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Emperor Hirohito: Reign & Role in WWII

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the life of Japanese Emperor, Hirohito. We will highlight key accomplishments throughout his lifetime, and focus on the role he played during World War II.

Who Was Hirohito?

He's been portrayed in cartoons. He was believed to have god-like qualities. He led his people into an epic war. No, we're not talking about a superhero; we're talking about Japanese Emperor Hirohito. Hirohito is best remembered for leading his country to a humiliating defeat in World War II. Remarkably, however, he was never removed from power; he was never prosecuted for war crimes. He continued to be the Emperor of Japan until his death in 1989. In the postwar era, he oversaw a revived Japan emerge to become the world's second-largest economy. Talk about coming full circle. Let's dig deeper, and learn more about this interesting historical figure.

A young Hirohito is depicted here in full dress uniform.
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Early Life and the Rise of Militant Japan

Japanese militarism had been progressing steadily since the late 19th century. Japan's desire for expansion led to the First Sino-Japanese War between 1894-1895, in which Japan achieved victory over China, and then the Russo-Japanese War between 1904-1905, in which Japan was victorious over Russia. So by the time Hirohito was born, Japan was an increasingly aggressive nation. Hirohito was born in Tokyo in 1901 into the Japanese royal family. He was the oldest son of Crown Prince Yoshihito, who became Emperor Taisho and ruled Japan from 1912 until 1926.

We are so used to thinking about the role of the Japanese during World War II, that we often forget that Japan was our ally during World War I. Despite being an American ally, Japan was not particularly well-treated in the aftermath of the war. Certain aspects of the Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, promoted discord between Japan and the United States. By the 1920s and 1930s, tremendous tension existed between the two countries. This prompted Japan to become vehemently anti-American, and contributed to an even more extreme militarism and ultra-nationalism.

Hirohito became emperor of Japan upon his father's death in 1926. Early in his reign tremendous social unrest existed, resulting in various revolts and even a military coup. Hirohito, however, was able to suppress dissent and hang on to power. The Japanese Invasion of Manchuria took place in 1931, when Japanese forces entered this region of China and occupied it until the end of World War II. Hirohito survived an assassination attempt in 1932 when a Korean independence fighter, Lee Bong-chang, tossed a grenade at the emperor. It was a bad throw, and instead of hitting Hirohito, two horses were killed.

Japanese soldiers invade Manchuria in September 1931.
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World War II

In September 1940, under the leadership of Hirohito, Japan signed on to the Tripartite Pact, which was a military alliance between Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Japan. This act established the foundation for what became known in World War II as the 'Axis Powers.' Desiring to have a free hand to expand throughout the Pacific region, without interference from the United States, Japan plotted to knock out American capabilities in one dramatic, surprise attack. On the Sunday morning of December 7th, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor took place. The surprise attack that became known as the 'Day of Infamy,' sunk four battleships and took the lives of 2,403 Americans. The following day, America declared war on Japan. America was now a participant in the Second World War.

This photograph depicts the devastation brought about by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
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Intense fighting between the United States and Japan took place throughout the next four and a half years. On August 6th, 1945, the United States dropped the first ever atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. When Japan did not immediately surrender, a second bomb was dropped August 9th on the city of Nagasaki. By August 15th, Japan announced its intention to surrender, and the official surrender took place aboard the USS Missouri on September 2nd. This day has come to be known as Victory in Japan Day.

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