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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Japanese Emperor Showa Dies, January 7, 1989

Today in 1989, Emperor Showa died in Tokyo, Japan. Known during his life as Emperor Hirohito, he was the 124th Emperor of Japan and reigned during the most challenging years of the 20th century. His role as a national leader during the Second World War is still a source of controversy and debate.

The future emperor was born at Aoyama Palace in Tokyo on April 29, 1901. He was the eldest son of the future Emperor Taisho and was the first future Japanese monarch in several hundred years whose mother was his father's official wife. As a child, his title was Prince Michi. His grandfather died when he was 12, making his father the emperor and him the heir apparent. He formally assumed the title of crown prince in November, 1916, when he was just 15.

The future Emperor Showa became regent of Japan in November, 1921, due to his father's increasingly ill health. During that same year, he embarked on a six-month tour of Europe, making him the first Japanese crown prince to travel abroad. It was said that he developed a great fondness for the British during this trip.

Emperor Taisho died on December 25, 1926. The Taisho era ended and a new era was proclaimed: Showa, meaning enlightened peace. The new emperor was crowned on November 10, 1928 and was known during his lifetime as Emperor Hirohito, although this name was never used by the Japanese people. Instead, he was termed His Majesty the Emperor, or just His Majesty. Although his era carried the name of enlightened peace, the first 20 years of his reign would prove to be something else entirely.

The new emperor held a delicate position with regard to Japan's government. The nation had a prime minister, cabinet and Diet, but the military had established veto power over cabinet positions earlier in the century. By 1932, there was essentially no civilian control over the Japanese military machine; moderates were either muted or pushed aside and those who stood up to senior military officials were frequently killed. With this in mind, the question that has plagued historians over the past 60 years is how much official power the emperor wielded in terms of the decisions taken which led to the invasion of China and Japan's entry into the Second World War.

Some historians place the emperor at the center of the decisions to invade Manchuria in 1931 and the use chemical weapons against the Chinese. He was certainly reluctant to join Germany and Italy as an Axis Power, but he restrained his protests after Germany overran much of western Europe in the spring of 1940. In September, 1941 when a draft war plan against the Allies in the Pacific was presented to His Majesty, he supposedly scolded his army chief of staff, saying that the plans were overly optimistic. It was clear that the emperor supported diplomacy over war, but the pro-military government supported the use of diplomacy only as a facade to mask war preparations.

While the emperor was seemingly hesitant about the war, when it came time to chose a new prime minister, a hard-line General named Hideki Tojo was picked for the job. One of Tojo's first actions was to seek the emperor's consent for a war against the US, Great Britain and other colonial powers in the Pacific, which His Majesty ultimately gave.

While the specific truth of events has been lost to history, there is some evidence that the information given to the Imperial Palace became more and more censored as the war turned against the Japanese. The Japanese public was certainly kept in the dark until late in 1944, when American B-29s over Tokyo and other cities proved that the war was being lost. The emperor sought a diplomatic channel via the Soviet Union in the spring of 1945, which was not at war with Japan at that time. The Allies were demanding unconditional surrender, something that the government in Tokyo could not bear.

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, forced the surrender issue into the light. With the Soviet declaration of war that same month, it was clear that Japan had no friends and no hope of a negotiated settlement to the war. On August 15, His Majesty made a recording that was broadcast to the Japanese people. It was the first time the Japanese public had heard his voice. He informed his public that the nation was going to surrender unconditionally and that they must be prepared to "accept the unacceptable".

After the formal Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945, there were calls for the emperor to stand trial for alleged war crimes. Among those who supported such a move was US President Harry Truman. But General Douglas MacArthur, who was the commander of the occupation of Japan, was insistent that His Majesty not stand trial. He viewed the emperor's position as a symbol of national unity, the destruction of which could lead to anarchy. In the end, Emperor Showa was forced to reject the concept of his own divinity. He and all future emperors became, in the eyes of the nation, mortal beings. The emperor was made a constitutional monarch in 1946.

Emperor Showa seemingly embraced his new role as a public figure. He and his family made many public appearances over the course of the next 40 years and he played a crucial role in rebuilding Japan's image around the world. He also took time to delve into his personal passion, marine biology. A laboratory was built in the Imperial Palace from which he wrote several published works in the field.

Emperor Showa died on the morning of January 7, 1989 from complications related to cancer of the small intestine. He is buried at the Imperial Mausoleum next to his father. His son, Crown Prince Tsugu, is the current Emperor Akihito.

1 comment:

Unknown said...


I just want to comment on a very popular misconception on the surrendering of Japan at the end of WW2, one that you perpetuate in your article:
" was clear that Japan had no friends and no hope of a negotiated settlement to the war..."
Are you insane ?
Of course they negotiated their surender: Ever heard of the N├╝rnmberg trials ? That's when the german generals went on trial for crimes against humanity you know... Where and when did the trials against the japanese generals and admirals ever take place ? What ? You say they didn't ? Wow, I guess this is really UNCONDITIONAL surrender... It's not because the documents that were signed on board the USS Missouri actually contain the words "unconditional surrender" that that is what is was... In an unconditional surrender, the japanese bastards running the army should have been trialed and hung just like the Nazis, that's what "unconditional" would have meant...