For the Japanese people, Hirohito was a god. But behind the gilded facade and the royal duty he was born to, Hirohito was just a man like any other, and a flawed one at that. While his reign as Japanese Emperor centered around the growing power of the military and a series of terrible wars, Hirohito’s own life was much different behind closed doors.
1. He Was Destined For Power
Born in the royal palace on April 29, 1901, Hirohito was the first son of the future Emperor and Empress of Japan, Crown Prince Yoshihito and Crown Princess Sadako. Thanks to his famous grandfather, Emperor Meiji, the role of emperor had undergone a serious transformation. Where the Emperorship had once existed as a figurehead position, it now boasted agency and power.This change played a key role in determining the course of Hirohito’s life and legacy.
2. He Was Sent Away
The birth of a new prince was always cause for celebration, and the nation rejoiced. The baby’s name—Hirohito—roughly translates to “abundant benevolence.” But a dark twist was ahead. According to royal tradition, little Hirohito’s family sent him away from court at just 10 weeks old so a surrogate parent could raise him. It was a cold start to his young life.
3. He Had More Than One Father
Hirohito’s new protector was Count Kawamura Sumiyoshi, a retired vice-admiral. The Emperor explicitly instructed the elder man to lean into this paternal role and raise Hirohito as though he was his very own grandchild. And so, Hirohito left his home in Tokyo, settling into his new home amongst the rolling hills at his new grandfather’s mansion…but it was no walk in the park.
4. He Had A Strict Childhood
Although Hirohito’s younger brother Prince Yasuhito eventually joined the boy at the Count’s, their childhood was bizarre. Count Kawamura extensively supervised every aspect of their lives and meticulously planned their moves. The staff was always mindful of the Princes’ diet and appearance, ensuring every detail met the royal standard.
And unbeknownst to the young boys, their time spent with their surrogate grandfather was about to be unceremoniously cut short.
5. He Was Pampered
When Hirohito was only three years old, Count Kawamura—the only father figure he’d ever known—passed. All of a sudden, Hirohito and his brother found themselves in utterly unknown territory. They returned to their parents, who were now almost complete strangers to the young royals. Right around this time, the boys started developing some bad habits.
Perhaps feeling for the children and their turmoil, their royal nurses took over a caregiving role and started indulging Hirohito and his brother every second of every day, doing everything in their power to keep the young prince happy. But whether this boded well for the making of a future leader or not was another question entirely…
6. He Was Insecure
As Hirohito grew up, he didn’t exactly become well adjusted. Even when playing amongst other children in the palace, everyone had no choice but to treat him with absolute veneration. This was a dangerously slippery slope. Because he never had the chance to lose or fail, Hirohito turned into a spoiled brat without much in the way of leadership qualities. Would this brat grow into a man capable of leading a nation? I’ll give you a hint: No.
7. He Grew Up Too Quickly
In 1908, Hirohito began attending the Gakushūin, a school specifically created to educate royal children. This time of his life was a harrowing passage into adulthood, and when he was only 11 years old, something pivotal occurred. His grandfather, Emperor Meiji, passed, and his father took the throne. Hirohito became the heir apparent…and a huge burden came with it.
8. He Had No Choice
The next year of Hirohito’s life was a whirlwind of activity. The palace formally commissioned him as a second lieutenant in the army and an ensign in the navy, and he had no choice in the matter. By the time he was 15, he had already been promoted to Captain and Lieutenant. And by the end of the same year, he was officially named a Crown Prince. His childhood was now very much over, and new dangers awaited.
9. He Broke Tradition
Soon enough, Hirohito broke out of his shell in a big way. In fact, to the chagrin of palace traditionalists, he was the very first Crown Prince to ever visit Europe. His list of destinations included the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy, and the activities he enjoyed ranged from lavish banquets to WWI battlefields.
He later reminisced on his six-month venture, writing, “I knew freedom for the first time in England.” But when he returned home, he barely had a moment’s rest before being thrust into the fray.
10. He Stepped Up
When Hirohito returned from his travels, he came back to horror. His father, never mentally stable, had become so psychologically ill that he no longer had the capacity to fulfill his duties. This meant that Hirohito had to step up to the plate by becoming Regent of Japan. It was a heavy responsibility to bear…and it turned out Hirohito was in mortal danger.
11. He Dodged A Bullet
On December 27, 1923, Hirohito was on his way to perform a state duty when an incendiary approached the royal carriage—pistol in hand. With murder on his mind, rebel Daisuke Nanba raised his weapon and fired at Hirohito. The bullet crashed through the carriage window, striking a chamberlain and missing its intended target. Hirohito barely escaped with his life that day, but what were the assassin’s motives, and why did he want Hirohito gone?
12. He Was The Object Of Revenge
Turns out that Daisuke Nanba’s memory ran deep, and the rebel sought revenge for the execution of his ally a full 13 years earlier. Well, history repeated itself, as authorities took Nanba into custody, proclaimed him insane, and condemned him to execution as well. Having dodged a literal bullet, Hirohito started a new lease on life. It was a scandalous one.
13. He Had A Bizarre Meet-Cute
Hirohito broke from tradition in more ways than one, but his next rebellion was his biggest. Quite unusually, he chose his very own bride, and in an eyebrow-raising way. In 1917, a number of eligible girls attended a tea ceremony at the Imperial Palace. What they didn’t know was that someone was watching them. Throughout the ceremony, a concealed Hirohito eyed them from behind a screen, trying to find his future wife. The woman he landed on made history.
14. He Made A Strange Sacrifice
It was 14-year-old Princess Nagako—Hirohito’s distant cousin—who left an indelible impression upon the young prince. Moved by her presentation during the tea ceremony, he was sure that she was the one. On January 26, 1924, the two of them married. And while his selection of Nagako was already an interesting choice, Hirohito had yet another surprise up his sleeve.
In a shockingly unprecedented move, Hirohito gave up his 39 court concubines while married to Nagako. With only one woman at his beck and call, all of his hopes for an heir rested with the Nagako herself. This may have been a mistake.
15. He Needed An Heir
Hirohito and his wife desperately hoped for a boy, but Nagako gave birth to one girl after another. After four daughters, the court became increasingly worried that a boy and an heir might never come. It took nearly a decade of worry for the kingdom to get what it wanted, but in 1933, the royal family finally welcomed a male heir, Akihito. Hirohito’s bloodline was secure…but that didn’t mean his reign was.
16. He Ascended
On Christmas Day 1926, Hirohito fulfilled his destiny and officially became Emperor of Japan after the passing of his father. This kicked off an intense domino effect. According to custom, Hirohito’s given name became strictly off-limits, and his address was limited to “His Majesty the Emperor” or “His Majesty.” Only, the changes didn’t end there.
A new Emperor meant the dawning of a new era, and as such, it deserved a unique name. Hirohito became the Emperor of the Shōwa era, meaning “Enlightened Peace.” However, Hirohito hardly lived up to the name.
17. He Had A World Of Trouble
Hirohito’s transition into his Emperorship was anything but smooth sailing. During his first year in power, Japan faced a severe financial crisis that foreshadowed the hardships of the Great Depression. It made Hirohito’s people restless and unhappy, and the Emperor’s life was now, more than ever, constantly in danger. Indeed, there was a large and permanent target on his forehead…
18. He Didn’t See It Coming
Hirohito had already survived one assassination attempt on his life. But little did he know, he was in for worse. On January 9, 1932, a Korean Independence activist named Lee Bong-chang, disguised as a policeman, approached the Emperor’s procession as it left the Imperial Palace. For Hirohito, it seemed like just another day—until it wasn’t. All of a sudden, a forceful explosion rang out through the street and the ground shook beneath the wheels of his carriage…
19. He Had A Close Call
Lee Bong-chang had thrown a grenade at Hirohito’s carriage…and miraculously missed. Instead, the grenade soared past its mark, detonating near another carriage and sadly causing two horse fatalities. In yet another stroke of luck, the Emperor was safe from harm. For Lee Bong-chang, however, the horror was just beginning. By October of the same year, authorities convicted and executed Lee for attempting to take Hirohito’s life.
20. He Didn’t Want To Fight
At the start of the 1930s, Hirohito’s problems grew tenfold. His army started going rogue, blowing up a part of the South Manchuria Railway in order to blame the Chinese and start a conflict. A conflict, I might add, that Hirohito wanted nothing to do with. So when the military proceeded to invade China, the Emperor tried to put his foot down…and it backfired big time.
21. He Feared For His Life
After trying to assert his supposedly divine power as Emperor, Hirohito got egg right on his face. His cabinet quickly pressured him into letting the invasion proceed anyway. Overwhelmed by opposition on all sides, Hirohito finally gave his permission for the fighting to continue. This? Was a horrendous mistake. Not just because Hirohito showed weakness, but also because it led to a diabolical decision—one that had the world questioning him for the rest of his life.
22. He Had Blood On His Hands
By 1932, Hirohito was fully in the military’s pocket, and it turned into absolute terror. That year, he gave the go-ahead for the infamous bombing of Shanghai. The devastation was so brutal, Hirohito even feared that the Americans would try to intervene, and he called for an end to the Chinese invasion once more. Well, once more, the military completely ignored their monarch. Ouch.
23. He Wanted To Stay
Although Hirohito’s men were ignoring him, the world sure wasn’t. The League of Nations was so incensed by the horror of Shanghai, Hirohito was forced to have Japan resign its position in the organization. Maybe that seems like small potatoes, but believe me, it wasn’t. Forced to turn his back on the League, Hirohito’s legacy turned even more to barbarity and unrest…
24. He Was A God
Behind closed doors, Hirohito was a puppet to stronger men, but his public reputation was even more disturbing. With the rise of nationalism in Japan, more and more people worshipped not only the way of the samurai but also the idea that the Emperor was a god come to Earth. Lowly soldiers venerated Hirohito and were happy to sacrifice their lives in the service of their mighty Emperor. But one day, Hirohito took it too far.
25. He Didn’t Back Down
In 1936, a group of junior officers attempted a military coup, and Hirohito’s response was swift and brutal. He suppressed the uprising, sure, but he didn’t stop there. He also insisted that the officers were “rebels” and called for the execution of the coup’s initiators. Considering his flimsy track record, this incident proved that the Emperor had dark convictions after all. Even so, his reputation would get darker.
26. He Caused A Massacre
In 1937, Hirohito committed his greatest atrocity yet. His military invaded the capital city of China, Nanjing, and what ensued was a nightmare too terrible to imagine. The Imperial Japanese Officers killed more than 200,000 innocent Chinese civilians, pillaging and destroying along the way. Today, other titles for this unforgettable day include “the Nanjing Massacre” or “the Rape of Nanking.” And the brutality went on.
27. He Gassed Them
You see, Hirohito was just getting started. The next year, his army invaded Wuhan, and the Emperor used toxic gas on a whopping 375 different occasions. What’s more, these orders came directly from Hirohito, not just his generals, so he couldn’t hide behind his cabinet this time. In fact, when it came to his terrifying power, Hirohito was really hitting his stride.
28. He Chose A Side
In 1940, Hirohito made a decision that stained his country forever. At the outbreak of WWII, Japan agreed to ally with Germany and Italy, thus forming the Axis Powers. Yeah, Hirohito didn’t exactly get on the right side of history with that one. Not surprisingly, this raised the hackles of other countries, and it was only a matter of time before someone retaliated…
29. He Had A Knee-Jerk Reaction
One of the biggest enemies Hirohito made the day he chose the Axis Powers was the United States of America, who put sanctions on Japan, embargoed their oil exports, and all but crippled their economy. For Hirohito, it was nothing less than a call to war, and he had no choice but to react. That reaction, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it, would “live in infamy.”
30. His Men Betrayed Him
On December 7, 1941, Hirohito and his generals notoriously attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in what was a total ambush. But most people don’t know the truth about that day. Even though Hirohito approved the attack, he had wanted to do the honorable thing and declare war first, and didn’t know it was going to be a surprise hit. When he found out, he was utterly enraged…but it was far too late.
In response, the US rose to the challenge with revenge in their hearts and declared war on Japan. Whether Hirohito had his way or not, the standoff had only just begun.
31. They Looked Up To Him
The attack on Pearl Harbor is now an enormous black spot in Hirohito’s legacy, but that’s not how his people saw it at first. Japan’s success in the conflict ironically turned the rather pacifist Hirohito into a God of War, and his people credited him with the victory and might of their nation. As Emperor, he seemed almost untouchable. Until, that is, he got one rude awakening.
32. He Demanded Bloody Sacrifice
Hirohito might have started out as one of the Axis success stories, but that all changed. After the Battle of Midway, Japan’s fortunes reversed, and it drove Hirohito to brutally desperate measures. Nearing the end of the war, he relied heavily on kamikaze pilots—those who gave their lives for the Emperor by crashing their planes into US aircraft carriers. It was grim, and even Hirohito knew something had to change.
33. His Plan Backfired
With his country falling apart, Hirohito planned to make the next skirmish, the Battle of Okinawa, the one that would force the US into a peace agreement. He misjudged badly. With the Imperial army even mobilizing middle-school boys to fight on the front lines, the Battle of Okinawa proved harrowing, so much so that the Americans began to believe Japan would never give up. What came next changed the course of history.
34. He Lived Through A Nightmare
In August of 1945, Hirohito’s worst fears came true. Feeling they had no other options before them, the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, one on Hiroshima and the other on Nagasaki. It was an act of violence that may never be forgotten, and the loss was unspeakable. Yet even as Hirohito’s country reeled from the nuclear effects, his cabinet had a much different response.
35. His Country Was In Pieces
Despite the horror of these incidents and the agony of the Japanese people, a full half of the government’s cabinet still wanted to remain in WWII, leaving the country in a deadlock about what to do. Well, at long last, Hirohito got to use his voice for good, and it was his word that would force the decision. The Emperor voted for total surrender. Only, he now had the humiliating task of delivering this news to his people.
36. He Used His Voice
On August 15th, Hirohito broke one of the last traditions remaining to him. He went on the radio and addressed his people for the very first time, an act virtually unthinkable for an Emperor before then. The sound of his voice spread out over the radio waves, reaching the ears of a frightened population as he referred to the devastation caused by the atomic bombs and explained how he feared “the total extinction of human civilization.”
He told them to “endure the unendurable” and shared his sorrow for Japan’s collective loss of life. But though this marked a defeat for the nation, it was far from the end for the Emperor himself.
37. He Kept It Together
Japan was now under US occupation, and Hirohito technically had a boss for the first time in his life: the American General Douglas MacArthur, the head of the occupying forces. Shamed and embarrassed, Hirohito wanted to abdicate his throne, but it was Douglas who stopped him. The general hoped that the Emperor’s continued reign could provide comfort and familiarity for the Japanese people, making this difficult transition slightly more bearable.
While Hirohito tried to go about business as usual, it was anything but. After all, somebody had to be blamed…
38. He Escaped Unscathed
As the dust settled on WWII, the Allies drew up a list of leaders who were to stand trial for crimes against humanity. Surprisingly, though, Hirohito was not on it. This decision to completely exonerate the Emperor and the Imperial family is still criticized by historians today. But just because Hirohito didn’t stand trial, didn’t mean his downfall wasn’t coming…
39. He Was Just A Man
The Allies may have spared Hirohito in one way, but they made him perform an infamously humiliating act. They insisted that he renounce his divinity as Emperor—publicly. He had to tell his people that he wasn’t actually a descendant of gods, but really was just like them and a mere mortal. When he made this “Humanity Declaration” in 1946, it was a paradigm-shifting event.
He—Japan’s infallible leader—was suddenly as fallible as ever. As a result, the Emperor’s title of Imperial Sovereign no longer existed, and Hirohito was now a Constitutional Monarch.
40. He Became One Of Them
After the monumental transformation of the Emperor’s role, Hirohito flipped the script. Now, whenever he made a public appearance, he donned a whole new wardrobe. Gone were the days of lavish Imperial robes and a conservative demeanor. Instead, he dressed in a dapper suit and hat—the very picture of the average middle-class man.
41. He Was Indoctrinated
From early on, military history played a substantial role in Hirohito’s education. Both he and his brother frequented war museums and attended parades. But these excursions weren’t meant to be fun and entertaining. Instead, they meant to inspire a love of country and teach them a complete reverence for the military and—most importantly—the Emperorship.
42. He Loved Nature
Hirohito’s education was much different than you’d expect. From 1914 to 1921, he attended an institution made especially for him, where the nation’s most intelligent military minds were at his disposal. He also had access to a liberal arts and science education, and it changed his life. This was exactly the learning that ignited his deepest interests and passions, and above all, Hirohito harbored a fascination with the natural world that he was determined to nurture.
43. He Had An Odd Obsession
Hirohito was completely intrigued by biology—especially marine biology. Nothing brought the young prince more peace than going out to collect seashells and insects. Radically balancing the harsh realities of the army, this introspective pastime brought him closer to the earth and helped him understand the world beyond humanity. This interest didn’t end with his graduation, either. He carried it with him for his entire life, keeping one special instructor close to him for decades.
44. He Never Stopped Learning
Hirohito’s professor of natural history remained his servant for the next 30 years, advising him whenever Hirohito wanted to find out more about the science behind the world. Throughout his reign at the Imperial Palace, he also frequented a laboratory where he continued his research, even writing and publishing papers under the name “Hirohito.”
45. He Mended Fences
In the wake of WWII, Hirohito became a public figure who mended the frayed edges of Japan’s relationships with the rest of the world. His travels brought him further into the world than any other Emperor, and he was the first to meet an American President. But while his reception in countries such as America and France was mostly positive, not everybody was happy to see him…
46. He Couldn’t Win Them All
On his visits to Britain and the Netherlands, Hirohito didn’t enjoy the warmest of welcomes. In fact, he was humiliated once more. People in the Netherlands protested by throwing raw eggs and vacuum flasks, while in Britain, they met him with a more somber form of protest: utter silence. In a powerful demonstration, people turned their backs on the Emperor’s passing carriage, some even wearing red gloves to signify loss.
47. He Collapsed
In 1987, after suffering from digestive issues for several months, Hirohito underwent surgery on his pancreas. While operating, doctors found something quite disturbing—cancer of the small intestine. Confident that the surgery had done its job, Hirohito was hoping to make a full recovery. At first, everything seemed to be in tip-top shape, but a year later, those hopes came crashing down when he collapsed in his palace. The Emperor’s life hung in the balance.
48. He Had Staying Power
After his relapse, Hirohito never fully recovered. From then on, it was a cruel waiting game. Slowly wasting away, the Emperor suffered constant internal bleeding. At the time of his death on January 7, 1989, he was the longest-reigning Emperor in Japan, and his passing marked the end of an entire era in Japanese life. Only, it wasn’t necessarily a peaceful end.
49. He Wasn’t Everyone’s Cup Of Tea
Representatives and leaders of 163 nations attended Hirohito’s grand funeral. But this wasn’t a comfortable ceremony for everyone to endure. Some leaders still struggled with accepting the late Emperor’s moral failings, especially his controversial handling of WWII. Great Britain’s Prince Philip admitted that he appeased his conscience by offering Hirohito’s casket only a modest nod instead of a full bow.
50. He Had Them Divided
To this day, opinions on Hirohito’s role throughout WWII remain sorely divided. However, the general consensus is that Hirohito carried at least some of the moral responsibility for the horrors of his age. Some argue that he truly served as more of a figurehead and puppet, some stand in neutral territory, and others swing the other way entirely, believing that the Emperor was the true mastermind behind some of the military’s most ruthless decisions.
The absolute truth of the matter? Something we’ll never know for sure.