Emperor Hirohito: The Marine Biologist Who Ruled Japan

Emperor Hirohito in his lab. From E. J. H. Corner, “His Majesty Emperor Hirohito of Japan, K. G., 29 April 1901 – 7 January 1989.” The photographer and collection is unattributed.

Exactly seventy years ago today Japan surrendered to the United States, bringing an end to World War II and signaling the start of the American occupation. Under the direction of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur, and his protégé General Bonner Fellers, the U.S. military began the process of Japanese war-crimes prosecutions. Fellers was instrumental in convincing the American leadership not to depose Emperor Hirohito. As Fellers wrote in an October 1945 memo to MacArthur, “It would be a sacrilege to entertain the idea that the Emperor is on a level with the people or any governmental official. To try him as a war criminal would not only be blasphemous but a denial of spiritual freedom.” Crucially, Fellers voiced concerns that deposing the Emperor might compromise the rapid demobilization of Japan. “If the Emperor were tried for war crimes,” he worried, “the governmental structure would collapse and a general uprising would be inevitable.”

These events are dramatized in the (unfortunately otherwise unmemorable) 2012 film “Emperor.” What the film leaves out from its cursory portrayal of Hirohito is any indication of the Emperor’s interest in marine science. Hirohito’s research in marine biology, specifically his study of marine hydrozoans, seems at odds with his state role – to use Fellers words – as “the incarnation of national spirit.” As the British botanist E. J. H. Corner later described Hirohito, “He wore two faces. There was the placid, impassionate, and, even, obedient leader in public regard, and there was the eager intent of the original investigator whether in the field or the laboratory, bent on discovery and understanding.”[1]

More recently, some biographers have suggested that Hirohito’s post-war portrayal as a symbolic state figurehead, powerless to resist a fanatical military leadership, served both American and Japanese post-war political aims and does not accurately reflect the Emperor’s true influence and sanctioning of the war.[2] While the officially authorized biography, published by the Imperial Household in 2014, portrays the emperor as a war critic, others have described this interpretation as “the sanitized political history of a nation that was not allowed to break completely with its wartime past.”

The truth of these conflicting portrayals continues to be debated largely because the records of the Imperial Household remain off limits to most historians. The question of Hirohito’s culpability in the war is something I prefer to leave for others to investigate, as I am not a specialist in Japanese history. Nevertheless, as a historian of marine science, I think it is worth questioning how we should interpret Hirohito’s interest in marine biology. Was Hirohito’s scientific work simply that of a hobbyist, or can an examination of his marine research serve to inform us in some way about this enigmatic figure? Taking advantage of the blog format, I’m content here simply to raise a question I think is worth asking, not provide a conclusive answer.

I’m tempted to infer from my work on European and American marine naturalists in the early-twentieth century that by participating in western science, publishing in western forums, and corresponding with naturalists abroad, Hirohito extended his reputation – if not his political influence – far beyond Japan’s territorial and cultural borders. Following the example of Prince Albert of Monaco (1848 – 1922), many members of the European and American social elite took up marine biology as their preferred amateur science; it seems likely that Hirothito also followed this trend. Furthermore, the public endorsement of “scientific progress” had become a requirement for European “enlightened monarchs.” Thus we might read Hirohito’s interest in marine biology also as a reflection of Japan’s larger cultural and political shift towards an emulation of European powers – and eventually their colonial ambitions.

At the age of 20, in 1921, Hirohito became the first member of the Imperial Household to travel to Europe. On his return, he was named Prince Regent. His mentor and chief scientific collaborator was Dr. Hirotaro Hattori, professor of biology at the Peers’ School Gakushuin. Hattori accompanied the Emperor on many collecting expeditions on Sagami Bay and also served as the Emperor’s scientific proxy, writing to European naturalists and distributing specimen collections on the Emperor’s behalf. Hirohito’s first important scientific discovery was of an unknown species of prawn in 1919. In 1925, with Hattori’s guidance, Hirohito had a laboratory constructed on the grounds of the Akasaka palace where he could carry out his research; Hattori was subsequently promoted to the position of laboratory director. From Hattori, Hirohito also gained an appreciation for Darwinism. In the imperial library a bust of Charles Darwin stood alongside those of Lincoln and Napoleon.[3]

Marine biology collecting, with its required small boat excursions, may have provided a means of escape from the many attendants required by royal tradition. Slime molds and hydrozoa were largely under-studied when Hirohito began his work, but while research on these topics of study offered the possibility of real scientific contribution it is unlikely that such work could have been perceived locally as having practical application. One might expect a head of state to concentrate their scientific efforts on research with practical application or benefit for their subjects; this might have been the case if Hirohito had focused his efforts on the study of a commercial species, for instance. It seems then that the primary audience for Hirohito’s scientific work was a foreign rather than domestic one.[4]

After the war Hirohito was forced to publicly renounce his status as a god, describing his reputed divinity as merely “legend and myth.” An American newspaper mocked that this must have come as a relief since “the role of playing a god must have been very exacting on this timid little man,” adding “Mr. Hirohito is privileged to live and breathe and bleed as other men.” In Japan, the Americans sought to promote Hirohito’s new image as a monarch on a human scale. And, in 1946, Hirohito began a series of unprecedented tours, addressing his subjects directly. The Japanese media also promoted the Emperor’s scientific work as an indication of his embrace of modernity. We will probably never know how Hirohito regarded the outcome of the war, or what he imagined to be his own role as a symbolic head of state. When asked in 1975 by a Japanese journalist whether he bore any sense of responsibility for the war, Hirohito replied: “I can’t answer that kind of question because I haven’t thoroughly studied the literature in this field, and so don’t really appreciate the nuance of your words.”[5] It is clear, in any case, that he wanted to discourage further examination of the past.

Putting his wartime legacy behind him, Hirohito continued to pursue his interest in marine biology in his later life, becoming a Fellow of the British Royal Society in 1971 and visiting the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1974. An American publication marking the occasion of his visit to the United States reported that the Emperor devoted “each Monday and Thursday afternoon” to marine biology. He carried on his scientific work until his death in 1989 at the age 63. The throne then passed to his eldest son, Emperor Akihito, who shared his father’s interest in marine biology. Akihito has since acquired an international reputation as an ichthyologist.

Even if Hirohito’s interest in marine biology was primarily that of a hobbyist, his scientific work, and certainly his network of collaborators, bears further investigation. I make this suggestion if only because the history of marine biology in Japan, and in Asia in general, is largely absent from western historiography. On the anniversary of Japan’s surrender, many will be prompted to re-examine the actors and events that shaped the course of the war. We historians of marine science might also be prompted to take a renewed interest in the Pacific World of the early twentieth century. As I have argued elsewhere, scientific collaboration was one of the primary forums for international exchange in the Pacific in the years leading up to World War II. We can do much more to trace those pre-war networks of scientific exchange.


[1] E. J. H. Corner, “His Majesty Emperor Hirohito of Japan, K. G., 29 April 1901 – 7 January 1989,” Biographical Memoirs of the Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 36 (Dec., 1990), 243.

[2] Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000).

[3] Stephen Large, Hirohito and Showa Japan: A Political Biography, (New York: Routledge, 1992).

[4] Yves Samyn, “Return to Sender: Hydrozoa Collected by Emperor Hirohito of Japan in the 1930s and Studied in Brussels,” Archives of Natural History, Vol. 41, Issue 1, (2014), 17 – 24.

[5] Hebert P. Bix, “Showa History, Rising Nationalism, and the Abe Government,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue. No. 2, No. 4, (1 December 2015).

One thought on “Emperor Hirohito: The Marine Biologist Who Ruled Japan

  1. […] L’interesse della casa regnante (la più antica del mondo e l’unica che ancora si fregia del titolo di Imperatore) per le scienze biologiche non è nuovo. Anche suo padre, il celebre Hirohito (che dalla sua morte è chiamato Imperatore Showa), aveva una grande passione per la biologia marina. L’interesse di Hirohito si manifestò fin dall’adolescenza, quando iniziò a studiare e classificare tutta la flora e la fauna marina della Baia di Sagami, su cui si affacciava la residenza estiva della casa imperiale. Divenuto imperatore, fece costruire un laboratorio scientifico di tipo occidentale in un edificio del Palazzo Imperiale di Tokyo, impiegando a tempo pieno tre ricercatori. La sua perizia nella classificazione ben presto divenne nota a livello mondiale: più di 28 000 specie furono inviate al laboratorio per la classificazione. Oltre all’interesse nella tassonomia, l’Imperatore si concentrò sullo studio degli idrozoi. […]

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