Hirohito was born on April 29th, 1901, the son of then-Crown Prince Yoshishito and his wife, Princess Sadako. He became heir apparent when his grandfather, Emperor Meiji, died in 1912 and his father, now known as Emperor Taisho, acceded to the throne. He received his education from 1908 to 1914 in Gakushuin Peers' School, and was then educated in a school specifically for the Crown Prince from 1914 to 1921. After this he travelled extensively around Europe, the first Japanese prince to do so, before returning to Japan and being appointed Regent of Japan due to his father's increasing physical and mental illness.
His father passed away in 1926, and Hirohito ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne in late December, marking the beginning of the Showa era. His first few years as emperor were unsettled, as Japan suffered through an economic crisis and increasing political violence due to the power held by the Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy over political affairs. Hirohito himself barely escaped a number of assassination attempts, the first coming in 1932 at the hands of a Korean independence advocate who hurled a grenade at the emperor. A military coup was attempted in the beginning months of 1936, and though it ultimately failed it caused the deaths of a number of high-ranking officials in the government and the army.
Relations between China and Japan were never strong, and in 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria. Shortly after, in 1937, they invaded the rest of China, kicking off the Second Sino-Japanese War. The emperor had little hand in the invasion, which was undertaken at the recommendation of military advisors, and was far more focused on the possibility of a Soviet invasion coming out of the north. However, he was involved, most likely directly, with the decision to use chemical weapons on any Chinese resistance and to ignore international law regarding the treatment of prisoners taken in war.
Though he was initially opposed to the idea of a Japanese alliance with either Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, he eventually consented following the success of the Nazi army in Europe. Though the alliance would allow the Japanese unrestricted power to continue to push into China, Hirohito was uncomfortable both with Japan's lack of success in China and with the chances for Japanese success if the war effort was expanded. He wanted to stress a peaceful or diplomatic solution above war, however when he voiced this to the chiefs of the Army and the Navy they were united in favour of war. His prime minister, Konoe, resigned in October because of the emperor's drift towards war, and was replaced by General Hideki Tojo. On November 2nd the emperor formally agreed to war.
By the next day he had been presented with a detailed outline of the planned attack on Pearl Harbor. Throughout the rest of the month he and the military leaders met frequently to discuss the war in Asia as well as against the Allies. On December 8th, the 7th in Hawaii, his forces attacked Pearl Harbor while other Japanese forces began the invasion of Malaysia. Though he had originally been reticent, Hirohito threw himself into the war effort fully at this point, attempting to boost morale and campaigning for invasions of more areas and increased troop strength.
It is unclear how aware the emperor was of the state of the Japanese war effort as the war began to turn more in favour of the Allies in 1942 and 1943. Though initially their efforts had met with uniform victories, their luck was beginning to slip and they were losing more to the Americans. Nonetheless, every defeat or tie were reported to the public as victories, though these reports were quickly shown as false by the American air raids on Japan that began to take place in 1944. Also in 1944 Hirohito sent out the first order to Japanese civilians to commit suicide rather than allow themselves to be taken by American troops. This was done, not out of fear for the harsh treatment that might be given by the Americans, but rather to prevent the Americans from gaining the propaganda value of treating prisoners too well and gaining Japanese support. His orders were followed at the Battle of Saipan, resulting in the deaths of some 10,000 civilians.
In 1945 the emperor began meetings with his ministers, including ex-prime minister Konoe. All but Konoe advised that Japan should continue fighting. Even after Germany surrendered in May, Japan continued to hold out, though at this time it was more in hope of improving their bargaining in an eventual surrender. The August atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the near-simultaneous declaration of war by the Soviets caused the resistance in Japan to collapse, and on August 15th Hirohito broadcast his surrender speech over the radio. This marked the first time the emperor had ever spoken to the populace of Japan over the radio. There was another coup attempt shortly after the surrender, made by fanatical members of the army who did not support the surrender. A full military assault was launched against the Imperial Palace, but the coup was quickly put down at the command of the emperor.
After the War
During and previous to the war, the Japanese army had committed a number of war crimes, including massacres such as the Bataan Death March and the Nanjing Massacre, use of chemical warfare against the Chinese army, the torture and cannibalisation of prisoners of war, imprisonment and rape of "comfort women" and many other crimes. Many people, mostly outside of Japan wanted Hirohito, along with other members of the imperial family, to be punished for these crimes, which they believed he was at least tacitly responsible for. On paper he was certainly in full control of the government, and it has been asserted that he held a great deal of decision-making power. However, it was decided by the American government, as represented by General Douglas MacArthur, and promoted by the Japanese government, that Hirohito was a figurehead, unable to effectively sway the war effort in any tangible way. In any case, he and the rest of the imperial family were exonerated of any possible crimes. Discussion of the possibility of his involvement was forbidden for the remainder of his life under the so-called "Chrysanthemum taboo". The sole blame for Japan's actions during the war were foisted upon Hideki Tojo. Recently discussion of his involvement has come more to the fore, and it appears that he did have a great deal more involvement in the day-to-day running of the army than was made public either at the time or during his later life.
Immediately after the war there were calls, both among members of the imperial family and within the government that the emperor should abdicate in favour of his then-underage son, Crown Prince Akihito. However, MacArthur insisted that Hirohito remain on the throne, as he felt would be able to hold the Japanese people together better than a new leader and prevent any new chaos from breaking out on the island. Hirohito was required, however, to publicly and formally renounce the claim that he, as emperor, was a divine being or descended from divine beings, which contravened centuries of Shinto tradition. Though he was treated as a head of state, he had little real power in Japan, becoming the figurehead that he had been claimed to be at the end of the war. However, he remained a public and popular figure in Japan, and was involved in Japanese life and politics for the rest of his life. In his later years he was dedicated to the study of marine life, and even published several papers in the field, all under his personal name. He described several new species of Hydrozoa, a class of marine creatures related to the jellyfish.
In 1987, Hirohito was diagnosed with duodenal cancer, which was discovered while he was having surgery for digestive problems he had been experiencing. Though he was initially making a full recovery from his surgery, he collapsed in 1988, and throughout the last year of his life suffered from intense, constant internal bleeding. He died on January 7th, 1989, having reigned for 63 years and lived for 87. He was given the posthumous name Emperor Showa.
Hirohito married his wife, Princess Nagako Kuni, later Empress Kojun, in December of 1924. They had seven children, six of whom survived to adulthood. The fifth child and eldest boy, Akihito, is the current emperor of Japan.
Hirohito was a Shintoist, the traditional religion of Japan.