IN the days since Japan's Emperor passed away, something unexpected has happened to the Japanese people. They have rediscovered their past. Hirohito's death has been the occasion for an avalanche of retrospection on the 62 years during which he reigned.
For two days, television screens were filled from morning until late at night with the flickering black and white images of previously unscreened documentary footage. Newspapers published their own accounts of Japan's often turbulent course. At the center of these reflections has been World War II.
On every channel, Japanese could see remarkable scenes. German crowds waving Japanese flags as the Japanese Foreign Minister appeared after signing the tripartite pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Emperor sitting astride his white horse as Imperial Army troops marched by. Invading Japanese troops brutalizing captured Chinese.
``It is very, very unusual for Japan to look at itself,'' says Shoichi Oikawa, a senior editorial writer for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily paper. ``For several years after the war, there was great debate in Japan about how to think about Japanese history. But, especially after 1960, we Japanese looked forward to the future.''
Many observers feared that Japanese would use the death of Emperor Hirohito to put their controversial past totally behind them. Instead, during the past days people seem more willing than ever to talk about the war. Even the issue of the Emperor's personal role - a matter of historical dispute - has become a subject of debate. While he was ill, such discussion was especially taboo.
Hirohito ascended the throne in 1926 and presided throughout the domination of Japan by ultranationalist militarism, that lead it into the war. By most accounts, the Emperor's symbolic role left him with no influence over the decisions of Japan's political rulers. Privately, it is said, he opposed the entry into war. But critics question whether the Emperor could have done more to stop it.
All six major television networks preempted all their regular programming with prepared coverage of the change in imperial era. The visual account provided by hours of evocative footage from the pre-war period was relatively unvarnished, giving many viewers an eye-opening look at their less than glorious past.
``Many people say the Emperor wasn't responsible for the war,'' a Tokyo cab driver commented. ``But what the TV showed was history - it was fact. And when you see that, you can see he was responsible in some way.''
``Some people complained that the television networks and newspapers were too admiring of the Emperor,'' says Mr. Oikawa. ``But that kind of reaction is a healthy one.'' He feels the treatment of Hirohito's role was accurate.
SOME of the media ventured beyond the conventional view. Asahi Television, a network linked to the liberal daily Asahi Shimbun, aired a panel discussion in prime time which featured sharp debate on whether the imperial institution itself was appropriate for a democracy.
Some panel members called for the end of the system and accused the Emperor of being a part of the war decision. ``I said he was responsible despite all the admiration these days,'' says participant Hajime Takano, a political commentator. ``And he knew it because he said so to General MacArthur,'' the commander of the US post-war occupation of Japan.
Japanese awareness has also been heightened by the extensive coverage given to foreign reaction to the late Emperor, particularly harsh criticism of his role and Japan's wartime record from former foes such as Korea, Britain, and Australia. The angry comment of New Zealand Defense Minister Bob Tizzard recently that Hirohito ``should have been shot or publicly chopped up at the end of the war'' was widely reported.
Many Japanese have expressed surprise at the depth of emotion that still remains abroad over the events of more than 40 years ago. The Asahi, in an editorial comment on the reaction, called on Japanese to take such feelings seriously. Though many Japanese were born after the war, ``Shouldn't the responsibility for what happened in our history be taken over by the postwar generation?'' the Asahi asked.
The Asahi has ensured that debate will continue by publishing the hitherto unrevealed personal diaries of the late Grand Chamberlain Sukemasa Irie, who served the late Emperor for 50 years.
In an entry from July 27, 1982, Irie records the reaction of the Emperor to the protests of China and South Korea over rewriting of Japanese history textbooks to obscure the events of the war. The Emperor, he wrote, found the response entirely understandable. ``We really did bad things,'' Hirohito said.