Iconic Photos

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When MacArthur Met the Emperor

with 12 comments

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

12 Responses

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  1. I’ve always thought it a deep irony of history that MacArthur was called up to clean up his own mess as it were, a ruthless killing machine turned into accidental civilian saviour. To explore these ideas, on our alternate history blog we have two variants MacArthur Declares Himself Japanese Dictator and MacArthur Declares Himself Filipino Dictator.

    Alternate History

    September 28, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    • Don’t waste my time with your AH fiddle-faddle.

      P McKann

      September 30, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    • Interesting piece of fiction you’ve created.

      Jeff Stone

      January 6, 2016 at 11:14 am

  2. Interesting info – thanks for sharing

    Ajay Kaul

    September 28, 2012 at 9:17 pm

  3. […] When MacArthur Met the Emperor « Iconic Photos 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. […]

  4. “Seventy percent of Americans thought Emperor Hirohito should be persecuted[…]” – did you mean to say “prosecuted”?

    Sean jordan

    October 1, 2012 at 5:00 pm

  5. […] [4] Iconic photo: When MacArthur met the Emperor […]

    • They Did Not meet at the Dai-Ichi building where MacArthur’s business office was located. They met at the US Embassy which, interestingly, had not been touched by bombs. But then, neither was the Imperial Palace and gardens touched by US bombs. Those Norden bomb sights were the best that Sam could buy.

      WPOPE

      February 11, 2013 at 7:04 pm

  6. […] [4] Iconic photo: When MacArthur met the Emperor […]

  7. When I visited Japan, I was amazed at the reaction when I told people I was from Arkansas. Every person, regardless of age or socioeconomic status, replied with “MacArthur!” even though he was born into a transient military family (in Little Rock). MacArthur’s decision with respect to the emperor remains one of the most underappreciated decisions in history. Of course, arrogant US executives tired of a man named Deming not long afterwards and Japan’s highest quality (TQM) award (which has become global) is still named in Deming’s honor.

    My great uncle is still trapped on the USS Arizona because of the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. Although my grandmother (as well as another one of her brothers) is still living and can recall that awful loss, I hold no ill will toward the Japanese. As a Cuban told a group of Americans and Canadians in a Mexican disco, “Governments, not people, are the enemy. Somos amigos.” I learned lessons from the Japanese that will benefit me for the rest of my life. War is a horrible endeavor that forces decent people to do awful things, but collaboration is a road with no horizon. Our cultural differences make the Japanese not only optimal business partners but also great friends.

    Jeff Stone

    January 6, 2016 at 11:17 am


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