Emperor Hirohito

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Emperor Hirohito

Emperor Shōwa while he had the throne.
Michinomiya Hirohito was the emperor of Japan during World War II. At the time, he was better known as a god in Japan. Hirohito was born on April 29, 1901, in the Aoyama Palace in Tokyo. He was the first son of crown Prince Yoshihito and crown Princess Sadako. As a child, Hirohito was known as Prince Michi, but when his grandfather died, his father took the throne and Hirohito became the heir apparent. Hirohito then became very interested in the army and the navy; he ended up becoming a Major in the army, and lieutenant commander in the navy. On December 25, 1926, at age 26, Hirohito took the throne because of his father’s death. From then on he was more commonly known as Emperor Shōwa.

Entering World War II

Pearl Harbor attack, December 7, 1941, also known as D-Day.
Before Japan entered World War II, their main focus was invading China to gain access to their natural resources. They needed these resources to fund their economy. They invaded Manchuria in 1937 and the rest of China in 1937. Hirohito never really had much of an objection to the invasion of China. In 1937 Hirohito authorized the use of chemical weapons and toxic gas against the Chinese. Most of everything the Emperor authorized was recommended to him without him having much of a say at all.

During World War II, Japan joined forces with Germany and Italy to create the Axis powers. A plan for the attack on Pearl Harbor was explained to Emperor Shōwa on November 3, on November 5 he approved the attacks. On December 7th and 8th, Japanese forces struck at the US Fleet in Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines, resulting in nearly 3,000 deaths. Japan then began the invasion of Malaysia. This attack is what brought the US and Japan into the Second World War.

Civilian Deaths and Suicides

Once Japan started to lose the war, Hirohito believed it was better for all Japanese civilians who were captured to commit suicide rather than be taken prisoner. In June 1944, Hirohito sent out the first Imperial order encouraging all Japanese civilians with a risk of being taken prisoner to commit suicide. He promised civilians who died to have the same spiritual status and honor as the soldiers who died in combat. This order was sent out the very next day, and the civilians were pleased with the offer of a privileged place in the afterlife, it was thought of as a very important thing to them.

From July 8 to July 12, most of the damage had been done. Over 10,000 Japanese civilians committed suicide. Some jumped from places now known as “Suicide Cliff” and “Banzai Cliff.”

This is a picture of Suicide and Banzai cliff in Japan. Many Japanese families have memorials here to the war dead.

Emperor Shōwa and the Atomic Bomb

Japan began researching on nuclear weapons and an atomic bomb in April 1941. Hirohito was strongly against the atomic bomb from the beginning. This was because Hirohito believed that the use of an atomic bomb would only lead to the total destruction of the human race, destroying every piece of mankind in its path. The Emperor officially abolished all research of the Japanese atomic bomb because of this.

After the war, Hirohito had his first press conference in Tokyo in 1975. Because of his strong dislike of atomic bombs, he was asked what he thought of the bombing of the Japanese city, Hiroshima, that the US bombed, and he replied, “It is very regrettable that nuclear bombs were dropped and I feel sorry for the citizens of Hiroshima but it could not be helped because that happened in wartime.” His answer shocked many people considering Hiroshima was one of his own country’s cities.

The Emperor’s Responsibility for War Crimes

Many people see Emperor Hirohito as being responsible for the atrocities committed by the imperial forces in the second Sino-Japanese war and in World War II. They feel that he and some of the other members of the imperial family should have been tried for war crimes. This thought is a debate regarding how much control the Emperor actually had over the Japanese military during the two wars. The imperial constitution clearly states that the Emperor has complete power. According to the constitution, the Emperor was the leader of the Imperial General Headquarters.

In 1971 a man named David Bergamini showed how some primary sources described the informal meetings Emperor Shōwa had with his chiefs of staff and ministers. He said that the Emperor knew of all the military operations but he often questioned his senior staff and asked for changes. The Japanese Imperial Palace and the American occupation forces thought that Emperor Shōwa was a powerless figurehead who was never a part of the decision making processes.

On the day of Hirohito’s death, January 7, 1989, Prime Minister of Japan Takeshita made a speech saying that the war had broken out against Hirohito’s wishes. His statement created outrage in East Asia, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. In Japan, debate over the Emperor’s responsibility was taboo while he was still alive. A true side was never actually favored in the debate, but in the years immediately after his death, the debate in Japan was fierce.


Hirohito let it be known to the SCAP that he was prepared to apologize formally to US General MacArthur for Japan’s actions during World War II, he was also going to apologize for the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. However, when the Emperor came to offer his apology, Macarthur refused to acknowledge him. There was an eye witness there named Patrick Lennox Tierney whose office was on the same floor as Macarthur’s. Many years later, Tierney made an effort to explain the significance of what he had witnessed. He said that apology was a very important thing in Japan.

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