War Memory and Reconciliation / Japan’s Emperor System


Dr. Jennifer Lind (2010) does a fine job of laying out her theoretical framework for when and how (or even if) contrition––i.e., the “apologetic remembrance” of crimes committed in the heat of war––can foster a period of reconciliation among nations with bad blood between them. Drawing on two case studies to advance her thesis––which is that “the [preponderant] view that international reconciliation requires apologies and other contrite gestures” (Lind, 2010, p. 3) is right-minded but quite full of hyperbole in its singular faith in the moral authority of a sincere expression of regret––Dr. Lind (2010) argues for a “middle ground between whitewashing and contrition.” (p. 190)

Dr. Lind (2010) advises that, because contrition is no guarantee of foreign goodwill and in fact risks domestic backlash, countries faced with the unpleasant task of dealing with their past crimes should seek a mid-point between the two polar extremes on this spectrum of remembrance. In fact, explains Dr. Lind (2010), the recent escalation of tensions between Japan and its Asian neighbors is an immediate consequence of the rise to power of the historical revisionist Shinzo Abe who derives his overwhelming support from those Japanese who are not only beyond weary of the overwrought apologies their corrupt and intractable governments insist on serving up to the victims of Japan’s aggression in the period roughly spanning 1900 to 1945, but also seemingly oblivious to either the depth or the breadth of the horrors their forefathers inflicted upon China, Korea, and all the rest of the territories seized by Tokyo during this era.

Dr. Lind (2010) marvels at Japan’s resistance to even the slightest display of regret for its complicity in WWII, when by comparison Germany meekly submitted itself to an extensive (and, in most respects, still extant) program of self-flagellant remembrance as part of its ‘denazification’. She puzzles over Japan’s hypersensitivity to the issue of war memory in respect to its actions during the early to mid-20th century, and wonders how Germany could so easily reconcile with France after being minimally contrite, whereas Japan remains on bad terms with its Asian neighbors even after having showcased its abject remorse starting in the mid-1960s when “Tokyo pursued ‘apology diplomacy’ as it sought to renew relations with former victims [very likely to pursue its economic aspirations in Southeast Asia].” (Lind, 2010, p. 47)

Even setting aside the fact that, as Dr. Lind (2010) herself emphasizes, Japan has given its former victims good reason to doubt the sincerity of its remorse by fighting tooth and nail to deny many of the more egregious crimes attributed to its Imperial-era military forces (e.g., the massacre of the Chinese city Nanjing in 1937-38, the mass-human experimentation conducted through a covert research division called Unit 731, and the systematic abuse and sexual enslavement of a corps of so-called ‘comfort women’), the answer to this apparent conundrum is, in my humble opinion, remarkably simple. Whereas a concerted effort was made to abolish the governing or unifying institution of the Third Reich (Naziism), none was made to dissolve that of the Empire of Japan––the emperor system. In fact, an honest accounting of the American Occupation indicates that everything was done to safeguard the Imperial Family in the dubious hope that, allowed their monarchy, the Japanese would not turn from the U.S. to the Soviet Union, which was set to invade Manchukuo ere the end of the Pacific War.

Supporters of the emperor system claim that the Imperial Family, which despite dating back to the 7th century BC was for the most part politically powerless until after the start of the Meiji Restoration in 1868 when the shogun-led bakufu institution was overthrown, was and is a source of domestic stability for the Japanese. Under the emperor system, all Japanese were made to swear undying fealty to the tennō (emperor) who was cast as a divine being, a descendant of the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu. As Shinichi Kitaoka (n.d.), a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo, Japan, observes, “In drafting the Meiji Constitution, Hirobumi Ito [a four-time prime minister of Japan, including its first] thought that the only way to prevent political disputes from turning into unprincipled compromises … or limitless competition was to make the imperial household the axis of the new state.” (Conclusion section, para. 5)

While Japan’s loyalty to its Imperial Family may indeed have served as a unifying force, there is a sinister aspect to be found in its apparently unflagging commitment to the monarchy. Such was the impact of State Shintoism on Japanese society that during WWII Japanese soldiers committed unspeakable acts of barbarism with unswerving devotion to the emperor, much to the horror and disgust of their enemies.

For instance, when Emperor Hirohito’s uncle Prince Asaka ordered his war-fatigued troops to “kill all captives” in Nanjing, a directive he received straight from the emperor, the troops did not question the order. Instead, when given the scantest go-ahead to reap the spoils of their conquest, they descended upon Nanjing like a pack of starved wolves and, in a six-week-long bloodlust-fueled rage, not only killed most of the defenseless civilians within but first misused them in the most horrific ways imaginable. Contrary to the outraged denials of Japanese historians and politicians, the degree of perversion in Nanjing, famously documented in Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, was not a fabrication promulgated by Chinese anti-Japanese propaganda.

In any event, America’s decision to preserve the emperor system after occupying Japan is understandable, though perhaps in hindsight ill-conceived. Months (maybe even years) prior to Japan’s surrender in August 1945, the U.S. had already set its sights on its ideological opposite the Soviet Union. Certainly, by the early summer of 1945, the Truman administration’s anxiety about the Soviet Union’s successful conversion of post-Nazi Eastern Europe to communism––and its implications for the inevitable rise of communism in any current or future Soviet-controlled territories elsewhere around the world––meant that Washington would have made its highest priority the containment, or better yet the obstruction, of Moscow’s territorial aspirations in the Far East. U.S. diplomat George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” elaborating on the need for a strategy of containment against the spread of communism, written between 1944 and 1946, substantiates this dramatic shifting of priorities from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to the Soviet Union.

So presuming the objective was to bring Japan into the fold in order that the U.S. might maintain a foothold in the eastern hemisphere, the decision to keep the emperor system would have seemed perfectly sound to Douglas MacArthur and his ilk. After all, to all outward appearances the Japanese were unequivocally supportive of their monarchy, so much so that they would rather have died in defense of the emperor than lived to see his honor besmirched. With the image of the kamikaze firmly imprinted in their minds, American occupational leaders understandably thought it an established fact that the Japanese were imperial loyalists to a fault, and the near-universal adulation Hirohito enjoyed during his postwar tours of Japan gave credence to their arguments.

Additionally, though Japan and Russia had bad blood between them dating to the latter’s humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, which made an alliance between the two unlikely even in the event of a civil war in American-occupied Japan, the U.S. would not have wanted to risk the formation of a Soviet-Japanese partnership by alienating Japan from the West. In MacArthur’s mind, the Japanese were already resentful for their abrupt defeat, and abolishing the emperor system, by adding insult to injury, might have provoked a home-grown insurrection, one that compromised the American Occupation and prevented the U.S. from reconstituting Japan as a Cold War-era ally.

But upholding Japan’s emperor system was a calculated risk with grave, possibly irrevocable, ramifications that MacArthur, though more progressive than most other Americans in his dismissal of White America’s feelings of racial superiority over the Asiatic peoples, either failed to anticipate or chose to overlook. As Dr. Lind (2010) remarks, “Scholars have rightfully criticized the policies of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) for encouraging Japanese amnesia.” (p. 29)

On the one hand, by preserving the monarchy the U.S. avoided the appearance of interjecting its will over long-standing indigenous conventions, demonstrating a remarkable restraint much appreciated in a society that, more than most, cherishes its own traditions. Yet on the other, by so doing the U.S. assured that Emperor Hirohito and other members of the Imperial Family, including Prince Asaka, would never have to confront the accusations of war criminality leveled against them.

Hirohito’s role in the prosecution of the war is in doubt, claim those who tout the official narrative that he was merely a puppet of an overwhelming Japanese military-industrial complex. But many reputable historians believe otherwise. The Showa Emperor was no figurehead, they contend, but rather a leader with real authority who deftly maneuvered the major political players in his country into making one catastrophic decision after another, all the while maintaining a discreet distance which later gave the U.S. the latitude it needed to advance the claim that he was guiltless.

Whether or not Hirohito and his relatives were responsible for the atrocities committed by their troops in the Asia-Pacific, the fact that they were granted immunity, that they never saw the inside of a courtroom when there was just cause to indict them, was a terrible affront to the victims of Japan’s wartime conduct. Whatever MacArthur’s reasons for protecting the monarchy, his decision not to bring individual members of the Imperial Family before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal) remains to this day a source of constant, if latent, tension between Japan and its Asian neighbors. That MacArthur’s decision may not have been necessary for the advancement of U.S. interests with regards to the Soviet Union highlights the fundamentally absurd nature of Japan’s postwar quasi-segregation from mainland Asia.

To be sure, the U.S. was successful in preventing the Soviet Union from extending its sphere of influence to the Japanese archipelago. Moreover, its alliance with Japan remains firm 70 years later in spite of recent tensions stemming from Washington’s demands that Tokyo assume a more active role in the former’s military operations in the Middle East. But could any partnership between the U.S. and Japan have sustained itself had the Imperial Family been stripped of its authority and prosecuted for its actions during WWII?

Though MacArthur would have argued that it could not, the sad fact is that the five-star general’s justification for keeping the emperor system was flawed. In truth, the notion that the Japanese were utterly loyal to the Imperial Family, to the point that they would have revolted had the U.S. abolished the emperor system, cannot be entirely supported.

As Hugh H. Smythe and Masaharu Watanabe (1953) explain in an article for Pacific Affairs, Japanese public opinion polls taken shortly after the end of WWII consistently found that roughly 10 percent of respondents favored institutional change, i.e. the discontinuation of the emperor system (Smythe & Watanabe, 1953, p. 337-339). One wonders, however, if these findings faithfully represented the private sentiments of ordinary Japanese concerning their monarchy. Smythe and Watanabe (1953) further indicate that the Japanese are by nature collectivists, preferring to abide by social mores so as to avoid the appearance of individuality, a frowned-upon character trait. “Japanese are not accustomed to expressing themselves freely on any subject, let alone the Emperor institution,” write Smythe and Watanabe (1953), adding, “Individualism has little place in Japanese tradition, which subordinates the individual to the group and inhibits the expression of individual as distinct from group sentiments.” (p. 336)

But even if these survey results were accurate, Smythe and Watanabe (1953) suggest there is a high probability that Japanese sentiments concerning the Imperial Family were more mixed than they appeared at first (or even second or third) glance to the foreign observer. Smythe and Watanabe (1953) stress the importance of On, loosely translated as “a sense of personal obligation, gratitude or kindliness directed toward an individual or group.” (p. 339). They point to a lack of On toward the emperor, especially among young, educated and middle- to upper-middle-class Japanese, as symptomatic of a widespread indifference to the future of the Imperial Family. Say Smythe and Watanabe (1953): “In pre-surrender Japan, On toward the Emperor received primary emphasis in the shushin, the basic school text concerned with ethics and morals. Yet [Takeyoshi] Kawashima [a former professor at the University of Tokyo] found that seventy per cent of those whom he interviewed [after WWII] were uninformed about On toward the Emperor, although they understood On in other contexts.” (p. 339-340)

In any event, if the thought of abolishing the emperor system was disagreeable to MacArthur’s liberal sensitivities, then at the very least Hirohito should have been forced from power. His son Akihito, the future Heisei Emperor, was 11 going on 12 in 1945, and could have readily assumed the Chrysanthemum Throne. Even if Akihito was an ill-favored replacement (unlikely given that the U.S. was agreeable to retaining Hirohito, essentially a suspected war criminal, as emperor), then perhaps a suitable member of one of the four cadet branches of the Imperial Family could have been enthroned.

Bringing this full circle back to the topics of war memory and reconciliation, a country’s acknowledgement of its past crimes is by no means the sole determining factor of its ability to positively re-engage with its former victims. Though Dr. Lind (2010) notes that generally speaking “a country’s unapologetic remembrance sustains distrust among its former adversaries,” (p. 171) she allows that other considerations often take precedence. “Numerous other factors can shape perceptions of intentions and threat (regime type, territorial claims, institutional membership, and capabilities), and these need to be monitored in order to test the effects of remembrance on threat perception.” (Lind, 2010, p. 4) This may be, but in the case of Japan I would argue that the significance of remembrance cannot be overstated enough.

References:
Kitaoka, S. (n.d.). Japan’s Identity: Neither the West Nor the East. Retrieved January 23, 2015, from http://www.jfir.or.jp/e/special_study/seminar1/conver_3.htm
Lind, J. (2010). Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Smythe, H., & Watanabe, M. (1953). Japanese Popular Attitudes toward the Emperor. Pacific Affairs, 26(4), 335-344. Retrieved January 23, 2015, from JSTOR.

Copyright © 2015 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.

About Elliot Silverberg

I am an essayist, freelance journalist, poet, and screenwriter; an avid reader with a fascination for historical fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy fiction; a student of the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures; and a tennis enthusiast.

Posted on January 24, 2015, in Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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