Hirohito Becomes Emperor of Japan (1926)
Hirohito[a] (裕仁, 29 April 1901 – 7 January 1989) was the 124th Emperor of Japan according to the traditional order of succession, reigning from 25 December 1926, until his death on 7 January 1989. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Akihito. In Japan, reigning emperors are known simply as “the Emperor” and he is now referred to primarily by his posthumous name, Emperor Shōwa (昭和天皇). The word Shōwa (昭和) is the name of the era (Shōwa period (昭和時代 Shōwa jidai, potentially “period of enlightened peace/harmony” or “period of radiant Japan”)) coinciding with the Emperor’s reign, after which he is known according to a tradition dating to 1912. The name Hirohito means “abundant benevolence”.
At the start of his reign, Japan was already one of the great powers—the ninth-largest economy in the world, the third-largest naval power, and one of the four permanent members of the council of the League of Nations. He was the head of state under the Constitution of the Empire of Japan during Japan’s imperial expansion, militarization, and involvement in World War II. After Japan’s surrender, he was not prosecuted for war crimes as many other leading government figures were, and his degree of involvement in wartime decisions remains controversial. During the post-war period, he became the symbol of the new state under the post-war constitution and Japan’s recovery, and by the end of his reign, Japan had emerged as the world’s second largest economy.
Born in Tokyo’s Aoyama Palace (during the reign of his grandfather, Emperor Meiji) on 29 April 1901, Hirohito was the first son of 21-year old Crown Prince Yoshihito (the future Emperor Taishō) and 17-year old Crown Princess Sadako (the future Empress Teimei). He was the grandson of Emperor Meiji and Yanagihara Naruko. His childhood title was Prince Michi. On the 70th day after his birth, Hirohito was removed from the court and placed in the care of the family of Count Kawamura Sumiyoshi, a former vice-admiral, who was to rear him as if he were his own grandchild. At the age of 3, Hirohito and his brother Chichibu were returned to court when Kawamura died – first to the imperial mansion in Numazu, Shizuoka, then back to the Aoyama Palace. In 1908, he began elementary studies at the Gakushūin (Peers School).
When his grandfather, Emperor Meiji, died on 30 July 1912, Hirohito’s father, Yoshihito, assumed the throne and Hirohito became the heir apparent. At the same time, he was formally commissioned in both the army and navy as a second lieutenant and ensign, respectively, and was also decorated with the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Chrysanthemum. In 1914, he was promoted to the ranks of lieutenant in the army and sub-lieutenant in the navy, then to captain and lieutenant in 1916. He was formally proclaimed Crown Prince and heir apparent on 2 November 1916; but an investiture ceremony was not strictly necessary to confirm this status as heir to the throne.
Hirohito attended Gakushūin Peers’ School from 1908 to 1914 and then a special institute for the crown prince (Tōgū-gogakumonsho) from 1914 to 1921. In 1920, Hirohito was promoted to the rank of Major in the army and Lieutenant Commander in the navy. In 1921, Hirohito took a six-month tour of Western Europe, including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium.
After his return to Japan, Hirohito became Regent of Japan (Sesshō) on 29 November 1921, in place of his ailing father who was affected by a mental illness. In 1923, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the army and Commander in the navy, and to army Colonel and Navy Captain in 1925.
During Hirohito’s regency, a number of important events occurred:
In the Four-Power Treaty on Insular Possessions signed on 13 December 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 6 February 1922. Japan withdrew troops from the Siberian Intervention on 28 August 1922. The Great Kantō earthquake devastated Tokyo on 1 September 1923. On 27 December 1923, Daisuke Namba attempted to assassinate Hirohito in the Toranomon Incident but his attempt failed. During interrogation, he claimed to be a communist and was executed but some have suggested that he was in contact with the Nagacho faction in the Army.
Prince Hirohito married his distant cousin Princess Nagako Kuni (the future Empress Kōjun), the eldest daughter of Prince Kuniyoshi Kuni, on 26 January 1924. They had two sons and five daughters. (see Issue)
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 Shigeko) 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).
On 25 December 1926, Hirohito assumed the throne upon his father, Yoshihito’s, death. The Crown Prince was said to have received the succession (senso). The Taishō era’s end and the Shōwa era’s beginning (Enlightened Peace) were proclaimed. The deceased Emperor was posthumously renamed Emperor Taishō within days. Following Japanese custom, the new Emperor was never referred to by his given name, but rather was referred to simply as “His Majesty the Emperor”, which may be shortened to “His Majesty”. In writing, the Emperor was also referred to formally as “The Reigning Emperor”.
In November 1928, the Emperor’s ascension was confirmed in ceremonies (sokui) which are conventionally identified as “enthronement” and “coronation” (Shōwa no tairei-shiki); but this formal event would have been more accurately described as a public confirmation that his Imperial Majesty possesses the Japanese Imperial Regalia, also called the Three Sacred Treasures, which have been handed down through the centuries.
The first part of Hirohito’s reign 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 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.
Hirohito narrowly missed assassination by a hand grenade thrown by a Korean independence activist, Lee Bong-chang, in Tokyo on 9 January 1932, in the Sakuradamon Incident.
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 political support by the militarist faction in Diet elections. The coup resulted in the murders 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 29 February.
Second Sino-Japanese War
Starting from the Mukden Incident in 1931, Japan occupied Chinese territories and established puppet governments. Such “aggression was recommended to Hirohito” by his chiefs of staff and prime minister Fumimaro Konoe, and Hirohito never personally objected to any invasion of China. His main concern seems to have been the possibility of an attack by the Soviet Union in the north. His questions to his chief of staff, Prince Kan’in, and minister of the army, Hajime Sugiyama, were mostly about the time it could take to crush Chinese resistance.
According to Akira Fujiwara, Hirohito endorsed the policy of qualifying the invasion of China as an “incident” instead of a “war”; therefore, he did not issue any notice to observe international law in this conflict (unlike what his predecessors did in previous conflicts officially recognized by Japan as wars), and the Deputy Minister of the Japanese Army instructed the Chief of staff of Japanese China Garrison Army on August 5 to not use the term “prisoners of war” for Chinese captives. This instruction led to the removal of the constraints of international law on the treatment of Chinese prisoners. And 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 Japanese use of toxic gas.
World War II
On September 27, 1940, ostensibly under Hirohito’s leadership, Japan was a contracting partner of the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy forming the Axis Powers. Before that, in July 1939, the Emperor quarrelled with his brother, Prince Chichibu, who was visiting him three times a week to support the treaty, and reprimanded the army minister Seishirō Itagaki. But after the success of the Wehrmacht in Europe, the Emperor consented to the alliance.
On September 4, 1941, the Japanese Cabinet met to consider 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 French if necessary. Our Empire will concurrently take all possible diplomatic measures vis-à-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 French.
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, the Emperor 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:
—At the time of the China Incident, the army told me that we could achieve peace immediately after dealing them one blow with three divisions… but you can’t still beat Chiang Kai-shek even today! Sugiyama, you were army minister at that time.
—China is a vast area with many ways in and ways out, and we met unexpectedly big difficulties…..
—You say the interior of China is huge; isn’t the Pacific Ocean even bigger than China?.. Didn’t I caution you each time about those matters? Sugiyama, are you lying to me?
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, Hirohito 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, which was quite an 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 be considered only 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 Fumimaro Konoe’s description of the event.) 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, Emperor Meiji which, he said, he had read “over and over again”:
The seas of the four directions—
all are born of one womb:
why, then, do the wind and waves rise in discord?
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 State 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 into 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 Fumimaro Konoe found himself more and more isolated and gave his resignation on October 16. He justified himself to his chief cabinet secretary, Kenji Tomita, by stating:
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 lean 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 Naruhiko 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 he was opposed to this.
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 Hirohito gave his consent to the war and then asked: “Are you going to provide justification for the war?” The decision for war against the United States was presented for approval to Hirohito by General Tōjō, Naval Minister Admiral Shigetarō Shimada, and Japanese Foreign Minister Shigenori Tōgō.
On November 3, Nagano explained in detail the plan of the attack on Pearl Harbor to the Emperor. On November 5, Emperor Hirohito 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 November 25 Henry L. Stimson, United States Secretary of War noted in his diary that he had discussed with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt the severe likelihood that Japan was about to launch a surprise attack, and that the question had been “how we should maneuver them [the Japanese] into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves”.
On the following day, November 26, 1941, US Secretary of State Cordell Hull presented the Japanese ambassador with the Hull note, which as one of its conditions demanded the complete withdrawal of all Japanese troops from French Indochina and China. Japanese Prime Minister Tojo Hideki said to his cabinet, “this is an ultimatum”. On December 1, an Imperial Conference sanctioned the “War against the United States, United Kingdom and the Kingdom of the Netherlands”. Read More….