No one knows what Emperor Showa's real role was during World War II. Well, maybe someone knows…but if they do, they're not talking.
Some say he was just doing his Emperor thing, kicking it in the palace and administering the religious rites that kept Japan looking good in the eyes of the gods.
Others say he knew way more about Japan's war efforts and imperial expansion than he ever let on.
Since Japan's media was not exactly of the "free press" variety, and since lots of official documents have been destroyed over the years, we may never know the whole entire truth. But we do know that Emperor Showa, known to the West by his given name of Hirohito, was Japan's longest-reigning emperor to date, serving the office for sixty-four years until his death in 1989.
Think about that for a second: sixty. four. years. in. one. job.
That's a long time.
Even if the job is the greatest thing ever and every day at the office feels like a day in paradise, that's still a crazy long time.
But that's how the emperorship works in Japan. It's handed down from father to son, and each Emperor is said to be descended from kami (what we might call gods). Now this doesn't mean the Emperor himself is a divine being; it just means that he's responsible for doing certain things that are thought to protect Japan and its imperial line.
Anyway, for the most part, Hirohito is described as a gentle and serious dude who enjoyed chilling with his family and indulging his love of marine biology. He left all that nasty politicking and delegating to his ruling counterpart, the Prime Minister.
In fact, after his own military service and up until Japan's World War II surrender in 1945, this Emperor was pretty much uninvolved in the military workings of his country. When Japan's armed forces went all Big Bad Imperialist, Hirohito's support for their endeavors was lukewarm at best. When the country joined forces with the Axis powers during World War II, the Emperor's reaction was described as "unenthusiastic" (though he did let the paparazzi get some sweet pics of him in uniform as a show of support and solidarity).
Yep, Emperor Showa did his own thing and largely kept himself out of the national spotlight. True story: his country had never heard him speak in public until that fateful day in August of 1945, when our boy got on national radio and surrendered his country to the Allies.
What happened after, one might ask?
Well, for Japan in general, lots of stuff changed. Lots and lots and lots of stuff changed.
As for Emperor Showa, he began his journey in the eyes of the world from divine ruler to mere human constitutional monarch. Despite some folks thinking he should be tried as a war criminal, General MacArthur, the U.S.'s WWII sweetheart, opted to keep Hirohito in power and serve as the symbol of a Japan ready to put itself back together.
That's definitely a way better deal than that whole war criminal thing.