On the night of Sept. 26, 1971, Emperor Hirohito landed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. It was late — 10 p.m. — when the 70-year-old emerged from his plane with Empress Nagako by his side. The couple gingerly walked down the steps to greet an awaiting President Richard Nixon and first lady Pat Nixon. The internationally televised meeting was the first time in its 2,631-year history that a reigning monarch from Japan’s imperial dynasty stepped foot on American soil.
Hirohito wasn’t a foreigner to the geography of the 49th state, often referred to as “the last frontier” of America. He famously opposed the Allies when he sided with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during World War II. Advised by his military leaders, he consented to the decision to strike first against the Americans in the devastating surprise attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. A year later his troops seized the Aleutian Islands. The capture of Adak and Kiska Islands in Alaska’s Aleutian chain marked the first time since the War of 1812 that an American territory had been occupied.
He waged a bloody war against US soldiers in the Pacific, particularly during the Aleutian Islands campaign between 1942 and 1943. The Battle of Attu was a 19-day conflict and the only World War II battle fought on North American soil. The battle alone saw about 550 Americans wounded or killed in fighting conditions that involved hand-to-hand combat, 120-mph winds, and dense fog. Among the estimated 2,500 Japanese occupying forces, only 28 survived; the others were either killed in combat or demonstrated gyokusai, “to die gallantly as a jewel shatters” — mass suicide in the name of the emperor.
Following the two atomic bombs dropped over Japanese cities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hirohito defied top Japanese generals to surrender. In a national broadcast on Aug. 15, 1945, he informed the Japanese people to “bear the unbearable and endure the unendurable.”
His reign and his future were left in the hands of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, the American commander of the Allied occupation of Japan. While others in Washington, as well as the British and Russians, called for the emperor to be tried as a war criminal, MacArthur vowed to keep him on his throne to unify the nation. MacArthur’s decision later set the stage for a historic peaceful meeting between the two nations.
“Just 50 years ago, Your Majesty became the first Crown Prince of Japan to travel to a foreign country,” Nixon said to the crowd, referencing Hirohito’s 1921 visits to Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy over a six‐month period. “And tonight Your Majesty becomes the first reigning monarch of Japan in your long history to step on foreign soil. Your journey symbolizes Japan’s growing position in world affairs. We meet in Anchorage, Alaska, a place which is approximately the same distance between Tokyo and Washington, D.C. And this fact reminds us that for the past quarter century that we have built a structure of political, economic, and cultural ties which spans the space between our two countries.”
The brief meeting in Alaska between Hirohito and Nixon lasted roughly one hour and 40 minutes and also included a speech by Hirohito, who shared his gratitude to the United States for its assistance in rebuilding Japan after World War II. The visit to America’s last frontier was the first of many destinations for Hirohito. The 18-day trip also included scheduled visits to Europe to improve foreign relations in Britain, Belgium, West Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, and Switzerland. Hirohito was the longest-serving monarch in Japan’s history when he assumed power on Christmas Day in 1926 following the death of his father, Emperor Taisho. Upon his death in 1989, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Akihito.