The Enigma of Hirohito



This controversial Emperor of Japan was born in the same year (1901) Queen Victoria died, and the two monarchs shared much the same mystique. The Emperor was the son of Crown Prince Yoshihito (1874-1926), who had been the first Taisho emperor (from 1912 to 1926).

Hirohito was the first member of the Imperial family to be permitted to travel abroad, visiting the United States and Europe. On his return his father had become insane and Hirohito became Regent later Emperor. He was an ascetic, austere, strict, chronic hard-worker and frugal, not all willing to spend either his own money or anyone else’s, except for reasons of war.

One of his first reforms was stopping the centuries-old tradition of the Empress’ ladies-in-waiting having automatically to be the Emperor’s concubines. As he was considered divine, he was above party politics, and was a silent presence at Cabinet Meetings. Japan’s traditions demanded that he actually played a comparatively small role in actual government, and it was his duty as Emperor to accept his Ministers’ advice when it was unanimous. The importance of these opening words will be seen best towards the end of this post.

It proved difficult for foreign ambassadors correctly to assess what Hirohito’s opinions were, as he remained silent and preferred the passive role. They could recall only two occasions on which he effectively expressed his own view, but that was because his Ministers were not being unanimous: He insisted unequivocally that the February Uprising of September 1936 should be suppressed, and he took the decision in 1945 to surrender, though four or five of his military advisers wanted to carry on with the War even after the dropping of a second atomic bomb (Nagasaki q.v.). Hirohito was advised by Allied representatives that under the terms of unconditional surrender the Imperial Throne’s continuity could not be guaranteed. Under these circumstances the Prime Minister asked his Emperor what was to be done. Both remembered easily what had happened to the last Emperor of Imperial China, who became a humble gardener. Hirohito said that what had to be done must be done and on 15 August 1945 he spoke to the embattled country by radio, announcing the surrender.

Many if not most Allied and Chinese soldiers demanded his presence as the accused in a trial as a war criminal, but General MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied Powers, refused on the grounds of the obvious need for the Emperor to assist and provide stability and authority in the coming drastic reforms the Americans would demand. The Chinese and others had no option but to accept, as the US, after the dropping of two bombs calculated to have killed nearly two hundred and fifty thousand people in a matter of minutes (see Hiroshima q.v.) had become top nation, and, in name anyway, had the second greatest power, Soviet Russia, as its most important ally.

There has been nothing but dispute about Hirohito’s part in the starting, development and actions of the Pacific War (1941-45). Japanese brains have insisted that he was a peace-loving, pacific dove-like man wholly manipulated by his military advisers, hawks to the last man. But by his own testimony, recorded incidentally before the War Crimes Tribunal he did not have to attend, shows that he was fully informed about the Sino-Japanese War that lasted from1937 to 1945, as well as knowing every detail of the Pacific War. There is no doubt that he intervened constantly in the decision-making, not only in broad policies but on detailed operations (Pearl Harbor, Singapore and Shanghai etc.). He also supported the continuation of the War until June, 1945, one year after the Allied invasion of Normandy. His decision to accept unconditional surrender was not based on any desire to save his people from utter destruction during the fire and carpet bombing of major Japanese cities. His object was clearly to maintain the Imperial Throne and his family’s occupation of it.

Mysteriously, Hirohito seemed to get away with everything, but this may be because the United States wished the best trading power in the Far East to be little more than another State. This would not happen, as is now known, but was definitely in the mind of Truman and many others like him.

In 1946 Hirohito renounced his own divinity and lived on as a constitutional monarch, acting as a symbol of the state, making international journeys once again. His visit to Britain was not at all popular, and ex-prisoners of war of the Japanese Army turned their backs on him in public. He remained modest, frugal as ever, maintained his hobby of marine biology, and died peacefully in 1989, at the great age of eighty-eight.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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