The Emperor and the truth

Opinions Trends & Culture - October 6th, 2000
Robert J. Collins

by Robert J. Collins

At one end of the perception continuum is the com­plete cynic. Born that way, complete cynics as infants recognize the pacifier for what it is—a ploy the big people use to keep them quiet—so they throw it across the room and dump food on the dog’s head. (The food isn’t really good; it’s just good for you. Plop.)

As complete cynics mature they become the first to recognize the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny scams. They quickly spot that study halls aren’t for study­ing—they’re for giving teachers a rest. When the used car salesman says, “like new,” the complete cynic knows “it didn’t explode when it went over the cliff.”

Armstrong’s walk on the moon? Staged in Holly­wood. The Warren Report? A comic novel. Politicians? Give me a break.

A complete cynic develops insight that cuts through sham and goes directly to the heart of the matter. Cynics make great columnists.

At the other end of the perception continuum is the naive innocent. “There could be a Santa Claus,” he tells his fellow boy scouts on a camping trip. An inno­cent automatically and without reservation accepts what elders and people in authority say—all of whom are without evil bones in their bodies and are in every way good and decent.

A naive innocent develops insight into the “what ifs” and “might be’s” in life. Innocents are better poets than columnists.

No souls at either extreme of the continuum reach adulthood—somewhere along the line they’re knocked off in identical fashion, but for completely opposite reasons. What remains are the rest of us bunched closer to the center but still, thank goodness, with tendencies either way.

All of which brings me (and about time!) to the subject of this column—the (former) Emp. (Or Hirohito, or The Man Whose Reign Is Known as Showa, or Tenno Heika, or Father of The Current Crowd, or The Guy On The Big Mat During The War—it’s difficult knowing what to call Him in Japan.)

A brilliant book by Herbert P. Bix (Hirohito and the  Making  of  Modern Japan,  New  York: HarperCollins, 800 pp) has just been published. This is not a review of that book because others have al­ready done excellent work in that regard. Besides, the book itself should be bought and read by those of us with an interest in this country instead of relying on reviews.

The point of this is the question of where have I been, or what was I thinking after all my years of being familiar with Things Japanese? Am I closer to the naive innocent end of the continuum than I thought?

Bix reveals in the book his findings after a mas­sive research project, which included Japanese gov­ernment source documents heretofore hidden away and certainly unpublished. Hirohito (to use the name in the book’s title) was far from the “ceremonies only” figurehead of Japan—instead he was at the very center of planning sessions creating strategies for not only the conquest of other Asian lands, but also the attack and conduct of the war with the United States and Allies.

Again I suggest that the book be read rather than relying on third-party commentators, but rest assured very clear evidence exists that shows Hirohito making daily decisions on such things as the timing of mili­tary campaigns, complete with-the intervention of on­going field operations. Informed of atrocities commit­ted by the military, Hirohito did nothing to punish the offenders—or even slow them down.

If Bix’s facts are correct, and I see no reason for them not being correct, then my view of the loopy little man in round glasses who looked so ridiculous standing next to General MacArthur in that famous photograph has been way off.

What about the botanical specimens he studied while traipsing around the Imperial grounds in a suit, tie and rubber boots? And the fish he bred (or, more correctly, caused to be bred)? What about the trips to watch sumo? Could a man who reportedly preferred bacon and eggs for breakfast over cold fish and a pot of natto be all that bad?

I even met him once. He gave me a packet of ciga­rettes with the Imperial Seal (a chrysanthemum) on each and every one of them. He said he “felt bad” about the war. I believed him. Nice old guy.

Slowly the scenario had developed in my mind that The Emp was really just a victim of circumstance and couldn’t control the Japanese army even if he wanted to. To keep his job (or his “godhood” or what­ever it was) he had to put up with all that nasty aggression promulgated by the farmers from Tochigi and Kumamoto suddenly finding themselves in the military.

And now Bix’s book hits the stands. My position on the perception continuum becomes glaringly obvi­ous. (The Santa Claus thing did stay with me a long time, however.) Remember, the naive innocent starts out automatically and without reservations accepting what people in authority say without the cynic’s pri­meval urge to question, question and question.

You see the problem? I may have been off the mark viewing The Emp all these years as a harmless dweeb, but I was the guy who dumped food on the dog’s head. My natural inclination is to not accept without reservations everything Bix says. Facts? Yes. Interpretations? I’ll have to think about it.