Was Japanese Emperor Hirohito a Psychopath? Part 1

With the twenty fifth anniversary of the death of Emperor Hirohito approaching, the Japanese government is preparing to unveil a 61-volume official biography of the Emperor, which a team of scholars has been labouring on since shortly after his death.

It is unlikely that this biography will answer the question, ‘Was Hirohito, who presided over the expansion of the Japanese empire and led his nation into an East Asian war that cost over 120 million lives, a psychopath?’

This blog, the first of two, seeks to address that question. This first post examines Hirohito’s actions in the period up until the outbreak of war with China in 1937, and seeks to determine whether or not he should rank alongside Mao, Hitler and Stalin as one the twentieth century’s greatest mass murderers.   

In the aftermath of World War 2, the U.S. facilitated Japan’s avoidance of its brutal history by allowing Hirohito to remain as Emperor, and by portraying him as a benign passive figurehead, unaware of the brutal crimes being committed in his name.

Having escaped justice, Hirohito continued to reign as emperor right up until his death from cancer at the age of 87. His funeral was attended by representatives from 163 countries including U.S. President George Bush, the secretary-general of the United Nations, President Mitterrand of France, and the Duke of Edinburgh.

As this blog will now show, although Hirohito did not create the psychopathic system of governance of pre-war Japan, his behaviour contributed massively to the rise of ultranationalist extremism and the build up to war with China.

Hirohito Did Not Create The Psychopathic System of Pre-War Japan

Hirohito was born into a system of government that pitted the military and civilian elites against one another, with the emperor acting as the glue that held things together. The emperor was both a political and a military leader, and also, crucially, the nation’s highest spiritual authority. It was from his religious role that he derived his real power.

According to the Japanese constitution, created by Hirohito’s grandfather Emperor Meiji, ‘The Sacred Throne was established at the time when the heavens and the earth became separated. The Emperor is Heaven descended, divine and sacred.’

Hirohito was taught as a child that he belonged to a line of living gods, that he had inherited the spiritual authority of his dead ancestors, and that he was morally accountable to them and not to either the people of Japan or to the law.

Hirohito was also born to be the leader of a highly militarised imperial family. The extended royal family, of which there were many, enjoyed ownership of land, multiple residences, and generous stipends from the state. Princes of the imperial family were also appointed to the highest levels of command throughout the armed forces. Hirohito therefore experienced a highly militarised upbringing.

Since its establishment, the armed forces of Japan were the armed forces of the emperor, not the state, and were under the emperor’s direct command. At the time of Hirohito’s birth, the Japanese army had also already established a culture of extreme brutality. To enforce discipline on reluctant conscript soldiers, the army’s founders had devised a dual system, comprising an extremely harsh culture of punishment and the use of the emperor’s divine status to ensure obedience. Soldiers were taught to regard orders from their superiors as issuing directly from the emperor, to be obeyed on pain of death. [1]

photo credit: 1981Adam via photopin cc

photo credit: 1981Adam via photopin cc

Hirohito Initially Favoured Japan’s Compliance with the New International Order

Hirohito was also born into a world of empires. As Crown Prince, his first journey overseas at the age of twenty was a visit to Europe. During his six month voyage he was able to experience first-hand the might of the British Empire. As he travelled to Europe via Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the Suez Canal and Cairo, Malta and Gibraltar, he was hosted at each stop by British officials and attended British receptions in his honour. [2]

When he became emperor, senior military figures had already formulated grandiose plans for a Japanese empire, that saw all of China becoming a Japanese protectorate and the resource-rich East Indies (now Indonesia) being wrestled from Dutch colonial control.

Hirohito came to the throne however in the aftermath of World War 1, amid attempts to create a new international framework aimed at limiting the aggression of states. The Covenant of the League of Nations established new basic principles governing war and new institutions to oversee these rules.

Hirohito initially supported Japan’s participation in this new order. The international treaties that Japan signed in 1921 and 1922 guaranteed the existing colonies of Britain, France, the US and Japan and called for reductions in military spending.

However, Hirohito’s and his advisors did not envisage that the new global order would prevent Japan from rising to dominance in Asia. When this assumption later proved incorrect, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations.

To Increase His Power, Hirohito Revived the Cult of the Divine Emperor

Hirohito came to power at a time when Japan was moving towards modernisation. A new movement, the Taisho democracy movement, had arisen, calling for universal male suffrage and limits on the power of Japan’s military and royal elites.

Respect for the emperor system among both the public, and parts of the armed forces, was in decline, as was belief in the divine status of the emperor. Some senior officers in the military were openly suggesting that the armed forces should no longer be the emperor’s forces but should instead become the people’s military.

In response to this threat to his power, Hirohito and his palace advisors did everything in their power to re-establish belief that the emperor was a living god. The campaign began with Hirohito’s elaborate enthronement ceremonies which lasted for a full year and were reported on a daily basis in the press and on the radio.

The hysteria reached a climax in November 1928 with Hirohito’s deification. Having entered a specially constructed wooded structure, he lay in its innermost chamber in a foetal position, wrapped in a quilt, where he reunited with the spirit of the Sun goddess and became a living god. [3] The nation’s schools were then bestowed with a sacred portrait of the emperor with his wife Empress Nagato, to be prayed to daily.

Faced With Insurrection, Hirohito Sided With Extremists in the Military

Following his enthronement, and despite his deification, Hirohito was still faced with growing rebellion within the armed forces.

On September 18 1931, officers of the Japanese Army in north eastern China detonated an explosion on the railway line north of Mukden. Blaming the attack on the Chinese, the local Japanese commanders used it as a pretext to launch attacks on Mukden and beyond. Neither Hirohito, the court officials or the Prime Minister were aware of this plan in advance.

Hirohito’s advisors, many of whom were sympathetic to the army’s colonial ambitions, agreed that rather than confront the military, Hirohito should approve of the rebel officer’s actions. The Prime Minister and the cabinet were less inclined to overlook the insubordination. The civilian government refused to authorise reinforcements and agreed to treat the fighting as only an ‘incident’ in the hopes of avoiding a declaration of war.

Hirohito now had the option of backing his Prime Minister and placing a check on military insubordination, or allowing the mutineers to get away with their act of rebellion. Hirohito chose the latter course. In doing so he undermined the ability of the Prime Minister and the cabinet to reign in the military, and made further acts of military insubordination more likely.

A short time later, when a plot by a group of officers in Tokyo to overthrow the Prime Minister was uncovered, Hirohito again chose to allow them to go unpunished.

With Hirohito siding with extremists in the army against his more moderate civilian government, a campaign of repression was launched at home. During 1933, eighteen thousand dissidents were arrested across Japan and the communist movement eradicated. Over the next two years, what was left of the Taisho democracy movement was brutally suppressed.

Having eliminated civilian control over its activities, the military received a threefold increase in its budget in 1936. [4] Japan now increasingly took on the attributes of a fascist state. Its people laboured under the burden of food rationing as taxes were raised to fund a massive programme of rearmament.

While Hirohito used the myth of the divine emperor to secure his power, the military in turn used that myth to quash all dissent.

Although Hirohito inherited the Japanese system of imperial rule, by reviving the cult of emperor worship and by siding with extremists in the military, by 1937 he had succeeded in transforming that system into one in which psychopaths could thrive.

The scene was set for a brutal holy war.

A second blog post examines Hirohito’s actions during Japan’s war with China and during the Second World War. Read it here.


[1] Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Harper Collins, 2001, page 55

[2] Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Harper Collins, 2001, page 116

[3] Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Harper Collins, 2001, page 193

[4] Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Harper Collins, 2001, page 311


1 thought on “Was Japanese Emperor Hirohito a Psychopath? Part 1

  1. Pingback: North Korea – Kingdom Of Lies | disorderedworld

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