GENERAL ARTICLES

HIROHITO— Dupe or Demon?

Every propaganda shot fired at the Son of Heaven may be ammunition wasted, says this writer—Yamamoto and Tojo are the real warlords behind the throne

FREDERICK B. OPPER February 15 1943
GENERAL ARTICLES

HIROHITO— Dupe or Demon?

Every propaganda shot fired at the Son of Heaven may be ammunition wasted, says this writer—Yamamoto and Tojo are the real warlords behind the throne

FREDERICK B. OPPER February 15 1943

HIROHITO, Emperor of Japan, wears the inevitable Japanese spectacles, is beginning to develop a bay window and sports a toothbrush mustache. When, in addition, he appears in public togged out in an army uniform bedecked with glittering medals that would make even Herman Goering envious he is offering himself as a perfect target for cartoonists panting to start a propaganda haymaker from the floor against the hated Japs. Radio commentators, editorial writers, scrap collectors, billboard designers, movie producers and other influencers of public opinion in my country have joined in the Hate Hirohito hue and cry with the fervor of bloodhounds pursuing an escaped convict from a chain gang. The result is that Hirohito today ranks only a notch below his alliterative ally, Hitler, in our black book of hate.

But Hirohito (he is never the “Mikado” and is identified among Japanese when he is spoken of at all merely as “His Imperial Majesty”; he will be known as the Emperor Showa after his death) has less to say about Japanese policy than Victor Emanuel has to say about Italian policy. For us to revile Hirohito as Japanese Enemy No. 1 is comparable roughly to the Nazis devoting their propaganda energies to an attack against Mikhail Kalinin, President of the Praesidium of the U.S.S.R.’s Supreme Council, or Lin Sen, chairman of the Chinese Government, Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek are better and more correct targets for the Axis and Tojo and Yamamoto should be the prime targets for us.

Furthermore, when we pick on Hirohito we are making the mistake of selecting the one symbol to revile that no Japanese will allow to be reviled in his hearing. To condemn and insult Hirohito in domestic and overseas propaganda can produce no other result on the Japanese than to make them hate the United States —or any other of the United Nations which may play the Hate Hirohito game— more and more intensely, to make them fight with even greater fury and to solidify in 70,000,000 Japanese a bitter determination never, under any circumstances, to make peace with us nor even to consider it. What good that will accomplish from our viewpoint is not, I must confess, very clear. And when, additionally, there is the very good possibility that by treating Hirohito personally with respect rather than scorn at this time we can at some future date make use of him for our own purposes, it seems as though we would be well advised to do an about-face in our present conception of and attitude toward the Japanese Emperor.

That requires us to stop a moment in our headlong rush to identify Hirohito with every piece of atrocity of which Japan has been guilty and to consider sanely just who and what the Japanese Emperor is.

To foreigners the Emperor of Japan is a man forty-one years old last April 29, growing a little paunchy now, a quiet fellow who is interested in marine biology as a hobby, who has three brothers, a widowed mother, a wife and six children.

To the Japanese he is not a man like that at all. He is not even a man in fact. He is a god.

According to Japanese history (mythology to us) Japan was founded on Feb. 11, 660 B.C. by the Emperor Jimmu. Jimmu, according to the official story, was the great-great-grandson of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, who had sent her grandson from heaven to rule over the islands of Japan. Previously the god, Izanagi, and the goddess, Izanami, had formed Japan by dipping a long spear into the ocean from their heavenly perch and the brine that dripped off coagulated to form Japan. Directly descended from Amaterasu, Jimmu is naturally considered divine himself by the Japanese. His direct descendants likewise have been divine and Hirohito, allegedly the 124th in direct descent from Jimmu, is therefore a divine personage, too, able to trace his ancestry back to the founder of the Japanese Empire 2,603 years ago and still further back to the goddess herself.

In the 2,603 doubtful years of Japanese history, Emperors have had their ups and downs. Some of them have been chivied about the countryside as refugees. Others have been forced to beg on the street or even to sell their autographs for money with which to eat. Some have had to defend their claims to the throne against rival aspirants. Some have been deposed, exiled or assassinated. One was even forced to hide under a load of dried fish to escape. Many have been treated like dirt beneath the feet of the actual military rulers of the country. There was a period in Japanese history when there were two emperors reigning at the same time, one in a northern and the other in a southern court, and historians think the legitimate claimant lost out in the ultimate succession.

Eighty to ninety years ago, when Japan murmured in her medieval sleep, the Emperor was a drowsy figurehead in Kyoto. The country was ruled in effect by a shogun, a military dictator, in Tokyo. But with the arrival of America’s Commodore Perry in 1853 and his demands that Japan be opened to the western world for trade, the shogun found himself in a difficult position. Japan’s bow and arrow warriors obviously were unable forcibly to prevent Perry’s intrusion. On the other hand foreigners, long excluded from the country by edict, were unpopular. Rival leaders of the shogun took his reluctant permission to Perry as the focal point for their opposition.

Anti-shogun clans blamed the shogun for admitting the Western “barbarians.” They charged that the sacred Emperor had been slighted and “restore the Emperor” became the rallying cry of the anti-foreign agitation. When, beset by these difficulties, the shogun finally resigned his power and the Emperor moved to Tokyo the anti-shogun party which had been using the Emperor as a screen for their own purposes found themselves in power. So far as Japan was concerned the “Restoration” simply meant a change from shogunal government, with the Emperor a nonentity in a distant city, to government by forces employing the Emperor directly as a front for their rule.

But all during this period and afterward during the civil war that followed, the Emperor was the sole rallying point not only for the astute military-politicians who wished to supplant the shogun for their own purposes but for those elements in Japan who sincerely wanted to see the nation grow out of the knee breeches of feudalism into a united country. And still more, he was the obvious symbol of a united loyal nation to the millions of common people who had no direct interest in any of the intrigue that went on in Kyoto and Tokyo and who wanted nothing so much as peace and freedom from the oppression of their feudal lords.

Recognizing all this, those who have governed Japan for the last half century and more have carefully fostered the symbolism of the throne. History has been rewritten to omit the rocky path so many Sons of Heaven have trod and Japanese from birth have been immersed in the legend of the Emperor’s sanctity and godliness. He is a remote and mysterious figure, never heard and seldom seen, who, to the average Japanese, is only a dimly perceived personage moving majestically, a father-god from whom all blessings flow to his people. The Japanese constitution, for example, was not the result of popular agitation; it was “given” by the Emperor. So was universal education. So was the “right” to serve in the armed forces.

Even today this building up of Emperor-symbolism goes on. Ex-Foreign Minister Matsuoka, he who signed the nonaggression pact in Moscow, was asked what advice he had for the youth of Japan.

“Brush your teeth and bow three times a day in the direction of the Imperial Palace,” he replied in all seriousness.

And all over Japan and Japanese-occupied territories the people do bow reverently in the direction of distant Tokyo and the silent moat-circled palace where the Emperor resides. They are not allowed inside the grounds but on the huge plaza before the gates they come singly and in families, by classes, platoons, schools, from the distant reaches of the Empire and from regions beyond the seas to doff their hats, bow low and in silence and to return again to their homes, a pilgrimage completed.

Naturally, brought up from infancy in this atmosphere, the Japanese has a feeling for the Emperor that is difficult even for him to express but is compounded of awe, love, devotion and reverence.

Several years ago in Tokyo a Japanese friend whose grandfather had been one of the founders of modern Japan, a poor boy who had worked his way to London to learn English and banking and had come back to help mold the growing nation and then had been sent to Washington as minister and named a viscount for his services, took me to the Meiji Shrine picture gallery. All over the walls are oil paintings depicting the history of the Emperor Meiji and simultaneous with it, Japan’s history from the 1860’s to pre-World War I days. One picture shows Meiji and President Grant during the latter’s world tour in uncomfortable confab. In the background stands my friend’s grandfather serving as interpretor.

The greatest family treasure my friend has is the knowledge that his grandfather’s likeness appears in that picture. Not because it shows a man who raised himself by his own bootstraps to become a founder of his country. And not because he is depicted in oil in a public and sacred place for future generations of Japanese to see. But simply because he is represented on the same piece of canvas as the Emperor.

Doubters Are Silent

NATURALLY, intelligent and thinking Japanese do not credit the divinity of the Emperor even though they find it much safer to keep what doubts they have to themselves. But though they recognize the absurdity of the 2,603 years, and descent from the Sun Goddess myth, they accept it as a symbol by which the unity of the nation is enhanced. Japanese Christians, particularly have found it difficult to balance their religion with the necessity of bowing at the Imperial Shrines but even such a leading nonconformist and liberal Japanese Christian as Toyohiko Kagawa has managed to explain that bowing at a Shinto Shrine to the Imperial ancestors is, for him, an act of patriotism and not religion. Some foreign missionaries have not accepted this explanation and have withdrawn from Japan in recent years rather than to allow Shrines to the Emperor to be placed in their schools at which bowing is obligatory.

Questioning of the Emperor’s divinity, if any Japanese were rash enough to attempt it publicly, would result—if assassins could be forestalled—in an indefinite period in jail as the best to be hoped for. Even questions about the Emperor by foreigners are not relished and anything that is written about him is almost certain to be banned in Japan on the theory that he is not a subject for humble journalistic investigation. J. B. Powell, American editor in Shanghai, found himself in difficulties before the war for a story concerning the Emperor which he reprinted in his magazine from a newspaper published in this country. The Japanese protested to the American Consulate-General on the matter and later, when Powell was arrested after the outbreak of hostilities, he found himself charged among other things with publishing “an article injurious to the dignity of the Japanese Imperial Household.”

In my own case, of all the stories I had written and about which I was questioned by the Japanese gendarmes during the three and a half months they held me in jail, a single sentence in one unimportant dispatch was the most concern to them. That sentence mentioned the Emperor in connection with a development in Japanese politics. Where did I get such information? What Japanese had talked with me about His Imperial Majesty? What did I know about him? What was my purpose in writing about him? Did I ever discuss him and if so with whom? Why? Before they finished I had had enough discussion about the Emperor to last me for a long time.

In the seventy-five years since the “Restoration” there have been only three emperors—Meiji, Taisho, and Hirohito. Meiji, who came to the throne in 1867 and lived until 1912, was by all accounts an exemplary figure who enjoyed life, had good advisers, really sought to benefit his people and was an able and conscientious individual. His son, Taisho, was a physical and mental wreck who was finally kept secluded with the present Emperor, then Crown Prince, acting as Prince Regent in his stead. As such Hirohito had, to begin with, the enviable record of his grandfather and the sorry object lesson of his own father as prods for an enlightened and worthy reign, reasons perhaps that prompted him to select “Showa” as the title for his era—meaning “Radiant Peace,” well-meaning but unfortunately unfulfilled.

For a brief period in Japan’s relatively liberal era twenty years ago some effort was made to humanize the present Emperor and to make him a person of flesh and blood holding somewhat the same position in Japanese life that George VI does in British. As Crown Prince he was sent abroad over the protests of die-hard tories and by all accounts enjoyed himself thoroughly. But the entire humanizing effort was dropped before it had progressed very far and today Hirohito is virtually as little known to Japanese as he is to Americans.

Once a year he appears in the Diet and reads a short prepared speech to the assembled legislators. Almost without exception it contains only platitudes, asking the Diet to work in harmony for the good of the nation. On occasion an Imperial Rescript in his name is issued concerning matters of great significance—one was issued, for example, on the outbreak of war last December. He never speaks by radio. He seldom leaves Tokyo or even the spacious grounds of the Imperial Palace. When he does the streets are cleared of his subjects for blocks in all directions; window shades are drawn along his route to prevent impious eyes from looking down on the sacred person and the railroad tracks are guarded every few rods. No smiling, shoving, subjects jam up to his train to cheer him. There is no handshaking, waving or hail-fellow-well-met reception. Occasionally luncheons are held at the Palace with high dignitaries in attendance. Cabinet Ministers report on matters under their jurisdiction, foreign ambassadors pay infrequent, brief formal calls and lectures by authorities on politics, art, economics and other subjects are given for his sole benefit and pleasure.

There are no press conferences and there are no details given out as to his activities. Once, in the early days of the China war, it was announced that the Emperor had eaten a noonday meal at the palace consisting of the same fare consumed by Japanese soldiers in the field. Tokyo newspapers made it their lead story under respectful headlines that emphasized the honor done the troops and the condescension of the Emperor.

At the fall of Hankow four years ago, when Japan mistakenly thought China had been beaten to her knees, Tokyo celebrated with a lantern parade through the streets of the capital. Thousands of persons came to the plaza before the palace to pay their respects. Suddenly through the gloom the Emperor appeared on the other side of the vast moat, riding his snow-white horse Shirayuki. He remained motionless a few moments, then rode slowly off into the dusk of the palace grounds. Those who were there at the time prostrated themselves, actually overcome with emotion at the thought that they had seen the Emperor in person. Newspapers described the event with stories declaring, “We report with awe and trepidation the fact that His Imperial Majesty graciously condescended to appear on the grounds of the Imperial Palace.”

Picture Comes First

SUCH AN attitude about an event that to Americans seems trivial (imagine President Roosevelt appearing on the lawn of the White House) does, however, reflect the Japanese viewpoint. Cases have been reported of telephone linemen committing suicide because they inadvertently looked down on a passing Imperial procession or of policemen who performed hara-kiri for directing the Emperor’s automobile down the wrong street during an inspection trip. One of Japan’s greatest heroes is General Nogi, of Port Arthur fame during the Russo-Japanese war, who committed hara-kiri together with his wife as the funeral cortege of the Emperor Meiji rolled through Tokyo.

In every Japanese Government building there is a picture of the Emperor, the most important item there. If a schoolhouse burns it is the first thing rescued and any Japanese would allow dozens of youngsters to perish in the flames while he attempted to bring Hirohito’s picture to safety. When the foreign embassies moved from Moscow a year ago the major Japanese interest in the matter was the question of bringing Hirohito’s picture safely from the Japanese embassy. Wilfrid Fleisher, former editor of the Japan Advertiser, tells the story of a single letter in a word appearing in a story his paper carried concerning the Emperor which was blurred. Fleisher had to work overtime to convince the authorities that he had not deliberately insulted the Son of Heaven while the unfortunate printer found himself at the local police station apologizing abjectly for failing to make certain that every piece of type used in that story was spotless.

Prince and Princess Chichibu are childless, reportedly because it would have been derogatory on the part of the Emperor’s eldest brother to father a son while the Empress had had only girl children. The Home Minister has been known to apologize to the Emperor because a huge downtown fire in Tokyo could be seen from the Palace and therefore the Emperor presumably was inconvenienced. An illiterate country bumpkin who inadvertently gave his son the name “Hirohito” killed his whole family in shame when he was informed that he had picked the name of the Emperor. A man who was suffering from the same illness that killed the Emperor Meiji committed hara-kiri on his recovery because he had dared to recuperate while the Emperor had died.

Despite this national Emperor-worship which is incomprehensible to Western minds the Japanese nevertheless do not have the faintest idea how Hirohito actually lives from day to day. They don’t know what time he gets up, what he eats or drinks, whether he reads the papers and if so what ones. They don’t know if he shaves himself or has a barber. They don’t know whether he smokes. They don’t know if he sleeps in a bed or on the floor, Japanese fashion; if he uses chopsticks or a fork; if he enjoys music; whether he has ever seen a movie; if he listens to the radio. They don’t know what his voice sounds like. In short they don’t know anything about the Emperor as an individual. Very few Japanese have even seen him in the flesh and his infrequent appearances in newsreels are limited to careful shots of him formally reviewing troops, sailors or institutions. There are never any close-ups and before his likeness is flashed on the screen an announcer tells the audience what is coming so as to ensure that everyone is paying attention and not engaged in horseplay or otherwise insulting the Imperial House.

Behind this hocus-pocus, so carefully preserved, is the fact that the Emperor individually has very little if anything to say about governing Japan. The country is run by his advisers and his advisers today are the Tojos and Yamamotos who are carrying on the war.

Except for the symbolism of calling a selectee to the palace, the Emperor has no choice in naming a Premier. Once the cabinet is formed— with the selection of the members the Emperor has no dealings—its policies are equally independent of Imperial initiative or direction. The Emperor cannot initiate legislation or veto it. He cannot remove obstinate officials. He cannot appeal to the people over the heads of his advisers, since he is, in effect, a prisoner within the palace. Theoretically it would be completely possible for the Emperor to be dead for months without more than a handful of Japanese knowing it, while rescripts continued to be issued in his name and his seal appeared on state documents. It is conceivable that he could put his foot down flatly and refuse further acquiescence to the military party. It is difficult to see, however, how such a step could be made known to the people. Meanwhile there would be nothing to prevent continued use of his name by the military for its own purposes although it is more than probable that the Emperor, should he attempt such a move, would before very long be succeeded by the ten-year-old Crown Prince.

The Emperor has a personal staff— Imperial Household Ministry—with Chamberlains, Lord Keepers of the Privy Seal and others who have duties in the palace and who presumably have at least occasional access to him. These men by and large are liberals but their influence is negligible. In times past they have been soundly rated by jingoists for giving the Emperor “improper advice” which means “liberal advice” and have been made the targets for assassination attempts by nationalist groups. That is hardly necessary now. The reins of the Japanese Government are firmly in the hands of war-minded reactionaries led by Tojo who employ the Emperor as a front for the suicidal struggle in which Japan is engaged. Any member of the so-called “group around the throne” who attempted to raise a liberal voice would find it both impossible to let the air out of his lungs or to draw a second breath.

Opposed to War

DIFFICULT AS it is to learn anything of the Emperor’s personal views I have never heard anyone even vaguely in a position to have some knowledge of them, however, who believes other than that Hirohito is opposed to war— against China as well as against the West—and is bitterly disappointed at the course Japan has taken for the last decade. His background certainly is one that is more apt to lead to peace rather than bellicosity, for as a young man he was brought up by tutors educated abroad during the great years of Japan’s grasping for Western manners and methods. The aged Prince Saionji, dead two years now, was his most trusted adviser and Saionji was an authentic Japanese liberal who detested the reactionary Army officers seeking power and who, only six years ago, was forced to take refuge in a police station to escape their assassins.

Personal attendants selected by Hirohito have been men of peace and not of war. Some of them have been marked down for death by war-minded jingoists.

On every occasion where it was at all possible Hirohito has indicated his personal dislike of conflict and his hope that Japan would find the path of peace again. At the annual Imperial poetry contest his own poem one year read:

“Peaceful is morning in the Shrine garden;

“World conditions, it is to be hoped, also will be peaceful.”

Another year he penned :

“At the beginning of the new year “We pray that East and West will live together and prosper.”

Those are certainly not the sentiments of a man anxious to plunge his country into war against the West. A year ago a Japanese who had excellent connections with the Japanese Foreign Office told me that the Emperor was exerting every possible influence on the military group preparing for war against us in an effort to slow down their headlong dash toward hostilities. He added that he felt sure Hirohito’s efforts would prove unsuccessful as was indeed the case.

When Japan struck at Pearl Harbor President Roosevelt’s personal appeal to the Emperor for peace was held up for hours in Tokyo to prevent its receipt by Hirohito until after the blow had fallen. It would have been lese majeste for Japan’s admirals and generals to have gone to war while the Emperor was known to have been studying a possible peace formula and their plans had gone too far to permit delay by anyone. Foreigners returning from Japan are convinced that Hirohito personally would have been an all-out advocate of peace if he could have had anything to say.

That war came, though, and that Hirohito today is at least the symbolic head of a nation engaged in hostilities against us is insufficient reason to regard him as personally responsible. Hirohito is not Hitler. If any comparison at all is adequate he is the Swastika that Hitler waves and even that hardly covers the situation.

As a symbol he is of value to the Japanese war effort for behind the symbol Japan marches in uniformed and close-knit ranks. But as an individual he is simply a stooge. The thing for us to consider is whether or not at some future date Hirohito cannot be a symbol for us to employ as he is now employed by his militarists. Though he is now a symbol to the Japanese waging war against us he could as well be a symbol of a Japan begging for peace. If, at some as yet distant day, Hirohito called for the war to be over and for Japan to lay down her arms it would be an extremely difficult task for Japanese militarists to make Army, Navy and civilians continue a struggle condemned by the Son of Heaven. There is, of course, no possibility that the Emperor on his own initiative could ask for peace. But successive defeats could well bring a Japanese peace party to the fore in time to come. It could have no better spokesman, from their viewpoint as well as ours, than Hirohito.

Our present propaganda, however, does nothing to encourage such a peace party in Japan. No matter how bitterly we feel about the Japanese and how much we intend to rub their faces in the dirt it hardly seems wise to tell them so in gory detail with the single result that the Tojos and Yamamotos later in the day can produce our own words as evidence that Japan’s only hope is to fight to the very end. There may be some excuse to do so within this country. There is none to broadcast such views wholesale to Japan as we have been doing. And there is certainly no wisdom in filling our Far East bound propaganda with lengthy abuse of the Emperor. That is unless we wish to kill any aborning faction in Japan anxious to seize the first opportunity to halt the war. At the very least such views can hardly appeal to the Emperor himself— one of the most likely advocates of peace—who presumably has no wish to find himself the first victim of peace and United Nations victory.

It would be far wiser to tell Hirohito we intend to free him and his unhappy country from the weight of a military dictatorship and to see a new Japan under the leadership of a wise, respected and liberal Emperor. We can do what we want once the victory is ours but we don’t get any closer to that victory by alienating a potential ally. And Hirohito, assured of our good intentions, very conceivably could be a valuable ally of ours some day in the symbolism he is to 70,000,000 fellow countrymen. He is a symbol of Japanese unity for war now; he may some day be a symbol of Japanese unity for peace. We would do well to encourage the change.