Was Emperor Hirohito Born Out of Wedlock?
According to the Imperial Household Agency, Prince Yoshihito (who was to become Emperor Taisho afterwards) and Princess Sadako were married in a small ceremony at eight o’clock in the morning on May 10, 1900; at the Imperial Shrine on the palace grounds in Tokyo. Only members of their immediate families attended the rites, and on April 29, 1901; nearly one year after the wedding, their first son, Hirohito, was born.
At least, that is the official story given and repeated in most histories of Japan. But court gossip tells another tale, and its version is strongly supported by Count Yoshinori Futara, the personal “public relations adviser” of the Emperor for a time, who wrote in 1928 that Prince Hirohito was “born on the night of April 29, 1900” – exactly one year before the date that is officially presented to the public.
Although it is highly unlikely that anybody might get today’s palace officials to publicly comment on this issue, the story that comes with it undoubtedly bears some logic: At the end of the nineteenth century, the Japanese monarchy was obliged to deal with a problem that reminds us, in a way, of the situation the imperial family is facing again at present: Prince Yoshihito was the only son of his father, Emperor Meiji. If the prince, whose health was not robust, should die before he could produce an heir or if he should never have children at all, there would be no “spare” brother to replace him.
Fifty years hence, this problem would have been solved in the way customary to ancient Japan: a lot of young, healthy concubines would have been found for the imperial heir, and it would have been hoped that sheer quantity would lead to success. But, unfortunately, at the end of the nineteenth century Japan had begun to open itself to the outside world, and the Japanese political elite was making huge efforts to prove themselves equal to the Western nations and, if possible, to even surpass them. “Barbaric” customs such as having concubines would not fit into the required picture of Japan as a “civilized” nation, defined by Western standards. Accordingly, when Prince Yoshihito’s father, Emperor Meiji, had established the Imperial House Law, he had included a condition that implicitly said that the mother of the heir should be the wife of the sovereign (that was a big change indeed: not only had the mothers of Prince Yoshihito and Emperor Meiji, but all mothers of the last seven of his predecessors been concubines.)
So, when deciding about the marriage of the only son of Emperor Meiji, the court officials were facing a tremendous problem: what if they married the prince to a woman who would afterwards prove unable to bear him an heir? A divorce was out of the question, according to Japanese tradition as well as according to Western standards. There would be no second chance.
But then the worried bureaucrats came up with a splendid idea: the future princess would have to prove her fertility and her ability to deliver a well-formed male child in advance, before the crown prince would actually take the irrevocable step of marrying her. So, sixteen-year-old Lady Sadako, a member of the Fujiwara family which has been called “the greatest family of subjects ever in Japanese history, overshadowed in importance only by the imperial dynasty itself”, was kept for several months in seclusion at the Aoyama Palace in Tokyo, after the heir to the throne had dutifully made her pregnant. And, as the unofficial version of this story tells us, she safely delivered a healthy boy on April 29, 1900; thereby indisputably proving the qualities required of a Japanese crown princess.
Accordingly, the couple were married eleven days later, on May 10, 1900 (concerning this date, both the official and the unofficial story agree with each other). The “evidence” for his mother’s worthiness to ascend the throne, baby Hirohito, was put in hiding and, one year later, his birth was officially announced to the overjoyed Japanese people. Everybody was happy: those who knew the secret did not mind it as no inviolable Japanese custom had been breached. Western propriety was served. And sickly Crown Prince Yoshihito had an heir: Prince Hirohito – who would much later become famous in the whole world for having led the Japanese nation into World War II.Filed under Historical Royals, Japan
Tagged Emperor Hirohito of Japan, Emperor Meiji of Japan, Emperor Taishō of Japan, Empress Teimei of Japan, Succession.