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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.

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