Known as the longest-reigning monarch of modern times, Michinomiya Hirohito ascended the Chrysanthemum throne on 25 December 1926 and, after a period of five years as regent, became emperor of Japan. His enthronement ceremony took place in Kyoto on 10 November 1928. According to Japanese tradition Hirohito was the 124th direct descendant of the fabled first emperor, Jimmu, and was therefore a member of the oldest imperial family in the world.
He was born at Aoyama Palace in Tokyo on 29 April 1901. His father was the Taisho Emperor, Yoshihito. His mother, Empress Teimei, was Princess Sadako, the fourth daughter of Prince Michitaka Kujo. The future Emperor Hirohito was their first son, and, as a child, he was named Michinomiya.
Hirohito received his early education at the Peers’ School. Later he attended the Crown Prince’s Institute where he studied marine biology. On this subject he later wrote several books that were based on research that he had done in Sagami Bay. In 1921 he visited Europe for six months, being the first Japanese crown prince to do so. On his return he was named prince regent to rule in place of his father, who had retired because of ill health.
In 1924 Hirohito married Princess Nagako, the first daughter of Prince Kunihiko Kuninomiya. Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako had seven children – two sons and five daughters. The eldest was born in 1925 and the youngest in 1939.
The first 20 years of Hirohito’s reign were turbulent – he served as Emperor of Japan during the troubled years of World War II. Hirohito chose a name for his reign – “Showa” meaning “Enlightened Peace”, but this period was soon characterized by the vicious military invasion of China. By the time he became emperor, the military was already in solid control of policy and drove Japan into a major war. Following the tradition, the emperor had grave misgivings about any war with the United States and tried vainly to restrain the army and navy chiefs. However, Japan began with a military build-up, which led to war in 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbour.
World War II
Throughout the war, Hirohito kept up his interest in marine biology and a variety of other scientific areas. He classified marine life from the Japanese Imperial Palace that had its own laboratory from where the Emperor could conduct his own works. In 1945, when Japan was facing defeat, public opinion was divided between those who favoured surrender and those who wanted to carry on with the war to the bitter end. Hirohito sided with those urging peace.
Following the two atom bombs dropped by the USA on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he called a meeting of the Supreme Council on 9 August 1945. After a lengthy debate Hirohito intervened and stated that he could no longer accept to see his people suffer in this way. Only six days later (15 August) the Japanese people for the first time heard the Emperor’s voice when he announced the unconditional surrender and the end of the war.
Following the war, Hirohito renounced both the concept of imperial divinity and claims to authority other than completely ceremonial. The constitution that had given the emperor absolute authority was rewritten. The new constitution vested sovereignty in the people, and the emperor was voted “symbol of the State and of the unity of the people.” He became readily accessible, made personal appearances and permitted publication of pictures and stories about himself and his family.
In 1959 Hirohito allowed his son, Crown Prince Akihito (born 1933), to marry a commoner, Michiko Shoda, the daughter of an industrialist. The Japanese people eagerly accepted the marriage. Upon Hirohito’s death, Prince Akihito automatically became emperor, and the new reign was given the name Heisei, meaning “Achieving Peace.”
Hirohito’s 60th anniversary on the throne was celebrated in 1986. In Japan he was considered sacred and was referred to as Tenno Heika, meaning “son of heaven.” So important was the role of the emperor in Japanese society that he was allowed to retain his position and title when Japan surrendered in World War II. He remained a well-loved figure until his death. Emperor Hirohito died of cancer at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on 7 January 1989.