Kuniko Katz's essays,
articles and letters to the editors
Reflections on emperor
Hirohito's death: THE SCARSDALE
INQUIRER, JANUARY 13, 1989
When I heard of Emperor Hirohito's death on the evening news, the first
thing that came to my mind was a sense of relief for him. The 87‑year‑old
emperor had been gravely ill from internal bleeding caused by cancer of the
duodenum for a long time. Finally, I thought, he was freed from all his
physical suffering and able to sleep in peace forever.
Then I felt sad. It was a sense of sadness like losing one's close uncle or
grandfather. I had never met the emperor, and of course I didn't know him
personally. But the emperor had been in the public eye as song as I could
remember and I felt like I knew him. Over the last 20 years or so,
particularly, he was portrayed by the media as a kind, warm grandfather like
figure. The effect of this seemed to change many people's opinions toward
the emperor, even though they were against the existence of the royal
family. My feeling changed over the years, too. Toward the end of his life,
he seemed to be truly regarded as a father of the nation and was deeply
respected by the most of the people of Japan.
In my sadness, I thought of my mother, with whom I had many, arguments about
the emperor. After learning the history of what Japanese militarism did to
other countries, I believed that the emperor should have abdicated his
throne when Japan was defeated. I didn't understand how he could have
stayed on the throne knowing so many soldiers and innocent civilians died in
a war waged under his name.
"How dare you speak of our emperor in such a manner!” My mother, who passed
away eight years ago in Japan, used to tell me. For her, the emperor always
reminded a supreme being, despite the fact he himself renounced his divinity
in January 1946. She often used the word "osoreooi," which, roughly
translated into English, means "too exalted for me to speak of him," when
she mentioned the emperor's name.
She told me, on so many different occasions, how people felt t when they
heard the emperor's voice over the radio for the first time in their lives
as he told the nation that it had surrendered. Until that day, it was
unthinkable for ordinary people to hear his voice. The emperor told the
people to endure the unendurable and prepare for whatever might come.
People were devastated by what they'd heard, especially after being
constantly informed by the government that the country was winning the war.
All the neighbors gathered around the radio and most of them cried bitterly
for a long time. Nonetheless, they were somehow encouraged by hearing his
majesty's sacred voice.
The records indicated that there were demands from Washington, as well as
from the British, the Russians and others that the emperor be tried as a war
criminal for his involvement in militarism. Over the years, it became clear
to me why General MacArthur had decided to keep the emperor on the throne,
as the unifying force against the political chaos Japan faced as the post
war period began. When I think of all the people of my mother's generation,
who truly revered the emperor as a living divinity, I can understand that
his trial would have been more shattering to the impoverished, starving
people of Japan than was the news of the defeat. Looking back, I feel that
General MacArthur's decision was tactically brilliant.
After the war, the emperor traveled around Japan to speak to the people
directly, trying to give them hope. My mother told me that she went to a
neighboring city when the emperor’s car passed through that city. Although
she couldn't see him, she was very proud that she waved the Japanese flag
when she saw his car in the distance.
The American occupation of Japan wisely used the personage of the emperor to
help unify a shattered country into a thriving democracy. For this course
of action, American people can be justifiably pound.