Born in Tokyo in 1901, Prince Hirohito (1901-1989) became the 124th Emperor of Japan on his accession to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1926. His reign was christened Showa meaning enlightened peace; somewhat ironic for a ruler who would lead his country into the Sino-Japanese War, form the World War II enemy axis of power with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, authorise the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941 and ultimately surrender to the Allies in 1945 when America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
When Prince Hirohito was born, the Imperial family were still regarded as divine beings by many of their subjects although the monarchy was ostensibly constitutional; guided as the Emperors were by politicians and the militia. Hirohito became His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince when his father acceded in 1912. The Emperor Yoshihito was a fragile man said to suffer from neurological complaints that prevented him from fulfilling his duties and, later, of even being seen outside the Imperial Palace walls.
The Crown Prince embarked on a naval and military upbringing and, in 1920, was elevated to the status of Prince Regent in the absence of his ailing father. In 1921, Crown Prince Hirohito became the first member of the Imperial family to leave Japanese soil; the year his name first appears in the Henry Poole & Co ledgers. On 3rd of March 1921, Prince Hirohito boarded a 16,000-ton battleship destined for a state visit to Britain and a tour of continental Europe. He would remember the six-month trip as the happiest time in his life.
The Prince, presumably on the advice of the Palace, the British Ambassador or the Foreign Office, cabled Henry Poole & Co who dispatched a company representative to Gibraltar to meet the Prince’s ship. The man from Poole measured him up and cable back instructions to Savile Row to tailor a Western wardrobe in time for Prince Hirohito’s arrival in London. Prince Hirohito was subsequently photographed with the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) at St James’s Palace wearing immaculately tailored Henry Poole & Co white tie and tails.
Poole’s order books record the Crown Prince lodging at Chesterfield House (since demolished) and Buckingham Palace. His orders include the uniforms of a Lieutenant Colonel in the Japanese Navy and a Major of the Japanese Army as well as civilian clothes such as tweed three-piece golfing suits, white flannel trousers, dinner suits and the blue robe and hood of Edinburgh University who awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1923.
On his accession in 1926, Emperor Hirohito’s title is amended in the Henry Poole & Co ledgers but his orders had already ceased. The Imperial household would not serve a Japanese Crown Prince again until 1953 when Emperor Hirohito’s son Crown Prince Akihito visited London to attend the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and asked Poole’s to cut morning and evening tails for his official duties.
Emperor Hirohito’s life and reign was turbulent. He survived military coups, assassination attempts and calls from the Allied Forces to try him as a war criminal after Japan surrendered on the 15th of August 1945 (VJ Day). He is a divisive character still much hated in China for his endorsement of chemical weapons during the invasion of Manchuria and war against China in the 1930s. Emperor Hirohito’s record in World War II makes him equally contentious for the Japanese today. 10,000 civilians capitulated when the Emperor issued an Imperial Order for them to commit suicide rather than surrender to Allied forces.
After America dropped the atomic bomb on two of Japan’s most densely populated cities, aeroplanes dropped leaflets over Tokyo reading ‘before we use this bomb again and again to destroy every resource of the military by which they are prolonging this useless war, petition the Emperor now to end the war’. Emperor Hirohito called a meeting of his cabinet in a bunker sixty feet below the Imperial Library. As nominal Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese armed forces, only the he could sue for peace. It was Emperor Hirohito’s decision to record a message of surrender to his people within the precincts of the Imperial Palace.
The public had never heard an Emperor speak before and yet it was necessary for Hirohito to broadcast to his nation and avoid a bloodthirsty military coup by his generals who were anti-appeasement. Diplomatically, Emperor Hirohito said ‘we have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation. Let the entire nation continue as one family from generation to generation, every one firm in its faith in the imperishabilty (sic) of its scared land’. The Imperial Palace was stormed by disaffected generals but they were defeated and were killed or committed suicide.
The Emperor narrowly avoided being tried as a war criminal and kept his throne though repudiated divine status. The latter decades of his life saw him represent his country at home and abroad as a purely constitutional monarch: a symbolic head of state with no political power. He died of complications from cancer in 1989 and was succeeded by his son the Emperor Akihito.