Was Japanese Emperor Hirohito a Psychopath? Part 2

This blog, the second of two, seeks to answer the question ‘Was Hirohito a psychopath?’ This second post examines Hirohito’s actions from his decision to escalate Japan’s war against China in 1937 to Japan’s surrender in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.       

Launching War on China

An exchange of fire between Japanese and Chinese forces on July 8, 1937 at the Marco Polo Bridge, twenty miles south of Peking, was quickly quelled by local commanders on both sides. Expansionists within the Japanese armed forces, however, urged Hirohito to use the incident to expand the war in China. Hirohito agreed.

Unlike the Manchurian Incident, in which local Japanese commanders acted without his knowledge or sanction, Hirohito now sided with the extremists in the military to launch an attack on Peking. Hirohito’s fateful decision rapidly resulted in full scale war.

Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek responded to the Japanese occupation of Peking by shifting the focus to the south, launching an all-out attack on Japanese forces in Shanghai. In turn, the Japanese retaliated with a massive campaign aimed not only at defeating the Chinese Nationalists in Shanghai, but also to pursue the fleeing troops inland all the way to Nanking.

As the China war began, Hirohito established an ‘Imperial Headquarters’ within his palace in Tokyo, from where he acted as Supreme Commander of the armed forces right up until Japan’s surrender in 1945.

When Shanghai fell to the Japanese in mid-November 1937, almost a quarter of a million Chinese had been killed.[1] Weeks later, on December 1, Hirohito ordered Japanese forces to take Nanking.

The fall of Nanking was followed by a barbaric three month long campaign of rape and murder. In the first day of the city’s occupation, over 32,000 Chinese prisoners of war were executed. In preparation for a triumphal victory parade, Japanese soldiers rounded up and murdered more than seventeen thousand Chinese men and boys in a single night. [2]

In total, an estimated 300,000 men, women and children were murdered in the rape of Nanking. Hirohito knew of the slaughter and responded by bestowing military honours on the commanders in charge. [3]

Japanese Atrocities in China

During 1938 the major cities of northern, central and southern China fell under the control of Japanese forces. The vast majority of China’s rural and mountainous territory, however, remained under Chinese Nationalist and Communist control. When Chiang Khai-shek’s nationalist government retreated to the mountain city of Chungking, beyond the reach of Hirohito’s forces, the war reached a stalemate.

Towards the end of 1938, the Japanese began a series of ‘annihilation’ campaigns aimed at stamping out the resistance in rural areas. Under Generals Ryukichi and Okamura, all males between the ages of fifteen and sixty were targeted, villages were burned, grain confiscated, and villagers forcefully resettled. Millions of Chinese were forced to construct thousands of miles of trenches in an effort to smash the resistance. According to recent estimates, around 2.7 million Chinese civilians were murdered in these so-called ‘sanko’ operations. [4] Hirohito knew of, and approved of, these murderous campaigns.

Hirohito also bore responsibility for personally endorsing the decision to remove the constraints of international law on the treatment of Chinese prisoners of war, on August 5, 1937, that led directly to Japanese atrocities against captured soldiers. [5] He sanctioned the dispatch to China of chemical weapons, which had been banned by international law following World War 1. [6] And he sanctioned the use of experimental biological weapons in China, including the operation of the notorious biological warfare Unit 731. [7]


Imperial Wars of Aggression

Hitler’s occupation of the Netherlands and France in mid-1940 provided Japan’s militarists with a golden opportunity to further their dream of a greater Japanese empire.

On July 27, 1940, the Japanese government agreed a new policy, designed to take advantage of Hitler’s victories in Europe, which saw Japan taking possession of French Indochina and gaining access to the natural resources of the Dutch East Indies. Hirohito approved this new plan of aggression.

The psychopathic vision shared by Nazi Germany and Hirohito’s Japan is apparent in the comments made by Hirohito’s Foreign Minister Matsuoka at this time. ‘In the battle between democracy and totalitarianism the latter adversary will without question win and will control the world. The era of democracy is finished… Fascism will develop in Japan through the people’s will. It will come out of love for the Emperor.’ [8]

At the beginning of September 1940, Hirohito issued order for Japanese troops to enter French Indochina. On September 27, Japan signed a Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy.

Launching War on the United States

Until this point Hirohito had acted as a break on the most extreme elements within his military who were intent on war with the United States.

It was clear from the beginning that Japan could not win such a war. Several senior figures within Hirohito’s power structure actively tried to prevent the conflict. In October 1941 Prime Minister Konoe resigned, convinced that Japan could not be sure of victory. Hirohito replaced him with General Tojo, the army’s strongest advocate for war with the U.S. And as the Japanese navy was en route to Pearl Harbour, Hirohito’s brother, Prince Takamtsu, tried in vain to persuade Hirohito to call off the attack.

Since becoming emperor, however, Hirohito had repeatedly sided with extremists in the military out of fear of a coup that would topple him from power. He had joined with the military in destroying Japan’s nascent democracy movement and had helped to eliminate civilian oversight of the armed forces.

He now sided with the extremists once again.

Sacrificing the Japanese People

World War 2 in the Pacific lasted for three years and nine months.

During the first few months of the war, Japan’s offensive unfolded exactly as planned. Japanese troops captured Hong Kong in December 1941 and Singapore in February 1942. The Dutch East Indies fell in March 1942, and Burma and the Philippines were occupied two months later.

But by that time the tide was already beginning to turn. The Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway both resulted in heavy Japanese loses. With the U.S. victory at Guadalcanal, Japan’s expansion was halted and the war entered a phase of Japanese consolidation and defence.

The Battles of the Mariana Islands, from June to August 1944, were the decisive battles of the war. The fall of Siapan, Guam and Tinian provided the U.S. with bases for their long range B52 bombers and denied Japan control of both the air and sea

During the first half of 1945, U.S. forces captured most of the Philippines and invaded Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In the battle for Okinawa up to 120,000 Japanese soldiers and 170,000 Japanese civilians lost their lives.

As American forces drew ever closer to Japan, kamikaze suicide attacks by Japanese pilots increased, a tactic enthusiastically endorsed by Hirohito.

In Europe, the allies had landed at Normandy and the Soviets were advancing into Poland. The end of the war in Europe was in sight, which meant that the U.S. would soon be able to concentrate its entire might on Japan alone.

The war was lost but Hirohito refused to acknowledge it. Instead, he demanded ever greater sacrifices from the Japanese people. Remaining aggressive and short-sighted to the end, he constantly urged his commanders to attack and his soldiers to fight to the death.

On March 9 1945 the U.S. launched the first night of incendiary air raids over Tokyo. One hundred thousand people were burned to death.

On August 6 and 9 atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan.

Gifts from the Gods

As Herbert Bix has documented, Hirohito and his fascist elite never sought peace in order to save the Japanese people from destruction. They waited instead for a situation which would allow them to save face and maximise their chances of retaining some vestige of power. The atomic bombings and the Soviet declaration of war provided them with just that opportunity. As Yonai Mitsumasa put it, ‘the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war are, in a sense, gifts from the gods.’ [9]

When Hirohito finally began to consider the terms of surrender he had only one condition, namely that surrender should ‘not compromise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler.’ [10] After all the death and destruction, Hirohito was still demanding that he be considered a living god with the right to keep the Japanese people in his thrall.

At noon on August 15 the Japanese public listened as Hirohito declared on national radio that he was acting ‘to save human civilisation from total extinction’ and ‘paving the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come.’ [11]

In the weeks and months that followed, vast amounts of documents relating to Japan’s war crimes were destroyed, while the Japanese media launched a campaign to present the emperor as a benevolent sage who had ended the war out of compassion for his people.


[1] Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Herbert P. Bix, Harper Collins, 2001, p332

[2] Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Herbert P. Bix, Harper Collins, 2001, p334

[3] Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Herbert P. Bix, Harper Collins, 2001, p339

[4] Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Herbert P. Bix, Harper Collins, 2001, p367

[5] Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Herbert P. Bix, Harper Collins, 2001, p359

[6] Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Herbert P. Bix, Harper Collins, 2001, p361

[7] Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Herbert P. Bix, Harper Collins, 2001, p364

[8] Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Herbert P. Bix, Harper Collins, 2001, p374

[9] Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Herbert P. Bix, Harper Collins, 2001, p509

[10] Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Herbert P. Bix, Harper Collins, 2001, p504

[11] Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Herbert P. Bix, Harper Collins, 2001, p526


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