In the Realm of a Dying Emperor

ISBN: 0679741895
ISBN 13: 9780679741893
By: Norma Field

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About this book

When the Emperor Hirohito died in 1989, Japanese newspapers had to use a special, exalted word to refer to his death, and had to depict his life uncritically, as one beginning in turbulence but ending in magnificent accomplishment. To do otherwise would have exposed them to terrorism from the vigilant right wing. Yet this insightful book by a Japanese-American scholar who grew up in both cultures reveals the hidden fault lines in the realm of the dying emperor by telling the stories of three unlikely dissenters: a supermarket owner who burned the national flag; an aging widow who challenged the state's "deification" of fallen soldiers; and the mayor of Nagasaki, who risked his career and his life by suggesting that Hirohito bore some responsibility for World War II.

Reader's Thoughts


good, powerful. sometimes too literary-academic. some really convoluted sentences lost me. otherwise good.


This book shook some parts of me, and I could not help but wondering what so far has changed in Japan in the last 20 years since the book was written in the late 1980s. 20 years of economic stagnation, yet also 20 years of further distance with the past, and 20 years into the overwhelming modernity.In the Realm of a Dying Emperor is a beautifully written piece of work that discusses country's social, political, and cultural atmosphere surrounding the death of Emperor Hirohito whose reign lasted more than half of the 20th century (1926-1989)which includes many critical periods. It is hard to put into concise words exactly the number of issues were brought up, thoroughly discussed and challenged. The first section opens to the story of an Okinawan activist, Shoichi Chibana and his burning of Rising Sun flag in 1987 at a national athlete meeting, then progresses to talk about the prefecture's heartbreaking history at the end of WWII and the later US occupation. The second part revolves around Nakaya Yasuko, a widow of a government's official, who protested against the enshrinement of her husband at a Shinto shrine but was defeated by the Supreme Court in 1988. The last story takes on the mayor of Nagasaki, Motoshima Hitoshi, who publicly expressed his opinion about Emperor Hirohito's responsibility for the WWII, capturing the whole nation's attention.Norma Field's book is a must read for any Japan lovers. It shatters the ideal picture of a peaceful, ordered, "perfect" country. It digs into things that matter, that are deeply rooted, but are not so visibly available to foreigners and young people, both in Japan or in somewhere else. My heart breaks to find historical facts again not fully heard and acknowledged, and this time the story is so vivid, featuring one of my favorite nations. The fight for truth is indeed a brutal one. Japan after WWII transformed itself economically, and that was a proud & miraculous achievement, yet all those fruits should not be used as reasons to excuse for its horrific past, to decline to discuss history and the nation's dark sides. Yes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it; the war and immediate post-war generations will recede soon, and we the young, well into the 21st century, cannot afford to face the future with so much ignorance.

Brian Short

The best book about Japan I've ever read.

Ariana Deralte

I read the first section of this book about Okinawa several months ago on a four hour library lone, and I sure hope no one minded me crying in the library because that section is heartbreaking. I don't have much to say about it other than that it was engrossing.Now that I've finished the other two parts, I'm surprised to find that the other two sections are the more thought provoking ones since they don't deal with such clear cut issues. The second section is about a woman, who as a Christian, doesn't want her husband enshrined as a deity by the state, and how she lost the case. The second section suffered a little from all the detours into telling us about these women's lives, which I found interesting, but also confusing since it's hard to keep track of who's who with all the jumping around in the narrative. The middle chapter is the weakest (and I say this with a lot of affectionate bias considering I lived in Yamaguchi-ken and knew a lot more about the places the author was discussing than some).The third section was a bit strange in that it addressed the emperor's culpability in WWII in a very round about way. As a foreigner, it was very hard to understand at the beginning of this section why everyone was so shocked by the mayor's fairly mild statements, and it's only because I've read articles on how the Emperor's death was used, and experienced the strong interest of the Japanese people in the Imperial family, that I even had some sort of basis to understand. The selection of letters were interesting in this section, and I share the author's curiosity about if they were persecuted for speaking out. The interview with the mayor himself was the most fascinating part. He's a very intelligent man. Overall, I really enjoyed this book as casual reading. I'm not really certain if it's a helpful book academically since the narrative has a strong bias, but it's a fascinating read, and there really aren't enough good books on these topics.

John P.

IN THE REALM OF A DYING EMPEROR by Norma Field (the story is told by a child of a Japanese woman and an American soldier)This book was part of a EDPLUS reading group selection on Japan and WWII. As I read this I realized I needed more cultural context for a better understanding of the content of this book. However the group discussion gave new insights into Japanese culture on gender roles and those who try to ask questions about the role that Emperor Hirohito played in the conduct of WWII. The author frames the implications for people who dare challenge the standard history of a society, The primary themes included:assessment of a post war Japan and it's struggle to openly analyze its role in WWII Story of historical memory and what nations conveniently forgets and how nations try to make uncomfortable events off limits repressive “democracy” held in a deathwatch for its emperor...whose funeral becomes a “celebration of the successes of Japanese capitalism.” The author sees the death watch and funeral as convenient symbol of Japan's “national amnesia" and its unwillingness to face the role it played in World War II (what role did Hirohito play in the conduct of the war, what responsibility should be laid at the feet of the Emperor for the loss of 1.5 million people after Japan was clearly defeated, how does Japan face it's atrocities of conquered peoples, how does the government justify the idea of compulsory suicide rather than surrender?The book raises questions about all nations coming to grips with its history. The author uses three events to address Japan's confrontation with its memory of WWII. The universal aspect of historical memory in the book centers on what do nations want to remember and what do they want to not face?


This book was hard to get through. Def more of a school book. Had good stories and interesting to learn about their history but hard to read.


One of my favorite Japan books ever. Critical without being cruel. Informative while still accessible and compelling. Sad, hopeful, brave. And still well worth reading more than 20 years after publication.

Jason Keenan

Written in the early 1990s, this offers a glimpse of Japan at a unique time - the passing of the Showa Emperor and the courage by a few people to challenge the standard line that the dying Emperor should be seen as free or any guilt for what happened in the Second World War. Field tells this story through three unique personalities - a grocery store owner from Okinawa, a widow, and the mayor of Nagasaki. I read this just after finishing Hirohito And The Making Of Modern Japan, an historical look at the Showa Emperor's reign and the efforts after the war to sanitize his record. In the Realm is the human side of the story.

Chi Pham

one of the most powerful books that I have read recently. The stories are heartbreaking, but the questions they pose alter my whole frame of interpretation of Japanese society.

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