LBST 2102

History 2284







Steve Edwards

Book Review III

Atomic Bomb

In the Realm of a Dying Emperor

By Norma Field


In the Realm of a Dying Emperor by Norma Field is a thought provoking assessment of a post war Japan that is struggling with its historic past at the end of the twentieth century. Realm is a thought provoking monograph covering the January 7, 1989 death of Emperor Hirohito. Field raises dark questions about Japan's war guilt and its disillusioned thoughts of its historical memory in the context of its prosperity today. As the child of a Japanese woman and an American soldier, Field tells a story of postwar Japan inextricably linked to her own. Field grew up in Tokyo, in her grandmother's house only to leave after high school to join her father in the United States. In August of 1988, Field returned to Tokyo for a yearlong stay. It was here that she observed a driven, repressive “democracy” held in a deathwatch for its emperor. Field sees this “frail embodiment of the war,” whose funeral becomes a “celebration of the successes of Japanese capitalism.” as  symbols of Japan's “national amnesia.” The economic miracle has come at great cost: “In the society the Japanese are growing into, the most significant and only reliable freedom is the freedom to buy ever more refined commodities.” Field structures her narrative around three stories, an Okinawa supermarket owner who protested resurgent nationalism by burning a Japanese flag just prior to a national athletic competition, a woman who has rejected the burial by the state of her husband having been a member of the Self-Defense Force, and mayor of Nagasaki City who has states the Emperor must bare responsibility for the World War Two and the dropping of the atomic bomb on his city, as well as a report on the very peculiar atmosphere prevailing in Japan on the death of the Hirohito. Field refrains from offering these stories as simple biographies, instead framing these personal stories into the larger framework of contemporary Japanese society. While these three stories can be read independently of each other, it is much more valuable to consider them as interconnected elements of a larger work, as Field purposely emphasizes common themes in an effort to reinforce her assertion that Japanese identity continues to be qualified under the hybrid system.

After an extensive prologue the book begins with the chapter entitled “Okinawa.” In Okinawa, Field discusses her life in Japan briefly and also about Chibana Shoichi, a supermarket owner famous for burning the Japanese “Rising Sun” flag while it was being raised for the Kaiho National Athletic meet in Yomitan, Okinawa. Shoichi’s main reason for removing and burning the flag was that he objected to such an oppressive symbol flying over his hometown. For Chibana, the flag represented, among other things, the ghastly atrocities Okinawans suffered at the hands of the Japanese army during the Battle of Okinawa as well as the continued presence of United States military forces and their bases. The reason he set the flag ablaze, as opposed simply to lowering it, he says, was to prevent its being returned to the flagpole. His deed and the subsequent trial brought to light a number of tensions in Okinawan society. Prior to the flag incident, Chibana had sought to preserve and publicize the memories of Okinawan civilian deaths during the Battle of Okinawa, especially at a cave called Chibichirigama. Some Okinawans supported Shoichi in his activities, but others preferred to let the painful past fade away quietly. Because of Chibana's notoriety after burning the flag, vandals attacked and destroyed the monument he had worked so hard to create. Furthermore, Chibana was harassed by militant right-wing groups screaming anti-Chibana criticisms through loudspeakers and also by setting his store ablaze. Chibana's public stance forced into the open uncomfortable questions about such things as Okinawan identity, the wartime behavior of Japanese soldiers, and the extent to which individuals are free to criticize the state and its symbols. However, Chibana was not close to being alone in his beliefs. As with the other issues Field tackles, she does not make this argument purely on personal conviction. By doing careful research within Okinawa, Field was able to conclude that Chibana Shoichi was not alone among Okinawans in his resentment of the Rising Sun. Many Okinawans continue to feel objectionable towards the emperor system for the incidents there during World War Two. Field explores the shudan  jiketsu, which she defines as “compulsory group suicide,” providing chilling accounts of the deaths at Chibichirigama. Field also explains the unique situation of Okinawans, as they were forced to “choose” to die in the presence of both the Japanese and American militaries, both of which were considered enemies. After all, for as much as Okinawans were expected to sacrifice themselves like mainlanders in order to prove their equality with other Japanese people, they were almost as likely to face death at the hands of mainland Japanese soldiers who considered Okinawans to be both foreign and inferior. Chibana is an example of how many Japanese citizens feel. The Rising Sun flag is a prime example of the rape and pillaging of countries across Asia during World War Two. These citizens also feel the flag represents a part of their history they would like to leave behind and obstructs them from completely whitewashing the entire issue away.

Field also discusses the situation dealing with United States Military bases on Okinawa. Most Okinawans greeted the reversion to Japan with great joy and high expectations of better living standards. These expectations were only partially met. The military bases remained in place, though some facilities began to be operated jointly by United States and Japanese military personnel. Crime, noise, the continued occupation of seized lands, and the other problems of the large military presence continued largely as they had in pre-reversion days. As the 1980s drew to a close, the military base situation remained largely unchanged from previous decades. However with Okinawa's economy doing well, in large part because Japan's economy as a whole had been booming throughout the 1980s people began turning away from the issues of historical memory and began looking towards personal gain.

In chapter two, entitled “Yamaguchi,” the story of Nakaya Yasuko is primarily the tale of an ordinary woman who refused to remain complacent, fighting the emperor system for sixteen years in protest of her deceased husband’s “deification” by the state. Nakaya Yasuko’s story is the only one narrative in the book that does not explicitly deal with the national struggle to come to terms with World War Two at length. However, the fact that those who are enshrined were either soldiers or members of the modern Self-Defense Force cannot be underestimated. Although Field briefly explains the enshrinement as a way to pass on the ritual of dying for the emperor, her argument regarding the relationship between the past, present, and future could have been strengthened had she expanded upon this point. Despite this omission, the inclusion of Nakaya Yasuko’s story gives Field an opportunity to formulize a critique of yet another aspect of Japanese society under the hybrid system, namely constitutional practices. Field finds inconsistencies between the government’s policies and practices regarding military matters. Field brilliantly utilizes Nakaya Yasuko’s story to demonstrate the ways in which the government bends constitutional law in order to retain elements of the emperor system. In the case of Nakaya Yasuko, the state presented a convoluted argument to prove that its Shinto enshrinement complied with the constitutional separation of church and state. Although this section is arguably the weakest of the three, Field does develop an effective critique of constitutional practices.

In chapter three, entitled “The Mayor,” Field discusses how the emperor system negatively affects less obvious targets as well. Using the case of Mayor Motoshima Hitoshi of Nagasaki, who suggested that Hirohito was partly responsible for Japanese atrocities in World War Two, Field demonstrates that even those who actively participated in the emperor system throughout their life were not exempt from this taboo. Because of his desire to speak his mind, Motoshima Hitoshi was not only verbally assaulted by supporters of the emperor system, but was also the target of an assassination attempt as well. Field makes an excellent decision as it arguably proves her points more intensely than the other sections, simultaneously presenting the life and death stakes that were at work in the hybrid system in Japan and evidence that it was not only the emperor, but the entire system, that was slowly dying in 1989. As a critic of the hybrid system, Field presents the possibility of death as a glimmer of hope for the future, viewing the hundreds of letters of support for the mayor that were compiled into this book as a sign that Japan was finally waking up from its period of contentment.

Hirohito ranks first in length of tenure of emperors. His reign spanned the years between 1921, when he became regent for his ailing father, and his death in 1989. At his formal accession to the throne in 1926, he took the official name of Showa, which translates as “Enlightened Peace.” With the first victories of Pearl Harbor, Singapore and the Philippines, Hirohito was swept along with the tide of nationalism. Three years later, however, defeat was staring Japan in the face. In January 1945, Prince Konoe, appealed to the Emperor to put an end to the war, and refused. For almost a year, in the face of gathering defeat, he urged his generals and admirals to gain one last victory in order to secure reasonable peace terms. While urging one last victory additional 1.5 million Japanese were killed. Regardless, for the rest of his life Hirohito was an active figure in Japanese life, and performed many of the duties we associate with a figurehead head of state. The emperor and his family maintained a strong public presence, often holding public walkabouts and making public appearances on special events and holidays. Hirohito also played an important role in rebuilding Japan's diplomatic image, traveling abroad to meet with many foreign leaders, including numerous American presidents. Ironically, his era was characterized by the wicked military invasion of China, followed by his country's most disastrous war, then its unparalleled foreign occupation and then Japan's transformation into the world's second economic superpower. This is a strong example of Japans “national amnesia.” After Hirohito’s death many revisionists focused on post war Japan, not the militaristic Japan in which Hirohito was considered a deity.

Some revisionists argue Japans imperialistic past was simply for liberating Asia from Western influence, not for their personal gain however there was a major problem with the “liberation” theme in practice. Japanese rule in conquered areas were often more malicious and cruel than that of the deposed European overlords. Why was Japanese conquest so brutal in so many places throughout Asia? Why did Japanese soldiers execute, rape, ransack, burn, and otherwise wreak havoc on a large scale, while supposedly on a mission of liberation? Why did Japanese army officers support a system of enslaving Asian women and forcing them to work in army brothels? Norma Field brings to the forefront the ironies and contradictions of the era and casts light on several of the great political issues of the era such as the making of Japan’s postwar beliefs, United States - Japan relations, the reconstruction of economy and society, the role of Japan in the making of post-war relations with its neighbors.