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People & Events
Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989)


Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989)
If ever a picture was worth a thousand words, it was the image of General MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito standing side by side during their historic first meeting on September 27, 1945. In it, a casually dressed MacArthur towers over the stiff, formally attired Emperor. "What does it say?" asks historian Carol Gluck. "It says, I'm MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, and I'm in charge." For millions of Japanese, it brought home in an entirely new way the notion that they had lost the war.

The man known as Tenno to his subjects and Hirohito to the rest of the world ranks as one of the most enigmatic figures of the 20th century. The ambiguity surrounding his role in leading Japan to war makes simple judgments of him all but impossible. And the cultural barriers may be even more formidable than the factual ones: to many of his subjects, the "emperor of heaven" was not really a man at all, but the living embodiment of the Japanese people. Whatever one's perspective, his life offers a powerful lens through which to view Japan's tumultuous history in this century.

Installed as Crown Prince at the age of fifteen, Hirohito assumed the "Chrysanthemum Throne" in 1926 with the death of his father, the Emperor Yoshihito (now known as the Taisho Emperor; with his death, Hirohito's reign took the name Showa). Because his father had been a weak and sickly man, Hirohito ruled more in the shadow of his grandfather, the great Emperor Meiji , who presided over Japan's late-19th-century opening up to the West. Even before he assumed the throne, Hirohito reflected the same fascination with the West, particularly after a six-month tour of Europe in 1921, where he picked up a life-long taste for Western food and clothes. This is the Hirohito the world also saw in 1975, when he finally realized his dream of visiting the United States, where he met John Wayne, was received by President Ford, and acquired a Mickey Mouse watch he wore for years.

In between, however, he presided over one of the largest and most costly military ventures in human history. In the decades after the war, the accepted version of events held that Hirohito was essentially a pawn of the militarists who gained control of the government shortly after he took the throne. MacArthur, convinced he needed the Emperor to run a smooth occupation, played no small part in establishing this version. With Hirohito's quiet manner, love of haiku and marine biology, the image of the peace-loving man who was powerless to stop his country's murderous expansion took hold. But in the decade since his death, a more open inquiry into what happened has convinced a number of historians that this version, while partially true, is far from accurate. Hirohito's ability to thwart the militarists was certainly limited -- he was more a symbol of the state than an actual ruler -- but he was not nearly as blameless as his defenders would have it. The occupation official and historian Richard B. Finn sums it up this way: "The decisions that led to the war in 1941 were made unanimously by the cabinet, the emperor was fully informed about them, they were often made in his presence, he knew in advance of the plan to attack Hawaii, and he even made suggestions about how to carry it out."

On August 15, 1945, the Japanese people heard the voice of their emperor for the first time, and while he avoided using the word "surrender," his meaning was clear. Although "the voice of the crane" was heard far too late -- Japan had lost 2.3 million soldiers and 800,000 civilians in the war -- in the difficult days ahead the emperor did provide a much-needed measure of national unity. Accepting MacArthur's implicit bargain -- help me and I'll keep you from being tried as a war criminal -- Hirohito did his part to remake Japan along an American model, backing the new constitution, "renouncing" his divinity, and trying gamely to play the part of "Japan's first democrat." By the time his 62-year reign came to an end, Japan had risen like a Phoenix out of the postwar rubble to become one of the world's richest countries. It was in demonstrating this remarkable capacity for change that Hirohito truly became the living symbol of his people.
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