1 OCTOBER 1988, Page 28


Ian Buruma on the

transformation of a military god into a democratic gentleman

ONCE again the Sun has lived up to its reputation as a journal of bad taste: 'There are two reasons for sadness as Emperor Hirohito lies on his deathbed,' we were informed. 'The first is that he lived as long as he did. The second is that he died unpunished for some of the foulest crimes of this violent century.'

Who was the paper trying to please? Former inmates of Japanese camps, perhaps, who might enjoy any insult thrown at the 'Japs'? Surely most would have too much dignity. My guess is that such rhetoric is aimed at ignorant young yobs, the kind that fancy having Union Jacks tattooed on their foreheads. Little do they know that their exact Japanese coun- terparts were the ignorant yobs that ran amok in China in 1937.

But bad journalistic taste should not obscure some legitimate questions. It is true that Japanese troops did commit some of the foulest crimes and they did so in the emperor's name (never, by the way, in his personal name; only foreigners ever refer to Hirohito; to the Japanese. the emperor is always the Emperor). This being so, should the man now fighting for his life have been held responsible? Should he have, been prosecuted at the Tokyo war crimes trial that went on from 1946 until 1948? And if he was not to blame personal- ly, to what extent was the imperial institu- tion itself the cause of enormous suffering? Should it have been abolished or was it possible, as General MacArthur thought, to change its nature and turn it into safer channels?

Before the start of the Tokyo trial, the British, as well as the Soviets and the Chinese, had put the emperor at the top of their lists of war criminals. But MacAr- thur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, or SCAP, decided that prosecuting the emperor would be a bad move; it was easier to control a docile and fatalistic Japanese population than one provoked into fanatical resistance.

Two years after the trial, Joseph B. Keenan, the chief prosecutor. was asked on an American news programme whether the emperor should have been tried. He thought not, because it was clear from the evidence at the trial that the emperor had not wanted a war. However, 'Strictly legal- ly, Emperor Hirohito could have been tried and convicted, because under the Constitution of Japan he did have the power to make war and stop it. We could have convicted him.'

If the trial had more to do with legal justice than political symbolism and plain showbiz, then, clearly, either the emperor should have been tried, or the men who acted in his name should have been acquit- ted. No matter that the emperor had been a nice, peace-loving man who was manipu- lated by scoundrels and toadies into declar- ing war. He had still been formally re- sponsible. But political expediency deman- ded that the emperor be deemed an innocent gentleman (the first gentleman of Japan, SCAP called him), powerless to affect his own or anybody else's fate. There was an embarrassing moment during the trial when Tojo Hideki, one of the prime movers behind the Japanese war, announced that no Japanese ever opposed the imperial will. Keenan quickly acted to get Tojo to change his testimony, to which, when the potential embarrassment to his sovereign was pointed out to him, he speedily agreed. The Tokyo trial, then, was a kind of show trial, and show trials, however good the intentions, are bad for the cause of legal justice.

It was a common fallacy at the time (and is even today, witness the editor of the Sun) to approach Japan as if it had been just like Nazi Germany. Tojo, many thought, was just another demonic dictator like Hitler; and his ministers and generals were oriental Gorings, Himmlers and Jodls. And the emperor, the symbol to which countless emaciated prisoners had had to bow each day, must have been the most evil figure of all. It must have been hard to imagine that the men on trial in Tokyo were in some ways the opposite of their German counterparts. They were not swaggering men in riding boots, relishing their absolute power, but cowering figures (except Tojo, who preserved a remarkable dignity) pushing responsibility on to others, anybody but themselves. Accord- ing to their testimonies, they were all peaceful men, whose decisions had been forced on them, by subordinates, by Amer- ica, by circumstances, by fate. Their prob- letri, very often, was not that they had been dictators, but that they had done nothing. They looked the other way and pleaded force majeure, while fanatics and yobs were unleashing war on the world.

Maruyama Masao, the most important Japanese political scientist since the war, described 'Japanese fascism' as a massive 'system of irresponsibilities'. The system was based on three kinds of political personality: the Portable Shrine, the Offi- cial, and the Outlaw. 'The Shrine repre- sents authority; the Official, power; the Outlaw, violence. From the point of view of their position in the national hierarchy and of their legal power, the Shrine ranks highest and the Outlaw lowest. The sys- tem, however, is so constituted that move- ment starts from the Outlaw and gradually works upwards. The Shrine is often a mere robot who affects other people by "doing nothing".'

The. Outlaws, in the 1930s and early 1940s, were the military adventurers and other assorted rogues running around Manchuria, China and to a lessei extent Tokyo; the Officials were the titled cow- ards in the government, some of whom were decent men, some of whom certainly were not; the most sacred Portable Shrine, carried around on a host of irresponsible shoulders, was the allegedly nice and peace-loving emperor. He was the great figurehead, the mirror in the inner sanctum of the shrine, reflecting the glory of his ancestors. But above all, he faithfully reflected the image required from him by the powers that be: a golfing companion of the Prince of Wales today, a military god in uniform tomorrow, and a democratic gent- leman the day after.

To a lesser or greater extent, it had always been so. Despite brief periods during which the emperor wielded con- siderable power, Japanese emperors were usually cast in the role of Portable Shrines, hoisted by clan chieftains or military lead- ers. Their traditional authority, expressed in Shinto rites, gave legitimacy to the men who really ruled. Whenever the emperors rebelled against their real masters, they were the Portable Shrines of rival leaders. In the 14th century there were even two emperors, two Portable Shrines in rival courts. Eventually, after more than 50 years of bloody civil war, the southern Emperor won and became the Portable Shrine of a shogun called Yoshimitsu. Modern Japan is usually dated from the mid-19th century when a group of samurai from southern clans hoisted the emperor in Kyoto aloft to challenge the government of the Tokugawa shoguns and stage the Meiji Restoration. The Meiji emperor was Hiro- hito's grandfather and much of the mythol- ogy of modern Japanese emperor-worship, Which led to so much grief, began with him.

The Meiji emperor was a strange bundle of contradictions: a modern monarch mod- elled after European kings, handing down a brand-new constitution to his govern- ment. But he was also a divine descendant of the Sun Goddess, evidence of the ancestral ethnicity of the Japanese race. Like the kings of Thailand, though perhaps much less powerful personally than they were, he was an archaic symbol used to justify revolutionary change. Civilisation and enlightenment was the great Meiji slogan. And, as Carol Gluck observed in her marvellous study of Meiji, Japan's Modern Myths, the two symbols of Meiji civilisation in the popular iconography were the monarch and the locomotive.

The emperor, while offering, as it were, the blessing of his sacred ancestors to such newfangled things as factories, European legal codes, railway lines and mechanised armies, represented, albeit often spurious- 1Y, continuity. Part of his duties was to bless that most glorious and patriotic en- deavour, war.

Foreign wars, against China, then Rus- sia, then China again, then most of the world, were less part of a grand design to conquer the world than of a political strategy to control people at home, for in the Meiji period, along with crinolines and sYmphony orchestras, modern political ideas had arrived. People agitated for political rights, for party politics, for better working conditions, and so forth. This was not what the stern samurai oligarchs had in mind at all and gradually such unhealthy tendencies were repressed by a combina- tion of force and propaganda: politics were divisive, against the traditional harmony of Japanese culture and thus unsuitable. What was needed instead of messy and greedy politics was patriotism, harmony, as the slogan had it: 'A hundred million people, one heart.' And instead of letting selfish politicians run the country, absolute obedience should be pledged to the divine father of the great national family, the emperor himself.

The emperor, though sovereign, was above politics, as were the military. This was also true of the Meiji emperor's grandson, the emperor of the Showa period. And so when politics withered completely in the 1930s, all that was left was absolute obedience to the imperial will and by extension to those men least tainted by politics and closest to the imperial will, namely the military. The imperial will, as defined by military leaders, became a powerful tool for foreign expansion and domestic oppression.

The cult of the emperor, though sur- rounded by mumbo-jumbo borrowed from ancient texts, was in fact not at all ancient. It was part of the modern cult of nation- hood. The myths of divine ancestry, of the Japanese super race, and of the divine right to dominate the lesser breeds were con- cocted partly from nativist traditions, but mostly from European theories: Darwin, Hegel, Herder, Bismarck. Western wine was put in Japanese bottles and called ancient. These were the ideas, in bottled form, of course, that the young Hirohito imbibed from his tutors, the most influen- tial of whom was General Nogi, who committed suicide with his wife to accom- pany the Meiji emperor to the next world.

And it was these myths that the Amer- icans in their sometimes clumsy manner tried to destroy after the war. The emperor had to disclaim his divinity. The people had to be told they were not a master race. MacArthur tried to accomplish this while retaining the emperor himself, for, like the shoguns before him, he needed, or thought he needed, a Portable Shrine too. In the short term, as mentioned already, this made the Tokyo trial a highly dubious exercise, but it was not bad politics. The emperor, who to his credit behaved with dignified humility, did serve as a kind of anchor to his demoralised countrymen, which is probably why his deathbed strug- gle has elicited such a show of affection. But in the longer term, it might not have been such a good idea.

Tinkering with the mythology while re- .The Walrus originally thought he was HIV positive.'

taining the object of the cult was not terribly convincing, particularly as the tink- ering was done by foreigners. For this soon turned the efforts of romantic jingoists, many of them frustrated professors of European languages, into a kind of anti- Western revanchism. Such intellectuals as the French literature professor Muramatsu Takeshi, the modern composer Mayuzumi Toshiro, the English literature professor Eto Jun, and many more of the same kind, long to restore the emperor to his former position as a Shintoist priest-king. These ideologues have some powerful and surpri- singly young allies in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which tends to equate one-party rule with social harmony.

The highly polished emperor-worshipper Kase Hideaki (educated at Columbia and Yale) argues this case in his book The Spiritual Emperor. He sees the wartime emperor as an aberration, a kind of Khomeini. And he admits that the Shinto cult of which the emperor, in Kase's opinion, should be the supreme symbol, is based on blood and race, and thus, in Kase's words, 'makes it hard for Japanese to see foreigners as human beings like themselves'. Yet he believes that the emperor, as 'tribal chief and 'high priest', is as essential to the survival of Japan as water and fire.

There is of course no guarantee that these ideas would not have gained currency had MacArthur made the emperor abdi- cate or even abolished the institution itself. Only the Japanese themselves can get rid of their noxious myths. It is interesting that one of the most eloquent arguments for imperial abdication came from a right-wing nationalist politician and writer called Ishi- hara Shintaro. In the early 1970s he wrote that the emperor should have stepped down voluntarily when the new constitu- tion was promulgated, to make way for his son. For then, he says, 'we might have entered the postwar period with a feeling of solidarity at the prospect of the birth and growth of a new Japanese society, and the emperor system would be more solidly implanted in the popular consciousness than it is today. Now that is impossible, for the emperor's war responsibility was never acknowledged by abdicating.'

He was too pessimistic. The scenes at the imperial palace during the last few weeks have shown that the emperor system, for better or worse, is still quite firmly im- planted in the popular consciousness. This is largely due to the impeccable behaviour of the emperor himself. If anything, he has played his last role, as the nice and peaceful emperor in a more liberal Japan, more convincingly than his previous one as a military man. He never looked much good in a uniform. And so his extraordin- ary reign ends with some hope. Whatever he did or did not do in the past, and however one deplores the dangerous Out- laws and Officials who carried him along, the Showa emperor has redeemed himself.