Author: Ibon Cancio, UPV/EHU Associated Professor in Cell Biology; researcher in the ‘Cell Biology & Environmental Toxicology’ (CBET) research group of the Plentzia Marine Station (PiE-UPV/EHU); Spanish scientific representative in the EMBRC Committee of Nodes

I do not know what Emperors do when they are in office. I suppose they do Emperor things. I do not know how youngsters born to be Gods and Emperors at the same time are educated. I suppose they are trained on divine Emperor duties. His Majesty the Showa Emperor of Japan, Hirohito (1901-1989), was one such case, and history has already judged him in length in relation to his role during World War II. Here we want to present him as a true marine biologist, in spirit and in practice, one that would have enjoyed exclusive dedication to science. Do not forget that he became a Fellow of the British Royal Society in 1971.

Portrait photo of Emperor Hirohito
Portrait of Emperor Hirohito (public domain)

Young Hirohito has been described as a shy introvert who quickly found comfort in nature in the company of his school biology teacher, Hirotaro Hattori, the man who introduced the crown prince to the pleasures and wonders of microscopic observation. Hirohito soon initiated the study of shell collections, starting his own. They both learned early on that the only way to study nature in solitude, with the necessary security conditions for a man of his stature, was to focus on marine biology sampling at sea. This initiated a tradition of exploration of the rich biodiversity of Sagami Bay, South of Tokyo, where one of the Imperial villages was placed. Collection of animals and plants was made through intertide seashore sampling and in-shore trawling and bottom-dredging down to depths of 500 m. This would give rise over time to a huge collection of specimens, reaching more than 57,000 specimens by 1989, and to the publication of a set of around 15 “Monographs on the Marine Fauna of Sagami Bay” initiated in 1949. All monographs were published in English and Japanese with an introduction of Hirohito presenting the contents and its authors. More than 300 new unknown species were identified and presented in such monographs.

Portrait of Emperor Hirohito in lab
Hirohito in his Biological Laboratory at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo in 1926 and 2 years before his enthronement, with his favourite tool, the microscope. 

His first big discovery was that of an unidentified prawn, which he found on the beach washed away after a storm in 1919. He later identified the mystery prawn with the help of an expert as Sympasiphaea imperialis. The young boy was infatuated with life, the ocean, and discovery at the same time! In 1925, he built a small biological laboratory (40 m2) on the grounds of Akasaka Palace (his birth place) making Hattori its director, until his death in 1965, and employing two marine biologists and a specialist in flora. The laboratory would be transferred to the Imperial Palace near a mulberry garden with increased room space under the name “The Biological Laboratory, Imperial Palace, Tokyo” in 1928 when the prince was elevated to the throne of the Empire of the Rising Sun.

Hirohito in the Biological Laboratory, Imperial Palace in 1950.
Hirohito in the Biological Laboratory, Imperial Palace in 1950 (public domain).

The laboratory had a room for visitors, a preparation room, the Emperor’s laboratory and a small room with a scanning electron microscope to accompany the additional 11 light microscopes available. As the Imperial collection grew, a museum extension of the marine station was added in 1948 with three rooms in a two-story wing to keep the specimens and the library, with an additional room to breed Hydrozoans and study their reproduction, cnidocytes (the cells that sting the poison of cnidarians) and medusa stages. Apparently, the Emperor used to work in the biological laboratory every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, and every Saturday. Only Hattori and assistants were admitted in the laboratory. This apparently excessive dedication caused concern in the palace and Hirohito and Hattori are said to have arrived at the laboratory separately and in secret. Research was centred on identifying the specimens in the Emperor’s collection.

Picture of hydrozoans
Samples of hydrozoans of Hirohito’s Imperial collection sent for identification to RBINS in Brussels; they were not returned to the Biological Laboratory of the Imperial Palace due to the beginning of World War II in Europe. Samples found their way back after their rediscovery in 2000. Photograph courtesy of Yves Samyn, RBINS, Brussels.

Hirohito’s focus was the hydrozoans, cnidarians and thus close relatives to corals, sea anemones and jellyfish. This interest began in 1929 and by 1989 the Emperor had accumulated one of the biggest microscopy slide collections of this group of animals in the world. In the early years, when he and his team of researchers were in the learning process and in doubt, Hattori contacted researchers who could provide help in the identification of difficult species. This was the case when in 1936 three specimens of unidentified hydrozoans of the Emperor’s collection and from Sagami Bay were sent to Eugéne Leloup at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS), partner institution today of the Belgian node of EMBRC. More hydrozoan samples and slides were sent for identification in subsequent deliveries from the Biological Laboratory of the Imperial Palace. Leloup published three papers on all those samples, two of them with the war already going on in Europe. 

Hirohito paper image
One of the papers published by Leloup in RBINS describing some of the species sent to Hirohito from the Biological Laboratory, Imperial Palace, including Sertularia hattorii. (Composition by Ibon Cancio from a reprint kindly provided by Yves Samyn, RBINS, Brussels)

After the war, deprived of his divine status, Hirohito began to use his name to sign papers on hydrozoans that were published in Japanese. His contributions included the description of several dozen species, some of them new (species or variants) to science or first descriptions in Japan. The search for 'hirohito' in the 'World Hydrozoa Database' returns 36 matching records assigned to him as discoverer. The year of the first record is 1967, the year of publication of his first paper. 

In 1975, he travelled to the USA on his first official visit after the War. In any respect, a difficult and important visit to recover normalised relationships between the two big countries. Political and protocol-rich encounters with the highest American dignitaries (including President Ford, but also Mickey Mouse) did not distract Hirohito from his intention of a small detour to visit the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) and Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). A reception was prepared for him to have tea but he wanted instead to plunge into science, as he knew that an expert in hydrozoans, Howard Sanders, who had discovered a new phylum of hydroids while at Yale University, was working at WHOI. His analyses of Sanders’s samples could not be more satisfactory as he was assisted by MBL researcher Shinya Inoue. Japanese but nationalised American, this “three star researcher” was the father of the polarised light microscope, and later, of the video microscope. Hirohito enjoyed the optics of Inoue´s microscope and the magic of polarised light. Then, Hirohito, signed a copy of one of his papers for the MBLWHOI Library. Later, the table where the paper was signed would be used in the ceremony to honour another Japanese MBL researcher, Osamu Shimomura, winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2008. 

The job of an Emperor is inherited and Akihito, son of Hirohito and the next Emperor, is also a recognised scientist who has focused on the investigation of fish of the Gobiidae family. He is member of the ichthyological society of Japan and has published many papers, mainly devoted to the taxonomy of gobids, in specialised international journals. He was invited to the UK by the Linnean Society and Sweden for the 300th birth anniversary of Carl Linnaeus. Following his address to the Society, he contributed two papers in the recognised journals Science and Nature on the history of science in his country, prizing the relevance of morphological taxonomic research, but already pointing out the benefits of the molecular revolution for taxonomists.

Picture of Gobid fish
Gobid fish in an intertidal pond. Photograph by Ibon Cancio.

Respected self-centred researchers might say that the scientific contribution of both Emperors is not rocket science, and that it is not different from that of hundreds of other dedicated taxonomists who have devoted their lives and eyes to cataloguing the biodiversity of this planet, and naming the unnamed. Science is an endeavour that should involve society in its whole, making the citizen a participant, and it needs to grow in prestige. What an example of prestige, when the Emperor himself dedicates time to research in marine biodiversity! Countries need to invest in science based on the priorities identified by their citizens. In the second edition of its Global Science Report 2020, UNESCO shows the number of ocean science institutions and marine laboratories by country, reporting 248 in Japan as the global leader, followed by the USA in second place with 150. The US has the world’s greatest number of ocean research vessels, and Japan has the second most. Many other variables are responsible, but also Emperors doing the things that Emperors do.

Photo of Biological Laboratory
The Biological Laboratory, Imperial Palace with its green roof next to the Three Palace Sanctuaries. Photograph obtained from Google Maps.
Sabrina Gaber
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