What Was Japanese Emperor Hirohito's Role in World War II?

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 

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Emperor Hirohito of Japan (1901-1989) and Empress Consort Nagako (1903-2000) attend the Imperial Palace Garden Party in Tokyo, Japan, 1972. Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's surrender to the Allies to end World War II Aug. 15, 1945, many around the globe fervently hoped he would soon be tried as a Class A war criminal for crimes against peace. But that never happened. Instead, Gen. Hideki Tojo and 27 Imperial military officers and government officials were charged, while Hirohito was allowed to stay on the throne and remain in power until his death in 1989.

During those post-war decades, Hirohito portrayed himself as a powerless monarch who had no say in how the war was conducted. Scholars regularly debated the issue, with many agreeing he was innocent. Experts today, however, largely believe he played a sizable part in Japan's role during World War II.

"Hirohito absolutely knew what was going on," says Dr. Annika Culver, associate professor of East Asian history at Florida State University. "His innocence was a later fiction that America manufactured."

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Who Was Hirohito?

Michinomiya Hirohito was born in Tokyo April 29, 1901, the first son of Japan's Crown Prince Yoshihito, who later became the Emperor Taisho. Educated in Japan, Hirohito was a microbiologist who later developed an interest in marine biology. In 1921, Hirohito became the first Japanese crown prince to go abroad, traveling to Europe. There, he was especially enchanted with the freedom and informality of the English royal family.

After he returned home, Hirohito's father retired due to mental illness, and Hirohito was named prince regent, a role that allowed him to conduct business in his father's stead. In 1924, he married the princess Nagako Kuni, with whom he would eventually have seven children. Following the death of his father in 1926, Hirohito became emperor of Japan. He was 25 years old.

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Future Japanese emperor Hirohito, at far left, son of Emperor Taisho, poses in 1921 with his brothers, (left to right) princes Takahito Mikasa, Nobuhito Takamatsu and Yasuhito Chichibu.
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Hirohito's Early Reign

As emperor, Hirohito was considered a manifestation of god, and thus the nation's highest spiritual authority, a concept the Japanese had adopted in 1868. He was also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Japan was in the midst of a violent and turbulent period when Hirohito became emperor in 1926 — ironic, given that his reign had been given the name Shōwa, which means "bright peace" or "enlightened harmony." And things would only get worse.

Although a small pro-democracy movement had just begun in Japan, militarism was also rising. The economy was tanking, which soured everyone's mood, and Japan and China were in conflict. This Sino-Japanese discord culminated in the Japanese committing two major atrocities: the Manchurian Incident and the Rape of Nanking. In the former, the Japanese blew up a railway and blamed it on Chinese bandits, which they used as an excuse to take over Manchuria and establish a puppet state. In the latter, the Japanese army massacred some 200,000 people in and around Nanking, raping many women. And then, in 1940, the Empire of Japan entered World War II by signing the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, forming an alliance with the "Axis."

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Hirohito receives a bow from the leader of a military unit during a troop review in World War II.
© CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Some historians believe Hirohito was only marginally involved in all of these skirmishes, if at all. And they point to the fact that Hirohito didn't want to enter World War II, preferring diplomacy. Yet Hirohito did eventually confirm Japan's plan to attack Pearl Harbor. He also operated a war room within the Imperial Palace, at times gave instructions to his military commanders and bestowed a service decoration upon Dr. Shiro Ishii, who led a gruesome medical experimentation team during the war that was just as horrific as that of Germany's Josef Mengele.

"Hirohito had weekly military briefings, met with members of the privy council and had his own advisors," Culver says. "He was very much a part of it."

Near the war's end, when the Japanese leaders were arguing over whether or not to unconditionally surrender to the Allies, it was Hirohito who made the final decision to capitulate.

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Emperor Hirohito on a tour of a devastated district of Tokyo after a raid by U.S. bombers during the war in the Pacific.
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Life for Hirohito After the War

If Hirohito was so involved, how did he avoid prosecution for war crimes? That was largely thanks to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was appointed Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) in September, 1945, during the United States-led Allied Occupation of Japan. MacArthur's job was to help stabilize the country, and one of his first actions was to decide whether Hirohito should be tried as a war criminal. Although there were arguments on both sides, MacArthur decided he should not be charged and tried. Japan would be ungovernable, he reasoned, if the Allies prosecuted the citizens' emperor and spiritual leader.

"It was extremely important for the Americans to develop a positive relationship with Japan in the post-war period," says Culver. "If Hirohito went to trial, there was a concern this would lead to divisions in Japan, and the re-emergence of leftists and communism."

In addition, it was in the best interests of the U.S. if Japan was transformed into a democratic bulwark against communism, as the country was encircled by communism in countries such as China and the former Soviet Union. There was also some exotification going on, Culver says.

"We had Japanese-American internment camps in America, but no German-American internment camps," she says. "There was this idea that the Japanese were so different from us, they had to be treated differently."

So Hirohito was left alone. A postwar constitution was drafted that left the monarchy in place but declared the emperor a symbolic position. The notion of the emperor as a deity was banished, and political power was awarded to elected representatives. And American officials began rebranding Hirohito as a peaceful, democratic figure, Culver says.

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Emperor Hirohito of Japan and Empress Consort Nagako pose at their home at the Imperial Villa in Tokyo, Japan, 1971.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 2018, a diary from Hirohito's imperial chamberlain, Shinobu Kobayashi, revealed the emperor was agonizing over the fact that people were blaming him for the atrocities Japan had perpetrated during the war and the preceding conflict with China. But while he may have felt some true guilt and repentance, his critics argue that Hirohito should never have been let off the hook back in 1945.

That decision, they say, effectively absolved the nation from its culpability in these events. That's part of the reason today's Japanese textbooks omit mention of Japan's brutality in Asia, and why there is no collective sense of guilt over the atrocities committed by Japan in World War II, as there is in Germany.

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