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Emperor (Showa Tenna) of Japan, 1926-1989
Hirohito [hE 'rO hE' tO] was born in Tokyo on April 29, 1901, during the reign of his grandfather, Mutsuhito Emperor Meiji, to Crown Prince Yoshihito and his wife Sadako. His name at birth was Michinomiya. As per imperial custom of the day, he was taken from his parents soon after birth and placed in the guardianship of a Vice-Admiral of the Imperial Navy. He was returned to the imperial residence in November 1904. The prince's formal education began in 1909, when he was sent to Gakushuin (Peers School).
Emperor Meiji died on July 30, 1912, and Crown Prince Yoshihito assumed the imperial name of Taisho Emperor Yoshihito. Hirohito subsequently assumed the title of Crown Prince.
In March, 1921, Hirohito became the first Crown Prince to go abroad, when he made a grand tour of Europe. On November 25, 1921, he became regent for his father, who had begun to show signs of mental derangement. On January 26, 1924, he married Princess Nagako, daughter of Prince Kuniyoshi Kuninomiya; the couple subsequently had five daughters and two sons.
Crown Prince Hirohito became emperor upon the death of his father, on December 25, 1926, but was not formally enthroned until November 10, 1928. He took Showa ("Enlightened Peace") as his reign name, and became formally known as Showa Tenna ("Heavenly Sovereign").
Japan had instituted a parliamentary government prior to Hirohito's assumption of the throne, universal manhood suffrage had been recently introduced, and the country was on the path to a more democratic form of government. Military incidents abroad -- including wars with China, Russia, and Korea -- and assassinations in Tokyo, however, began putting roadblocks on that path by the early 1930's.
World War II
Emperor Hirohito personally opposed Japan's militarism, but he had little actual ruling authority and his advisers kept him from making his wishes publicly known so that radical militants wouldn't take direct action against the monarchy. By his silence, he tacitly approved all the military and government decisions that ultimately led to Japan becoming a belligerent in World War II.
Despite the bombings of Tokyo and the very real threat of a U.S. invasion of Japan, Emperor Hirohito refused to vacate the Imperial Palace. He did all he could to keep the morale of his subjects up, but after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki he began pressuring the military to accept surrender terms. When military leaders appeared unwilling to accept surrender, Emperor Hirohito personally announced Japan's surrender to the Allies.
Unlike most of Japan's military leaders, Emperor Hirohito was never charged or tried for any war crimes committed by Japan during the war. Instead, Hirohito's broadcasts to his people helped smooth the transfer of control of Japanese affairs to the United States Army and greatly reduced the potential for insurrection; in effect, Hirohito allowed Japan to retain all its dignity, despite having been defeated. Although he was allowed to retain his title of Emperor, he was required to renounce all claims to divinity, which he did on January 1, 1946. In 1947, Japanese voters approved a new Constitution which changed the emperor's status from sovereign to "symbol of the state" and placed all political control in the hands of elected representatives.
Having lost his divine status, Emperor Hirohito and his family became more open to the general public, and he spent many of the remaining years of his reign touring the country and personally witnessing its reconstruction into a major world economic power. In 1971 he became the first reigning monarch in Japanese history to travel outside Japan, and in 1975 became the first Japanese monarch to visit the United States. No longer burdened with any government duties, he was able to concentrate on the study of marine biology, a subject he had become interested in while young, and to write a number of books and articles on the subject.
Showa Emperor Hirohito died on January 7, 1989, following a long battle with cancer. Having been on the throne just under 63 years, he was the longest reigning monarch in Japanese history, and the second-longest reigning monarch in the world, after Queen Victoria of Great Britain. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Crown Prince Akihito.
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This page was last updated on May 24, 2017.