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The Longest Reign

With the death of Emperor Hirohito the longest reign in Japan’s history has come to an end, and the final lines have been written to one of the 20th Century’s most momentous chapters. Hirohito was the last survivor among the national leaders of World War II. He was also the last of Japan’s emperors--the 124th that tradition traces in an unbroken line to 660 BC--to be revered by his subjects as a god, “sacred and inviolable.” On Jan. 1, 1946, just a few months after Japan’s wartime defeat and the beginning of the American military occupation, Hirohito announced to his shocked subjects that--contrary to all they had always been taught--he was not divine. With that disavowal centuries of myth and legend were eradicated, and authority in Japan was redefined.

In the last 62 years the United States has had 11 Presidents, but Japan has had only one emperor. In the course of Hirohito’s reign Japan evolved to claim a primary role as a world power; launched a war of aggression that ranged from China to Australia and from India to Alaska and that claimed millions of lives; suffered a crushing military defeat, urban devastation and the deaths of 1.5 million of its own people, and then began the process that would see it reborn as a democracy and as one of the world’s economic titans.

Scholars have long debated Hirohito’s role in Japan’s military adventurism. If any documents that might provide definitive answers exist, they are locked in the imperial archives, secure from public scrutiny. Available evidence does seem to suggest that Hirohito, whatever his personal inclinations, kept himself largely aloof from the political decisions and planning that led to militaristic expansionism and war. As historian Robert J. C. Butow wrote: “For the emperor successfully to have intervened in such a way as to direct affairs along lines more in accord with his personal conscience would have required him to be a man of less retiring personality, with a very practical grasp of political affairs.” A bolder and more worldly man, sensing the enormity of the challenge that Japan was undertaking, might have tried to curb the militarists who dominated the government in the 1930s. But the emperor was what he was. Raised from birth in full awareness of his unique status, he was also deeply conscious of the restraints that attached to it.

Hirohito’s reign was known as Showa, or Enlightened Peace, and it was by this name that he was known to his countrymen. For the better part of his reign Japan did experience peace. The emperor on his part adapted easily to his postwar renunciation of divinity, carried out his ceremonial functions with grace, took pleasure in the company of his family and pursued his beloved avocation as a marine biologist. Once he inspired awe and reverence in his countrymen. Later he was content to have their esteem and affection. Most Japanese were prepared to give that willingly. The emperor’s final illness, which saw his life being extended only by the most invasive medical intervention, was a difficult period for Japan. That period is now over, and with it ends an era. Now begins a new chapter in Japan’s long imperial history.

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