Hirohito, the Emperor Shōwa (昭和天皇) of Japan, was a controversial figure. Some historians claim he was inherently pacifist and tried to prevent war. Others say he was neither a proponent of war nor peace, but an opportunist who governed in a pluralistic decision-making process.
At the start of Hirohito’s reign in 1926, Japan had the ninth-largest economy in the world, the third-largest naval power, and was a member of the council of the League of Nations.
During the first part of Hirohito’s reign, marked by financial crisis and extreme political violence, military extremists gained increased power through both legal and extralegal means. Although some apologists insist he was a pacifist, it appears that Hirohito made no objection in 1937 to the Japanese aggression in the China.
In the fall of 1941, breaking tradition at an imperial conference, Hirohito directly questioned the chiefs of the Army and Navy general staff about the advisability of their war plans. However, since all speakers at the conference were united in favor of war rather than diplomacy, it’s said that Hirohito gradually began leaning in that direction. On November 5, 1941, Hirohito approved the operations plan for a war against the West.
During the war, the Emperor took a keen interest in military progress and appears to have made significant interventions in some military operations. In June 1944, as Saipan fell, Hirohito sent an imperial order encouraging all Japanese civilians to commit suicide rather than be taken prisoner.
In June of 1945, as a final Japanese victory seemed very unlikely, the cabinet reassessed the war strategy. The upshot of the meeting, a decision to fight to the end, was not challenged by Hirohito.
In June 1942, the Hirohito met with his ministers, saying “I desire that concrete plans to end the war, unhampered by existing policy, be speedily studied and that efforts be made to implement them.” In July 1945, the Allies issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding the unconditional surrender of Japan. The Emperor decided not to surrender.
On August 10, 1945, following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a belated Soviet declaration of war, the Japanese cabinet drafted an “Imperial Rescript ending the War” providing it did not compromise the prerogatives of Hirohito as the sovereign leader of Japan. Although fanatics attempted a coup and suppression of the document of surrender, a hidden recording of Hirohito’s speech was broadcast and the coup was quickly crushed.
After the war, Hirohito, without prosecution for war crimes, was kept in place as a figurative head of state.