Koki Hirota was born on 14 February 1878 in Fukuoka Prefecture and graduated with a law degree from 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 Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1933, the same year as Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations. In 1936, Emperor Hirohito named Hirota Prime Minister. He stayed in office until 2 February 1937. As Prime Minister, he led his cabinet in planning the invasions of Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands, in addition to continuing the undeclared war against China.
Hirota’s government signed a first alliance treaty with Germany, but only remained in power for less than a year until early in 1937, when Hirohito named a new Prime Minister, General Hayashi, who in turn lasted only four months. The emperor then named Prince Konoe Fumimaro as Prime Minister. Hirota nevertheless remained in the position of Foreign Affairs Minister until his retirement in 1938.
It was during Hirota’s second tenure as Minister of Foreign Affairs, late in 1937, that Japanese forces marched into Nanking. Thousands of innocent civilians were buried alive, used as targets for bayonet practice, shot in large groups and thrown into the Yangtze River. Rampant rapes of women ranging from age seven to over seventy were reported. The international community estimated that during the six weeks of the massacre, 20,000 women were raped, most of them subsequently murdered or mutilated and that over 300,000 people were killed, often with the most inhumane brutality.
Despite the fact that Hirota was not in charge of the army units that invaded Nanking, he was well informed about the extent of the massacre. The international community had also lodged protests with many Japanese embassies. Bates, an American professor of history at the University of Nanking during the Japanese occupation, provided evidence that the protests had been forwarded to Tokyo and discussed in great detail between Japanese officials and the U.S. Ambassador to Tokyo.
Opposition from the military forced Hirota into retirement in 1938. In 1945, however, Hirota returned to the diplomatic scene to lead 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 Stalin’s government to stay out of the war, but he ultimately failed when the Soviets entered the war between the time of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.