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Hirohito (裕仁), the Showa Emperor (昭和天皇), (April 29, 1901 - January 7, 1989) reigned over Japan from 1926 to 1989. He was known in the West by his given name Hirohito (he has no family name). He was the 124th Emperor of Japan.

His reign was the longest of all Japanese emperors.


He was born in Tokyo as the first son of Crown Prince Yoshihito.

In 1921 after graduating from palace school for the crown prince, he was made regent and he took a six month tour of Britain and five other European countries.

He married Princess Nagako Kuni in 1924. His first son and heir, Akihito, was born in 1933.

In December 1926[?], after the death of his father Yoshihito, he succeeded to the throne and was entitled Showa (Enlightened Peace).

The first part of Hirohito's reign as divine sovereign (between 1926 and 1945) took place against a background of increasing military power within the government, through both legal and extralegal means. The Army had held veto power over the formation of cabinets since 1900, and between 1921 and 1944 there were no less than 64 incidents of right-wing political violence, most notably the assasination of moderate Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai in 1932. From that time on, the military clique held almost all political power in Japan, and pursued policies that eventually Japan to fight the second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, many believed that Hirohito was an evil mastermind behind the war while others claimed that he was simply a powerless figurehead. Modern historians take the view that neither extreme statement is justified, but the exact level of responsibility that Hirohito had for the war remains a matter of dispute.

Up until soon before the start of the war, Hirohito behaved strictly according to protocol, remaining at a distance from the decision making processes. On September 4th 1941, the Japanese Cabinet met to consider the war plans prepared by Imperial General Headquarters, and decided that:

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

The young Emperor in his coronation robes

The "objectives" to be obtained were clearly defined: a free hand to continue with the conquest of China and South-east Asia, no increase in US or British military forces in the region, and cooperation by the West "in the aquisition of goods needed by our Empire".

On the 5th September, 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. Hirohito was deeply concerned by the decision to place "war preparations first and diplomatic negotiations second" and announced his intention to break with centuries-old protocol and, at the Imperial Conference on the following day, directly question the chiefs of the Army and Navy general staffs - a quite unprecedented action. Konoe quickly persuaded Hirohito to summon them for a private conference instead, at which the Emperor made it plain that a peaceful settlement was to be pursued "up to the last". Chief of Naval General Staff Admiral Osami 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."

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 divine sovereign 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.) Emperor 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, the almost legendary Emperor Meiji which, he said, he had read "over and over again":

Methinks all the people of the world are brethren, then.
Why are the waves and the wind so unsettled nowadays?

Recovering from their shock, the ministers hastened to express their profound wish to explore all possible peaceful avenues. The war preparations continued without the slightest change, however, and within weeks Cabinet would replace the insufficiently belligerant Konoe with the hard line General Hideki Tojo. On December 8th 1941, in simultaneous attacks, Japanese forces struck at the US Fleet in Pearl Harbor and began the invasion of South-East Asia. From here, there was no turning back.

The Emperor's later life. Meeting with President Reagan

With the nation now fully committed to the war, Emperor Hirohito put aside his doubts and acted as a devoted Japanese patriot, taking a keen interest in military progress and doing all he could to boost morale. To begin with, the news was all good. As the tide of war gradually began to turn (around late 1942 and early 1943), the flow of information to the palace gradually began to bear less and less relation to reality. In the first six months of war, all the major engagements had been victories. Throughout the following years, the sequence of drawn, and then decisively lost engagements were also reported as great victories. Only gradually did it become apparent to the Emperor (and to his people in the home islands) that the situation was very grim. American air raids on the cities of Japan starting in 1944 made a mockery of the unending tales of victory.

In early 1945, in the wake of the loss of Leyte the Emperor began a series of individual meetings with senior government officials to consider the progress of the war. All bar one advised continuing. The exception was ex-Prime Minister Konoe, who feared a communist revolution even more than defeat and urged a negotiated surrender. Hirohito took the view that peace was essential but that the armed forces would have to engineer a conspicuous military victory somewhere in order to provide a stronger bargaining position. With each passing week this became less likely. Japan's ally Germany was defeated in May 1945. In April the Soviet Union issued notice that it would not renew its neutrality agreement. In June, the cabinet reassessed the war strategy, only to decide more firmly than ever on a fight to the last man. This was officially affirmed at a brief Imperial Council meeting, to which the Emperor listened in stony-faced silence.

The following day, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Koichi Kido prepared a draft document which summarised the hopeless military situation and proposed a negotiated settlement. In private, the Emperor warmly approved of it and authorised Kido to circulate it discreetly amongst the less hawkish cabinet members. By mid-June the cabinet had agreed to to approach the Soviet Union to act as a mediator, though not before the bargaining position had been improved by a repulse of the coming Allied invasion of mainland Japan.

On the 22nd of June, Hirohito broke tradition once again to speak to 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: the Allies were determined not to settle for anything short of "unconditional surrender", and as late as July 1945 neither the Emperor nor his government were prepared to consider that option.

In 1945 he made the radio broadcast announcing the unconditional surrender of Japan's military forces (known as Gyokuon'-housou). Despite pressures to try him for war crimes by numerous leaders, among them President Truman, US General Douglas MacArthur insisted that Hirohito remain Emperor to keep him as a symbol of continuity and cohesion of the Japanese people. Hirohito was spared trial and retained the throne, but Hirohito was forced to explicitly reject the traditional claim that the Emperor of Japan was divine; a descendant of the Sun Goddess. The imperial title was thus transformed from 'imperial sovereign' to 'constitutional monarch' in 1946. It should, however, be noted that immediately after this explicit repudiation of divinity, he implicitly reaffirmed it by asking the occupation authorities for permission to worship an ancestress and then worshipping the Sun Goddess; this reaffirmation would have been comprehensible to all Japanese though not necessarily by the occupation authorities.

After he abandoned his divinity, the status of Hirohito is deliberately vague. While Hirohito is usually seen as a head of state, there is still a broad dispute about whether he became simply a citizen or something else. Many scholars claim that today's ten'no (usually translated into Emperor of Japan in English) is not an emperor. That view determines whether Japan is a democratic republic or a constitutional monarchy. See Emperor of Japan article for discussion of the position of emperor of Japan.

Regardless, until his death in 1989, Hirohito was an active figure in Japanese life, and performed many of the duties we commonly associate with a figurehead head of state. The emeperor and his family maintained a strong public presence, often holding public walkabouts and making public apperances on special events and holidays. He also played an important role in rebuilding Japan's diplomatic image, traveling abroad to meet with many foreign leaders, including numerous America presidents and Britain's Elizabeth II.

In his lifetime, he was interested in marine biology, and the Imperial Palace contained a laboratory from which Hirohito published several papers in the field.


He was well known for his claim of divinity during World War II. According to the Japanese constitution of 1889[?], Hirohito had a divine power over his country, which was derived from the mythology of the Japanese Imperial Family who were the offspring of the creator of Japan or Amaterasu.

In 1946, he disclamed his divinity (so-called Nin'gen'-sengen).

See also: Gyokuon'-housou, World War II, Showa period, Fumimaro Konoe, Nin'gen'-sengen


  • Bix, Herbert P, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Perennial Books, 2001 [0060931302]

Preceded by:
Yoshihito, the Taisho emperor
List of Japanese Emperors Succeeded by:
Akihito, the reigning emperor

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