Emperor Hirohito, the 124th and longest-reigning emperor of Japan, oversaw his country’s involvement in World War II. From his approval of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor to his reaction to the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hirohito found himself in a unique historical position: beloved by his people, vilified by his enemies, and irrevocably linked to the seminal conflict of the 20th century.
Emperor Hirohito’s decision to enter World War II was not a light one. While each country’s history books would depict his choice differently, he spent the rest of his life reflecting on World War II — and whether he could have done anything differently.
“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.” - Hirohito: Beyond the Myth
“The fruits of victory are tumbling into our mouths too quickly.” - Statement in 1942, quoted in Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness
“I desire that concrete plans to end the war, unhampered by existing policy, be speedily studied and that efforts be made to implement them.” - Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism
“All men are brothers, like the seas throughout the world; So why do winds and waves clash so fiercely everywhere?” - quoting his grandfather, Emperor Meiji (as quoted in The Pacific Campaign)
“Beware most strictly of any outbursts of emotion which may engender needless complications, or any fraternal contention and strife which may create confusion, lead you astray, and cause you to lose the confidence of the world.” - “Gyokuon-hōsō” Radio Broadcast, 1945
“I made efforts to swallow tears and to protect the species of the Japanese nation.” - Letter to his son, Prince Akihito, 1945 as quoted in The New York Times
“Our people believed in the imperial state too much, and despised Britain and the United States. Our military men placed too much significance on spirit, and were oblivious to science.'' - Letter to his son, Prince Akihito, 1945 as quoted in The New York Times
“Originally, this should be done by the Cabinet. I heard the results, but at the last meeting I asked for a decision. I decided to end the war on my own. … I thought that the continuation of the war would only bring more misery to the people.” - NBC interview, 1975
“It is true that I had received information on military operations in advance. However, I only received those reports after the military commanders made detailed decisions. Regarding issues of political character and military command, I believe that I acted in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution." - on his approval of the Pearl Harbor attack, NBC interview, 1975
After World War II, Hirohito became the leader of a country in desperate need of rebuilding. He went beyond the devastated bombing sites to the character of Japan itself throughout his 63-year reign.
“It is according to the dictate of time and fate that we have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.” - “Gyokuon-hōsō” Radio Broadcast, 1945
“They do not depend upon mere legends and myths. They are not predicated on the false conception that the Emperor is divine and that the Japanese people are superior to other races and fated to rule the world.” - Humanity Declaration, 1946
“Let the entire nation continue as one family from generation to generation, ever firm in its faith of the imperishableness of its divine land, and mindful of its heavy burden of responsibilities, and the long road before it. Unite your total strength to be devoted to the construction for the future. Cultivate the ways of rectitude; foster nobility of spirit; and work with resolution so that you may enhance the innate glory of the imperial state and keep pace with the progress of the world.” - “Gyokuon-hōsō” Radio Broadcast, 1945
“Our peoples withstood the challenges of one tragic interlude when the Pacific Ocean, symbol of tranquility, was instead a rough and stormy sea, and have built today unchanging ties of friendship and goodwill.” - State Banquet at the White House, 1975, quoted in The New York Times
“My gratitude to the people of the United States for the friendly hand of goodwill and assistance their great country accorded us for our postwar reconstruction, immediately following that most unfortunate war, which I deeply deplore.” - State Banquet at the White House, 1975, quoted in The New York Times
“There is no point in living a longer life by reducing my workload. It would only increase my chances of seeing or hearing things that are agonizing.” - Diary entry, 1987, as quoted in The Japan Times
World War II tore countries, neighbors and families apart. History would remember the heroic actions of world leaders — as well as the atrocities committed by others. Check out these resources next:
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