Once a God, and a Bitter Wartime Foe, Emperor Hirohito Is Now America's Guest

The frail bespectacled figure will be seen this week strolling in the autumnal gardens of Williamsburg, Va. with his wife. Then the engaging old couple will undergo the full panoply of a White House state reception. Do they seem familiar? Perhaps from photographs, for it is the Emperor Hirohito of Japan and his Empress Nagako, beginning a demanding two-week official visit to the United States. For Hirohito, 74, it will be only the third time he has ever left his native soil, and his first trip to the Western Hemisphere—apart from a brief refuelling stop in Alaska en route to his 1971 grand tour of Europe. After Washington, the royal couple is scheduled to travel on to New York, Boston, Chicago, the West Coast and Hawaii. For Hirohito, the trip is an important event, marking the final, formal recognition of the 30-year-old friendship renewed between the U.S. and Japan after a bitter war.

He and the empress, 72, prepared for it carefully. For most of the month preceding their flight eastward, they stayed in their mountain retreat at Nasu, 80 miles north of Tokyo, resting and being briefed on the U.S. by Japanese scholars and diplomats. They also approved gifts for their American hosts: a Japanese painting for President Ford, a magnificent ceramic vase for the First Lady, and a silver vase and embroidered handbag for the mayors and wives the royal pair will encounter. Some 2,000 policemen and security guards who will convoy them along their 18,000-mile itinerary will receive cufflinks embossed with the imperial insignia, a 16-petal chrysanthemum. In addition, to insure cheering crowds everywhere Hirohito goes, Japanese travel agents have planned a “Banzai Tour,” booking Japanese tourist groups into the cities the emperor would visit. They will greet him with rising-sun flags and shouts of “Banzai!” (“Long live!”) The Imperial House is not pleased at that prospect.

Last week, in an effort to erase the lingering image of warmonger that has shadowed his name in the West for the past 30 years, Hirohito faced a group of foreign, mostly American, correspondents in a rare press conference, and tensely answered their questions. The most painful were based on a 1971 book, Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy, by David Bergamini, a former Rhodes Scholar and LIFE writer who was born in Tokyo and interned in Japan during World War II. Its author charged the emperor with personally planning the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and leading the military clique that propelled Japan into the war. Hirohito solemnly denied the charges, saying that, while he knew of the war plans—and indeed the declaration of war bore his seal—they were drawn up by the military command and, as a constitutional monarch, he had no power to countermand them.

In 1955, on the tenth anniversary of his country’s surrender to the Allies, the emperor alluded to his feelings about the war in a waka, a 31-syllable poem:

Awakened from sleep while on a trip

My heart choked

With memories of things a decade ago.

Hirohito’s 48-year reign is the longest in the history of his 2,000-year-old dynasty—itself the world’s oldest. Son of the mad (from syphilis) Emperor Taisho, he was raised by tutors and courtiers and lived from infancy in a palace of his own, rarely seeing his parents. Once, in an unguarded admission to court reporters, he said, “I was like a bird in its cage.” In 1921 he made a brief escape when, as the 20-year-old Crown Prince, he undertook a carefree, three-month tour of Europe. He was the first member of the Imperial Family ever to set foot on foreign soil. The trip was an eyeopener for the tradition-burdened young man. In Paris he spent money from his own pocket for the first time in his life, buying busts of Napoleon, Darwin and Lincoln, and a metro ticket which he still keeps in his desk. In England he met his counterpart, the dashing Prince of Wales, and got some royal advice (“Never interfere”) from King George V.

When he returned to Tokyo, Hirohito alarmed the chamberlains and courtiers by building a nine-hole golf course on the palace grounds, which he played in tweedy plus fours, and by his talk of democracy. His ultimate transgression was to give himself a wild homecoming party, inviting his former classmates from the Peers’ School and serving them from a potent keg of Scotch that had been distilled for the Duke of Atholl. The court was appalled by the “attitude of familiarity toward the person of His Imperial Highness,” and Hirohito, yielding to the pressures all around him, dutifully retired behind his gilded bars.

In 1921 his father’s illness worsened, and Hirohito became Prince Regent. Three years later he dutifully married the pretty Princess Nagako, the daughter of one of the five princely families traditionally deemed worthy of providing brides for the Imperial Family. In 1926 the Emperor Taisho died, and Hirohito assumed the throne. Since then, the self-contained emperor has rarely shown emotion in public. One celebrated exception was a revolt by young army officers in 1936. Hirohito ordered them back to the barracks. When he saw through his binoculars that they had ignored him, he thundered, “Those soldiers who disobey Our orders are not Our soldiers,” and he ordered the cannons to open fire. The troops scrambled inside with record haste.

Ironically, the name given to his reign was Showa, or Enlightened Peace, even though the Japanese warlords were already preparing the invasion of China. The next 20 years of the Reign of the Enlightened Peace, culminating in the A-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were the bloodiest, most devastating in Japanese history.

A month after his chief of staff and his foreign minister surrendered aboard the battleship Missouri, Sept. 2, 1945, the emperor sought an audience with the supreme commander for the Allied Powers. Dressed in formal morning coat and top hat, Hirohito presented himself at the U.S. embassy before the American Samurai, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. In his Reminiscences, MacArthur recalled that the emperor had come to “bear sole responsibility for every political and military decision made and action taken by my people in the conduct of the war.” The general was moved. “He was an emperor inherent by birth,” he wrote, “but in this instant I knew I faced the First Gentleman of Japan in his own right.”

The emperor’s forthright action may have saved him from being deposed or tried as a war criminal. But in the new Constitution MacArthur’s staff drew up for Japan, Hirohito was stripped of all his old political powers and prerogatives. He was reduced to the status of a figurehead, entrusted with ceremonial functions like convoking the Diet, attesting the appointment of cabinet ministers and ambassadors and receiving foreign heads of state. Clearly the subject of the emperor’s divinity came up in his talks with MacArthur. In any case, in his annual New Year’s message to his people in 1946, he made a startling announcement: “The bonds between Us and Our countrymen do not have their basis in the fictitious idea that the emperor is manifest god.” For 26 centuries the emperor had been considered divine. In a stroke, Hirohito ended the myth.

Early in 1946 Hirohito and his wife began to make frequent trips into the countryside, to factories, mines and shipyards, talking directly with the war-battered citizenry, who had hardly dared look on their sovereign, much less converse with him when he was a god. Everywhere he was referred to as Tenno (Heavenly King) and greeted with shouts of “Banzai!” In Japan’s postwar prosperity no one seemed to feel burdened by the Imperial Family’s $6.7 million annual budget. Even the Communist Party has accepted the emperor in his present situation, “so long as the nation has no objection.” Once Hirohito personally owned three percent of the country and was the richest man in Japan; now he holds only some securities.

In 1971 Hirohito and Nagako took off like their globetrotting subjects and made a sentimental journey to Europe, where they retraced the itinerary of the carefree prince half a century before. Their trip included stops in London, Bonn and, in Paris, a nostalgic call on the ailing Duke of Windsor, the splendid Prince of Wales of the earlier trip.

Along with the national prosperity, the emperor’s family has thrived, too. Crown Prince Akihito, 41, elected not to have an arranged marriage and instead chose a commoner, the lovely Princess Michiko, daughter of an industrialist. He also elected to keep their three lively children at home, breaking another ancient tradition. Prince Hitachi, 39, and the three surviving princesses of the Imperial House also married commoners.

Deep in the wooded, moated royal compound occupying 300 acres in Tokyo, the emperor arises punctually at 7 a.m. and breakfasts with the empress on bacon, eggs and coffee—a habit acquired on that long-ago trip to England. Then the empress bows him out of his 15-room home, and Hirohito strolls to the new, $36 million imperial palace, which replaced the old one burned down in a wartime air raid. In his office he reads through stacks of official papers, when necessary stamping them with his solid-gold seal. Customarily, he invites scholars and foreign envoys to join him at lunch in the palace. He neither smokes nor drinks, and dotes on grilled eels.

After work the emperor walks home for dinner with his wife. Every Wednesday Prince Akihito and his family join them for dinner and the usual postprandial hour or two watching TV. The emperor’s favorite programs include Japan’s traditional sumo wrestling matches and documentary films on nature. At 10 the imperial couple retires for the night, but members of the staff linger on to videotape interesting late programs for the emperor to view the next day.

Hirohito’s greatest passion is marine biology—he is author of three works on the subject and co-author of three others. He is happiest wading around the seashore in pursuit of tiny crustaceans to add to his collection. His sons share his scientific enthusiasms: Akihito specializes in fish morphology and Hitachi is an expert on Japanese bird lice. The empress is accomplished in traditional Japanese painting.

Except during his summer and winter vacations in the mountains or by the sea, the First Gentleman of Japan is a pleasantly busy man. There are sports events to be inaugurated, medals to be conferred, two garden parties to be given annually. And, although he is no longer a deity, Hirohito remains Shintoism’s ultimate priest. More than 10 times a year he dons the robes and lacquered wooden shoes of a Shinto priest and offers his prayers to his ancestors, including the Sun Goddess and the legendary Emperor Jimmu, at the Kashikodokoro, a shrine deep in the palace’s forest.

“I have long cherished a desire to visit the United States and to meet and learn to know her people,” Hirohito once said. “I certainly regret that I am unable to carry out my wishes on this occasion. I certainly hope it will only be a deferred pleasure.” That was in 1921. But even formerly divine emperors live to see some wishes come true. Hirohito’s deferred pleasure is at hand.

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