World War II Series (Part Three): The Impotent Emperor Hirohito

Content warning: explicit descriptions of mutilations, sexual assault, violence, and death. (However, there are no images displaying this content.) No one said WWII was a walk in the park.


One of the primary reasons Mussolini was able to exert so much power over Italy was its meek king. The diminutive in size Victor Emmanuel III was also diminutive in power. Japan would become victim to the same problem.

Emperor Hirohito was born in 1901. His grandfather, the great Emperor Meiji, dictated how he was raised and educated. Throughout his life, he was taught stoicism and the isolation his royal birth had created. The young emperor ascended to power in 1926. He was entering into a changing world - a world that had seen World War I. Japan had previously had an alliance with Britain during World War I. But Britain allowed their alliance to expire in 1923. The League of Nations (specifically the U.K. and the U.S.) exacerbated global relations with Japan by quashing a racial equality law proposed by Japan. The U.S. followed up with this injustice by enacting the Exclusionary Act. This Act barred Japanese citizens from immigrating to the United States. This embittered Japan to the Western nations. 

The worldwide Great Depression hit Japan, which responded with increased imperial militarism. Japan sought a reason for invading China and decided upon a covert operation to attack its own railway. A weak explosive detonated, and though it did little damage, Japan used it as an excuse to invade. Japan invaded Manchuria (a resource-rich part of China) in 1931, apparently without authorization. But the emperor did nothing. Japan instituted a puppet regime in Manchuria and these events would eventually escalate into the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. 

The slow crawl towards WWII involved a number of blows against any Japanese inclinations towards neutrality. A communist assassination attempt on the emperor’s life led to a lifelong fear of communism. Prime Minister Tsuyoshi, a moderate politician, was murdered by a national extremist. This effectively ended any civilian control of the military. Hirohito's paranoia was further exacerbated by an internal rebellion against the crown. Sympathizers within the Japanese government meant efforts to quash the rebellion were slow. After the war, Hirohito would claim the only direct intervention he made in politics was announcing he would lead the royal guard himself to stop the rebellion. However, there was no need to follow through with his promise as the government quickly mobilized after his proclamation. 

Succumbing to the global fear of communism, Japan signed the anti-communist agreement with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It is important to note, however, that while Japan was nationalist, it was never fascist. (Despite having fascist organizations.) Hirohito was also never a dictator or an authoritarian monarch. He was a constitutional monarch and held a more ceremonial role in politics. He had the power and influence to intervene, but it was unlikely he made any of the decisions outline below. His worst crime was his decision not to stop them. 

Bloody Saturday - an image of an infant on the train tracks (the body of his dead mother was nearby) in Shanghai after a Japanese bomb attack. August 1937.

Bloody Saturday - an image of an infant on the train tracks (the body of his dead mother was nearby) in Shanghai after a Japanese bomb attack. August 1937.

In 1937, Japan went to war with China. When they came upon Nanking, a city of 500,000, the Japanese military decided to make an example of them. By the time of Japanese arrival, the Chinese military and political leaders had fled. Many within the city hoped the Japanese Army would leave a city of half a million defenseless civilians alone. They did not. What followed came to be called The Rape of Nanking. Over half of the population was murdered. Women were gang-raped and sexually mutilated by the thousands. (You can read more about this atrocity and personal accounts from victims and witnesses here.)

"The seventh and last person in the first row was a pregnant woman. The soldier thought he might as well rape her before killing her, so he pulled her out of the group to a spot about ten meters away. As he was trying to rape her, the woman resisted fiercely . . . The soldier abruptly stabbed her in the belly with a bayonet. She gave a final scream as her intestines spilled out. Then the solder stabbed the fetus, with its umbilical cord clearly visible, and tossed it aside." - Tang Junshan (survivor/witness of Nanking)

I felt like [I was] killing pigs.
— Kozo Tadokoro (former Japanese soldier, recalling Nanking)

It was this sort of ideology that led to human experimentation that would make Dr. Mengele balk. In Unit 731, the Japanese military and scientists tortured civilians and POWs (discussed in more detail here.) 

The Imperial General Headquarters, responsible only to the Emperor, were the ones to order the attack on Nanking.

The men responsible for the Rape of Nanking. Top row, left to right: Sugiyama Hajime - Minister of War, Hiroyasu Fushimi - Chief of Navy, Kan'in Kotohito - Chief of Army. Second row, left to right: Yonai Mitsumasa - Minister of Navy, Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaru

The men responsible for the Rape of Nanking. Top row, left to right: Sugiyama Hajime - Minister of War, Hiroyasu Fushimi - Chief of Navy, Kan'in Kotohito - Chief of Army. Second row, left to right: Yonai Mitsumasa - Minister of Navy, Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaru

Did the Emperor order these attacks? No. Did he know about them? Unlikely in any detail. But in his apathy, he allowed such atrocities to happen. His only concern and the only question he asked HQ was: how long will the war against China take?


Emperor Hirohito was initially against going to war alongside Italy and Germany. He broke his Imperial Silence to speak at the Imperial Conference, reciting a poem from his grandfather, Emperor Meiji.

The seas of the four directions—
all are born of one womb:
why, then, do the wind and waves rise in discord?

The attack on Pearl Harbor was opposed by the Emperor, who did not want to bring the U.S. into the war. However, he believed that stopping the attack would have led to a coup d'etat, resulting in his own death. It was his belief that the war was inevitable and without his unifying presence, Japan would have collapsed. 

Over the course of the war, Hirohito refused to intervene, even when it became clear he could not win. He allowed the militants to dictate the actions of the country, including the creation of the kamikaze pilots, who flew suicide missions against the enemy. Eventually, a series of losses caused the Prime Minister Konoe to eventually resign after Hirohito rebuked his urgings to surrender.

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 lean 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.

The Emperor desired one final victory. But his hesitation was lethal. Under the misguided hope that the next battle would turn the tide of the war, he was responsible for the deaths of thousands more people. 1945 signaled the death throes of the war. With the USSR declaring war on Japan and the atomic bombs dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan was left little choice but to surrender in August of 1945. 

While many of the ministers and government officials were tried and convicted of war crimes, Hirohito was granted immunity. The U.S., too, believed he was a unifying force for the Japanese people. The Japanese military was disbanded and the Emperor had to repudiate to the public the semi-divine power of the Emperor and Japanese ideas of racial superiority, which had been cultivated leading up to the war.

Emperor Hirohito continued to rule until his death from complications from cancer in 1989. He was and is still regarded as a great emperor and an honorable hero in Japan. He was given the posthumous name Showa, after the era over which he ruled. Showa means "period of enlightened peace/harmony." An irony, if there ever was one.