Norma Field

In The Realm Of A Dying Emperor

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In The Realm Of A Dying Emperor Summary

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In the Realm of a Dying Emperor: Japan at Century’s End is the 1993 book of historical nonfiction written by Japanese-American scholar Norma Field. Following the death of hallowed Japanese Emperor Hirohito in 1989, Field attempts to analyze and understand the role of Emperor Hirohito in Japanese society. Furthermore, the book explores how and why the Japanese people unequivocally revered Emperor Hirohito for such a long period, despite his many faults and transgressions relating to war. Told through the eyes of three dissenting interviewees—a flag-burning grocery store owner; an elderly widow who contested the nation’s apotheosis of fallen soldiers; and a former Nagasaki Mayor who publicly worked to hold Hirohito accountable for WWII—Field gets to the heart of Emperor Hirohito’s true legacy, as well as those who chose not to conform to the “Emperor System.” Field’s tome was deemed “well-researched, well-observed and completely absorbing […] an important and necessary book” by The New York Times.

Field begins by contextualizing Japan’s rich history under the command of Emperor Hirohito. The drastic shift from being a staunch militaristic power early in Hirohito’s reign (1930s-1940s) to a more capitalistic economic power during his final days (1970s-1980s) lays the groundwork for Field to make her case. After a lengthy prologue detailing a trip she took to Tokyo in 1988, Field reminds us of her unique position as the daughter of a Japanese mother and an American father, who was a U.S. soldier. Well rooted in both cultures, Field levies her perspective as an East Asian Studies scholar at the University of Chicago to explore what she calls Japan’s “national amnesia.”

Field seeks to grasp why such a reverent gloss has been painted over the legacy of Emperor Hirohito, even after leaving the country in such war-torn ruins. Field criticizes the nation for deliberately rewriting history as the Emperor lay dying in order to excuse his role in WWII. Field poses that in elevating Emperor Hirohito to Emperor Showa (or Emperor Shining Peace) and essentially massaging the leader’s ego as he nears death only reinforces the kind of repressive, conformist society Japan forced its people to live under during Hirohito’s reign.

Field tells of the time living with her grandmother in Tokyo until she graduated high-school. Only then did Field join her father in America. Upon returning to Tokyo for a yearlong stay in 1988, Field instantly senses the widespread national mourning for the ill-stricken Emperor. Yet even in a state of national grief, Field can see an ambitious but repressive democracy suspended by the impending death of Hirohito. Field notes the nation’s vast difference between the past and present—between its dominant warlike posturing and the “celebration of the success of Japanese capitalism.” Field laments what a gigantic spiritual cost the country has paid by morphing from a military-conquering force to a vast economic power. As Field puts it, “the most significant and only reliable freedom is the freedom to buy ever more refined commodities.” Field senses a national crisis of soul in the wake of its leader’s death.

Attempting to better understand this sense of “national amnesia,” Field interviews three resistors who adamantly refused to conform to the traditional Emperor System. The first is Chibana Shōichi, an Okinawan grocery-store owner who boldly burned the “Rising Sun” flag. Due to the custom known as the “Chrysanthemum Taboo,” which essentially outlawed unflattering public remarks made about the imperial family, Shōichi faced substantial consequences for his disrespectful actions. Even though Shōichi voiced a sentiment shared since WWII by most of the enslaved, tortured, mistreated Okinawan population—a race the Japanese deemed inferior—Shōichi was arrested, threatened, and socially ostracized as a result. Shōichi ’s protest further demonstrates this sense of conformed national amnesia.

Nakaya Yasuko is the second person Field interviews. Yasuko is war widow who protests the deification of fallen soldiers, particularly her own husband who died in a traffic accident and not in battle as a member of the Self-Defense Force. Yasuko’s resistance to the Emperor deifying her husband to the level of a Shinto warrior proved to be a 15-year battle of Japanese traditionalism versus private religious beliefs. As a faithful Christian, Yasuko did not believe in the Shinto tradition of memorializing dead soldiers as godlike figures. Field notes how this governmental insistence to honor Shinto practices only reinforces this sense of rewritten history and national amnesia that keeps the Emperor perched atop the traditional hierarchy. Field notes how this is deteriorating the fabric of Japanese culture.

Field’s final interviewee is the Nagasaki Mayor Motoshima Hitoshi. As an honorable public figure in his own right, Hitoshi openly criticizes Emperor Hirohito’s disastrous role in WWII. Hitoshi directly holds Hirohito accountable for dropping the atomic bomb on Pearl Harbor. Although Hitoshi adhered to the Emperor System his entire life, as Hirohito began falling ill, the Mayor began questioning the system altogether. In late 1988, Hitoshi publicly stated that the Emperor Hirohito “was released from having to take responsibility and became a symbol of the new Constitution.” For this, Hitoshi was aggressively shamed, derided, attacked, and nearly assassinated by right-wing traditionalists. Still, Hitoshi maintains that both American and Japanese people are culpable for transforming Emperor Hirohito from a war-mongering powerhouse to a symbol of a democratic-based monarchy. In Hitoshi’s view, it’s a shift that has weakened Japan’s standing on the world stage.

In the end, Field reasserts that, in the forced attempt to rosily remember Emperor Hirohito’s legacy, the Japanese government and society have become a repressive, conformist regime to maintain this pathological mistruth. However, as the Emperor’s life slips away and his people willingly discount the horrors he is responsible for, Field notes that this system of traditionalism and repression is beginning to erode as well.

In the Realm of a Dying Emperor was called “an intelligent, informed, deeply felt interrogation of Japan that offers a rare insider-outsider point of view…” by Kirkus Reviews.