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When MacArthur Met the Emperor

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Japan officially surrendered on September 2nd, 1945. What happened next was an equally interesting story.

General Douglas MacArthur had landed at Atsugi airbase two days before; since the VJ day, he had been asked by President Truman to oversee the occupation of Japan. It was a daunting task. On his drive to Yokohama from Atsugi, tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers greeted him with their bayonets out in one final act of symbolic defiance. Seventy percent of Americans thought Emperor Hirohito should be persecuted; there were protests outside MacArthur’s headquarters by American servicemen and calls in Australian and Russian press to that effect.

However, MacArthur understood that for the transition to be smooth, the imperial rule must persist. Yet, he didn’t make the customary call to the palace; instead, he waited for the emperor to make the first contact. On 27th September, Hirohito finally crossed the palace moat to reach MacArthur’s headquarters at the Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Company — requisitioned for its relative intactness and its proximity to both the palace and the American embassy. In The Man Who Saved Kabuki, Shin Okamoto wrote:

MacArthur greeted the emperor at the entrance to the reception room, shaking his hand and saying, ‘You are very, very welcome sir.’ The emperor kept bowing lower and lower until MacArthur found himself shaking hands with him over the emperor’s head. Only the emperor, MacArthur and Okamura, the interpreter went into the reception room. Then the door to the reception room was opened and Lt. Gaetano Faillace, of the military camera corps, took a now famous photograph of the emperor and MacArthur from outside the room.”

Faillace was given one shot, but he spoke up and asked for three. Faillace also adviced MacArthur against a seated picture on a soft couch. First two photos were less than ideal — their eyes were closed in one, and the Emperor’s mouth was gaping open in the other. But even the perfect, final shot posed its own problems: at this juncture, Hirohito was still  akitsumikami or manifest deity (he would not renounce his divinity before the coming New Year’s Day), and everyone was supposed to avert eyes from the veiled imperial portraits in government buildings.

Thus, printing the photo was deemed sacrilegious, not least because of the general’s extremely casual attire and his even more pointed body language. MacArthur’s office itself had to intervene to Japanese censors to have it printed. It ran on 29th September. He had to intervene again when the photo appeared in the New York Times alongside an unprecedented interview with the Emperor — where he criticized his government on failing to declare war on US before Pearl Harbour — and police tried to confiscate the papers.

Outside Japan, too, the general’s informal appearance shocked many. Even Life clutched its pearls and wrote, “MacArthur did not trouble to put on a tie for the occasion”. As for the contents of their 40-minute tete-a-tete, nothing was made public; the two men would meet 10 more times during MacArthur’s sojourn as the American Proconsul. The general never paid a return call to the palace.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 28, 2012 at 7:54 pm

Presidents in Japan

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President Obama is currently under fire for his obvious yet unreciprocated bow to Japanese Emperor Akihito. The conservatives defined this deference as an inappropriate gesture for a President of the United States, while the president’s defenders noted this showed Mr. Obama’s cultural sensitivities. No matter what symbolisms meant, this marks another episode in faux-pas-ridden relations between the U.S. and its former WWII enemy.

When Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, who ruled Japan during the WWII, visited the U.S. in 1971, President Richard Nixon bowed to him. In November 1974, Gerald Ford became the first sitting president to visit Japan. He didn’t pack his formal trousers, and attended an imperial ceremony in Japan’s extremely formal court in borrowed trousers which were too short for the president. The media had a field day, but Ford–who was an Eagle Scout–joked that scouting still ran in his veins and that his visit to Japan proved that he still liked to go around in short pants.

[President Ford also encouraged people to wear "WIN" buttons as part of a plan to "Whip Inflation Now." Bob Hope joked about Ford's trip to Japan, "Hirohito gave the president a jeweled sword with a crest of the Imperial Order of the Setting Sun, and the President gave him a WIN button. The president told him, 'Millions of Americans are wearing these.' And Hirohito said, 'I know. We make them.']

In 1992, on his state visit, President George H.W. Bush vomited on the Japanese Prime Minister. Earlier in 1989, while attending Emperor Hirohito’s funeral, Bush committed the same controversy as Obama by bowing deeply in front of the emperor’s casket. The issue was further complicated by the fact that as a flight-pilot, Bush was shot out of the sky by the Japanese. While being pressed about his bow, Bush wavered, noting members of his squadron who never came home, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s decision to keep the emperor system.

In 1994, Bill Clinton was criticized for almost bowing to Akihito. Liberal The New York Times wrote: “It wasn’t a bow, exactly. But Mr. Clinton came close. He inclined his head and shoulders forward, he pressed his hands together. It lasted no longer than a snapshot, but the image on the South Lawn was indelible: an obsequent President, and the Emperor of Japan.”

(Above photo was by Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse)

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

November 20, 2009 at 8:51 am

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