Devoted to a Man-God—Why?
THE depth of devotion to the emperor during and prior to World War II may be hard for many today to comprehend. “A picture of Hirohito was stored in a special shrine at school,” Mitsuko Takahashi recalls, “and every morning pupils were to stop and do an act of worship toward that shrine.”
“When the emperor passed by,” Masato Sakamoto remembers, “we had to bow our heads very low. We were made to believe that the emperor was too awe-inspiring for ordinary humans to look upon directly.” Children, in fact, were told that they would be blinded if they looked at his face.
The military and political leaders of Japan used the educational system to indoctrinate devotion to the emperor. “I taught young ones, ‘Be willing to die,’” says Kazuo Matsumoto, whose 50 years of teaching included the war period. “I sent many youths to the battleground. I cannot blot out this blameworthiness from my past.”
The youths of Japan were told that subjects of the emperor were aohitogusa, or “growing human weeds,” and that they were to protect him by serving as his shield. Toshio Mashiko, who took part in several suicide attacks in the Philippines and survived them, explained: “We were taught that dying for the emperor was the highest honor for his subjects.”
Many actually believed in the saving power of the emperor, so they raced into battle with fearless abandon. Shunichi Ishiguro, for example, thought that bullets would bounce off his body because he was a soldier for what the people were taught was “the Divine Nation.”
When the tide of war had definitely turned against Japan, a young boy, Isamu, expressed his uneasy feelings to his mother. “Don’t you worry,” his Shinto mother assured him, repeating the widely held view: “We will never lose because the kamikaze* (divine wind) will blow away our enemies.”
A God but Rarely a Ruler
Emperor worship has a long history in Japan, being a part of the lives of the people for well over a thousand years. And religious tradition is hard to eradicate. For example, even in Christendom people say: ‘If my religion was good enough for my parents, it is good enough for me.’ And, ‘Everyone believes this, and they can’t all be wrong.’ But over the centuries, hundreds of millions of people have been wrong in believing that their leaders were divine! Consider, briefly, the history of the Japanese emperor.
His role through the centuries has varied considerably. “The emperor was thought to possess magical powers to propitiate or intercede with divinities,” explains the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan. “But because of the awe that surrounded his person, it was also considered inappropriate for the emperor to concern himself with the secular business of the government. That business, including both the making and execution of policies, belonged to ministers serving the emperor.”
So the emperor served principally a priestly function, not a political one. “The only extended period of Japanese history in which the emperor combined both functions in a real sense,” observes the above-mentioned encyclopedia, “was from the reign of TENJI in the latter half of the 7th century through the reign of KAMMU at the end of the 8th and beginning of the 9th century.”
Except for that time in particular, Japanese emperors did not really rule. After the ninth century, the power of the emperor decreased, and, in time, the shogun, a term signifying “military commander,” came to exercise political authority. Although the emperor theoretically appointed the shogun, the shogun was the real ruler. But then, after centuries of ruling Japan, the shogunate government relinquished powers to the emperor in 1867.
In that year Emperor Meiji, Hirohito’s grandfather, was made the ruler of Japan. He later granted a constitution to his subjects that stipulated that the emperor was “sacred and inviolable.” But paradoxically, while the emperor was granted political authority, he was not given political power. He reigned but did not, in fact, rule.
The Constitution stated: “The respective Ministers of State shall give their advice [and assistance] to the Emperor and be responsible for it.” According to the Kodansha Encyclopedia, “this effectively meant that political responsibility fell not on the emperor but on his ministers.”
So it was the ministers of government that actually exercised political power. The emperor, however, was presented to the common people as a god with absolute authority over the nation. Thus, the ruling class used the emperor’s traditional and officially promoted divinity to subjugate the common people. The wars Japan fought in this 20th century were waged in the emperor’s name. And the people generally believed that he was a god who possessed miraculous powers.
Yet, surprising to many, Hirohito evidently did not believe in his own divinity. “I have never considered myself a god,” he told the American military command after the second world war. After repudiating the “false conception that the Emperor is divine and that the Japanese people are superior to other races,” he is reported to have asked his wife: “Do you see any difference? Do I look more human to you now?”
Of course, other Japanese also saw through the front of divinity and discerned the reality. They reasoned on evidence. Minoru Yamanaka, for example, who served for four years in the emperor’s army, explained: “The emperor’s father died at the age of 47 and his grandfather at 59, earlier than many others. So I never thought that the emperor was God.”
The Question of Responsibility
Hirohito’s illness and death reopened the sensitive question: What responsibility did the emperor bear for Japan’s military aggressions? Apparently the view of the majority is that Hirohito, as an individual, was opposed to the war but that he was obligated to go along with the decisions of his ministers. Hence, regarding his ministers’ plans to attack the United States in 1941, he claimed: “I could not override their decisions. I believe this was in accordance with the provisions of the Japanese Constitution.”
On the other hand, Hirohito took the initiative and made the decision to surrender when his ministers were divided on the issue. Then, a few days after that decision was made, on August 15, 1945, his subjects were shocked to hear his voice for the first time as he announced the surrender on national radio. He called for them to “bear the unbearable and endure the unendurable.”
Months afterward, the British government declared: “It was not the atomic bomb which caused the Japanese surrender, it was the Emperor’s rescript ordering them to do so. Without that we should have had a costly invasion.”
Thus, when there were postwar cries to try Hirohito as a war criminal, General Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. commander of the Allied occupation of Japan, firmly resisted them. He later explained: “I believed that if the Emperor were indicted, and perhaps hanged, military government would have to be instituted throughout all Japan, and guerrilla warfare would probably break out.”
MacArthur met Hirohito on September 26, 1945, and he was impressed. Instead of trying to shirk responsibility for the war, the emperor offered himself “as the one to bear sole responsibility for every political and military decision made and taken by [his] people in the conduct of the war.”
Yet, perhaps the majority in Japan today do not hold Hirohito responsible for a war that was evidently promoted by his ministers. Therefore, when the emperor lay on his deathbed a year ago, Hitoshi Motoshima, the mayor of Nagasaki, stirred up tremendous resentment by daring to say publicly: “From my own experiences with army education, I think the Emperor bears responsibility for the war.”
Motoshima noted that as an army officer who instructed recruits during the war, he “was forced to tell people to die in the name of the Emperor.” Motoshima apparently feels, as do others, that the voice of an emperor who was worshiped by his subjects would have carried tremendous weight had it been raised in opposition to the war.
A Matter of Concern
“But,” some may say, “that is all history.” That may be, but traditional beliefs do not die easily. At the famous Shinto shrine at Ise in central Japan, a Shinto priest recently said: “Many people come here to worship the sun goddess as the divine ancestor of our Emperor and our Japanese race.”
The degree of reverence for the emperor is illustrated by the threats to kill Motoshima for his comments about the emperor’s responsibility for the war. A man was arrested trying to break into Motoshima’s office with a can of gasoline, and nearly a hundred sound trucks clogged the streets of Nagasaki broadcasting, “Death to Motoshima.” Reverence for the emperor has also been shown in other ways.
For example, when Hirohito’s condition became critical, a tremendous wave of self-restraint swept the country. Festivals and parties were canceled, adversely affecting businesses catering to happy occasions. Schoolchildren were forced to cancel their athletic meets. Even the Yakuza, or gangsters, stopped fighting and shooting. Life in Japan was dramatically affected, causing The Daily Yomiuri to say that “the country has rather overreacted to the Emperor’s illness.”
Some were alarmed by this zealotry. But even if they did not agree with it, they generally tolerated and condoned it, probably considering the adverse consequences if they did not. “To be conservative at this point is the safest thing,” said one psychologist. But a former soldier lamented: “People are just looking around and following what others are doing. It is exactly the same framework that prodded us into the war.”
But should how we behave, and especially whom we worship, be determined simply by the behavior and worship of those around us? Think of the millions whose unfounded religious beliefs have caused them to give their lives in fruitless wars! Blindly following the crowd can clearly be disastrous. Reflection on these historical events should teach us that worshiping ‘what we do not know’ can indeed be calamitous. (John 4:22) How vital, then, that we examine whether we are worshiping what we really know!
Members of the Japanese air corps who made suicide attacks on a target (as a ship) were also called kamikaze.
[Pictures on page 8, 9]
Thousands died in the name of the emperor
Above: Official U.S. Navy photo.
[Picture] Hirohito acknowledged his responsibility for the war to General Douglas MacArthur
Right: U.S. Army