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.

Why did they do what they did? Two Christians and one Okinawan: Were they at odds with Japanese culture after all? Perhaps the question to ask is not the one that preoccupies so many Japanese: What is Japanese culture? But: Who defines it, and why?

Okinawa was not even officially part of Japan until 1874. The peoples of the Ryukyu islands, though vassals of a southern Japanese clan since 1604, were culturally more akin to the native population of Taiwan than to the Japanese. They still face discrimination on what they call “the mainland,” and mainland Japanese culture is received with a mixture of colonial yearning to associate with metropolitan Japan, with all its goods and sophistication, and an equally colonial defensiveness. The problem is that Japanese culture was imposed, particularly in areas where culture merged with political propaganda.

During the Japanese war in Asia, Okinawans were forced to do whatever emperor and nation demanded of them. This had ghastly consequences in 1945, when the imperial army made its last stand against the American forces on Okinawan soil. About 160,000 civilians died in the battle. Some were torched by American marines as they huddled together in their ancestral tombs, too terrified to come out and surrender. Others were forced by Japanese soldiers to kill themselves and their families with razors, poison, hand grenades, or anything readily at hand, so that the imperial troops would have more to eat. Some didn’t have to be forced; they saw it as their duty. Many were killed as “spies” (every Okinawan was deemed to be a potential spy). Yet others, especially children, were murdered for making too much noise or being in the way or simply irritating some drunken officer. It is not surprising that such symbols as the Rising Sun flag, unchanged since the war, or the anthem to the glorious and unbroken imperial line are rather unpopular with many Okinawans.

Chibana, as well as many other Japanese, particularly schoolteachers belonging to the left-wing Teachers’ Union, have long refused to pay public respect to the Japanese flag and anthem, pointing out, quite correctly, that they were nowhere documented as official national symbols. There was no law that made anyone sing the imperial anthem or raise the Rising Sun flag if they didn’t want to. The Ministry of Education, an institution filled with highly conservative men who spend much of their time defining Japanese culture, thought otherwise and tried to force all Japanese to conform.3 This is why the liberal mayor of Chibana’s village was ordered to raise the flag at the national sports meeting, which the late emperor would have attended had he been in good health. It is also why Chibana Shoichi climbed up the pole and lit the flag with his cigarette lighter. He refused to abide by rules based not on laws promulgated by elected representatives but laid down by bureaucrats. That was not his idea of Japanese culture.

There was more to this case than mere symbolism, however. There was also the question of historical truth. The official truth about the battle of Okinawa, as it is disseminated in textbooks vetted by the Ministry of Education, is that Okinawan civilians committed collective suicide as heroic acts of sacrifice. Okinawans do not see it quite that way. They see themselves as victims.

Norma Field is sensitive to the complicated feelings of outsiders in Japan—she is partly Japanese herself; her American name is from her father. But she is not sentimental. Histrionic she may be at times: the phrase “heavy with the shrieks of the dying” pleases her so much that she uses it twice with a slight variation: the moment she arrives at Narita Airport in August 1988, “the air is heavy with the souls of the dead.” Still she is not sentimental. She is right to observe that Okinawans, not to speak of the “mainland” Japanese, should not be so obsessed with their own victimhood that they forget about the suffering inflicted on others, notably the millions of Chinese and other Asians. But then she veers in a more dubious direction:

Such disregard reinforces inattention to the far more subtle repression exercised by the imposition of models of success throughout Japan, the mainland as well as Okinawa, and increasingly, throughout the world in relentlessly familiar though deceptively various forms.

I guess what she means is the corporate conspiracy to turn people into victims of greedy capitalism and its materialist values. German leftists have a phrase for this: consumer terrorism. Norma Field is a fervent opponent of consumer terrorism. But we can return to that rich theme later. Meanwhile, her point on the value of historical truth is well taken:

Inattention inexorably spells the loss of critical capacity…. It is his sensitivity to the ways in which inattention to the present overlaps with oblivion of the past that compels Chibana Shoichi, supermarket owner, to resist the imposition of the Rising Sun.

The case of Mrs. Nakaya is equally affected by historical amnesia. The Defense of the Nation Shrine in which the Self-Defense Force and the local Veterans’ Association insisted on registering her husband’s soul is one of many such Shinto shrines in Japan. The largest and most famous is the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Most of these shrines have a small museum attached, filled with military memorabilia: regimental flags, photographs of soldiers, letters from kamikaze pilots full of noble, if rather formulaic, sacrificial sentiments, and paintings of battles and parades. I visited such a shrine recently, in Shizuoka. In the hall was a large oil painting of Matsui Iwane, the general held responsible by the Tokyo War Crime Tribunal for the Nanjing Massacre of 1937. Field’s quote from a brochure handed out at the shrine where Mr. Nakaya’s spirit, among those of 52,099 men, is worshiped, gives one a sense of what these places are about. The “Memorial to the Heroic Martyrs of the War Crimes Trial,” says the brochure,

exalts the illustrious memory and comforts the souls of the martyrs from Yamaguchi Prefecture who were executed, committed suicide, or died in prison, their innocence unrecognized, due to the one-sided trial conducted by the victorious nations of the Greater East Asia War.

The emphasis in these shrines—and in much Japanese political propaganda, in war or peace—is on sacrifice, the nobility of individual sacrifice for the nation, company, emperor, or whatever the case may be. State Shinto, which was not an ancient cult at all, but basically an early twentieth-century ruse designed to lend religious authority to an absolutist state, was the embodiment of this. The postwar constitution, drafted during the American occupation with a heavy American hand, dismantled State Shinto by guaranteeing religious freedom and stating that “no religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority.” In Article 20, quoted by Field, it also states that “the State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.”

These were the grounds upon which Mrs. Nakaya took the Self-Defense Force and the Veterans’ Association to court. She did it not because she objected as a Christian to Shinto rites, but because the state’s attempt to enforce such rites was unconstitutional. The counterargument from conservative, or more accurately, reactionary politicians and thinkers is that Shinto is not a religion but a set of customs; more than just any set of customs, they are the essence of Japanese culture.

So we are back in the realm of cultural definition again. Mrs. Nakaya, like Mr. Chibana, or indeed the Nagasaki mayor, was forced to conform to a particular idea of Japanese culture which was wholly political in its intention. Their religious beliefs, or in Chibana’s case, his Okinawan background, might have sharpened their resistance to conformity, but these are not really the issue. In any event, Mrs. Nakaya didn’t stick her neck out because she was a Christian. It was rather the reverse: she became a Christian because her refusal to bend to the will of authority, either in the shape of her father-in-law or the Self-Defense Force, made her an outsider and the Christian community was a place of refuge.

Nakaya Yasuko’s plight is shared by many women in Japan. Like everybody else with no public influence, she was supposed to sacrifice her own happiness. Field describes the situation very well:

“Why can’t you be like all the others?” was the question constantly posed Yasuko in the unhelpful manner of busy adults confronted with a child recalcitrant from loneliness….

If only she could, she would have been like the others: this was what made that old question so cruel and so futile. Her unyielding quest for ordinary happiness no doubt accounts for her sensitivity to the forces, both brute and subtle, that undermine it. This is what enables her to link her childhood privations with state intrusion into her widowhood, what allows her to understand that the state can take the form not only of the Self-Defense Force, the Veterans’ Association, or the Defense-of-the-Nation Shrine; but also a father-in-law, a grandfather…a stepmother-in-law’s mother (who teaches that wives are born to serve)….

In the orthodox authoritarian model of Japanese culture, the key concepts of which are harmony, consensus, and sacrifice, there is indeed little room for dissent. To the upholders of this model, the right to dissent or rebel is not only alien, but an anathema. Even so, there are plenty of examples in Japanese history of Japanese who have claimed this right. Few of them were Christians or members of minorities. Between 1888 and 1897 alone there were 579 organized rebellions, about land rights, taxes, civil rights, and so forth.4 Some of the activists were inspired by examples abroad, just as the mayor of Chibana’s town was inspired by American democracy, not least in his struggle for local rights against US military authorities. Since very few ideas anywhere are purely indigenous (State Shinto certainly wasn’t), this in no way invalidates their worth.

Ueki Emori, one of the leading Meiji period advocates for representative government, was stimulated by European concepts of natural rights in his challenge to the divine right of imperial government. He didn’t fail because he was wrong, but because the Meiji oligarchs and the army proved to be stronger. The interesting thing is that his aims, however much they might have been influenced by the ideas of Herbert Spencer, seem to have had far more support among small traders and farmers than among the metropolitan elites. His “Country Song of Popular Rights,” which he composed in 1879, is said to have been quite popular:

Man’s freedom does not allow a dearth of liberty
We are free; we have rights.
The people of Japan must claim their rights;
if we do not, then our companion is shame…5

Of course, not all Japanese rebels were rational proponents of parliamentary democracy. Some were fired by millenarian or utopian ideals. The most sinister example is the comparatively recent one of Kita Ikki, the national socialist mentor of a group of young army officers who staged a violent but ultimately unsuccessful military coup in February 1936. They tried to save the nation from corrupt politicians and greedy capitalists and to restore the divine and absolute authority of the emperor. They were mostly from poor rural districts and hated the sinful materialism of the wicked city. Like their crude contemporary intellectual heirs, they called for divine retribution against all that was rotten and decadent and un-Japanese.

Norma Field is not likely to be an admirer of Kita and his ardent band of emperor worshipers. But she does have a weakness for utopianism. She concludes her book with the famous Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, in which Japan renounces the right to deploy military forces. She rightly calls this a fiction, a dream of a world without violence. But she sees it as a necessary fiction, a desirable dream. She writes: “For dreamers to abandon their hope of a world arranged otherwise is a graver loss than for realists to dispel the illusion of self-defense with the actuality of aggression.”

The argument, no matter how sincere and noble in its intentions, is false. Rebels do not have to be dreamers. And as far as Article 9 is concerned, one can be a realist without being aggressive. The fiction of the article is precisely its main problem, for it makes the believers in utopia, specifically the main opposition party, the Socialists, unelectable. The Japanese, like most people, might cherish their dreams, but they prefer not to have dreamers in charge of their security. And so the LDP remains in power and the mechanism of Japanese democracy remains untested.

Field’s penchant for dreams may have something to do with her views on consumer terrorism. She is largely right, in my opinion, about the political role of the imperial institution:

modern technology in the service of mystery in the service of a ruthless rationalization and industrial capability. The mystery makes the rationalization palatable, hence feasible…

But then she remarks that

Hirohito’s funeral in February of 1989 was a celebration of the successes of Japanese capitalism…. The Japanese economic miracle was subtly but ineluctably linked to a culture that reveres emperors and provides them with ancient, august burial.

Japan, she writes, is “a society where everyone seems successful and therefore free (a version of the formula whereby the meaning of freedom is largely exhausted by the presence of free markets, as amply demonstrated by media coverage of eastern Europe).”

Yes, tradition, however bogus, is used to manipulate the public. Yes, she may even be right that “an unsurpassable regimen of commodity gratification” (consumer terrorism, in other words) helps to keep the population quiet. But I don’t think that capitalism is the main point of this particular exercise. For one thing, Japanese governments have been rather reluctant free marketeers where it concerned the home market. Indeed, the markets for such basic commodities as rice are not free at all. Again Japanese culture—the ancient rituals of rice farming, and so on—is trotted out to justify protection from foreign trade. This, in a somewhat dreamy aside, is endorsed by Field. She used to believe, “like most Japanese urban consumers, and, coincidentally would-be American exporters,” that import liberalization was desirable, but then she felt “a new twinge. It is the raw sensation of farming as shaper of life and landscape.”

But these new twinges aside, the point of Japanese government has not been to create the best and most open conditions for competitive trade; the point, more often, has been bureaucratic control of the allegedly homogeneous subjects of the Japanese state. If anything, capitalism was often regarded with a great deal of suspicion by authoritarian guardians of the Japanese soul. With some reason: from the late nineteenth century, the liberal market economy created demands for liberal politics, as in the case of the Popular Rights Movement of the 1870s. Industrialists and businessmen, including members of the great family combines of Mitsui and Mitsubishi, were often treated as dangerous liberals by the prewar militarists. They often were: military expansion could be good for business, but alienating the rest of the world certainly was not.

Norma Field did not have to end her book on such a wistful note, especially after having accomplished such a superb demolition job of one of the most tenacious political myths of our time: the myth that the demand for civil rights and other liberal aspirations are all very well as dreams of a Westernized intellectual elite, but hopelessly unsuited to the needs of what are commonly known as the common people. In Japan, at any rate, it is more like the other way around.

This Issue

December 5, 1991