Hirohito: The Fearsome Japanese Emperor Marine Biologist

Ever hear of a hydrozoa? Unless you’re a marine biology major or the Emperor of Japan between the years 1926 and 1989, then you probably haven’t. So what on earth is a hydro-whatsit, and what does it have to do with Japan? Turns out Emperor Hirohito was really into them.

If you have an interest in Japan (or at least watch the Hitlery History Channel from time to time) then you’re probably familiar with Emperor Hirohito. He’s best known for presiding over Japan during WWII, helping out with all kinds of terrible war-related things. When Japan lost the war, Hirohito was kept on as a figurehead, getting a pass on any war crime trials so that he could stick around and keep Japan nice during the occupation years. Because he no longer had to focus so much on all that busy war stuff, he finally was able to focus on other things… like nature!

Flower Boy

Even as a boy, Hirohito loved nature. Before he was emperor, you could catch him prancing around picking flowers like a little pansy boy studying wild flowers from Shiobara. He then got his own herbarium, and eventually his own laboratory (which he’d work in even after becoming emperor). Apparently, he always felt a bit out of place as emperor, and wasn’t exactly comfortable being in a position of such power. After the war, he really put his work in, researching all kinds of things and became what’s referred to as a “gentleman scientist.”

Right: The Showa Emperor Hirohito w/0 really sweet tricycle
Left: monkey with a really sweet tricycle

Hirohito eventually came to be respected in his own right as a marine biologist, discovering many different types of hydrozoa (those jellyfish-looking things in the picture above, not the monkey). If you don’t believe me, you can always check the World Hydrozoa Database (although I’m sure that it’s your homepage already). Hirohito even published many scholarly articles under his own name – you may have read his smash hit bestseller “The Hydroids of Sagami Bay” (or not). His “smash hits” came after the war. As you can see, he really stuck it to the gentleman scientist world (list comes from jstoreplants.org).

  • (1967) A review of the hydroids of the family Clathrozonidae with description of a new genus and species from Japan.
  • (1969) Some hydroids from the Amakusa Islands.
  • (1971) Additional notes on Clathrozoon wilsoni Spencer.
  • (1974) Some hydrozoans of the Bonin Islands
  • (1977) Five hydroid species from the Gulf of Aqaba, Red Sea.
  • (1983) Hydroids from Izu Oshima and Nijima.
  • (1984) A new hydroid Hydractinia bayeri n. sp. (family Hydractiniidae) from the Bay of Panama.
  • (1988) The hydroids of Sagami Bay collected by His Majesty the Emperor of Japan.
  • (1995) The hydroids of Sagami Bay II. (posthumous)

He was really into hydroids, it seems.

Hirohito working in his lab

Hirohito’s son and current emperor of Japan, Akihito, has followed in his dad’s footsteps in more ways than one. Not only does Akihito serve as figurehead of Japan just like his dad, but he also is a marine biologist in his spare time too. He even has a type of fish named after him, the exyrias akihito:

I would throw the exyrias akihito back

On some level, it’s kind of cool to think that there are lots of little imperial sea creatures swimming around somewhere out there, and even cooler to think that a head of state has made serious scientific discoveries. It would be weird to think of the Queen of England in the lab, studying guppies, or stranger still to imagine Barack Obama out on the beach with a magnifying glass looking at seaweed. But that’s pretty much what Hirohito did in his later days, and what Akihito does today.