A point that tends to be overlooked in the debate over textbooks that whitewash Japan’s actions during World War II is that Japanese junior high school history classes rarely make it past the Meiji Restoration. Whether or not “comfort women” or the Rape of Nanking is mentioned in textbooks becomes an academic issue if children don’t learn anything about the Pacific War in the first place.
Japanese people are more likely to learn about the war from the media, especially this time of year when there are TV specials commemorating the anniversaries of the battle of Okinawa, the two atomic bombings, and the surrender itself. It’s the end of the war that merits remembrance because the incredible losses that Japan suffered in the final months can be used to mask the incredible losses that Japan inflicted throughout Asia.
This being the 60th anniversary, there are even more specials scheduled, and the more dramatic ones exclusively address the sacrifice and suffering of the Japanese people — without any mention of the nation’s cruel empire-building escapades. However, one drama special, which was broadcast last Monday night on TV Tokyo, stands apart. In fact, considering how little publicity it received, maybe it stands too far apart.
“Seidan” mixed documentary footage and dramatic reconstruction to explain what took place in Japan’s corridors of power during the months leading up to the surrender on Aug. 15, 1945. Seidan means “Imperial decision,” and in this case refers to Emperor Showa’s unilateral choice to end the war by accepting the Allies’ Potsdam Declaration of July 18, which stated that nothing but Japan’s unconditional surrender would stop the war.
Though the incidents reenacted in “Seidan” have been widely recounted by historians, the emperor’s own frame of mind remains open to argument. Was he willing to sacrifice himself completely — not only his throne but his life — for the sake of his people? Or did he give up reluctantly and only after he believed he would be spared?
The program didn’t answer those questions definitively, but by having an actor portray Hirohito and speak actual lines, the producers at least attempted to bring the late emperor into the 21st century. Though he lost his divine status after the war, depictions of Emperor Showa have been taboo in Japan. In movies and TV dramas he is usually presented indirectly — as an empty chair or a figure facing away from the audience. No actor was ever given the chance to recreate his voice.
The emperor who appears in “Seidan” is so wooden that one finds it difficult to call the performance a portrait. The actor, who isn’t identified in the credits, doesn’t look anything like Hirohito and his voice is completely different. Except for one scene where he stiffly approaches his prime minister, Kantaro Suzuki (who instinctively backs up), he remains seated and motionless whenever he appears during the 90-minute program.
However, he is recognizably human. Right from the start it is implied that the emperor was looking for a way to quit the war. He appointed Suzuki, a 78-year-old ex-admiral who had known Hirohito since he was a boy, as prime minister in the spring of 1945 because he wanted someone in that position whom he could talk to. Suzuki immediately understood his role, which was not only to advise the emperor frankly, but to shield him from the military, which was prepared to sacrifice every Japanese citizen in order to continue the war indefinitely.
By the time the Battle for Okinawa began in April 1945, anyone in the government with half a brain understood that Japan had lost and further resistance was futile. But the war continued for another four months, during which hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers and civilians lost their lives. What “Seidan” shows is that, though the emperor finally ended the madness with his “divine decision,” he could have cut the nation’s losses much earlier.
Suzuki, trying to buy time, makes a broadcast to the Japanese soldiers on Okinawa to fight on “as one,” believing that if they can successfully resist the Americans, Japan can then sue for peace. Later, when briefed on the heroic exploits of the tokkotai (suicide fighter pilots), the emperor says he is happy with their “achievements.” Despite their implied determination to end the war, the emperor and his prime minister were taking their time about it.
The sticking point to surrender was the fate of that great abstraction — the kokutai — a concept that translates as the “fundamental character” of the nation. If the emperor was deposed and the Imperial system dismantled, then Japan would lose its very reason for existence. The military wouldn’t give an inch on anything, but Suzuki and his Cabinet believed they could negotiate a surrender that would allow for the Imperial system to remain intact.
They hoped to carry out these negotiations through the Soviets, unaware that Stalin had promised the other Allies at Yalta that he would join in the war against Japan three months after Germany surrendered. He did so on Aug. 9, the day the Americans dropped their second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
By that time, the emperor had had enough arguing over abstractions. He called a meeting of the Cabinet and military leaders, some of whom were plotting a coup to continue the war, and told them he would accept the Allies’ demands.
“Seidan” still makes the Japanese people out to be victims, but in this case they are victims of their own leaders, and the emperor, regardless of how abstractly he is presented, can’t escape indictment in that regard. Without a general understanding of the causes of the war and the way it was carried out, it will be difficult for Japanese viewers to understand why China and Korea remain so angry with Japan at this late date. But at least they will know who to blame for their own countrymen’s suffering .