Hirohito: The early years
The eldest son of Crown Prince Yoshihito, Hirohito was born within the confines of the Aoyama Palace in Tokyo on April 29, 1901. Imperial family members were not raised by their parents, according to custom. Rather, Hirohito spent his first years in the care of first a retired vice-admiral, followed by an imperial attendant. Between the ages of 7 and 19, Hirohito attended schools established for the children of nobility. He received strict instruction in religious and military matters, as well as other subjects such as physics and maths. Hirohito and a 34-man entourage traveled to Europe in 1921 for a six-month tour; this being the first time a Japanese crown prince had ever gone overseas.
When he returned to Japan, Hirohito became regent because his father was chronically ill, and assumed the duties as emperor. An earthquake hit the Tokyo area in September 1923, destroying 63% of the city’s houses and killing 100,000 people. Storming Japanese mobs then murdered several thousand leftists and ethnic Koreans, who were accused of looting and setting fires in the aftermath of the quake. Hirohito survived an assassination attempt that December, and married Princess Nagako the following month. The couple had seven children. At about the same time, Hirohito ended the practice of imperial concubinage. When his father died in December 1926, Hirohito officially became emperor. As his reign name, he chose Showa, which roughly translates to “enlightened harmony.”
Emperor Hirohito and the rise of Japanese Militarism
When Hirohito ascended to the throne, a universal male suffrage law had recently been passed, and political parties were almost at the height of their prewar powers. However, rising militarism, a plunging economy and a sequence of political assassinations soon resulted in crisis for the pro-democracy movement. As emperor, Hirohito was Japan’s commander-in-chief of the armed forces and highest spiritual authority, and basically fired the prime minister in 1929. The next prime minister was mortally wounded by a gunshot, and yet another prime minister was assassinated in 1932 by naval officers upset about a treaty restricting the number of Japanese warships. Henceforth, nearly every prime minister came from the military instead of from the political parties, which, in 1940 were altogether disbanded. In 1935, more political violence occurred, when a general was slashed to death by a lieutenant colonel with a samurai sword. Over 1,400 soldiers mutinied in Tokyo in 1936, seizing the army ministry and killing several high-ranking politicians.
At the same time, Japan’s conflict with China was growing. Japanese army officers launched the so-called Manchurian Incident in 1931 by detonating a railway explosion and casting the blame on Chinese bandits. They then used the incident as an excuse to take control of Manchuria in northeastern China and set up a puppet state there. Expeditions into other areas of the country soon followed, and war had broken out by 1937. The Japanese army massacred about 200,000 prisoners of war and civilians in and around the city of Nanking that winter. Rape is believed to have been commonplace, and women were brought in to serve as prostitutes from Japanese-controlled regions of Asia. Hirohito did not approve the invasion’s more repulsive aspects, but – maybe because he was concerned the military would force him to abdicate – he failed to punish those accountable. He also sanctioned the uprooting of peasants and the use of chemical warfare.
Japan and World War II
Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in September 1940, in which they agreed to help each other should any of them be attacked by a country not involved already in the war. That same month, Japan sent troops to occupy French Indochina, and the United States replied with economic sanctions, involving an embargo on steel and oil. Slightly over a year later, Hirohito agreed to the decision of his government to fight the Americans. The Japanese then bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the US declared war the following day.
Over the following seven months, Japan occupied British Singapore, Dutch East Indies, the Phillipines, New Guinea and several other locations in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. However, the tide began to turn in June 1942 at the Battle of Midway and soon after at Guadalcanal. Japan’s military leaders, by mid 1944, recognized that victory was unlikely; however, Japan did not stop fighting until after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings the following August. Hirohito made a radio broadcast on August 15, 1945, in which he announced Japan’s surrender.
Hirohito after the war
A constitution after the war preserved the monarchy but defined the emperor merely as a symbol of the state. Hirohito was not indicted as a war criminal, unlike many among his top military brass, partly because the US authorities were concerned it could throw their occupation into chaos. Hirohito toured Japan from 1945 to 1951 and oversaw reconstruction attempts. In 1952, the American occupation ended, after which Hirohito served mainly in the background while Japan underwent an era of rapid economic growth. Having spent almost 64 years on the throne – the longest imperial reign in Japanese history – Emperor Hirohito died on January 7, 1989. Hirohito’s wartime record is still a subject of much debate to this day.