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What’s the real story behind ‘Emperor’?

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

“Emperor,” a film directed by Peter Webber that takes up the subject of Emperor Showa and the postwar occupation period, has been showing at local theaters since July. The film’s protagonist is Gen. Bonner Frank Fellers, who served as a subordinate to Supreme Commander Allied Forces Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Writing in Shukan Shincho (Aug. 29), journalist Eiichiro Tokumoto researched the man and his times and extracted archival information that’s far more interesting than the melodramatic fluff in the Hollywood script. Portions of his article are excerpted, with kind permission of the author and Shukan Shincho magazine.

Arriving in Japan immediately after the end of World War II to serve as MacArthur’s military secretary, Fellers received a top-secret order to investigate the Emperor’s role in the war. He was given 10 days to complete the task.

Seeing the devastation from air raids, Fellers realized Japan was on the verge of collapse and made the decision to help. This also involved personal reasons — to search for “Aya” (not her real name), the Japanese woman with whom he fell in love during his student days (played in the film by Eriko Hatsune).

In a memorandum submitted to MacArthur on Oct. 2, 1945, Fellers warned that should the Emperor be tried for war crimes, the governmental structure would collapse and a general uprising would be inevitable.

But it’s an oversimplification to view Fellers merely as belonging to the clique friendly toward Japan. His other face is as one who during the war served with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, forerunner of the CIA) and was picked to serve under MacArthur as a skilled intelligence officer under orders to engage in psychological warfare operations against Japan.

Born to a farming family in Illinois in 1896, Fellers went from Earlham College in Indiana to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After graduation he served in the Philippines, and in 1922 he used his leave to visit Japan, at which time he became captivated by the works of Greek-born author Lafcadio Hearn, such as “Kwaidan” and “Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation.”

Fellers’ graduation thesis at the Army War College, titled “The Psychology of the Japanese Soldier,” analyzed its title subject from the perspectives of Shinto, Bushido and the emperor system. It came to be used in a text by the U.S. military during the Pacific War.

After Fellers was dispatched to serve under MacArthur’s command in the Southwest Pacific theater from September 1943, he was involved in a secret plan to cause rampant inflation by flooding Japan with counterfeit yen notes.

During World War II, in what was code-named “Operation Bernhard,” Nazi Germany distributed British £5 and larger notes that inflicted not-insignificant damage on the British economy. Likewise Japan, aiming to destabilize the government of Chiang Kai-shek, produced counterfeit Chinese banknotes in a plan known as “Operation Sugi.”

America’s OSS had similar plans. Just before Fellers joined the OSS, on Feb. 19, 1942, its director, William Donovan, proposed an operation to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to produce spurious Italian lira notes that would wreak havoc on that country’s economy without firing a single shot. While the timing and methods differed, a similar operation was planned against Japan.

A key factor in the counterfeiting project was the timing. In July 1944 the Japanese garrison defending Saipan was wiped out, followed by Guam’s in August. On these islands the U.S. military constructed bases for B-29 bombers and initiated full-scale air raids on Japan’s main islands.

Reading declassified U.S. documents, it can be understood that the United States had been monitoring inflation in Japan. While prices of goods had been comparatively stable since the outbreak of war with the United States, they began soaring rapidly from the beginning of 1944. By destroying military facilities with air raids, shortages would be aggravated, and this would have been the ideal timing to circulate the counterfeit banknotes and cause hyperinflation. Nevertheless, no records show the plan to circulate counterfeit money was ever put into operation.

In Tokyo, Fellers conferred with former Prime Minister Mitsumasa Yonai on ways to absolve the Emperor of accusations of war crimes, and the two agreed to adopt the strategem of making Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and other leaders bear full responsibility.

As noted in a memorandum by Fellers’ subordinate, Maj. John E. Anderton, dated Oct. 1, 1945, “If fraud, menace or duress sufficient to negative intent can be affirmatively established by the Emperor, he could not stand convicted in a democratic court of law.”

By the time Tojo and six other Class A war criminals were hanged on Dec. 23, 1948, Fellers had already returned to the United States. But his strategy was successful: Behind the high-handed Tokyo Tribunal was a common aim by the United States and Japan not to indict the Emperor.

In 1973, two years before Fellers passed away at age 77, the Japanese government conferred him with the Second Order of the Sacred Treasure. The citation reads, “As the sole Japan-friendly officer in the GHQ, he was a great benefactor who saved the Emperor from being prosecuted as a war criminal.”

Fellers, Tokumoto concludes, was indeed one of the major players in Japan’s postwar history.