surgery on his pancreas after having digestive problems for several months. The doctors discovered that he had duodenal cancer. The emperor appeared to be making a full recovery for several months after the 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 7:55 AM, the grand steward of Japan's Imperial Household Agency, Shoichi Fujimori, officially announced the death of Emperor Hirohito, and revealed details about his cancer for the first time. The emperor was succeeded by his son, Akihito.

The emperor's death ended the Shōwa era. On the same day a new era began: the Heisei era, effective at midnight the following day. From January 7, until January 31, the emperor's formal appellation was Taikō Tennō (大行天皇 ?, "Departed Emperor"). His definitive posthumous name, Shōwa Tennō (昭和天皇 ?), was determined on January 13 and formally released on January 31 by Toshiki Kaifu, the prime minister.

On February 24, Emperor Hirohito's state funeral was held, and unlike that of his predecessor, it was formal but not conducted in a strictly Shinto manner. A large number of world leaders attended the funeral, including King Juan Carlos I of Spain, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, King Baudouin of Belgium, King Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV, King Hussein of Jordan, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan, Grand Duke Jean of Luxembourg, Secretary-General of the United Nations Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, U.S. President George H. W. Bush, French President François Mitterrand, The Duke of Edinburgh, and many others. Emperor Hirohito is buried in the Imperial mausoleum in Hachiōji, alongside Emperor Taishō, his father.

Titles and styles

Monarchical styles of
Emperor Shōwa
Imperial Seal of Japan.svg
Reference style His Imperial Majesty
Spoken style Your Imperial Majesty
Alternative style Sir
  • 29 April 1901 – 30 July 1912: His Imperial Highness The Prince Michi
  • 30 July 1912 – 29 November 1921: His Imperial Highness The Crown Prince of Japan
  • 29 November 1921 – 25 December 1926: His Imperial Highness The Regent of Japan
  • 25 December 1926 – 7 January 1989: His Imperial Majesty The Emperor of Japan
  • Posthumous title: His Imperial Majesty Emperor Shōwa


National honours

  • Collar and Grand Cordon of the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum
  • Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun with Paulownia Blossoms
  • Grand Cordon of the Order of the Golden Kite (abolished in 1947)
  • Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure

Foreign honours

  •  Brazil : Grand Cross of the Order of the Southern Cross
  •  Poland : Order of the White Eagle (Poland)
  •  Finland : Grand Cross with Collar of the Order of the White Rose of Finland; conferred in 1942 (Finland and Japan were on the same side in World War II 1941–1944), the swastika collar was replaced by fir cross collar within the state visit of the president of Finland Mauno Koivisto in 1986
  •  Italy : Knight Grand Cross with Collar of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic
  •  Norway : Grand Cross with Collar of the Order of St. Olav
  •  Spain : Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece
  •  Sweden : Knight of the Royal Order of the Seraphim
  •  United Kingdom : Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCVO) – conferred in May 1921, revoked in 1941
  •  United Kingdom : Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB) – conferred in May 1921, revoked in 1941.
  •  United Kingdom : Knight of the Order of the Garter (KG); conferred in 1929, revoked in 1941, restored in 1971
  •  United Kingdom : Honorary General in the British Army; conferred in May 1921
  •  United Kingdom : Honorary Field-Marshal in the British Army; conferred in June 1930, revoked in 1941.
  •  United Kingdom : Fellow of the Royal Society of London


Image Name Birth Marriage Issue
Teru-no-miya Shigeko 1941-nihongami.jpg Princess Teru December 6, 1925
died, July 23, 1961
October 10, 1943 Prince Morihiro Higashikuni Prince Nobuhiko Higashikuni
Princess Fumiko Higashikuni
Naohiko Higashikuni
Hidehiko Higashikuni
Yuko Higashikuni
Princess Sachiko.jpg Princess Hisa September 10, 1927
died, March 6, 1928
Takatsukasa Wedding 1950.jpg Princess Taka September 30, 1929
died, May 28, 1989
May 21, 1950 Toshimichi Takatsukasa Naotake Takatsukasa (adopted)
Princess Atsuko.jpg Princess Yori March 7, 1931 October 10, 1952 Takamasa Ikeda
Emperor Akihito cropped Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko 20090715 2.jpg Emperor Akihito December 23, 1933 April 10, 1959 Michiko Shōda Crown Prince Naruhito
Prince Akishino
Princess Nori
Prince Masahito and Princess Takako 1952-12.jpg Prince Hitachi November 28, 1935 September 30, 1964 Hanako Tsugaru
Crown Prince Akihito & Princess Takako1950-9.jpg Princess Suga March 2, 1939 March 3, 1960 Hisanga Shimazu Yoshihisa Shimazu


Scientific publications

  • (1967) A review of the hydroids of the family Clathrozonidae with description of a new genus and species from Japan.
  • (1969) Some hydroids from the Amakusa Islands.
  • (1971) Additional notes on Clathrozoon wilsoni Spencer.
  • (1974) Some hydrozoans of the Bonin Islands
  • (1977) Five hydroid species from the Gulf of Aqaba, Red Sea.
  • (1983) Hydroids from Izu Oshima and Nijima.
  • (1984) A new hydroid Hydractinia bayeri n. sp. (family Hydractiniidae) from the Bay of Panama.
  • (1988) The hydroids of Sagami Bay collected by His Majesty the Emperor of Japan.
  • (1995) The hydroids of Sagami Bay II. (posthumous)
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