The Humanization of the Emperor in Post-War Japan

Life Magazine_Emperor and Empress 3

These are fascinating pictures of Emperor Hirohito and the Empress in the summer of 1964. Taken from the September 11, 1964 issue of Life Magazine, these black and white photos reveal the Emperor to be a somewhat ordinary man, grandfatherly, academic. In fact, the couple looks like they’re having fun looking for mollusks.

The magazine even quotes the Emperor describing the “umi ushi” they found. “This is an easygoing chap, not in the least alarmed at being caught.”

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Americans who saw this set of pictures in Life Magazine were probably surprised to see a totally different Emperor Hirohito. Perhaps their memory of him was a leader who sent suicide dive bombers to attack Pearl Harbor, or drove soldiers to kill themselves in the name of the Emperor rather than be captured by Allied forces. But to see the Emperor at all in the 1960s was due to efforts by the Supreme Command of the Allied Powers (SCAP), the entity that governed Japan in the post-war years, as well as members of the Japanese government.

After World War II, in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s defeat at the hands of overwhelming American military firepower, one would think there would be too much concern over what to eat, where to sleep, and how they will cope the next day for people to care about the Emperor, and whether the imperial family as an institution should be maintained.

And yet, support for continuing the imperial throne was strong, a survey in October, 1945 revealing “widespread enthusiasm or deep awe and veneration comparable to that of the war years,” according to John Dower in his seminal book, Embracing Defeat. While forceful calls for the dethronement of Emperor Hirohito and elimination of the imperial system in Japan were common in America and other allied nations, the head of SCAP, General Douglas MacArthur, agreed that it was important to keep the emperor in place.

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Dower quoted a memo from Brigadier General Bonner Fellers to MacArthur about the reasons why the Emperor should remain as a symbol of Japan, emphasizing the fact that the Emperor, by going on the radio and announcing Japan’s defeat and need to lay down arms, “hundreds of thousands of American casualties were avoided and the war terminated far ahead of schedule.” in the case of trying the Emperor for war crimes, Fellers argued that “the governmental structure would collapse and a general uprising would be inevitable.”

SCAP was therefore insistent that Hirohito remain as Emperor, and not be tried for war crimes. In place of a deity as the head of Japan, SCAP sought to “humanize” the Emperor. A big part of those efforts were sending the Emperor on tours across the nation to meet the people in 1946. SCAP made sure pictures were taken and film was shot to document the Emperor walking amidst his people, a scenario unthinkable during and before the war years.

Life Magazine_Then Crown Prince Akihito Crown Princess Michiko and Current Crown Prince
Then Crown Prince Akihito Crown Princess Michiko and Current Crown Prince