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Against the Japanese Grain

In the Realm of a Dying Emperor: A Portrait of Japan at Century’s End

by Norma Field
Pantheon, 273 pp., $22.00

In December 1988, the late Showa emperor, better known outside Japan as Hirohito, was dying very, very slowly, losing large quantities of blood every day. Public life was much affected. Not only was every hemorrhage reported in the press in respectful but clinical detail—by the time he died, the emperor had received about thirty gallons of blood in transfusions—but traditional New Year celebrations were canceled, television commercials toned down, weddings and festivals postponed, and shop-window displays muted, all in the name of national “self-restraint.” Even the liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun began to use the most archaic honorifics to describe every imperial bowel movement.

It was in this atmosphere of forced sobriety that Motoshima Hitoshi, mayor of Nagasaki, was asked a simple question by the Communist Party representative at a session of the Nagasaki City Assembly. Could he, the mayor, please comment on the question of the emperor’s war guilt. Motoshima, one of the three heroes of Norma Field’s excellent book In the Realm of a Dying Emperor, gave the following answer: while he adhered fully to the emperor’s postwar status as symbol of the constitution, he had to conclude, after reading and reflecting upon the accounts of foreign and Japanese historians, and remembering his own experiences as an imperial soldier, that the emperor bore responsibility for the war. He then told reporters that the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the battle of Okinawa, could have been avoided if only the emperor had decided to end the war sooner.

The mayor’s honesty had dramatic though not wholly unexpected consequences: right-wing extremists called for his death, and the local branch of the Liberal Democratic Party. which had backed him for office, demanded a retraction, as did the conservative Rising Sun Society, of which Motoshima was chairman. He refused to do so and stated his reasons at a press conference:

I’m not saying the emperor was the only one responsible for the war. Many people were, myself included. I do feel, however, that the present state of politics is abnormal. Any statement about the emperor becomes an emotional issue. Freedom of speech should not be limited by time or place. Democracy means that one should respect others, even if they hold different opinions. I don’t think my conclusions after fortytwo years of study are wrong…. I respect and love the emperor as a symbol, but I still think he bears responsibility for the war.

Motoshima was denounced and dismissed by the prefectural LDP organization and the Rising Sun Society. And the right-wing calls for divine retribution against the mayor and his family went on and on, until in January 1990, the threat was carried out: Motoshima was shot by a fanatic. And even as he lay in hospital, badly though not fatally wounded, the Federation of Patriot Groups in Japan came out with the curious statement that the shooting had been “inevitable” since the mayor’s criticism of the emperor posed a “grave threat to the state.”

I arrived in Japan on the day of Hirohito’s death. I shall never forget the sight of Tokyo that night. Almost the entire city was dark, with all the neon lights switched off, as though in expectation of an air raid. All television channels devoted themselves through the night and the following twentyfour hours to nonstop memories of the late emperor, memories, mostly, of his peaceful inclinations: his love for marine life, English breakfasts, classical poetry, the Japanese people, and Disneyland. And mentioned in passing was also the one shadow on a radiant life, his tragic inability to stop men who were less peacefully inclined than he from waging a war in his name. But the question of his war guilt was never as openly confronted as the mayor of Nagasaki had done a few months before. It made one wonder again about the character of this brave man, Motoshima. What had made him speak out so honestly? Why had he been so bold, so out of step? Why had he, a conservative, provincial politician of the wartime generation, been the one to break a taboo, and trespass on grounds only a handful of leftists had entered before?

A foreign expert on Japan, who has lived in that country for many years, had a ready explanation: the mayor didn’t understand Japanese culture. This opinion was shared by many of the mayor’s critics. A middle-aged Shinto priest, whose letter to Motoshima is quoted by Norma Field, accused Motoshima of “behaving inappropriately as a Japanese.” What they meant is that Motoshima is a Christian, like quite a number of people in southern Kyushu, where the early Catholic missionaries had begun their efforts to save Japanese souls. These souls, as well as their descendants, paid a heavy price for their salvation, for faced with the unappealing choice of apostasy or death, many chose the latter.

This is how the Shinto priest argued his case:

There is an error that those with Western inclinations, including Christians and people who are called intellectuals, often fall into, namely, their failure to grasp that Western and Japanese societies are fundamentally different in their religious concepts. Forgetting this premise, they attempt to place a Western superstructure on a Japanese base.

It cannot be helped if it is thought that you all too readily fell into the provocations of a Communist assemblyman.

This was also more or less the point my friend the Japan expert had tried to make. Given the fact that at the height of the Motoshima affair hardly any prominent Japanese intellectuals sprang to his defense, the point seemed plausible. Indeed, if the mainstream (meaning quite conservative) highbrow journals were any indication, quite a few famous intellectuals took the same line as the Shinto priest. Such literary figures as Eto Jun and Watanabe Shoichi explored some of the more arcane nooks and crannies of the Japanese soul, and interpreted the feelings of the Japanese Folk as being wholly reverential to the imperial tradition. The Princeton-educated Eto argued in the monthly Bungei Shunju that the Japanese had been locked up by the Americans in the “playground of postwar democracy and a merely symbolic emperor system,” but the universal grief over the emperor’s demise made it clear that the “sacred and solemn nature of our imperial family” had been preserved, and would last forever “as the highest jewel of our nation, which no one will ever dare to change.” Marxists continue to challenge this type of argument in left-wing journals, to be sure, but they, like Motoshima, are dismissed easily as marginal people deluded by alien creeds.

There is however another angle to the Motoshima affair which casts some doubt on Eto’s sacred and solemn view of the Japanese soul and its alien critics. Very soon after Motoshima’s original statement, letters of support for the mayor began to arrive: letters from housewives, schoolteachers, imperial army veterans, farmers, students, and members of Korean and polluted outcaste minorities. Some of these letters were emotional, and some more analytical. But most of the letter writers were perfectly clear about the nature of the problem. A fifty-one-year-old woman from Kyoto, identified as a peace activist, wrote:

I would like to express my heartful appreciation for the dignified manner in which the mayor stated that “the emperor bears responsibility for the war.” By stating the obvious, that the emperor was responsible too, he has put his life in danger. This seems to be the true state of our so-called democratic Japan. The time has surely come for each of us to have the courage to attack this situation. The fact that we failed to state the obvious forty years ago created the current state of affairs.

Norma Field also quotes the letter from a newspaper reporter born in 1930:

As a reporter, I fear the emperor’s death more than most people. This is because the pages for the day of his death have already been prepared, and I know they impose a spirit of “praise for the emperor” and “a nation united in mourning.”

Within my newspaper company, many reporters as well as workers in the printing plant have doubts about the trends in our coverage and are pressing management to be faithful to the Constitution in which sovereignty is stated to rest with the people. As a journalist, I want to retain my conscience; I do not want to “engage in concealment of the truth, distortion of history.”1

Václav Havel could not have put it more clearly: there can be no democracy where the truth cannot be told. Why is it, then, that we find so much honesty, reason, and common sense among ordinary citizens writing to the mayor of Nagasaki (and to the letters columns of national newspapers too), even as prominent intellectuals either avoid controversy or write long articles about folkish emperor worship and the uniqueness of the Japanese soul? There are some notable exceptions of course: the historian Ienaga Saburo has been fighting a court case for years to give a more truthful account of the Japanese war in school textbooks—a case he has lost so far. I already mentioned Marxists attacking the right-wing orthodoxy, but they often distort history as badly as the emperor worshipers. So where were the liberal intellectuals when they were needed? Surely not all of them would have agreed with the literary critic who told me that the mayor was not worth defending because he was a conservative.

I have asked many Japanese people about this and received a wide variety of answers: right-wing terrorism is too frightening; editors refuse to make waves; debate is not part of Japanese tradition, stupid reactionaries are not worthy of one’s attention; and so on and so forth.2 A junior high school teacher and his wife, who spend much of their extracurricular time compiling information about the Japanese war in order to present a more objective version of history to their pupils, said they had never even thought of why famous writers avoid controversy. “We wouldn’t expect anything else from them,” they said.

Perhaps all the reasons given above explain why. But I should like to hazard another guess: many intellectuals are so deeply engaged in defining the essence of Japanese culture—what The Japanese think or ought to think—that they are genuinely perplexed when people stick out their necks and refuse to behave like stereotypes. The great merit of the book under review is that Norma Field is not in the least bit perplexed. Hers is one of the most important books to have appeared in English on Japanese who refuse to conform.

She tells the stories of three people and their supporters. Apart from the Nagasaki mayor, these are Mrs. Nakaya Yasuko, the widow of a Self-Defense Force soldier whose spirit was enshrined against her will in the local Shinto shrine for fallen soldiers, and Chibana Shoichi, a supermarket owner in Okinawa, who burned the Rising Sun flag at a national sports meet held in his town. Chibana was prosecuted for his act. Nakaya went to court against the institutions which had turned her husband’s spirit into a patriotic deity. Both tried to assert their civil rights, Nakaya by appealing to the constitution. Both lost their cases. Like the Nagasaki mayor, Chibana was threatened by right-wing thugs—“Execute the traitor Chibana Shoichi!”—and his shop was attacked by arsonists. Also like the mayor, Nakaya was called un-Japanese. Field quotes some less polite ways of saying this from Nakaya’s hate mail: “If you don’t like the verdict, get out! Go to a ‘Christian country,’ a foreign country.” “Hairy barbarian!” “Get off Japanese soil, unclean thing!” Like the mayor, Nakaya is a Christian.

  1. 1

    These letters were published in a book entitled Nagasaki Shicho e no 7300 tsu no Tegami (“7300 Letters to the Mayor of Nagasaki”).

  2. 2

    This last point is made rather confusingly by Masao Miyoshi in his book Off Center: Power and Culture Relations Between Japan and the United States (Harvard University Press, 1991). It is wrong, he says, to pay too much attention to “shabby writers and mediocre thinkers,” even if their views are widely published. The impact of their views is of course a matter of judgment. Miyoshi himself observes—hence the confusion—that they are “not to be taken lightly since they might yet cause mischief if the United States–Japan relationship becomes more strained in the years to come.”

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