Emperor – Another shot at whitewashing?

MILLIONS of Japanese men died in his name. Tens of thousands of women were forced into sexual slavery, arguably due to his tacit consent. But why was Japan’s wartime emperor Hirohito not prosecuted for war crimes?

Instead, not only was he absolved of culpability by the American occupation forces, he was later held up as a symbol of peace and revered as a reformist in post-war Japan.

If you are interested in the United States official narrative, British director Peter Webber’s Emperor, now showing in Singapore cinemas, should provide a satisfying account.

But those familiar with academic studies done on Hirohito’s role in Japan’s wartime aggression may not accept this version of events, like history professor Hajimu Masuda from the National University of Singapore . He says he is “terribly frustrated” with the film’s narrative because it “strengthens conventional myths rather than challenging them or introducing new perspectives”.

The conventional view of Hirohito was that he was a mere figurehead who had no control over his war-hungry Cabinet and fanatical generals.

In Webber’s film, he is portrayed as a pacifist. In one scene, a Japanese official narrated how at a meeting before the attack on Pearl Harbour, Hirohito – whom the Japanese people believe to be a descendant of the Sun Goddess – rose before his chiefs of staff and recited a poem alluding to his hope for peace. Later, the emperor made the almost unthinkable decision to surrender in order to end the suffering of his people. That decision triggered an abortive coup d'état by army fanatics that nearly cost him his life.

Today, it is widely agreed among historians that this narrative is a concoction of half-truths and lies, whipped up to serve America’s political interests.

In the decade following Hirohito’s death in 1989, after a 63-year reign on the Chrysanthemum throne, scores of Japanese scholars defied taboo to probe extensively into the emperor’s culpability. American academics John Dower and Herbert Bix published two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies, Embrace Defeat (1999) and Hirohito: The Making of Modern Japan (2000), which shocked the English-speaking world, long used to the US narrative as depicted in Emperor.

Their studies show that Hirohito’s exoneration was in fact painstakingly engineered by the US State Department from as early as 1942 to 1943. The US needed Hirohito as a comforting force in a terribly wounded Japan as it sought to transform the country into a constitutional democracy and, subsequently, an important ally in North-east Asia.

General Douglas MacArthur, who led the occupation troops, set about rescuing the emperor with a whitewash campaign that “knew no bounds”, and went as far as to ensure that all Japanese ministers and generals to be tried would “coordinate their stories” so as to protect Hirohito even as they themselves faced death for executing his orders, Dr Dower said in his book.

In Dr Bix’s assessment, Hirohito was clearly an “interventionist” leader “caught up in the fever of territorial expansion”. He showed a “strong streak of opportunism”; his actions spoke of “moral cowardice”. He aligned himself with the ultra-nationalists during the war but easily switched allegiance when the Americans took over.

Japanese academics such as history professor Kenichi Matsumoto do not agree with these assertions.

Prof Matsumoto, who wrote a critique of Dr Bix’s biography, said the American relied too much on source materials critical of the imperial institution. The book’s acknowledgment list is “practically a who’s who of historians hostile to the emperor”, he added.

He also argued that while Hirohito “the emperor” showed great enthusiasm for Japan’s military successes – something he ought to do to keep morale high – Hirohito “the individual” in fact showed mixed feelings about Japan’s war efforts and the resulting loss of lives.

To NUS’ Prof Masuda, the American whitewash campaign did lasting damage to Japan, especially to the psyche of ordinary Japanese.

The US narrative, he says, “deprived ordinary Japanese of an important opportunity to reflect upon Japan’s war responsibilities”. And a film like Emperor, which offers the conventional perspective, serves only to encourage the Japanese to continue seeing themselves as “victims of the war”.

Nearly a quarter of a century after Hirohito’s death, his culpability continues to be the subject of contentious debate.

cpohkwan@sph.com.sg