Sunday, March 24, 2013


I modestly recommend “Emperor,” a historical film about the early days of the American occupation of Japan.  Starring Matthew Fox (“Lost”) and Tommy Lee Jones, the movie portrays an under examined topic, the U.S. decision not to try Emperor Hirohito for war crimes after the end of the Pacific War. While Nazi crimes have frequently drawn Hollywood’s attention from “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) onward, Imperial Japan has received much less screen time.

Fox plays Bonner Fellers, a Japanese specialist who goes to Tokyo with General Douglas MacArthur (Jones) following the surrender.  Though the film dramatically narrows the time frame concerning the decision to try Hirohito from a couple of years to ten days, “Emperor” provides a reasonably accurate portrayal of American concerns as they sought to rebuild the country.  Despite tremendous popular anger in America toward the emperor over the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government’s early planning for the occupation sought to drive a “wedge” between Hirohito and the Japanese government, placing blame on Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and the militarists (Dower, 278-301).  As portrayed in the film, Fellers and MacArthur were deeply concerned that communists could exploit the postwar devastation of the country to gain a political foothold and believed preserving the monarchy would help stabilize the country.  In the movie as in reality, the U.S. does not try Hirohito and he plays an important symbolic rule during the occupation.

Though Fellers concludes in the film that it isn’t possible to know the emperor’s role in planning Pearl Harbor, Hirohito had knowledge of the attack beforehand (Dower, 292.)  The film also shows Hirohito’s crucial role in ending the war as despite the devastation wrought by the atomic bombs, the Japanese war cabinet split on whether to surrender after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It required the emperor’s radio broadcast of surrender to ensure an end to the bloody conflict.

The film accurately shows the devastation wrought by the American aerial bombing of Japan.  Fellers references the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9—10, 1945, which killed 100,000 people, more than those killed in Hiroshima.  Indeed, one reason the U.S. military chose Hiroshima as a target for the bomb was because it was one of the few cities still relatively intact where the United States could demonstrate the power of their new weapon.

Though the film focuses on Fellers, Jones captures the vainglorious nature of MacArthur, who is seen preening for the cameras and media attention.  But it also shows the general discussing his plans to make Japan a model for transition for military rule.  Indeed, the U.S. occupation became one of the most successful in history, as MacArthur midwifed a new constitution and government that included an elected parliament, women’s suffrage, and stronger labor unions.  The document also forbade Japan from using its military forces abroad and the country emerged as a stable, prosperous democracy and ally that would become strong enough to challenge American economic supremacy by the 1980s.

As I saw the film the week of the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, it was impossible to watch without comparing the two postwar occupations.  Paul Bremer, whom President Bush appointed head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq after the initial invasion, was no MacArthur and made a series of disastrous decisions, from dissolving the Iraqi Army to barring all former Baath Party members from the new government, fueling the insurgency that would bring the country to the brink of civil war.  Granted, MacArthur had certain advantages, as Japan was an organic country while European colonialists carved out Iraq’s borders at Versailles.  Furthermore, despite the militarism of the 1920s, Japan’s history included a longer tradition of democratic institutions than Iraq’s.  Though Bremer may have faced a more daunting challenge than MacArthur, the differences in the outcome of the two occupations remains quite stark.

“Emperor” does not delve as deeply into the issues surrounding Japanese war crimes as it could have and is marred by a weak love story.  Still, I think it is a worthwhile film that depicts a period that has been long been neglected in popular culture.

Sources: John Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York, 1999)

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