He attended military preparatory schools as a youth, specializing in military engineering and served with the IJA 21st Infantry Regiment. He graduated from the 1st class of the Imperial Japanese Army Academy in 1890 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant the following year. Shirakawa entered the Army Staff College in 1893, but was forced to leave the following year due to the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War.
During the war, he was promoted to first lieutenant. He returned to graduate from the Army Staff College and was promoted to captain in 1899. Shirakawa was then assigned as commander of the IJA 21st Infantry Regiment. In 1902, he was assigned to the Imperial Guards.
Promoted to major in 1903, Shirakawa returned to command the IJA 21st Infantry Regiment during the Russo-Japanese War. During the war, he was promoted to become Chief of Staff of the IJA 13th Division. Shirakawa became a lieutenant colonel in 1907, colonel in 1909, and commander of the IJA 34th Infantry Regiment.
In June 1911, Shirakawa became Chief of Staff of the IJA 11th Division, and was promoted to major general later that year. From 1913 to 1915, he was commander of Japanese forces in central China.
During World War I, Shirakawa was commander of the IJA 9th Infantry Brigade. He served as Head of the Personnel Bureau in the Ministry of War from 1916–1919, and after his promotion to lieutenant general in 1919, as Commandant of the Imperial Japanese Army Academy. In 1921, he was given a combat command again, as commander of the IJA 11th Division, and from 1922 as commander of the IJA 1st Division.
From 1922 to 1923, Shirakawa served as Vice-Minister of War under General Yamanashi Hanzō. After briefly serving as Head of Army Aeronautical Department, Shirakawa was appointed Commander in Chief of the Kwangtung Army from 1923 to 1926 during which time he was awarded the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun.
Promoted to full general in March 1925, he subsequently served on the Supreme War Council from 1926-1932, and was Minister of War from 1927 to 1929.
When the Shanghai Incident broke out (1932), he was appointed commander-in-chief of the expeditionary forces in Shanghai. During a ceremony marking the Emperor's birthday on April 29 in Shanghai, he and Mamoru Shigemitsu, a diplomat, were wounded by a bomb tossed by a Korean. He died of the wounds in the Shanghai army hospital.