The abyss hissed. The emperor ignored it. For now.
Michinomiya Hirohito remembered the day his father died at age forty-nine, in 1926. Hirohito was barely a man, only twenty-five years old. His father, Emperor Taisho, had not been well most of his life. When he was three weeks old, he suffered an attack of spinal meningitis, which affected his ability to walk, and his mental capacity. His speech was affected, as well as his ability to think critically and make good decisions. He became reclusive and acted oddly for a member of the Japanese dynasty. These limitations plagued Taisho all his life, requiring much supervision and grooming from the royal court to render him suitable for his role as emperor. The grooming was not successful. Finally, he went into full retirement in 1919.
At the age of eighteen, Hirohito was made Prince Regent, not fully a head of state, but able to lead the government because his father could not. Conflict, always conflict! When his father left this world, Hirohito became emperor, whether he liked it or not. He had been the first Japanese crown prince to study abroad, pursuing his interest in marine biology—not exactly a skill he could use in leading an Indo-Chinese nation. Hirohito had seen Western culture, and his return to the rigors of Japanese royalty was difficult.
Now here Hirohito was, no longer the reluctant heir to the throne, but supposedly solidly in the role of emperor for life. He wondered, from time to time, if he had somehow inherited his father’s difficulties, like the inability to lead a nation sensibly or to fend off the emotional tole the role would take on him. He was not of a military mindset, but he was required to watch the reviews of all the men in uniform, marching in goosestep, heads turned toward the young man who was now their leader. Hirohito had dark moments when he felt unworthy of his post, surreptitiously thrust upon him. There was no escaping his place now, and he wished his father had been more of a mentor to him. But the prince knew his father was not going to have any deep connections to him or his three brothers. Hirohito feared his own dark side and didn’t understand his deep feelings.
The abyss hissed again. That unseen, unexpected cavern of pure evil that taunted young Hirohito until he feared he might tumble right down into the void. He could collide with his darker self someday, like the icebergs he had heard about in faraway waters, where colossal frozen chunks showed just their tips, but underneath the water line, a deadly mass was lurking.
Hirohito did not know, when his father died and he became emperor, that fifteen years later, he would try unsuccessfully to be marginally involved with his military leaders. But they would persuade him that diplomacy was not the way mighty Japanese emperors were to approach things. Japan was to become part of the Axis, they told him: Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito. Eventually he would approve his nation’s plans for December 7, 1941, when just before eight o’clock in the morning, 350 Japanese planes supported by submarines, battleships, and destroyers, would attack Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A total of 2,403 people would die in that attack, in which Japan would destroy nineteen American ships. That would include the USS Arizona, which would lie quietly at the bottom of the harbor, cradling 900 souls for eternity.
And Hirohito would also approve the “Other Pearl Harbor,” just hours later when the Japanese forces would bomb Clark Air Base on Luzon Island in the Philippines, forty miles north of the capitol of Manila. Clark would be one of many targets that day. There, a young nurse in the barracks would stoop to tie her shoe, suddenly feeling the percussion of the bombs. She would look out the window and see the flash of light, and then she would hear the great booming and strafing of the motionless American aircraft as each in turn was obliterated. The young nurse and the emperor were both to be remembered after that terrible day, for very different things.
Now, Hirohito wished the darkness would depart from him. He turned away from the abyss and tried to tell himself it wasn’t there at all.
But he could still hear it hissing as he walked away. “Axis!” it whispered. “Axis!”