Hirohito or Hiro-Hito (裕仁), born on April 29, 1901 in Tokyo and died on January 7, 1989 in the same city, was Emperor of Japan from December 25, 1926 until his death.
Although the name "Hirohito" is customary in the West, in Japan he is referred to, since his death, by his posthumous reign name, Shōwa Tennō (昭和天皇, "Emperor Shōwa").
The son of Emperor Taishō and Empress Teimei, brother of Princes Yasuhito Chichibu, Nobuhito Takamatsu, and Takahito Mikasa, he is the 124th emperor according to Shinto tradition.
His reign, the longest in Japanese history (62 years), defines the Shōwa (昭和) era from which he takes his posthumous name.
Emperor Shōwa was one of the major figures of World War II; along with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, he was one of the three major Axis leaders.
The question of his personal responsibility for Japan's military activities and war crimes in Asia before and during World War II has been of great political importance and the subject of much historical scholarship.
The Americans, while temporarily occupying Japan at the end of the war, decided nevertheless to maintain him at the head of an empire in which he had only a symbolic role. He remained emperor for almost forty-five years after the end of the war, without ever being worried.
Prince Hirohito was born on April 29, 1901 in the Aoyama Palace in Tokyo, the first son of Crown Prince Yoshihito (the future Emperor Taishō) and Princess Sadako.
He will be the first emperor in a hundred years whose biological mother is the official wife of his predecessor.
His given name (名前, namae), Hirohito, is composed of the kanji 裕仁 meaning "wealth, abundance, fertility" and "virtue," with the second character hito entering into the composition of the name of virtually all male children of the Japanese imperial family since the 10th century.
Hirohito bore the honorary title (御称号, goshōgō) of Prince Michi (迪宮, Michi-no-miya) in his youth.
In accordance with tradition, he was separated from his parents and entrusted, together with his younger brother Yasuhito (the future prince Chichibu) to the care of a retired admiral, Count Kawamura Sumiyoshi, and his wife.
He was also educated at a special institution for the children of the imperial family located in the detached palace of Akasaka until 1908,
and then at the boys' school of the Gakushūin School Company (educational institutions dedicated to the children of the kazoku) from 1908 to 1914 (his teacher there was the former general Maresuke Nogi,
a figure in the Russo-Japanese War, now principal of Gakushūin and an admirer of bushido rules) and finished his training at a special institution established within the Crown Prince's House, the Crown Prince's House Educational Supervision Center (東宮御学問所, Tōgū-gogakumonsho ).
There he received military training from Admiral and Marquis Heihachirō Tōgō (who was the commander of the Imperial Navy during the Russo-Japanese War),
moral, philosophical, and religious training (such as Confucian morality, Shinto theology, and Imperial family history, as well as an introduction to Herbert Spencer's theories of natural selection and social Darwinism, and more broadly to science and the French language) by Shigetake Sugiura
and the historical work of the sinologist Kurakichi Shiratori, all of them fervent nationalists but also defenders of a monarchy which is certainly divine but constitutional and parliamentary, on the model of the reign of the Meiji emperor (especially Sugiura).
The death of Emperor Meiji on July 30, 1912 made him the heir to the crown. He was formally invested with the title of Crown Prince on November 2, 1916.
In 1921, he undertook a six-month trip to Europe, the first by a prince of the Japanese empire, visiting the United Kingdom, France, Italy, the Papal States, the Netherlands and Belgium.
On his return, Hirohito became regent of Japan on November 29, 1921, following the health problems of his father, who had a brain disease, the result of meningitis contracted as a child.
He familiarized himself with his future function by fulfilling the daily obligations of his father: reading the opening of the annual session of the Imperial Diet, signing acts, decrees and laws, celebrating Shinto rituals.
He received foreign official guests, such as Marshal Joffre and the Prince of Wales Edward (future Edward VIII) in 1922. The doctor of law, sociologist and jurist Jean Ray became his tutor in 1922.
His political initiation was then taken in hand by the former Prime Minister Kinmochi Saionji, the last living genrō (an honorary title given to certain statesmen of the Meiji era whose mission was to advise the emperor directly, notably for the appointment of heads of government), from 1924 onwards and a liberal who admired the British and American political systems.
Hirohito's regency was the first experience of parliamentary democracy in Japan, with four civilian prime ministers out of six during this period (Korekiyo Takahashi from 1921 to 1922, Kiyoura Keigo in 1924, Takaaki Katō from 1924 to 1926 and Reijirō Wakatsuki from 1926 to 1927)
and several liberal reforms, including the 1925 reform of the House of Peers, which opened it up to certain commoners and reduced its political weight in favour of the House of Representatives, and the introduction of universal male suffrage by the law of 29 March 1925.
On January 26, 1924, he married Princess Kuni Nagako (titled since her death Empress Kōjun), from a minor branch (王家, Ōke) of the imperial family, to whom he had become engaged on June 19, 1921, and despite strong opposition from chamberlains and court officials.
Indeed, the young woman was the first wife of an heir (and future emperor) not to come from one of the five sekke branches (upper class of the Japanese court aristocracy) of the Fujiwara clan (Ichijō, Kujō, Nijō, Konoe and Takatsukasa) since the early seventh century.
Upon the death of Emperor Taishō on December 25, 1926, Hirohito succeeded him on the Chrysanthemum Throne, and a new era was immediately proclaimed: Shōwa (Radiant Peace).
According to Japanese custom, the emperor does not bear a name during his reign and is usually referred to as Kinjō Tennō, or "the present emperor."
The name by which he would be referred to after his death, however, is known from the beginning of his reign, as it is the very name of the era coinciding with his reign:
Shōwa Tennō (昭和天皇) i.e. Emperor Shōwa. Outside of Japan, books and newspapers mostly continue to refer to the emperor by his personal name "Hirohito" - even after his death - even though all previous emperors of Japan are commonly referred to by the same sources by their posthumous reign names.
This practice can be considered in Japan as a lack of respect to the late emperor. The new emperor was enthroned on November 10, 1928 in Kyoto.
The 1920s and 1930s were marked by continued violence between the two main nationalist factions within the imperial army, the Kōdōha (radical, favoring expansion into Asia and a totalitarian, militaristic government) and the Tōseiha (more moderate),
and, initially, to the establishment of a form of parliamentary democracy based on a two-party system between the Rikken Minseitō (Constitutional Democratic Party, moderate liberal) and the Rikken Seiyūkai (Brotherhood of Constitutional Government, conservative liberal).
The assassination of Premier Tsuyoshi Inukai in 1932 was a major event, which led to the end of the council of ministers' control of the Guandong army.
After six civilian prime ministers had succeeded each other between 1924 and 1932, the emperor again appointed a military man to head the Cabinet of Japan.
Earlier, a series of incidents orchestrated by Guandong army officers had led to the invasion of Manchuria in 1931.
The government and the emperor were initially angered by the insubordination of the troops, but eventually endorsed the occupation because of the territorial gains made.
In 1936, during the February 26 incident, young Kōdōha officers organized an attempted coup. This insurgency was in response to the military faction's loss of influence in the Diet following the elections.
The attempt ended with the assassination of several senior officers and members of the government and was aborted when the emperor resolutely opposed the insurgents by threatening to take over the imperial guard himself.
In 1936, the emperor authorized by imperial decree the expansion of Shiro Ishii's bacteriological research unit and its incorporation into the Guandong army.
This "Unit 731" carried out experiments and vivisections on several thousand Chinese, Korean and Russian prisoners, including women and children.
The invasion of the rest of China from 1937 onwards gave rise to countless atrocities against the civilian population.
These were made possible by the emperor's decision in August 1937 to approve a directive proposing the suspension of the application of international conventions on the rights of prisoners of war.
Among these atrocities, the most famous are the Nanjing Massacre and the Three All Policy (三光作戦, Sankō Sakusen, "kill all, burn all, loot all"), a scorched-earth strategy that resulted in the deaths of 2.7 million Chinese from the Hebei and Shandong regions beginning in May 1942.
Military archives and the diary of General Sugiyama, commented on by several Japanese historians such as Yoshiaki Yoshimi and Seiya Matsuno , as well as Herbert P. Bix, further indicate that Emperor Shōwa reserved control of chemical weapons for himself, authorizing their use against civilians on numerous occasions, particularly in China.
These authorizations were given through specific imperial directives (rinsanmei) transmitted to the generals through the army chief of staff, Prince Kotohito Kan'in, and then General Hajime Sugiyama (beginning in 1940).
From September to October 1938, the emperor authorized the use of poison gas on 375 occasions during the battle of Wuhan. In March 1939, General Yasuji Okamura was authorized to use 15,000 canisters of poison gas in Shandong.
In the spring of 1939, the Nomonhan incident led to an attack by the Soviet Union. This invasion attempt ended in a bitter failure of the imperial forces and forced the emperor to conclude a non-aggression pact which led Japan to move definitively southward, then towards the United States.
From 1938 to 1940, the emperor supported the position of the naval staff and resisted the temptation to open a new front as the army staff would have wished. In 1941, after the successes of the Wehrmacht in Europe, he was finally convinced by the supporters, including his brother Yasuhito Chichibu, of a military alliance with Nazi Germany.
In the autumn of 1941, when Japan had to face the consequences of the oil embargo finally imposed by the United States for its refusal to withdraw from China, the emperor called for a series of imperial conferences to discuss the possibility of declaring war on countries other than China.
On September 4, 1941, the Japanese cabinet met to discuss the war plans prepared by the imperial headquarters and decided the following:
"Our Empire, in order to ensure its own defense and to preserve itself, will prepare for war...[and is]...resolved to go to war with the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands if necessary.
At the same time, our Empire will undertake all possible diplomatic initiatives towards the United States and Great Britain, and will thus endeavor to achieve its objectives...
In the event that these diplomatic negotiations leave no hope of our demands being fulfilled before the first ten days of October, we will decide on the immediate outbreak of hostilities against the United States, Great Britain and the Netherlands."
The "objectives" to be achieved were clearly spelled out: a free hand to pursue the conquest of China and Southeast Asia, no increase in American or British military forces, and cooperation from the West in "acquiring the products our Empire needs."
On September 5, Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe informally submitted this draft resolution to the emperor, on the eve of the imperial conference that was to endorse it.
The latter then called the army and navy chiefs of staff to a private meeting, during which he told them of his uncertainty as to the relevance of opening a new front against the West. Apostrophizing General Sugiyama, he reminded them that his staff had promised him that the war with China would be over in three months.
Admiral Osami Nagano, Chief of Naval Staff, former Minister of the Navy and a very experienced officer, later reported to a trusted colleague: "I have never seen the emperor reprimand us like this, his face had become flushed and he raised his voice.
At the imperial conference the next day, the speakers were rather divided, the navy judging a large-scale war to be premature, while the army was in favor of it.
The chiefs of staff, on the other hand, were united in their support for the war. Baron Yoshimichi Hara, chairman of the Imperial Council and representative of the emperor, questioned them carefully, obtaining from some the answer that war should be considered as a last resort, and from others silence.
It is at this moment that the monarch surprises the assembly by addressing it in person. The emperor emphasized the importance of continuing international negotiations and then recited a poem written by his grandfather, Emperor Meiji.
A few weeks later, Konoe, opposed to the war against the West, handed in his resignation to the emperor. To replace him, the unanimous choice of the staff was Prince Naruhiko Higashikuni, uncle of the emperor.
The latter rejected this choice indicating that the imperial family should not be exposed to take the blame in case of armed conflict. Instead, he chose General Hideki Tōjō, minister of the army and supporter of a hard-line policy but known for his devotion to the imperial institution.
After asking Tōjō to reevaluate the appropriateness of opening a new front, Shōwa sided with the warmongers at a November 2 meeting in which Tōjō, Sugiyama, and Nagano argued to him that the review of national policy had led to the same conclusion.
The next day and in the weeks that followed, the emperor analyzed in detail with his staff the plan of attack against the "United States, Great Britain, and Holland," the implementation of which was decided upon at an imperial conference on December 1.
On December 8, 1941 (December 7 for Hawaii), a combined attack by Japanese forces struck the U.S. fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor and triggered the invasion of Southeast Asia, marking the beginning of the Pacific War.
Once the nation was fully engaged in the war, the emperor took a keen interest in the progress of military operations and sought to bolster the morale of his troops.
The first phase of the war brought only good news to the Japanese. From the time of the ebb (late 1942-early 1943) until the time of the surrender, he continued to receive from the military an accurate description of the situation.
At the same time, the propaganda presented the public with battles with an undecided or lost outcome as great victories. The reality, much less glowing, appears only gradually to the inhabitants of the archipelago.
The air raids launched in 1944 by the United States finally revealed the phantasmagorical aspect of these victories. Later that year, the government of Hideki Tōjō was forced to resign.
Two prime ministers succeeded each other to continue the war effort, Kuniaki Koiso and Kantaro Suzuki, again with the emperor's consent. Neither of them can ward off the approach of defeat.
Following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in direct reaction to the Soviet Union's invasion of Manchukuo, the Emperor called for an imperial conference on the night of August 9-10,
during which he announced his intention to accept the terms of the Potsdam ultimatum on condition that the declaration of surrender "does not infringe upon the prerogatives of His Majesty as Sovereign.
On August 12, the emperor informed the imperial family of his decision, and on August 14, 1945, he addressed his subjects directly for the first time in a radio address in which he acknowledged Japan's surrender (an address known as Gyokuon-hōsō).
He finally appoints his uncle Prince Naruhiko Higashikuni as prime minister to handle the surrender of Japan.
As Supreme Allied Commander, Douglas MacArthur met with Emperor Hirohito on September 27, 1945.
During the meeting, he made it clear that the Allies could be "understanding" if the imperial entourage showed full cooperation.
Through this cooperation, the emperor and the members of the imperial family would be exonerated from any criminal prosecution before the Tokyo Tribunal.
Many historians criticize these efforts to exonerate the emperor and all members of the imperial family involved in the conduct of the war.
According to John W. Dower, "This successful campaign to absolve the Emperor of responsibility for the war knew no bounds. Hirohito was not only presented as innocent of any formal action that might have made him liable to indictment as a war criminal.
He was transformed into a saintly icon who bore no moral responsibility for the war.
According to Herbert P. Bix, "the truly extraordinary measures undertaken by MacArthur to save Hirohito from trial as a war criminal had a persistent and deeply distorting impact on Japanese understanding of the lost war"
and "months before the Tribunal began its work, MacArthur's most senior subordinates were working to assign ultimate responsibility for the attack on Pearl Harbor to Hideki Tojo.
Thus, "immediately upon his arrival in Japan, (Brigadier General) Bonner Fellers went to work to protect Hirohito from the role he had played during and at the end of the war" and "allowed the major war criminals to coordinate their version of events so that the Emperor would escape indictment. "
On 1 January 1946, in the radio address "Ningen-sengen", the emperor renounced his nature as a "deity in human form" (arahitogami).
A new constitution was put in place on 3 May 1947, which deprived the emperor of all political power, and even of the title of Head of State, which was replaced by that of Symbol of the State.
Until 1951, MacArthur could be considered the effective ruler of Japan. With the end of the American occupation, the emperor, deprived of his role as commander-in-chief of the armies and of all political power in favor of the government by the constitution of May 3, 1947, became a symbolic figure, in accordance with the role attributed to him by legend during the war.
He was also the first reigning Japanese emperor to make official visits abroad, during a tour of Europe from September to October 1971 and to the United States in 1975. He also made regular trips to all 47 prefectures of Japan during the second half of his reign.
From 1978, the emperor stopped his visits to the Yasukuni shrine, dedicated to the soldiers who died for the fatherland. The nationalists attributed this stop to a desire to avoid the controversies on religion that these visits provoked, while the others attributed it to the transfer of the ashes of war criminals.
The issue was recently settled with the publication by the daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun of a note from the Chief Steward of the Imperial Affairs Agency, Tomohiko Tomita,
who put into writing Emperor Shōwa's words motivating the end of his pilgrimage to this shrine by the transfer in 1978 of the names of supporters of the alliance with Nazi Germany who were convicted as Class A war criminals by the Tokyo Tribunal.
"I heard about the transfer of the ashes of the Class A [war criminals], including Matsuoka and Shiratori [both staunch supporters of the alliance with Hitler and Mussolini].
However, I heard that [Fujimaro] Tsukuba [former shrine director] handled this [transfer] matter with caution. The son of [Yoshitami] Matsudaira [former minister of the Imperial Household], who is the current director of Yasukuni, made the transfer without thinking.
I think Matsudaira was very keen on peace, but his son ignored his father's spirit. For this reason, I have not gone there on pilgrimage since then; this is my feeling.
For journalist Masanori Yamaguchi, who analyzed the Tomita memo in light of Hirohito's statements at his 1975 press conference,
the emperor's "opaque and evasive" attitude about his responsibility for the war and his statement that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima "could not be prevented" demonstrates that he feared that the enthronement of the criminals at the shrine might reopen the question of his personal responsibility for the crimes of the Shōwa regime.
After more than 62 years of rule, Emperor Hirohito died at the Kōkyo (Imperial Palace in Tokyo) on January 7, 1989, at the age of 87. His son, Crown Prince Akihito, succeeded him immediately, and on the same day the Shōwa era ended, replaced by the Heisei ("the achievement of peace") era.
The deceased emperor is officially called Taikō Tennō (大行天皇, the "emperor on the great departure"), until January 31 when the Japanese government formally announces his final reign name:
Shōwa Tennō. Unsurprisingly, this name conforms to the tradition established since 1912 of naming the emperor's reign name after the era in which he ruled. He was buried on February 24, 1989 in the Musashino Mausoleum (武蔵野 陵, Musashino-no-Misasagi), adjacent to his parents' mausoleums,
in the city of Hachiōji in western Tokyo and what is called the "Musashi Imperial Cemetery" (武蔵 陵墓地, Musashi Ryōbochi) as of 1990.
Hirohito was passionate and knowledgeable about marine biology, and the imperial palace included a laboratory from which he published several papers in this field under his personal name "Hirohito ".
His contributions include the description of several dozen species of hydrozoans (jellyfish) previously unknown to scientists.
Many people in China, Korea and Southeast Asia believe that Hirohito was primarily responsible for the atrocities committed by the imperial army in Asia during World War II and that he and many members of the imperial family should have been tried for war crimes.
As a result, the family is still regarded with hostility by many people in the countries occupied by the Japanese during the war.
The crucial question is the actual power exercised by the emperor over the Japanese military during the war.
The most commonly accepted version in Japan and the West until the 1990s presents him as a powerless spectator in the political arena, marginalized by an all-powerful military staff and warmongering politicians.
The debate on the effective role of the emperor was avoided at the end of the war because General MacArthur, supreme governor of the Allied forces, wanted not only to preserve the imperial institution as a symbol and guarantor of the cohesion of the country but also to ensure the docile collaboration of the imperial person.
Brushing aside the pressure of many Japanese dignitaries and members of the imperial family such as princes Takamatsu, Mikasa and Higashikuni who wanted the abdication of the emperor and the establishment of a regency, he refused the indictment and even the hearing of the emperor during the Tokyo trials.
In order to protect the emperor, this exemption was extended to all members of his family. From 1954 onwards, successive Japanese governments supported the dissemination of an official image of an isolated emperor, unsuccessfully opposing the militarist clique.
However, this view has been shaken since the 1990s by the analysis of Japanese archives, including documents written by General Sugiyama, Prince Konoe, Prince Takamatsu, and Keeper of the Seals Kido.
The rediscovery of the monumental work of historian Shirō Hara, a former member of the imperial army, published in five volumes in 1973 and 74 under the title Daihon'ei senshi, also contributed to this revision.
These records demonstrate a direct and sustained involvement of the emperor, not only in the management of state affairs, but also in the conduct of the war.
According to several historians, including Akira Fujiwara, Akira Yamada, Peter Wetzler and Herbert P. Bix, the emperor was not a warmonger, let alone a pacifist, but essentially an opportunist who governed collegially.
In accordance with tradition, every important decision was thus weighed by the general staff and the council of ministers and then submitted to the emperor for approval.
The most important years of Emperor Shōwa's reign (between 1926 and 1945) saw the growing influence of the supporters of colonial expansionism who wanted to make Japan the equal of the great Western powers.
The emperor, at first reluctant, was gradually convinced and supported an aggressive policy that would lead to the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, then of the rest of China in 1937 (called the Second Sino-Japanese War) as well as an alliance with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany (Tripartite Pact) and an invasion of Southeast Asia that led to the Second World War.
This current also gave rise to a nationalist ideology according to which Japan was a nation guided by the descendant of the goddess Amaterasu Omikami and made to dominate its neighbors.
Beginning in the early 1930s, ideologues such as Sadao Araki, minister of education in 1938 and 1939, sought to revitalize the traditional doctrine of Hakkō ichiu (eight corners under one roof), and make it the core of a "Shōwa Restoration."
The basic tenets of this doctrine hold that Japan is the center of the world and ruled by a divine being and that the Japanese people, protected by the kami, are superior to others.
Japan's divine mission is therefore to unite the eight corners of the world under one roof. Politicians such as Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe ordered the distribution, especially in schools, of pamphlets such as Kokutai no hongi (The Foundations of National Politics), in which these principles were repeated.
This conception of Japanese superiority had profound repercussions during the war.
For example, orders from the imperial headquarters frequently used the term kichibu (cattle) to describe the Allies, a contempt which, according to some authors, encouraged violence against prisoners, even leading to the practice of cannibalism.
As the years went by, Hirohoffi's position as a leader of the Allies became more and more important.
As the years went by, Hirohito became more and more directive and interventionist, notably through the imperial headquarters, instituted in October 1937.
While the imperial army and the imperial navy had had a veto over the constitution of the cabinets since 1900, the emperor imposed his choices unilaterally from 1939 onwards.
After 1945, in the framework of the American fight against communism, which imposed the maintenance of the Empire, impunity was granted to most of the Japanese war criminals, as well as to Emperor Hirohito himself, who was perfectly aware of the crimes.
Hirohito married Princess Nagako of Kuni (久邇宮 良子 女王, Kuni-no-miya Nagako Joō), the eldest daughter of Prince Kuniyoshi Kuni, a member of a younger branch of the imperial family, better known since his death in 2000 as Empress Kōjun, on January 26, 1924.
Together they had seven children (5 girls and 2 boys):