To many in the Japanese leadership in 1941, there appeared to be only one way to get the United States to back off and allow their expansion across Chinese territories: a military attack to destroy the US Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor. The plan drawn up by Isoroku Yamamoto had the approval of most military officials, but there were those who expressed concern about the potential outcome. Maybe most surprising of those warnings came from the Emperor, Hirohito. Despite Hirohito’s early misgivings, he approved the plan and, on December 7, 1941, the attack was carried out.
Though his reign spanned 63 years, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the War in the Pacific that resulted tend to be what he is primarily remembered for.
Hirohito Before He Was Emperor
Prior to taking the throne of the Empire of Japan, Hirohito, son of Emperor Yoshihito and Empress Consort Sadako, served his nation in several military appointments. Before his military service, he studied at the Gakushuin School, which he attended from 1908 to 1914. By 1920, he held the rank of Major in the IJA and Lieutenant Commander in the Imperial Japanese Navy.
For six months in 1921, he toured the nations of Europe before returning home in November to become the Prince Regent of Japan. His father had shown signs of mental illness and was deemed unfit to rule. Though Yoshihito remained technically in power as Emperor, Hirohito oversaw the Empire. Two years later, while still acting as Regent, he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in the IJA and Commander in the IJN.
Even before taking the throne, Hirohito was the subject of an assassination attempt in 1923. An alleged communist fired a bullet into Hirohito’s carriage on December 27, 1923, injuring a chamberlain but missing the Prince Regent entirely. The assassin, Daisuke Nanba, was hanged nearly a year later, just two years before Hirohito would formally take the throne.
On December 25, 1926, at the age of 47, Emperor Yoshihito died from a heart attack. The following day, Hirohito took his father’s place, becoming the 124th Emperor of Japan. The early years of his official reign saw a financial crisis and another assassination attempt by a Korean independence activist. In 1936, he was forced to deal with a military coup, which led to the assassination of many high-ranking government and military officials. Hirohito took only three days to put down the rebellion.
Pearl Harbor and World War II
Already-tense relations between Japan and China were further aggravated with the Mukden Incident. The Japanese incursion into Manchuria led to the occupation of more Chinese territories, actions that were fully supported and encouraged by Hirohito. The emperor was even allegedly in favor of using chemical weapons against the Chinese and the continued aggression eventually led to the involvement of the United States. Acting on behalf of China, the Americans opened communications with Japan, hoping to overcome the expansionist nation’s historic hatred for the Chinese enough to prevent further death and conquest.
Unfortunately, Japanese military officials were strongly in favor of even further expansion in China and Southeast Asia, even if it meant drawing the US into the war.
Hirohito, however, was less enthusiastic about going to war with the United States and was hoping to break Japan’s tradition of putting war before diplomacy. After the Imperial General Headquarters put forth war plans in September 1941, Hirohito lashed out and questioned the decisions of his chiefs of Army and Navy.
According to one biography, the Emperor spoke out against one plan in particular: the attack on Pearl Harbor. Calling the plan “self-destructive” and armed conflict with the United States a “reckless war,” Hirohito’s own views did not at first echo those of most of his advisers. Sadly, his opinion was changed, and he eventually gave his approval to the outlines of the plan.
Some historians suggest that the Emperor had little voice in the actions of his nation during the 1930s and ’40s. Such allegations are based on the belief that Imperial Japan was really under the control of militarist leaders, and actions like the attack on Pearl Harbor were carried out without the explicit support of Hirohito.
By all accounts, after the attack and with the resulting war in full swing, Hirohito took a more active role in the military and its progress. Once against the thought of war, Hirohito integrated himself into many military operations, including encouraging attacks on Chongqing and Bataan. Whether Hirohito was accurately updated on the progress of the war after the IJN began suffering major defeats is a point of contention, but by early 1945 it was becoming clear that the war was all but lost. In February 1945, former Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe met with Hirohito to discuss negotiating a surrender. Hirohito rejected Konoe’s suggestion and continued supporting the war.
On August 9, 1945, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union declared war. Within a day, the cabinet began drafting the “Imperial Rescript Ending the War.” One of the conditions to ceasing the war was that Hirohito remain in power as Emperor of Japan.
Hirohito after Defeat
Though many historians link Hirohito to the crimes committed by the Imperial forces of Japan, others argue that the emperor was simply a figurehead during the war and had no operational control over his military. After the war, Hirohito remained on the throne, accepting the nation’s occupation by American forces. As part of the surrender, the Emperor was forced to disavow the belief that the Empire of Japan was a divine figure.
Later in life, Hirohito refused to visit the Yasukuni Shrine when it was revealed that Class-A war criminals had been enshrined there. He remained firmly opposed to the shrine until his death in 1989 from cancer.