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Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010


For all his failings, MacArthur was a fine precursor of Obama's bow

Two photographs, separated in time and context by 64 years, may symbolize, as well as anything can, the nature of the postwar Japanese-American alliance. Both in their time gave rise to uproar.

The second of these was the photograph, taken on the occasion of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Japan in November 2009, of the president bowing low to the Emperor. Despite the fact that such bowing in Japan is a gesture of respect and propriety, the American media went semi-postal, and Obama was virulently denounced as everything from an "idiot" to a "waterboy" — the latter a blatantly racist remark. Speaking on CNN, commentator Bill Bennett proudly claimed, "We (Americans) don't defer to emperors."

Such sentiments, quite widely held in the United States, are symbolic of something that runs very deep in the American consciousness: an inability to understand elements, however clear and simple, of another culture on any other terms than American ones.

I would venture to say that this has been a major impetus for crudely fashioned and violently executed U.S. foreign-policy blunders around the world for many decades.

The other photograph was taken at the first meeting, in September 1945, between Emperor Hirohito, posthumously referred to as Emperor Showa, and the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur. The Emperor stands at attention in formal attire next to an at-ease general whose hands are not so much on his hips as behind his back. To the Japanese, this casual pose was a striking affront.

MacArthur was born on Jan. 26, 1880; and his upcoming 130th birthday anniversary might be a good time to take a look at this prime mover and shaker of what seems to be fast becoming arguably the world's most important previous relationship.

MacArthur saw Japan as a crucible in which to create a democratic and Christian populace who would be forever beholden to him and his people. To this end, the very first meeting he had with Hirohito was crucial, as he would enlist the Emperor in his holy campaign.

When the two men met on Sept. 29, 1945, the Emperor's bow to the general was a very low one, reflecting an encounter fraught with some fear on his part and self-congratulation on the part of MacArthur. It was a personal liaison made in two heavens — the Japanese descending heaven and America's ascending one. The general would save the Emperor's life and preserve his status, though stripped of its divinity. The Emperor would give the general most-favored nation-builder status, granting him the imprimatur of legitimate ruler over his country, thus ensuring the cooperation of his people in the smooth implementation of Occupation policy.

As for MacArthur, never was there a general so concerned with the appearances of power; and the Japanese, then and now, put great store on appearances. Power in Japan must be seen as being acted on — whether it really is or not can be decided later.

When he was made Chief of Staff of the Army, the youngest in history, MacArthur designed his own military cap, which, along with his corncob pipe, became an emblem of his persona. The cap's mold was made to look more impressive; the peak was lifted and the gold weave of its embroidery was thickened to make the American eagle's glare appear angrier.

As to the character of the so-called American shogun, his pursuit of strategy during his eight-month stint in Australia in 1942 made that quite clear. While there, he wrote his famous pledge, "I shall return" — referring to his flight from his Philippines headquarters on Corregidor island in the face of Japanese attacks in March 1942 — while traveling on The Ghan, a train that to this day runs between Alice Springs in the Northern Territory and Adelaide in South Australia. Afterward, from bases in Melbourne, Victoria, and Brisbane, Queensland, he commanded troops in subsequent battles against the Japanese, achieving victories with a minimal loss of American lives.

In actuality, he sent Australian soldiers into battle as shock troops in New Guinea, giving the Japanese an object lesson using those allied forces as the objects. He then refused to mention the high Australian losses in his communique to Washington, and insisted to Australian Field Marshal Thomas Blainey that U.S. morale was his primary concern.

In other words, MacArthur is the modern prototype of the blinkered American, seeing what he wants to see, acting on the basis of this as evidence, and rewriting history to give it a favorable spin. He was also a man with an ego the size of a church organ, a narcissist of a particular spiritual kind who looked in mirrors and saw not his own face but that of his God.

So, when he arrived on Japanese soil for the first time on Aug. 30, 1945, after war's end, he was photographed without a weapon but with his cap, sunglasses and corncob pipe — and with his hands behind his back. He was posing for history, telling the world that only he was aloof enough, noble enough and godlike enough to subdue the defeated Japanese devil.

Yet MacArthur felt protective, in the way a patriarch does, of all Asians. Of the Japanese he said, "Measured by the standards of modern civilization, they would be like a boy of 12 . . . ." On Sept. 11, 1945, he held a press conference in which he referred to Japan as a "fourth-rate nation." This term — translated into Japanese as yontokoku — assaulted the ears of a proud nation of people. The Japanese almost universally saw its use as a full-frontal humiliation, a reversal in one phrase of everything they had fought for, since the beginning of the Meiji Era in 1868, to raise Japan to a status equal to that of the countries of the West.

But curiously, MacArthur did not see this as an insult in any way. Quite the contrary, he was intent on turning Japan into a bastion of anticommunism in Asia. He saw the Japanese as a nation not of misguided souls but of sinners in need of his (i.e. God's) punishment and his (i.e. MacArthur's) benevolent retribution. To MacArthur, all Asians were childlike, vacillating between a petulant innocence and a vindictive brutality.

He was a complex amalgam of the reactionary and the idealistic. The many reforms instigated by the Occupation — covering a wide swath of societal needs for women's rights, labor-union reform and the abolition of feudalistic practices in schools and government offices — can be traced to his own personal crusade to transform Japan into a first-rate democracy.

This brings us back to the iconic photograph of Obama bowing to the Showa Emperor's son, Emperor Akihito. It says to the world that at least one American leader is willing to show respect for another culture on its home ground and within the framework of its own cultural tenets. That it was derided and damned in the U.S. shows that many Americans still consider themselves the world's superiors, and that, in their eyes, no culture other than their own is worth dying for.

Despite his many faults, and his holier-than-thou faith in himself and his country, MacArthur did not fall for that.

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