Through most of his long reign (1926-1989), Emperor Michinomiya Hirohito was also Japan's longest reigning emperor. Born in 1901 to the Emperor Yoshihito, the Taisho Emperor, he was also the grandson to the illustrious Emperor Meiji, who helped to usher Japan from the medieval to the modern era in an astonishingly short time.
Meiji's influence upon his grandson cannot be overstated, especially since his father, the Taisho Emperor, was both sickly in body and feeble of mind. When Meiji died in 1912 and his father became emperor, it was assumed that Hirohito would ascend to the throne in years, rather than decades. When he graduated from Crown Prince school in 1921, Hirohito took a 6 month tour of Europe, an unprecedented action for a Japanese crown prince. There he witnessed he strength of European military might and the British Monarchy in his meetings with King George V. When his father became in ill in 1924, Hirohito became regent, until his father died in 1926 and Hirohito ascended to the throne.
The period of his father's reign, the Taisho era, was markedly different from the Meiji era. Meiji had been a strong leader, whereas Taisho had largely been unable to govern. It fell upon his ministers and, most significantly, to the Diet (parliament) to govern the country. The sudden growth in political parties during this period is referred to as the Taisho Democracy, and it happened during a period of great peace and prosperity in Japan.
When Hirohito took the throne, all of this changed. With a strong head of state, the power of the Diet and the political parties was reduced as the Imperial cabinet worked to follow their Emperor's lead. For example, at that time the constitution made clear that the Emperor could not act except on the advice of his ministers and chiefs of staff, but in the 1936 attempted coup of military men against the civilian political leaders, Hirohito ordered the rebellion to be suppressed, against his advisor's wishes. The Emperor's strong hand was clearly visible in such actions.
The most controversial aspect of Hirohito's life undoubtedly centers on his involvement in Japan's role in World War II. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, it was accepted knowledge that the Japanese emperor had no real power, and that the country was actually run by ministers and advisers, against whom he was helpless to contradict. This perception, which was always mildly questioned in the years following the war, has been made even more prominent by recent biographies that argue that Hirohito knew quite clearly the actions being taken by his military, and although he had the power to reign them in, chose not to do so.
One of the arguments made for Hirohito's lack of involvement is the fact that he rarely talked during the council meetings. In typical Japanese fashion, the advisers present in the room were to understand Hirohito's approval or disapproval of the direction the meeting was going by carefully studying his reactions. If he seemed displeased with a certain course of action, the advisers could guide the discussion to a different conclusion. This system was intended to both preserve the power of the council, but also to preserve the purity of the emperor, who shouldn't be involved in such drudge work as argumentation.
Unfortunately for Hirohito's council, he was a master at the poker face, a skill he cultivated at an early age, probably in response to his own father's mental weaknesses that could never conceal his thoughts. As a result, his advisers rarely knew what he was thinking and often had made decisions and hoped for the best. Hirohito, it seems rarely intervened in his advisers' discussions.
And yet there were times when he did intervene. He spoke so seldom in council that on one occasion, highly displeased with some military action that was taking place, he spoke two lines of a famous poem that the advisers instantly understood. Hirohito's decision to actually voice his displeasure, his oblique use of poetry to make his point, and his thin voice (which could have an otherworldly effect at times) moved his advisers to tears at the moment.
So it is clear that Hirohito did not disapprove of the attacks in China or the invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s. It is also clear that he approved the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, as well as many of the subsequent military actions that followed this declaration of war against the United States. When the quick victory promised by his advisers didn't happen, he became critical against his advisers, leading to the removal of Prime Minister Tojo in 1944. Even after the fall of Okinawa, Hirohito, who wanted to negotiate a surrender, refused to force his council to do so.
Only after the dropping of the atom bombs in 1945 did Hirohito convene the Supreme Council. After a long debate, Hirohito finally personally intervened and said he could no longer bear to watch his people suffer. Six days later, on August 15, 1945, the Japanese people heard the Hirohito's voice for the first time on the radio as he announced Japan's surrender.
As was to be expected, many of the allies wanted Hirohito to be tried and executed as a war criminal. However, General MacArthur refused to consider the idea, believing that Hirohito was necessary for a peaceful occupation. He also believed that if the emperor were martyred, the Japanese would rise up and a massive military occupation would have to take place that would require a million soldiers and enormous resources to put down. In the end, MacArthur got his wish. Hirohito was never tried as a war criminal, and his cooperation made the post-WWII into a transition toward unprecedented peace and prosperity.
But what about Hirohito? History is divided on this question. Many Japanese veterans blamed him for Japan's actions during the 1930-40s, believing him to be far more culpable than Tojo or the other war criminals executed after the war. The oblique nature of Japanese politics at that time means that it will never really be clear the extent of Hirohito's involvement in actions during this time, which is fitting considering his own oblique nature as the emperor during the Showa era -- an era called "Enlightened Peace."
(Originally published in Muzosa Journal 4/14/06. Author retains all copyrights.)