The story goes that fanatical
Hirohito ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1926, after five
years as regent to his mentally debilitated father Emperor
‘Extremist thought is about to overwhelm the world; and an outcry is being made about the labour problem’, the young Hirohito had noted in an essay on the Paris Peace Conference in 1920. The response of the conservative court elite was a policy of ‘total national unity’, ‘military preparedness’, accelerated industrial growth and a deliberate project of rebuilding the emperor’s prestige as the embodiment of supreme military, political and religious power.
Slight, twitchy, shrill-voiced, near-sighted, physically awkward, reticent and tense, Hirohito was not the obvious candidate for divine martial-monarch. But he was intelligent enough and strong-willed, and he wanted to rule. Whereas his grandfather the Meiji emperor had been all too prone to indulge his prodigious appetites, Hirohito set self-discipline above pleasure: a frugal regime, daily exercise, a highly regulated timetable. His education had a strong military slant: lectured by admirals and generals on American theories of sea-power and the use of infantry (as well as constitutional and international law, Western history, diplomacy and political philosophy, race and imperialism, economics, contemporary events and natural science), he was given actual command of company-sized units of the Imperial Guard, and a trench was dug inside the palace compound so the 19-year-old prince could practise firing the machine-gun. Once he had assumed the throne, Hirohito was rarely out of uniform. The enthronement ceremonies orchestrated by the palace elite lasted a year, climaxing in the secret ritual of his deification—an ‘awe-inspiring mystery’ as the loyal press and newly established national radio had it—consummating his symbolic marriage to his progenitor, the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, while lying in the foetal position, wrapped in a quilt, on the sacred shinza bed.
In power, as Bix demonstrates, Hirohito was the ‘active agent’ of his and the ruling elites’ interests, ‘neither an arch-conspirator nor a dictator but a leading participant’ in the major political and military events of his reign: ‘Like a silent spider positioned at the centre of a wide, multisided web, Hirohito spread his filaments into every organ of state and the army and navy, absorbing—and remembering—information provided by others’. For the court elite, ‘constitutional monarchy’ was a protective façade, allowing the emperor to rule while remaining unaccountable.