The Japanese Emperor Hirohito at the time of his
enthronement in 1928.
Was the Japanese Emperor Hirohito the man who got away with it?
Hirohito was the imperial sovereign of Japan during World War 2.
He was allowed to stay in this role after the war, albeit in a purely ceremonial capacity.
The American leadership believed he was a powerless figurehead leader throughout the war. They wanted to transform him into a symbol of democracy.
But the burning question is: How much power did Hirohito really have over Japan’s military policy?
And how much responsibility did he bear for Japan’s war crimes?
I'll outline a few facts and let you do the math.
Changed his mind
Hirohito in 1975.
Hirohito (April 29, 1901 – January 7, 1989) became the 24th emperor of Japan in 1926.
He had no objections when Japan invaded China in 1937, more concerned about an attack from Japan’s old Soviet enemies in the north.
Works by later historians including Yoshiaki Yoshimi show that Hirohito authorized hundreds of chemical and toxic gas attacks on the Chinese.
He consented to an alliance with Nazi Germany and Italy, although he initially seemed to be against going to war with the Allies.
As war preparations went on, however, Hirohito seems to have changed his mind, as recorded by then Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe:
“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.”
-Fumimaro Konoe, 1941
Hirohito seems to have had a lot more influence on Japan’s war policy than historians used to think.
He gave the green light for the attack on Peal Harbor and advised his generals regularly on what to do and where to invade next.
After the Allies started to win the war in the Pacific, Hirohito reportedly asked his chief of staff: “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?”
Surrendered and survived
Hirohito encouraged Japanese civilians to commit suicide rather than surrender after they started losing the war.
Over 10,000 civilians killed themselves in the few days after this announcement.
Emperor Hirohito surrendered Japan to the Allies on August 15, about a week after the nuclear bombing of the cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Hirohito was forced to denounce his divine status, but was not put on trial.
U.S. General Douglas MacArthur believed the emperor was an important symbol for the Japanese people.
The lion’s share of responsibility for the war went on the shoulders of Hideki Tojo, who was prime minister throughout most of the conflict.
Hirohito was the longest reigning monarch in Japan’s history and the first reigning emperor to travel abroad.
After his death in 1989 Hirohito became known by his posthumous name, Showa.
Written by C. Anderson, 2010. Last updated 2011.
• The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition 2008
• The Oxford Essential Dictionary of the U.S. Military, 2001
•The Japanese Emperor Hirohito Nationaal Archief
• Japanese Emperor Hirohito in 1975 The National Archives
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