Hirohito (1901-1989) was emperor of Japan from 1926 until his death in 1989. He took over at a time of rising democratic sentiment, but his country soon turned toward ultra-nationalism and militarism. During World War II (1939-45), Japan attacked nearly all of its Asian neighbors, allied itself with Nazi Germany and launched a surprise assault on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Though Hirohito later portrayed himself as a virtually powerless constitutional monarch, many scholars have come to believe he played an active role in the war effort. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, he became a figurehead with no political power.

Hirohito: The Early Years

Hirohito, the eldest son of Crown Prince Yoshihito, was born on April 29, 1901, within the confines of the Aoyama Palace in Tokyo. According to custom, imperial family members were not raised by their parents. Instead, Hirohito spent his early years in the care of first a retired vice-admiral and then an imperial attendant. From age 7 to 19, Hirohito attended schools set up for the children of nobility. He received rigorous instruction in military and religious matters, along with other subjects such as math and physics. In 1921, Hirohito and a 34-man entourage traveled to Western Europe for a six-month tour; it was the first time a Japanese crown prince had ever gone abroad.

Did you know? Hirohito’s son Akihito, the current emperor of Japan, broke with 1,500 years of tradition by marrying a commoner in 1959.

Upon his return to Japan, Hirohito became regent for his chronically ill father and assumed the duties of emperor. In September 1923, an earthquake struck the Tokyo area, killing about 100,000 people and destroying 63 percent of the city’s houses. Rampaging Japanese mobs subsequently murdered several thousand ethnic Koreans and leftists, who were accused of setting fires and looting in the quake’s aftermath. That December, Hirohito survived an assassination attempt, and the following month he married Princess Nagako, with whom he would have seven children. At around the same time, he ended the practice of imperial concubinage. Hirohito officially became emperor when his father died in December 1926. He chose Showa, which roughly translates to “enlightened harmony,” as his reign name.

Hirohito as Emperor and the Rise of Japanese Militarism

When Hirohito assumed the throne, a universal male suffrage law had just passed, and political parties were near the height of their prewar powers. However, a plunging economy, rising militarism and a series of political assassinations soon caused a crisis for the pro-democracy movement. Hirohito, who as emperor was the nation’s highest spiritual authority and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, essentially fired the prime minister in 1929. The next prime minister was shot and mortally wounded, and in 1932 yet another prime minister was assassinated by naval officers upset about a treaty limiting the number of Japanese warships.

From then on, almost all prime ministers came from the military rather than from the political parties, which were disbanded altogether in 1940. More political violence occurred in 1935, when a lieutenant colonel slashed a general to death with a samurai sword. And in 1936, over 1,400 soldiers mutinied in Tokyo, seizing the army ministry and murdering several high-ranking politicians.

Meanwhile, Japan’s conflict with China was growing. In 1931, Japanese army officers initiated the so-called Manchurian Incident by detonating a railway explosion and blaming it on Chinese bandits. They then used the event as an excuse to take over Manchuria in northeastern China and set up a puppet state there. Excursions into other areas of the country soon followed, and by 1937 war had broken out. That winter, the Japanese army massacred an estimated 200,000 civilians and prisoners of war in and around the city of Nanking. Rape is thought to have been commonplace, and women throughout Japanese-controlled regions of Asia were brought in to serve as prostitutes. Hirohito did not condone the invasion’s more repugnant aspects, but—perhaps because he worried the military would make him abdicate—he failed to punish those responsible. He also sanctioned the use of chemical warfare and the uprooting of peasants.

Japan’s Involvement in World War II

In September 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, in which they agreed to assist one another should any of them be attacked by a country not already involved in the war. Japan sent troops to occupy French Indochina that same month, and the United States responded with economic sanctions, including an embargo on oil and steel. A little over a year later, Hirohito consented to the decision of his government to battle the Americans. On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes bombarded the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii, destroying or crippling 18 ships and killing almost 2,500 men. The United States declared war one day later.

Over the next seven months, Japan occupied the Dutch East Indies, British Singapore, New Guinea, the Philippines and a number of other locations in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. But the tide started turning at the June 1942 Battle of Midway and soon after at Guadalcanal. By mid-1944, Japan’s military leaders recognized that victory was unlikely, yet the country did not stop fighting until after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the following August. On August 15, 1945, Hirohito made a radio broadcast announcing Japan’s surrender.

Life for Hirohito After the War

A postwar constitution preserved the monarchy but defined the emperor as a mere symbol of the state. All political power went to elected representatives. Unlike many among his top military brass, Hirohito was not indicted as a war criminal, in part because U.S. authorities feared it could throw their occupation into chaos.

From 1945 to 1951, Hirohito toured the country and oversaw reconstruction efforts. The American occupation ended in 1952, after which Hirohito served largely in the background while Japan went through a period of rapid economic growth. He died on January 7, 1989, having spent nearly 64 years on the throne—the longest imperial reign in Japanese history. To this day, Hirohito’s wartime record remains a subject of much debate.

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