As the Japanese entered a period of mourning for Emperor Hirohito last week, Maclean’s Correspondent Robert C. Christopher reflected on the man who occupied the Chrysanthemum Throne for 62 years. Christopher first travelled to Japan in 1945 as a language officer in the U.S. army. He is the author of The Japanese Mind, a guide book to Japan’s culture, and a frequent visitor to the island nation. His report-.
To say that someone’s death marks the end of an era is painfully trite, but in the case of Emperor Hirohito it also happens, in a very literal sense, to be true. By ancient custom, when a new Japanese emperor is installed, he chooses an official title to apply to the period of his reign, and once he is dead he is known by that title. So just as his grandfather, whose personal name was Mutsuhito, is now universally referred to as Emperor Meiji, the man we have known as Hirohito has now become Emperor Showa.
In English, Showa means “bright peace.” In the late 1940s, when Japan still lay stunned amidst the devastation it had brought upon itself in the Second World War, there seemed a savage irony in Hirohito’s choice of that particular reign name. Yet by the time of his death last week at the age of 87, the style he had adopted back in the innocent days when Calvin Coolidge was president of the United States seemed almost eerily prescient, for the peace that the Japanese enjoy today is brightened by a
degree of national prosperity unparalleled in all their long history.
To most people outside Japan, it seems that little, if any, credit for that prosperity is due to Hirohito himself. It also seems that his passing, while the stuff of headlines for a few days, is an event of scant importance in practical political terms. And on a superficial level that reaction is reasonable enough. For more than a thousand years, Japan’s emperors have essentially been figureheads. And in the case of Hirohito, who assumed the throne in 1926, that later became the legal as well as the de facto situation. Under the postwar constitution, which U.S. occupation authorities drafted and imposed on the defeated Japanese, the emperor is now restricted to serving as simply “the symbol of the state,” and is explicitly denied any “powers related to government.”
Even as a symbol, moreover, Hirohito was, at least in foreign eyes, something less than an inspirational figure. Short, myopic and moonfaced, he bore an undeniable resemblance to the stereotypical Japanese of racist Western caricature. And all the efforts of Japan’s prewar military leaders to confer upon him the public image of a warrior-king were
rendered ludicrous by his unmistakably pacific disposition. He was, as I discovered during a visit to an imperial country estate shortly after VJ-Day, so reluctant an equestrian that the famous white horses he rode in parades were carefully chosen for utter lack of spirit. Socially, he was so shy and stiff that an American friend of mine, granted an imperial audience in the late 1970s, described the experience as “the most awkward 30 minutes of my life.” As he grew older, in fact, Hirohito sometimes seemed almost enshrouded in an invisible cocoon: at one high-powered dinner in his honor in New York City a decade ago, he visibly dozed off during the speeches.
Indeed, nothing about his person or his conduct suggested that Hirohito possessed any gift or appetite for political leadership. On the contrary, the postwar attempts by embittered victims of Japanese aggression to stigmatize him as the arch-instigator of Japan’s imperial expansion invariably foundered on the transparent reality that—even in the days before 1946, when he formally renounced his divine status—the emperor had merely been a kind of real life Wizard of Oz. In all his long life, in fact, Hirohito only once took truly decisive leadership action on his own initiative. But that solitary exception was of extreme importance.
By the late summer of 1945, it had become clear that further Japanese resistance to the relentless American advance across the Pacific would be tantamount to national suicide. But national suicide was precisely the course that many Allied leaders expected Japan to choose, and those expectations were not totally irrational. For the people of Japan, never before subjected to foreign conquest and long taught to regard themselves as morally superior to all other peoples, the possibility of surrender was all but inconceivable—a prospect so traumatic that no Japanese politician could safely afford to take responsibility for it.
Only one Japanese, the sacred figure on the throne, could hope to do what reason dictated must be done, without incurring national obloquy—and quite likely assassination as well.
And in that desperate moment, Hirohito, unimposing, unassertive and untested, rose to the occasion. With his cabinet hopelessly stalemated, he personally decreed that the fight must be abandoned, that his countrymen must “suffer the insufferable and bear the unbearable.”
Yet, isolated though it was, Hirohito’s historic exercise of power in that instance was, in a certain sense, quite in character. It involved the performance of a task that only the Son of Heaven could discharge. And it was to the performance of such uniquely imperial duties—although usually far more humdrum ceremonial ones—that virtually all of his
life before and after 1945 was devoted.
Descended according to Japanese tradition from the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, and the 124th member of his family to sit upon his nation’s throne, Hirohito was from birth hedged about with constraints so stifling as to be almost unimaginable to ordinary mortals. There was a prescribed form of speech, prescribed attire and a prescribed ritual for every occasion. Virtually every waking hour of the emperor’s day was in some way circumscribed by tradition or precedent. And if he was ever tempted to lapse into spontaneity, the stern watchdogs of the imperial household agency were at hand to remind him of what protocol and ancient practice dictated.
Not all of Hirohito’s predecessors had accepted those constraints graciously. Some had been wastrels, many had abdicated either voluntarily or under duress, and his own father, Emperor Taisho, had been mentally incapacitated for most of his reign, reputedly as a result of venereal disease contracted in his youth. But Hirohito himself never wavered from duty’s stern path. If he had a fantasy life or sometimes chafed under the golden bonds, no one except perhaps his consort, the reassuringly motherly Empress Nagako, ever learned of it.
To people of Western heritage, for most of whom self-fulfilment has become a Holy Grail, the way in which Hirohito lived his life appears hollow—a mode of existence scarcely more meaningful than that of the kimono-clad robots that broadcast recorded greetings to customers in Japanese stores and restaurants. And even among his own countrymen, there was an
increasing tendency to see him as irrelevant: in recent years, opinion polls have repeatedly shown that younger Japanese in particular profess no great interest in, or attachment to, the imperial family and its head.
But to dismiss Hirohito’s role in his nation’s life as insignificant would be a grave misjudgment. To this day, I vividly recall the vindictive delight expressed by some of my fellow officers in the U.S. occupation forces when, shortly after Japan’s capitulation, the emperor was obliged to travel like a supplicant to the headquarters of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo.
In an ostentatious show of disrespect, MacArthur received his imperial visitor in an opennecked shirt and undress uniform. What few
Americans recognized then—and few, for that matter, recognize now—is that by accepting that humiliation Hirohito delivered to his countrymen a message about accommodation to superior American power. And it was the willingness to embrace rather than resist American instruction that ultimately produced a world turned upside down—one in which, in some important respects, the Japanese pupil has come to outstrip the American master.
No less important was Hirohito’s role in helping to preserve a sense of the continuity of Japanese society. Since 1853, when American Commodore Matthew Perry’s “black ships” first sailed into Tokyo Bay to force the reluctant Asian nation out of its insularity, Japan has experienced a wrenching combination of cultural, social, political and economic upheavals unmatched in any other major country. That
relentless and radical process of adjustment to the unfamiliar could easily have destroyed any clear sense of national identity. But while they generally are unable to explain just what it consists of, most Japanese remain profoundly convinced that there is in truth a distinctive Japanese identity—and whatever it may be, Hirohito served as its embodiment. His decorous, constricted existence somehow constituted evidence that “Japaneseness” still lived, that Japan was still truly Japan and not merely an ersatz Western power.
Fanciful as the thought may be, it almost seems as though Hirohito’s symbolic function extended even to the timing of his departure from the scene. For the end of the Showa era
will, I think, be seen by future historians to have coincided with a great watershed in Japanese history. Today, for the first time since the late 1860s, Japan need no longer be driven by the compulsion to catch up with the Western world. After long and stressful striving, Japan’s role as a major influence on world affairs is established beyond challenge. And the question before the Japanese people has become not how to acquire and retain national power, but how to employ great power wisely.
For that new phase of Japanese history, perhaps a new and somewhat different national symbol is desirable. And it will be the task of Hirohito’s son and successor, Emperor Akihito, to try to fill that need. But however successful Akihito may be in doing so, it seems fair to predict that he is unlikely to play his part any better than the indefatigably dutiful man who fathered him. □
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