Although better known outside of Japan by his personal name Hirohito, he is now referred to by his posthumous name Emperor Shōwa exclusively in Japan and increasingly by scholars outside Japan. The word Shōwa is the name of the era that corresponded with the Emperor's reign, and was made the Emperor's own name upon his death.
The Shōwa era was the longest reign of any historical Japanese emperor, encompassing a period of tremendous change in Japanese society. At the start of his reign, Japan was still a fairly rural country with a limited industrial base. Japan's militarization in the 1930s eventually led to Japan's involvement in World War II. After the war ended with the unconditional surrender of Japan, the Emperor co-operated with the re-organization of the Japanese state during the occupation of Japan, and lived to see Japan becoming a highly urbanized democracy and one of the industrial and technological powerhouses of the world.
Prince Hirohito attended the boy's department of Gakushuin Peers' School from 1908 to 1914 and then a special institute for the crown prince (Tōgū-gogakumonsho) from 1914 to 1921. In 1921, Prince Hirohito took a six month tour of Europe, including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium, becoming the first Japanese crown prince to travel abroad. After his return to Japan, he became regent of Japan on November 29, 1921, in place of his ailing father affected with a mental illness.
During Prince Hirohito's regency, a number of important events occurred:
In the Four-Power Treaty on Insular Possessions signed on December 13, 1921, Japan, the United States, Britain and France agreed to recognize the status quo in the Pacific, and Japan and Britain agreed to terminate formally the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The Washington Naval Treaty was signed on February 6, 1922. Japan completed withdrawal of troops from the Siberian Intervention on August 28, 1922. The Great Kantō earthquake devastated Tokyo on September 1, 1923. The General Election Law was passed on May 5, 1925, giving all men above age 25 the right to vote.
The daughters who lived to adulthood left the imperial family as a result of the American reforms of the Japanese imperial household in October 1947 (in the case of Princess Higashikuni) or under the terms of the Imperial Household Law at the moment of their subsequent marriages (in the cases of Princesses Kazuko, Atsuko, and Takako).
The first part of Hirohito's reign as sovereign took place against a background of financial crisis and increasing military power within the government, through both legal and extralegal means. The Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy had held veto power over the formation of cabinets since 1900, and between 1921 and 1944 there were no fewer than 64 incidents of political violence.
Another notable case was the assassination of moderate Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi in 1932, which marked the end of civilian control of the military. This was followed by an attempted military coup in February 1936, the February 26 incident, mounted by junior Army officers of the Kōdōha faction who had the sympathy of many high-ranking officers including Prince Chichibu (Yasuhito), one of the Emperor's brothers. This revolt was occasioned by a loss of ground by the militarist faction in Diet elections. The coup resulted in the murder of a number of high government and Army officials.
When Chief Aide-de-camp Shigeru Honjō informed him of the revolt, the Emperor immediately ordered that it be put down and referred to the officers as "rebels" (bōto). Shortly thereafter, he ordered Army Minister Yoshiyuki Kawashima to suppress the rebellion within the hour, and he asked reports from Honjō every thirty minutes. The next day, when told by Honjō that little progress was being made by the high command in quashing the rebels, the emperor told him "I Myself, will lead the Konoe Division and subdue them." The rebellion was suppressed following his orders on February 29.
According to Akira Fujiwara, the Emperor personally ratified the proposal by the Japanese Army to remove the constraints of international law on the treatment of Chinese prisoners on August 5. Moreover, the works of Yoshiaki Yoshimi and Seiya Matsuno show that the Emperor authorized, by specific orders (rinsanmei), the use of chemical weapons against the Chinese. During the invasion of Wuhan, from August to October 1938, the emperor authorized the use of toxic gas on 375 separate occasions, despite the resolution adopted by the League of Nations on May 14 condemning the use of toxic gas by the Japanese Army.
During World War II, ostensibly under Emperor Shōwa's leadership, Japan formed alliances with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, forming the Axis Powers. Some historians believe the Emperor, who had a predilection for the United Kingdom, might have been reluctant to form this alliance. In July 1939, the Emperor quarreled with one of his brothers, Prince Chichibu, who was visiting him three times a week to support the treaty, and reprimanded the army minister Seishiro Itagaki, but then consented to the alliance after the success of the Wehrmacht in Europe.
On September 4, 1941, the Japanese Cabinet met to consider war plans prepared by Imperial General Headquarters, and decided that:
The "objectives" to be obtained were clearly defined: a free hand to continue with the conquest of China and Southeast Asia, no increase in US or British military forces in the region, and cooperation by the West "in the acquisition of goods needed by our Empire."
On September 5, 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. On this evening, Emperor Shōwa had a meeting with the chief of staff of the army, Sugiyama, chief of staff of the navy, Osami Nagano, and Prime Minister Konoe. The emperor questioned Sugiyama about the chances of success of an open war with the Occident. As Sugiyama answered positively, the Emperor scolded him:
Chief of Naval General Staff Admiral 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."
According to the traditional view, Emperor Shōwa was deeply concerned by the decision to place "war preparations first and diplomatic negotiations second," and he announced his intention to break with tradition. At the Imperial Conference on the following day, the emperor directly questioned the chiefs of the Army and Navy general staffs, a quite unprecedented action.
Nevertheless, all speakers at the Imperial Conference were united in favor 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 emperor 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 Shōwa 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, Emperor Meiji which, he said, he had read "over and over again":
I think 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 Emperor's presentation was in line with his practical role as leader of the Shinto religion.
At this time, Army Imperial Headquarters was continually communicating with the Imperial household in detail about the military situation. On October 8, Sugiyama signed a 47 page report to the emperor (sōjōan) outlining in minute detail plans for the advance in Southeast Asia. During the third week of October, Sugiyama gave the emperor a 51 page document, "Materials in Reply to the Throne," about the operational outlook for the war.
As war preparations continued, Prime Minister Konoe found himself more and more isolated and gave his demission on October 16. He justified himself to his chief cabinet secretary, Kenji Tomita :
Of course His Majesty is a pacifist, and there is no doubt he wished to avoid war. When I told him that to initiate war was a mistake, he agreed. But the next day, he would tell me: You were worried about it yesterday, but you do not have to worry so much. Thus, gradually, he began to lead toward war. And the next time I met him, he leaned even more toward. In short, I felt the Emperor was telling me: my prime minister does not understand military matters, I know much more. In short, the Emperor had absorbed the view of the army and navy high commands.
The army and the navy recommended the candidacy of Prince Higashikuni, one of the emperor's uncles. According to the Shōwa "Monologue," written after the war, the Emperor then said that if the war were to begin while a member of the imperial house was prime minister, the imperial house would have to carry the responsibility and this he opposed.
Instead, the emperor chose the hard-line General Hideki Tōjō, who was known for his devotion to the imperial institution, and asked him to make a policy review of what had been sanctioned by the imperial conferences. On November 2, Tōjō, Sugiyama and Nagano reported to the emperor that the review of eleven points had been in vain. Emperor Shōwa gave his consent to the war and then asked: "Are you going to provide justification for the war?
On November 3, Nagano explained in detail the Pearl Harbor attack plan to the emperor. On November 5, Emperor Shōwa approved in imperial conference the operations plan for a war against the Occident and had many meetings with the military and Tōjō until the end of the month. On December 1, an imperial conference sanctioned the "War against the United States, United Kingdom and the Kingdom of the Netherlands." On December 8 (December 7 in Hawaii) 1941, in simultaneous attacks, Japanese forces struck at the US Fleet in Pearl Harbor and began the invasion of Malaysia.
With the nation fully committed to the war, Emperor Shōwa took a keen interest in military progress and sought to boost morale. According to Akira Yamada and Akira Fujiwara, the emperor made major interventions in some military operations. For example, he pressed Sugiyama four times, on January 13 and 21 and February 9 and 26, to increase troop strength and launch an attack on Bataan. On February 9, March 19 and May 29, the emperor ordered the Army Chief of staff to examine the possibilities for an attack on Chungking, which led to operation Gogo.
As the tide of war gradually began to turn (around late 1942 and early 1943), some people argue that the flow of information to the palace gradually began to bear less and less relation to reality, while others suggest that the emperor worked closely with Prime Minister Tōjō, continued to be well and accurately briefed by the military, and knew Japan's military position precisely right up to the point of surrender. The chief of staff of the General Affairs section of the Prime Minister's office, Shuichi Inada, remarked to Tōjō's private secretary, Sadao Akamatsu:
There has never been a cabinet in which the prime minister, and all the ministers, reported so often to the throne. In order to effect the essence of genuine direct imperial rule and to relieve the concerns of the emperor, the ministers reported to the throne matters within the scope of their responsibilities as per the prime minister's directives... In times of intense activities, typed drafts were presented to the emperor with corrections in red. First draft, second draft, final draft and so forth, came as deliberations progressed one after the other and were sanctioned accordingly by the emperor.
In the first six months of war, all the major engagements had been victories. As the tide turned in the summer of 1942 with the battle of Midway and the landing of the American forces on Guadalcanal and Tulagi in August, the Emperor recognized the potential danger and pushed the navy and the army for greater efforts. When informed in August 1943 by Sugiyama that the American advance through the Solomon islands could not be stopped, the emperor asked his chief of staff to consider other places to attack : "When and where on are you ever going to put up a good fight? And when are you ever going to fight a decisive battle? On August 24, the emperor reprimanded Nagano for the defeat of Bela Bela and on September 11, he ordered Sugiyama to work with the Navy to implement better military preparation and give adequate supply to soldiers fighting in Rabaul.
Throughout the following years, the sequence of drawn and then decisively lost engagements was reported to the public as a series of great victories. Only gradually did it become apparent to the people in the home islands that the situation was very grim. U.S. air raids on the cities of Japan starting in 1944 made a mockery of the unending tales of victory. Later that year, with the downfall of Hideki Tōjō's government, two other prime ministers were appointed to continue the war effort, Kuniaki Koiso and Kantaro Suzuki— each with the formal approval of the emperor. Both were unsuccessful and Japan was nearing defeat.
In early 1945, in the wake of the loss of Leyte, Emperor Shōwa began a series of individual meetings with senior government officials to consider the progress of the war. All but ex-Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe advised continuing the war. Konoe feared a communist revolution even more than defeat in war and urged a negotiated surrender. In February 1945, during the first private audience with the emperor he had been allowed in three years, Konoe advised Hirohito to begin negotiations to end World War II. According to Grand Chamberlain Hisanori Fujita, the emperor, still looking for a tennozan (a great victory) in order to provide a stronger bargaining position, firmly rejected Konoe's recommendation.
With each passing week a great victory became less likely. In April the Soviet Union issued notice that it would not renew its neutrality agreement. Japan's ally Germany surrendered in early May 1945. In June, the cabinet reassessed the war strategy, only to decide more firmly than ever on a fight to the last man. This strategy was officially affirmed at a brief Imperial Council meeting, at which the emperor listened in stony-faced silence.
The following day, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Kōichi Kido prepared a draft document which summarized the hopeless military situation and proposed a negotiated settlement. According to some commentators, the Emperor privately approved of it and authorized Kido to circulate it discreetly amongst less hawkish cabinet members; others suggest that the Emperor was indecisive, and that the delay cost many tens of thousands of Japanese and Allied lives. Extremists in Japan were also calling for a death-before-dishonor mass suicide, modeled on the "47 Ronin" incident. By mid-June 1945, the cabinet had agreed to approach the Soviet Union to act as a mediator for a negotiated surrender, but not before Japan's bargaining position had been improved by repulse of the anticipated Allied invasion of mainland Japan.
On June 22, the Emperor met 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. There was always the threat that extremists would carry out a coup or foment other violence. On July 26, 1945, the Allies issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding unconditional surrender. The Japanese government council, the Big Six, considered that option and recommended to the emperor that it be accepted only if one to three conditions were agreed, including a guarantee of the emperor's continued position in Japanese society. The emperor decided not to surrender.
On August 9, 1945, following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet declaration of war, Emperor Shōwa told Kido to "quickly control the situation" because "the Soviet Union has declared war and today began hostilities against us. On August 10, the cabinet drafted an "Imperial Rescript ending the War" following the emperor's indications that the declaration did not compromise any demand which prejudiced the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler.
On August 12, 1945, the Emperor informed the imperial family of his decision to surrender. One of his uncles, Prince Asaka, asked whether the war would be continued if the kokutai (national polity) could not be preserved. The Emperor simply replied "of course. On August 14, the Suzuki government notified the Allies that it had accepted the Potsdam Declaration. On August 15, a recording of the Emperor's surrender speech was broadcast over the radio signifying the unconditional surrender of Japan's military forces (known as Gyokuon-hōsō).
Objecting to the surrender, die-hard army fanatics attempted a coup d'état by conducting a full military assault and takeover of the Imperial Palace. The physical recording of the surrender speech was hidden and preserved overnight, and the coup was quickly crushed on the Emperor's order.
The surrender speech noted that "the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage" and ordered the Japanese to "endure the unendurable" in surrender. It was the first time the public had heard the Emperor's voice. He was purposely vague, because the Emperor of Japan was not regarded merely as a human saying "We surrender to the Allies," but rather, was viewed as the sacred symbol, embodiment, and leader of Japan, and as such this required a vague tone that preserved this mystique. Indeed, the formal, stilted Japanese used by the Emperor in the speech was not readily understood by many common Japanese. According to historian Richard Storry in A History of Modern Japan, the Emperor typically used "a form of language familiar only to the well-educated" and to the more traditional samurai families.
The issue of responsibility for war crimes usually involves a debate regarding how much real control the Emperor had over the Japanese military during the two wars. Officially, the imperial constitution, adopted under Emperor Meiji, gave full power to the Emperor. Article 4 prescribed that "The Emperor is the head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty, and exercises them, according to the provisions of the present Constitution" while, according to article 6 "The Emperor gives sanction to laws and orders them to be promulgated and executed" and article 11, "The Emperor has the supreme command of the Army and the Navy." The Emperor was thus the leader of the Imperial General Headquarters.
The view promoted by both the Japanese Imperial Palace and the American occupation forces immediately after World War II had Emperor Shōwa as a powerless figurehead behaving strictly according to protocol, while remaining at a distance from the decision-making processes.
Many historians such as Akira Fujiwara (Shōwa Tennō no Jū-go Nen Sensō, 1991) and Peter Wetzler (Hirohito and War, 1998), based on the primary sources and the monumental work of Shirō Hara, have produced evidence suggesting that the Emperor worked through intermediaries to exercise a great deal of control over the military and was neither bellicose nor a pacifist, but an opportunist who governed in a pluralistic decision-making process. American historian Herbert Bix argues that Emperor Shōwa may have been the prime mover of most of the events of the two wars. Historians such as Bix, Fujiwara, Wetzler, and Akira Yamada recognize that the post-war view focusing on imperial conferences misses the importance of numerous "behind the chrysanthemum curtain" meetings where the real decisions were made between the emperor, his chiefs of staff, and the cabinet.
Primary sources, such as the "Sugiyama memo" and the diaries of Kido and Konoe, describe in detail the informal meetings Emperor Shōwa had with his chiefs of staff and ministers (For example, Prince Fumimaro Konoe had a very good firsthand view of the surrender events). These documents show that the Emperor was kept informed of all main military operations and that he frequently questioned his senior staff and asked for changes.
As the Emperor chose his uncle Prince Higashikuni as prime minister to assist the occupation, there were attempts by numerous leaders to have him put on trial for alleged war crimes. Many members of the imperial family such as Princes Chichibu, Takamatsu and Higashikuni pressured the Emperor to abdicate so one of the Princes could serve as regent until Crown Prince Akihito came of age. On February 27, 1946, the emperor's youngest brother, Prince Mikasa (Takahito), even stood up in the privy council and indirectly urged the emperor to step down and accept responsibility for Japan's defeat. According to Minister of Welfare Ashida's diary, "Everyone seemed to ponder Mikasa's words. Never have I seen His Majesty's face so pale. U.S. General Douglas MacArthur insisted that Emperor Shōwa retain the throne. MacArthur saw the emperor as a symbol of the continuity and cohesion of the Japanese people. Many historians criticize the decision to exonerate the Emperor and all members of the imperial family implicated in the war such as Prince Chichibu, Prince Asaka, Prince Higashikuni and Prince Hiroyasu Fushimi from criminal prosecutions
Before the war crimes trials actually convened, the SCAP, the IPS and Japanese officials worked behind the scenes not only to prevent the Imperial family from being indicted, but also to slant the testimony of the defendants to ensure that no one implicated the emperor. High officials in court circles and the Japanese government collaborated with Allied GHQ in compiling lists of prospective war criminals, while the individuals arrested as Class A suspects and incarcerated in Sugamo prison solemnly vowed to protect their sovereign against any possible taint of war responsibility. Thus, "months before the Tokyo tribunal commenced, MacArthur's highest subordinates were working to attribute ultimate responsibility for Pearl Harbor to Hideki Tōjō by allowing "the major criminal suspects to coordinate their stories so that the Emperor would be spared from indictment. According to John Dower, "This successful campaign to absolve the Emperor of war responsibility knew no bounds. Hirohito was not merely presented as being innocent of any formal acts that might make him culpable to indictment as a war criminal. He was turned into an almost saintly figure who did not even bear moral responsibility for the war. According to Bix, "MacArthur's truly extraordinary measures to save Hirohito from trial as a war criminal had a lasting and profoundly distorting impact on Japanese understanding of the lost war.
The Emperor was not put on trial, but he was forced to explicitly reject (in the ) the traditional claim that the Emperor of Japan was an arahitogami, an incarnate divinity. There is consensus amongst authors such as Dower and Bix, however, that the emperor never rejected the claim that he was a descendant of Amaterasu. Immediately after the Imperial Rescript usually regarded as a repudiation of divinity, the emperor asked the occupation authorities for permission to worship the Sun Goddess. Some commentators have seen this act by the emperor to be an implicit reaffirmation of the claim to divine status; others have seen it as simply an expression of the emperor's personal religious beliefs, with no political or social implications. In any case, the "renunciation of divinity" was noted more by foreigners than by Japanese, and seems to have been intended for the consumption of the former.
Although the Emperor supposedly had repudiated claims to divine status, his public position was deliberately left vague, partly because General MacArthur thought him likely to be a useful partner to get the Japanese to accept the occupation, and partly due to behind-the-scenes maneuverings by Shigeru Yoshida to thwart attempts to cast him as a European-style monarch.
While Emperor Shōwa was usually seen abroad as a head of state, there is still a broad dispute about whether he became a common citizen or retained special status related to his religious offices and participations in Shinto and Buddhist calendar rituals. Many scholars claim that today's tennō (usually translated Emperor of Japan in English) is not an emperor. See the Emperor of Japan article for discussion of the position of Emperor of Japan.
For the rest of his life, Emperor Shōwa was an active figure in Japanese life, and performed many of the duties commonly associated with a constitutional head of state. The emperor and his family maintained a strong public presence, often holding public walkabouts, and making public appearances on special events and ceremonies.
Emperor Shōwa also played an important role in rebuilding Japan's diplomatic image, traveling abroad to meet with many foreign leaders, including Queen Elizabeth II (1971) and President Gerald Ford (1975).
The emperor was deeply interested in and well-informed about marine biology, and the Imperial Palace contained a laboratory from which the emperor published several papers in the field under his personal name "Hirohito." His contributions included the description of several dozen species of jellyfish new to science.
Emperor Shōwa maintained an official boycott of the Yasukuni shrine after it was revealed to him that the remains of class-A war criminals had secretly been transferred to the shrine after its post war rededication. This boycott lasted from 1978 until the time of his death. This boycott has been maintained by his son Akihito, who has also refused to attend Yasukuni.
On July 20, 2006, Nihon Keizai Shimbun published a front page article about discovery of a memorandum detailing the reason the Emperor stopped visiting Yasukuni. The memorandum, kept by former chief of Imperial Household Agency Tomohiko Tomita, confirms for the first time that the enshrinement of 14 Class A War Criminals in Yasukuni was the reason for the boycott. Tomita recorded in detail the contents of his conversations with the emperor in his diaries and notebooks. According to the memorandum, in 1988, the emperor expressed his strong displeasure at the decision made by Yasukuni Shrine to include Class A war criminals in the list of war dead honored there by saying, "At some point, Class-A criminals became enshrined, including Matsuoka and Shiratori. I heard Tsukuba acted cautiously," Tsukuba is believed to refer to Fujimaro Tsukuba, the former chief Yasukuni priest at the time, who decided not to enshrine the war criminals despite having received in 1966, the list of war dead compiled by the government. "What's on the mind of Matsudaira's son, who is the current head priest?". "Matsudaira had a strong wish for peace, but the child didn't know the parent's heart. That's why I have not visited the shrine since. This is my heart," Matsudaira is believed to refer to Yoshitami Matsudaira, who was the grand steward of the Imperial Household immediately after the end of World War II. His son, Nagayoshi, succeeded Fujimaro Tukuba as the chief priest of Yasukuni and decided to enshrine the war criminals in 1978. Nagayoshi Matsudaira passed away in 2006, which some commentators have speculated is the reason for release of the memo.
For journalist Masanori Yamaguchi, who analyzed the "memo" and comments made by the emperor in his first-ever press conference in 1975, the emperor's evasive and opaque attitude about his own responsibility for the war and the fact he said that the bombing of Hiroshima "could not be helped", could mean that the emperor was afraid that the enshrinement of the war criminals at Yasukuni would reignite the debate over his own responsibility for the war.
On September 22, 1987, the Emperor underwent surgery on his pancreas after having digestive problems for several months. The doctors discovered that he had duodenal cancer. The emperor seemed to be recovering well for several months after the surgery. About a year later, however, on September 19, 1988, he collapsed in his palace, and his health worsened over the next several months as he suffered from continuous internal bleeding. On January 7, 1989, at 7:55 AM, the grand steward of Japan's Imperial Household Agency, Shoichi Fujimori, officially announced the Emperor's death, and revealed details about his cancer for the first time. The emperor was succeeded by his son, Akihito.
The emperor's death ended the Shōwa era. On the same day a new era began: the Heisei era. From January 7 until January 31, the emperor's formal appellation was "Taikō Tennō (大行天皇)", which means the departed emperor. His definitive posthumous name, (昭和天皇 Shōwa Tennō), was determined on January 13 and formally released on January 31 by Toshiki Kaifu, the prime minister.
On February 24, Emperor Shōwa's state funeral was held, and unlike that of his predecessor, it was formal but not conducted in a strictly Shinto manner. A large number of world leaders attended the funeral, including U.S. President George H.W. Bush. Emperor Shōwa is buried in the Imperial mausoleum in Hachiōji, alongside Emperor Taishō, his father.