In the Realm of a Dying Emperor Term Paper

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Realm of a Dying Emperor

The Emperor of Japan represents Japanese history and culture, but when Emperor Hirohito died in January of 1989, he had become a symbol for Japan's development into one of the world's largest economic powers. In effect, the Emperor was the physical embodiment of the nation, and the nation's success was reflected in the people's dedication to him. However, if the Emperor represented the success of the nation, would he not represent the nation's failures as well? During the 1920's and 30's, when Hirohito was a young Emperor, Japan was a militaristic society bent on conquest, something that led directly to World War II and the complete destruction of Japanese society. But as Japan rebuilt itself, it also reconstructed the image of the Emperor, an image that did not include the militaristic past. Decades later, as the Emperor lay dying, Norma Field, a Japanese-American scholar, examined the role of the Emperor in Japanese society, as well as that society's seeming amnesia toward the man who was at the center of Japanese society. Through the stories of three individuals who did not accept the "emperor system" with its revised image of the Japanese Emperor, Field contrasts the extremes in Japanese culture as well as how the image of the Emperor still plays an central role in Japanese society.

Japan was a primitive, feudal society when it was first opened up to the West in the 19th century, but it quickly industrialized and began a reign of conquest that spread across Asia. However, this expansion came to a tragic end with the dropping of two atomic bombs by the United States on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, Japanese society went through a complete transformation; from a militaristic society into a capitalist democracy, and Norma Field was born and raised in the midst of that change. When, in 1988, she returned to the home of her grandparents after graduating from an American college, she observed how Japanese society reacted to the impending death of their beloved Emperor Hirohito. But being the daughter of a Japanese mother and an American father, she had a unique perspective on the position of the Emperor and his role in history. Her book, in the Realm of a Dying Emperor, is the examination of three Japanese citizens who refused to accept the complacency of the "emperor system" and its responsibility for past sins. But since their acts of disapproval were aimed at the nature of Japanese society, in the eyes of the author the dying Emperor, as a symbol of Japanese society, became the focus of their protests.

In the Realm of a Dying Emperor begins with a lengthy prologue in which the author, Norma Field, discusses a trip she took to Japan in late 1988, just at the time when the Emperor was dying. She discusses her extremely elderly grandparents and how the impact of American-style capitalism has effect them and Japanese society in general. Japan's traditionally conformist society has been adapted to capitalism through such things as "compulsory socializing" among businessmen, and the image of women as represented through the success of their children. (Field 13-14) Japanese society was as conformist and repressive as ever, only now it was based on success in capitalism instead of military expansion. And at the head of this repressive and conformist society sat the Emperor, who, in late 1988, was dying and as a way to avoid his role in World War II, Hirohito became known as Emperor Showa, or "shining peace." This transformation from the Emperor from Hirohito, a name that became infamous during the war, into Emperor "Shining Peace," is at the heart of Field's criticism of Japanese society. According to Field, Japan is a country that has rewritten its history, thereby refusing to take responsibility for past crimes, and remains a repressive and conformist society that forces its members to accept the new "version" of history and fully support new Japan's capitalistic society.

One of the symptoms of Japan's repressive society is a traditional ranking system in which individual people were placed in societal ranks. Just as the Emperor was the top of the pyramid of Japanese society, the Japanese people were at the top of a racial pyramid. This was the ultimate reasoning behind Japan's militaristic conquests of China, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and other Asian lands; and during this time the Japanese treated others as inferior. Okinawa, although technically part of Japan, is still often considered as a secondary part of the country, and its citizens as inferior. This is the societal defect that Chibana Shoichi, an Okinawan supermarket owner, hoped to bring attention to when he burned the Japanese "rising sun" flag prior to the Kaiho National Athletic competition. Shoichi felt that the rising sun flag, nowhere sanctioned as the official flag of Japan, represented Japan's militaristic past and the atrocities committed against the Okinawan people.

After the war, an unwritten rule that has become known as the "chrysanthemum taboo" was put in place which unofficially prohibits any "nonsanctioned, that is to say noncelebratory, discussion of the imperial family." (Field 44) Shoichi, when he burned the rising sun flag, was, in effect, engaging in nonsanctioned criticism of the Emperor by protesting atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers during the war. Many Okinawans were enslaved, mistreated, and murdered at the hands of Japanese Imperial soldiers during World War II, particularly during the Battle of Okinawa. But it is the reaction to Shoichi's protest that demonstrates the self-enforced historical amnesia of Japanese society. Almost immediately Shoichi faced substantial criticism for his actions. He was arrested, threatened, the victim of violence and vandalism, and socially ostracized. However, Field makes a point to assert that Shoichi's reaction to the rising sun flag was a common sentiment throughout ordinary people Okinawa, albeit one that was vehemently repressed by the more militant right-wing traditionalists.

Field's second example of the emperor-dominated repressiveness of Japanese society involves a simple woman who's husband died in a traffic accident while a member of Japan's Self-Defense Force. Nakaya Yasuko, the woman involved, objected to the state's deification of her husband according to Shinto tradition. As a Christian, Mrs. Nakaya objected to the state's interference in her husband's funeral rites and sued in order to stop it. However, after a 15-year battle, Mrs. Nakaya failed in her quest to stop what she felt was the state's interference in her private religious beliefs. However, Field asserts that the state's insistence on a Shinto religious practice for her husband was part of society's rewriting of history and amnesia concerning the Emperor's past. By deifying Mr. Nakaya, the state reinforces the traditional hierarchy system in which the Emperor is at the top. It also, in effect, deifies the Emperor, a man who holds a great deal of responsibility for Japan's war crimes, but without placing any responsibility on him. Field seems to use Mrs. Nakaya's experience as a means of highlighting how an emperor-centric society manages to remain in existence in modern Japan; the "emperor system" is so ingrained that even the government forces its citizens to comply. As Field revealed about Japanese society, "to take an unpopular stance (such as objecting to an updated version of folk custom) was bad enough, but to assert it as a right (freedom of religion guaranteed by the constitutional separation of religion and state) makes things much worse." (Field 133)

The final example that Field presents to the reader is that of the Mayor of Nagasaki, Motoshima Hitoshi; a man who dared to publicly criticize the Emperor and his role in the destruction of his city. He was a man who had lived his entire life under the "emperor system," but as Hirohito edged closer to his end, Motoshima began to question the entire system. At a December, 1988 session of the Nagasaki City Assembly, Motoshima remarked that the Emperor did indeed bear responsibility for the war, but "he was released from having to take responsibility and became a symbol of the new Constitution." (Field 178) as a result, Motoshima was the victim of vicious attacks by right-wing supporters of the traditional system, and even a failed assassination attempt. Motoshima's criticism was that both the Americans and the Japanese people transformed a war-mongering Emperor into the figurehead of a democratic-based constitutional monarchy. Field also asserts throughout her book that this is indeed the case and that Japanese society has become a socially and governmentally repressive nation in order to maintain this facade. But as Emperor Hirohito lay dying at the end of 1988, this system of repression and conformity was beginning to show cracks.

The examples presented by Norma Field in her book, in the Realm of a Dying Emperor, not only demonstrates the existence of an "emperor system" that completely dominates Japanese society, but also the fierce opposition to ending this system from the government, right-wing extremists, and society in general. It also demonstrates how individual Japanese are beginning to refuse to partake… [END OF PREVIEW]

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In the Realm of a Dying Emperor.  (2012, May 1).  Retrieved January 17, 2020, from

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"In the Realm of a Dying Emperor."  1 May 2012.  Web.  17 January 2020. <>.

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"In the Realm of a Dying Emperor."  May 1, 2012.  Accessed January 17, 2020.