Emperor Hirohito

The Life and Legacy of Japan’s Ruler During World War II
Narrated by: Bill Hare
Length: 2 hrs and 13 mins

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Publisher's Summary

“It was not clear to me that our course was unjustified. Even now I am not sure how historians will allocate the responsibility for the war.” (Emperor Hirohito)

The man known to most of the world as Emperor Hirohito ruled during some of the most tumultuous years in Japanese history. When he came to the throne in 1926, he inherited control of a country which had only recently emerged as a major industrial and world power. Through the aggressive expansion and wars of the 1930s, Hirohito was at the head of one of the world’s foremost powers. Throughout the maelstrom of World War II, he remained in power, a distant and, to most outsiders, inscrutable factor in the rise of the Japanese Empire.

Before and during the war, many people in America and elsewhere believed that Emperor Hirohito was at least partly responsible for both the confrontational Japanese approach to foreign affairs and for the often brutal conduct of the Japanese armed forces during the wars which followed. 

As such, when the war ended, there were plenty of calls for the emperor to be indicted for war crimes along with other senior figures in Japan. However, a new feeling emerged at that time, suggesting that, in reality, Hirohito had been little more than a figurehead taken along by a tide of militarism, helpless to intervene or influence the course of events. 

Modern scholarship suggests that neither of these views of Hirohito is entirely true. At the time he came to the throne, the emperor was revered as a semi-divine figure, and his influence on every level of Japanese political and military life was undeniable and considerable. 

Although the emperor generally did not express his will through the issuance of direct orders, the displeasure of the emperor was something which every senior member of the military and political sphere sought strenuously to avoid. In this context, to imagine Hirohito as a helpless puppet, a purely constitutional monarch manipulated by ruthless politicians and generals, is an error. Indeed, he was always an active participant in the most important events before and during Japan’s war against the Allies. 

In hindsight, it’s clear that the image of Hirohito as a powerless figurehead emerged as part of a legend deliberately created by America and its allies, following the war to help maintain a peaceful occupation of Japan. With the dawn of the Cold War, Japan was needed as an ally, allowing it to serve as a potential bulwark against Soviet expansion in Southeast Asia. Rebuilding Japan into a strong and stable power became a priority, and for this, Hirohito was needed to provide continuity and a form of rule to which the Japanese people were accustomed. Thus, Hirohito went on to rule throughout the astonishing Japanese economic recovery in the 1950s and 1960s, all the way until his death in 1989. 

The new constitution imposed by America after the war was framed around the monarchy, and to justify keeping Hirohito in power, it was necessary to demonstrate that he had not been personally culpable for Japanese aggression or military brutality. This was so successful that for many years, few historians disputed this version of history. It was only relatively recently that new works have concluded that the personality and influence of the Japanese emperor were far greater than this post-war invention suggested. 

Today, most modern historians agree that Hirohito was neither a helpless dupe nor an aggressive hawk who drove Japan into war - his role was more complex, and his personality played a far more significant role than either of these simplified views would suggest. 

This book looks at the role of the enigmatic leader in the rise, fall and rebirth of modern Japan.

©2020 Charles River Editors (P)2020 Charles River Editors

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