Hirota Koki was the thirty-second prime minister of Japan
, from 1936 to 1937. He was born in Fukuoka
on February 14, 1878, the tenth year of the Meiji period
, and graduated law school
at Tokyo Imperial University
. He entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
to become a career diplomat
, and served as ambassador
to the Soviet Union
from 1928 to 1932 before becoming foreign minister in 1933, the same year of Japan's withdrawal from the League of Nations
In 1936, the army faction in charge of Japan's government named Hirota prime minister. At that point, the second Sino-Japanese War was in full swing, several world powers (most notably the Soviets) were beginning to distrust Japan's intentions, and the February 26 Incident had brought domestic security concerns to a boiling point. Hirota's government, with the blessing of the military, signed its first treaty with Germany. However, his term lasted for slightly less than a year: early in 1937, the army kicked him back downstairs and again named him foreign minister, a position he held until his retirement in 1938.
Hirota's second tenure as foreign minister would eventually lead to his death. Late in 1937, Japanese forces marched into Nanjing, and set off a chain of events now known as the Rape of Nanking. While Hirota was not in charge of the army units that invaded Nanking, he was party to information about the massacre. In a telegram to the Japanese embassy in Washingon early in 1938, he disclosed that the army had killed 300,000 people there, and compared the soldiers to Attila the Hun. (However, the authenticity of this telegram has been hotly debated.)
The military caught wind of Hirota's dislike for the Chinese campaign, and forced him to retire in 1938. In 1945, however, Hirota came back onto the diplomatic scene by leading Japanese peace negotiations with the Soviet Union. At the time, Japan and the USSR were still under a non-aggression pact, even though the other Allied Powers had all declared war on Japan. Hirota attempted to persuade Josef Stalin's government to stay out of the war, but he ultimately failed: the Soviets entered the war less than one week before the bombing of Hiroshima.
Following Japan's surrender, Hirota was named a Class A war criminal and was brought before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. He offered no defense. He was found guilty, sentenced to hanging, and killed at Sugamo Prison on December 23, 1948. Today, many believe that Hirota was actually a staunch pacifist, and died as a martyr for Emperor Hirohito, who was granted immunity during the war crimes tribunals. The truth about Hirota's intentions may never be fully known.
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