The role of Emperor Hirohito of Japan in World War II is a matter of debate among historians. The Japanese military fought with ruthless brutality, mistreated prisoners of war, and encouraged both soldiers and civilians to commit suicide rather than surrender. Did these ideas originate from Hirohito? Was he a secret pacifist who only supported the increasingly militaristic attitude of his country because he was advised to do so? The answer probably lies somewhere in between.
Hirohito, born April 29, 1901, was groomed from birth for the crown that he was expected to gain at a relatively young age. Since his father, the Taisho Emperor, was sickly of mind and body, it was anticipated that Taisho’s reign would not be long. After completing his education and a European tour, Hirohito was named Prince Regent in 1921, to rule in place of his ailing father. On December 25, 1926, he became Emperor in his own right when his father died of a heart attack. Hirohito was 25 years old and would become Japan’s longest reigning monarch.
When Hirohito ascended the throne, he enjoyed unquestioned power as Emperor, a position that was believed to have quasi-deity origins. However, he was also surrounded by advisors to whom he frequently acquiesced in decision making. Questions still exist regarding how actively Hirohito participated in forming Japan’s expansionist policies of the early portion of his reign.
Invasion into China took place before World War II, and the Japanese occupation of Manchuria was one of the points of contention between Japan and the United States. In 1940, Japan joined Germany and Italy in the Tripartite Pact forming the Axis Powers of World War II. Hirohito and his advisors determined that they were prepared to go to war with the United Kingdom, United States, and France to defend their expansionist program. They demanded free reign and Allied demilitarization in Southeast Asia.
Some question exists as to Hirohito’s true opinion of Japan’s war tactics. On hundreds of occasions he approved the use of toxic gas which had been condemned by the League of Nations, but he was also accused of being a pacifist by some of his advisors. How much did he willingly approve of and what was coerced?
Hirohito approved of the plan to attack Pearl Harbor and incite the American’s to join the war. Though the US was aware that an attack was probably coming, they failed to determine when and where. They were caught completely off guard when the Japanese attacked, destroying or disabling 18 ships and killing approximately 2,500 men. Anti-Japanese feelings ran high in the US with most of the public unaware that the goal of Henry L. Stimson, United States Secretary of War, had been "how we should maneuver them [the Japanese] into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves."
With war committed to, Hirohito did all he could to boost the militaristic sentiment in Japan and encourage his troops. Any doubts he may have had about beginning the war were behind him as he looked for victory. Soldiers and civilians alike were encouraged to commit suicide rather than be taken prisoner by the Allied forces. In July 1944, as the tide of war turned against Japan, over 1,000 civilians threw themselves to their death after Hirohito promised them the same elevated status in the afterlife that was enjoyed by men killed in combat.
As early as February 1945, after the losses in the Leyte Gulf, Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe began to recommend negotiated peace, but the rest of Hirohito’s advisors remained staunchly against surrender. At the very least, they hoped for one more great victory in battle to give Japan a better negotiating position. Unfortunately for the people of Japan, that victory never materialized. Continued division among leadership and indecisiveness on Hirohito’s part allowed the death toll to rise.
When the US dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, Hirohito was left with the options of surrendering or seeing his country obliterated. It was a closely kept secret that the US had not manufactured more than the bombs that had already been used. Hirohito said of the use of atomic bombs, "It's very regrettable that nuclear bombs were dropped and I feel sorry for the citizens of Hiroshima but it couldn't be helped because that happened in wartime."
On Aug. 15, 1945, the Emperor’s voice was heard over the radio for the first time as he announced Japan’s unconditional surrender.
Many atrocities had been committed by the Japanese military during the Sino-Japanese War and World War II, but debates over how much the Emperor had been aware of and in control of ensued. Historians continue to question how much Hirohito directly approved of and what was done by other members of leadership. Though not as well known as the German extermination of the Jewish population, Japan murdered an estimated six million Chinese civilians and prisoners of war in the 1930s and 1940s. Numerable examples exist of the torture and mistreatment of Allied prisoners of war at the hands of the Japanese, even to the extent of cannibalism. Orders had been given to execute all prisoners of war before they could be liberated by Allied forces. Hirohito was never put on trial for these war crimes.
Should Emperor Hirohito have been held accountable for the atrocities committed in his name? It is a question that historians still debate. Several hundred members of Japanese military leadership were tried and executed for their part in them. Though Hirohito remained in power and was not tried as a war criminal, his power was extinguished. Japan’s monarchy after World War II was modeled after that of the United Kingdom, and Hirohito became a figurehead and was forced to deny his divine status. He continued to reign in this limited function until his death in 1989.