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Hirohito & His Legacy

Hirohito & His Legacy

“He is a little man, about five feet two inches in height, in a badly cut gray striped suit, with trousers a couple of inches too short. He has a pronounced facial tic and his right shoulder twitches constantly. When he walks, he throws his right leg a little sideways as if he has no control over it. He was obviously excited and ill at ease, and uncertain of what to do with his arms and hands.”

  –journalist Mark Gayn describing Emperor Hirohito on one of his postwar goodwill tours, March 26th, 1946.

The American novelist, William Faulkner, famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” His subject matter was black-white race relations and the legacy of slavery in the American South, but his words serve the Japanese experiment in twentieth century imperialism, the scars of its militarism yet unhealed, and the descendants of the rulers and the oppressed nursing respective grievances. World War II ended nearly seventy years ago, the blood spilled long since washed away, but a new nationalism in East Asia is drawing up a stale and divisive rhetoric, taking arrogant postures, and pretending history is malleable and can be recast according to one’s manufactured political persuasions.

Bix argues it was Hirohito's self-centered maneuvers to preserve his throne and avoid just punishment that prolonged the war unnecessarily long after Japan's cause was lost Click To Tweet

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan - Herbert BixThe American historian, Herbert Bix’s biography of Japan’s most notorious emperor, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (Harper Collins, 2000), is an 800-page tome indicting Hirohito in no uncertain terms for the war crimes for which he was never prosecuted. Like an attorney who will leave no doubt in the reader’s mind, Bix carefully assembles a narrative, beginning with Hirohito’s grandfather, Meiji, and how his constitution allocated tremendous authority to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Nearly a hundred pages of the book are citations of evidence reflecting Japanese militarism and a racist philosophy propagated by Japanese intellectuals and historians that led to the colonization of Manchuria, sexual bondage in the Korean peninsula, and an irrational war of conquest that nearly caused Japan’s total obliteration. Every step of the way, Hirohito authorized or failed to punish the inhumane crimes of his military establishment. Moreover, Bix argues it was Hirohito’s self-centered maneuvers to preserve his throne and avoid just punishment that prolonged the war unnecessarily long after Japan’s cause was lost, and that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians is the emperor’s burden, as much as it is that of the Americans who authorized the atomic apocalypses.

Modern Japanese militarism has its origins when policy leaders began debating the kokutai, an archaic rarely-used concept nowadays. Kokutai are the best possible principles of Japanese state and society. Alas, it was inevitable that conservative ideologues would win the interpretation to ensure a status quo of the nearly feudal hierarchy that defined the structure of Japanese society for most of its history. Kokutai was then coupled with kodo, the “imperial way,” a political theology that declared the divine right of the emperor, who embodied moral goodness. The court, the military, and conservative political operatives could then utilize their reactionary agenda via imperial decree, as the emperor could make palatable even the most ruthless policies.

Hirohito & His Legacy

Hirohito was an amateur marine biologist. Small in stature, shy, and awkward, he was not a strongman. His personality was easily overshadowed by his arrogant generals and court advisers. Nevertheless, he was intelligent, detail-oriented and had been inculcated by court tutors to take divine right seriously, and that it was his responsibility to take part in political affairs, legitimizing Japanese militarism to the poor farmer sons who would have to leave their homeland and their families for dubious acts of violence in China, Korea, and Taiwan in service of the Emperor.

Because of WWII’s total destruction, it’s easy to overlook the trauma of the first world war. After Versailles, the US and Britain, via the League of Nations, put together a number of international treaties outlawing wars of aggression, most famously the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928. Japanese leaders interpreted that as an Anglo-American initiative to consolidate their vast colonial holdings (a fair argument– they also called Europe on its hypocrisy, declaring peace overtures while resorting to violence to keep its multitudes in Africa and Asia in line). The Japanese imperialist philosophy, Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, wanted to rid Asia of European colonialists (as well as their pernicious cultural influence). The war in Asia– beginning in China, and spreading to Britain’s and France’s holdings in Southeast Asia, as well as the United States’ colony in the Philippines– was justified as Asia for Asians, though the new hierarchy would indubitably place Japan at the top.

Every step of the way, Hirohito rubber-stamped his generals’ advances. As emperor he could have cautioned or refuted militarism, and initially he sometimes did feel outrage at aggression, but overwhelmed by other, stronger personalities, he admitted “it can’t be helped,” whether it was the political assassinations, repression of radicals, the Nanking Massacre, Pearl Harbor, or allied bombing of Japanese civilians, Hirohito decided to continue an unwinnable war waged with morally dubious values.

There is no question that Hirohito had absolute power. There is also no doubt that by summer of 1944, Japan would lose the war. Their ally, Nazi Germany, had been invaded at Normandy, and it was certain that the Soviets would turn their attention to Japan once Berlin fell. Moreover, after a spectacular blitzkrieg in late 1941, early 1942, Japan lost every single battle against the United States beginning with Midway, sustaining heavy casualties (to surrender to the enemy was seen as an act of ultimate shame– better to die for the emperor). The US had closed Japanese sea lanes, in the process removing access to vital natural resources, as they slowly moved the Pacific war towards the home islands. In fact, the army and navy were in such dire shape, the only major losses the Americans were incurring by 1945 were kamikaze attacks and suicide charges. Thus, thousands of young men were being asked to die needlessly in the emperor’s name. Why did Hirohito permit this? Why didn’t he stop the war after Tokyo was firebombed on the night of March 9th, 1945 (in which 100,000 civilians were killed)? Instead they passed out bamboo spears to women, children, and old men in the event of an amphibious American invasion. They sent thousands of balloons charged with explosive across the Pacific (almost none of them reaching the U.S. and none detonating over population centers) Meanwhile, dozens of Japanese urban industrialized areas would be bombed in the five months between Tokyo’s firestorming and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why did Hirohito persist, causing so much unnecessary death?

Hirohito would reign for another 44 years, in what would be one of the greatest economic booms of any society on earth, creating a middle class, a strong safety net, and progressive values, where once there had been almost none. Click To Tweet
The famous photograph of MacArthur and Hirohito

The famous photograph of MacArthur and Hirohito

Self-preservation, of course. The Americans wanted unconditional surrender, like they’d had with Germany. The atomic bombs and the Soviet declaration of war (happening the same week, a very bad one for Japan) spelled the futility in no uncertain terms. On August 15th, 1945, Hirohito gave his famous radio address announcing Japan’s surrender. But the emperor needn’t have worried. Though he had to give up his divinity status, US leadership (under the guidance of General Douglas MacArthur) was more concerned with total destabilization brought on by his abdication (they were quite concerned about communism and radicalism). During the Tokyo Trials, Hirohito was not brought up as a war criminal and the infamous Hideki Tojo, became the fall guy, the villain, taking the rap for the emperor (supposedly the emperor wept the morning Tojo was executed). Hirohito received all the credit for surrendering and none of the blame for the catastrophe. He kept his throne, collaborated with the Americans for the reconstruction of Japan, and approved of the famous peace constitution written by the Americans “forever” renouncing war. Hirohito would reign for another 44 years, in what would be one of the greatest economic booms of any society on earth, creating a middle class, a strong safety net, and progressive values, where once there had been almost none.

Bix has presented irrefutable evidence from various court sources and testimony regarding Hirohito’s war guilt. American leadership made a calculated choice not to prosecute him for these crimes. Bix’s immense and laboriously composed book is not necessarily a judgment on either the emperor nor Truman and MacArthur. It is not saying that Hirohito was a “bad” man. History is too complex for such trite conclusions. But it is conclusive that the emperor was complicit in giving his imperial seal on some of the worst excesses of Japanese war crimes. And moreover, his failure to act decisively in the certainty of defeat inexorably led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. This is not up for debate or revision. This is what happened. But how to imagine a Japan had Hirohito been tried and punished like his beloved general and prime minister, Tojo, is one of those pathways history turned away from.

So we return to Faulkner and the presence of the past, our contemporary time and a new nationalism ascendant in Japan’s far right government. The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is playing a risky game of brinksmanship with South Korea and especially China, quarreling territorially over a few rocks near Taiwan and revising history, absolving Japan of its criminal past. It is terrifying to consider how clumsy Abe is diplomatically, moreover, how poorly he is mistaking his agenda as that of a populist’s. Japan’s far-right is a vocal community, but they are a distinct minority, and the vast population of Japan does not seem very politically inclined, and would certainly be outraged by any sacrifice induced by (yet another unwinnable) war with China. Perhaps he is thinking his security treaty with the United States means U.S. armed forces would do his dirty work? I don’t think any US president would commit American boys to China for a few uninhabitable rocks and Japan’s reactionary misguided historical viewpoint. And certainly, almost no Japanese today will be willing to die for their emperor. That ideological cult is in the dustbin of history. He is no longer a god, he is just a man, a flawed one, like all of us.

Absurd Figure Yukio Mishima - HESO Magazine

Send In The Clowns – Absurdity and the Japanese Radical – Part 2

Absurd Figure Yukio Mishima - HESO Magazine

Yukio Mishima: Absurd Figure or Revolutionary Writer?


Japanese radicalism and the absurd was certainly not only the preserve of the Left. Yukio Mishima was the most famous living Japanese writer in the Fifties and Sixties, even better known than the older Yasunari Kawabata, who ultimately nipped him to the coveted Nobel Prize. But Mishima wore many masks. He was a novelist, a playwright, an actor, a dandy, a narcissist, a homosexual. And also an ultranationalist hated both by the student radicals of the time, as well as the more straightforward rightists, whose own simplistic branch of patriotism did not match with Mishima’s esoteric ideals. Mishima, believing that a left-wing revolution was imminent in the chaos of the anti-war riots and campus struggles, started a private army with the help of his elite network. While radicals were turning Shinjuku and Haneda into battlefields of Molotov cocktails, Mishima and his Tatenokai group were training in the countryside for an event that Mishima planned meticulously but kept secret from everyone.

In November 1970 Mishima went to the Ichigaya headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense Force with four trusted members of the Tatenokai, including the much younger Masakatsu Morita. Morita and Mishima were enamored with each other, though it remains to be proved that they were actual lovers. The plan was to initiate a coup, to incite the SDF to rise up and restore the Emperor to full power. Needless to say, this was an utterly preposterous idea and Mishima must certainly have known it. It was not an attempt at revolution so much as an empty sign, a ritualistic gesture expressing Mishima’s warped ideals of beauty, heroism and sincerity. At first everything went like clockwork. They took a senior commander hostage in his office, blocked the door and demanded the soldiers gather in the courtyard below. Then Mishima stepped out onto the balcony to give what was expected to be a remarkable, valedictory exhortation.

No one was listening. The soldiers jeered. A police helicopter hovered overhead. His passionate and long-prepared speech was drowned out. Cutting it short, he then stepped back inside to cut himself open. Naturally, seppuku was the perfect means for Mishima to complete his gesture and naturally, the kaishaku – the beheading that is meant to end the suffering of the seppuku as quickly as possible — was to be performed by Morita. Again, they had prepared rigorously, even blocking their colons with cotton in case their bowels evacuated during the process. But the best laid plans of Mishima and Morita went very much awry. The former conducted himself splendidly, plunging the blade deep into his side. However, the pain was too immense and he could not write the customary calligraphy as he’d hoped. Mishima writhed in torment as Morita raised his sword to terminate the would-be revolutionary’s life. But he was no swordsman. Depending on the account he took at least two or three strokes yet Mishima’s head was obstinately still very much attached to his neck. It was left to another of the gang to fully decapitate Mishima and then also just as swiftly dispatch Morita, who was said to have barely penetrated his body when he performed his own “seppuku”.

Many of the activities of right-wing and ultranationalist activities are performative – done to be seen and heard as much as with expectation of real political influence – and the charging, blaring caravans of their black trucks that regularly race through Tokyo are still chilling, even if the locals are not paying attention. Occasionally they commit shocking acts of violence. In 1960, Inejirō Asanuma, chairman of the Japan Socialist Party, was stabbed and killed live on television by a teenage zealot while he was giving a speech. And in 1990, Hitoshi Motoshima, then Mayor of Nagasaki, was shot in the back for daring to suggest that Emperor Hirohito bore some responsibility for the atomic bombings. Violent confrontations and attacks still happen today.

Tokyo Emmanuelle - HESO Magazine

Did Maeno get his Kamikaze idea from Tokyo Emmanuelle, in which he makes love to the lead actress while flying a plane?

But it is the absurd that seems to capture the imagination, to loiter in the memory. Yoshio Kodama, the shadowy figure from the wartime generation of old-school rightists who moved easily between the ranks of the Yakuza and the ultra-nationalist sphere, was implicated in the Lockheed scandal in the Seventies. The American aircraft manufacturer had paid out large “consultancy” fees to secure contracts and Kodama was hired to help put pressure on All Nippon Airways to accept the deal with them. It was later commonly believed that the Prime Minister at the time, Kakuei Tanaka, also benefited from bribes. But Kodama was not just corrupt; he was also a tax-dodger and this was what infuriated one particular nationalist, a minor porn actor called Mitsuyasu Maeno.

Maeno hired a plane from an airport just outside Tokyo. Perhaps the rental staff should have been worried when he arrived in the uniform of a kamikaze pilot. Taking off he soon enough turned the plane towards his destination – Kodama’s house in Setagaya. In what is surely the most eccentric assassination attempt of a public personality in Japanese history, Maeno flew the plane suicidally straight into Kodama’s home with commendable accuracy. Unfortunately for the porn star, though, the elderly Kodama emerged miraculously unscathed.


In the same way that, in contrast to European courts, the Japanese Shogunate and Imperial palace was devoid of jesters, contemporary Japanese television or mainstream comedy lacks any real alternative performers or “edgy” talent. But is that role being filled by high-profile pranksters like the art unit Chim Pom?

From the schoolboy “humour” of their name – a penile reference, just in case you missed it – to the provocative stunts like drawing comic book explosions in the skies of Hiroshima, they have offended and amused in at least equal measure. Their “dangerous” videos made in the Fukushima exclusion zone immediately after the nuclear disaster and their addition to Taro Okamoto’s The Myth of Tomorrow mural generated a vast amount of hype. There are problems here. Chim Pom are a commercial enterprise, a mini factory of “controversy” issuing art events, fashion collaborations, books and merchandise. Their work has been claimed to be anti-art world, anti-consumerist, to be gleefully subversive – but all I see are formats that work within or even prop up the status quo. Their stunts are clearly publicity campaigns, regardless of whether you feel their work has artistic merit (the jury is decidedly out on that). The press coverage of their Fukushima exhibition translated into a major show at Parco and their bandwagon is not slowing down any time soon. Being tongue-in-cheek but actually fully located in the mainstream is perfectly acceptable as well, but no one can claim you are then the Fool to the zeitgeist’s Lear.


It would be fatuous, not to mention tasteless, to try to use a neat trope to tie up all the gaudy panoply of postwar Japanese extremism. There is nothing absurd or ironic in the death of Michiko Kamba, crushed by police during the 1960 Anpo protests, or that of Hiroaki Yamazaki, like Kamba a student and still a teenager, who was killed by a vehicle – which may or may not have been driven by fellow protestors or police – at tumultuous protests at Haneda Airport in 1967. In 1972, the Asama-Sansō incident shocked the nation when New Left revolutionary terrorists massacred each other in the mountains before taking a hostage in a lodge and killing two police officers in the resulting siege. The event remains chilling today, even in these hardened post-9/11 times.

Jean Baudrillard was similarly criticized for his lack of humanity, for just being too pat with his theorizing, when he applied a post-modernist reading to the first Gulf War. People were in fact dying while he claimed the war was not real; it was hyper-real, a war for television, for image, like a simulacrum of war (or a war-game). It “did not take place” in the words of his book title. But only the bourgeois armchair intellectual has the daring and arrogance to throw out such pithy truisms.

While much of the Japanese right-wing extremists are more ridiculous than absurd, you mock them at your peril, as many have found out. Perhaps then it is that the extremism is more shocking precisely for its weirdness. Fanaticism is impenetrable and frequently risible, but its total obliviousness to how it appears to outsiders can make the violent actions then even more horrific. Shōkō Asahara, levitator, visionary and leader of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyō, between plotting the murder of 13 people with sarin gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995, also found time to record songs and appear in a very jolly promotional anime. One of the former is a kind of peculiar “counting song” including the line “I did not do it”, which is really the most untruthful of lyrics when you consider what happened.

A Levitating Asahara Shoko? - HESO Magazine

A Levitating Asahara Shoko?

During much of 2012 the Prime Minister had thousands of demonstrators outside his doorstep every week. The July 29th rally outside quondam PM Noda’s home attracted perhaps as many as 150,000 protestors (the police estimate was much more conservative 17,000). Meanwhile somewhere between 170,000 (organizer numbers) and 75,000 (police figures) attended a July rally in Yoyogi Park: labour unions, veteran campaigns and plenty of ordinary shimin (citizens) too.

We have yet to see any absurdity in the newly ignited civic activism Japan is experiencing post-Fukushima – but then, we also have yet to witness any radicalism. So far the protest movement seems very motley, a ragbag army of tweeting hipsters, office workers, ex-student activists, and the elderly. The dignified aspects of the movement – candlelit vigils outside the Diet and the PM’s residence – contrast with loud concerts and rallies angrily channelling past the TEPCO headquarters. In their apparent inclusive ambit of the social spectrum it is hard not to join the dots to the Anpo protests of 1960, though, thanks perhaps in part to social media, unlike Anpo, the new anti-nuclear power activists are not reliant on small group organizations to mobilize and organize them. People are shocked and angry at how they were treated as a nation, yet they are perhaps guilty of only earnestness, rather than violence, whereas the 1968 movement had both.

The tragedy now would be if the protests did not metamorphose from just an anti-nuclear power movement into being also a pro-renewable energy campaign. The real absurdity, though, lies in the Japanese government’s continuing efforts to ignore them and to squander this unique opportunity to create a green and better Japan. The announcement recently of the construction of the world’s largest offshore wind farm in Fukushima is a step very much in the right direction.

Farce, though, is a refrain that this writer at least welcomes. To single it out amongst a pantheon of incidents is not a form of mocking. The absurd is vital to a society, whether in peacetime or the most stringent of crises. The absurd brings us perspective on an uncanny platter. It reminds us how close we can get to revolution but yet how far away we always seem to remain.

In the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim:

And where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.


Part 1 of Absurdity and the Japanese Radical can be read here. William Andrews, a writer and translator based in Tokyo, is currently working on a book about postwar Japanese radicalism and counterculture.

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