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 …

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