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“Emperor,” starring Tommy Lee Jones and Matthew Fox, is about the early days of General Douglas MacArthur’s occupation of defeated Japan. Jones is the imperious, brilliant general, and Fox is his subordinate, General Bonner Fellers, tasked to determine quickly whether Emperor Hirohito is a war criminal. The movie is entertaining and approximately accurate historically. MacArthur intuitively knew that U.S. occupation would be simpler with the Emperor than without.

In the end, of course, Hirohito is spared, having been found to be mostly a passive bystander manipulated by the governing militarists. His role at the end in demanding surrender, when much of his government preferred to wage national suicide, even after two nuclear strikes, was admirable. The movie portrays the often forgotten attempted military coup against him. A final scene dramatizes MacArthur’s famous meeting with the Emperor, captured by an iconic photo, showing the American general towering over the short monarch.


Fox’s character is based on an actual MacArthur confidant who later helped found the ultra right wing John Birch Society. Probably not many Birchers get such favorable Hollywood treatment. The movie does describe him as sharing MacArthur’s “phobia” about Communism.

By all accounts, MacArthur’s occupation masterfully created a new, democratic, prosperous, peaceful and pro-American Japan. He disestablished Shinto as Japan’s official religion, and the Emperor was forced to renounce his deity. Several years ago a new book revealed that MacArthur had thought Japan was briefly ripe for Christianity. As MacArthur himself described in a mid 1950s interview, he had invited thousands of U.S. missionaries to post war Japan. Most didn’t speak Japanese, and the effort largely failed. Only a tiny minority in Japan is Christian, contrasting with dramatic Christian growth throughout most of Asia. Reputedly, there was even consideration of the Emperor’s becoming Christian. According to lore, the U. S. did not encourage conversion because of political complications over whether Hirohito would become Protestant or Catholic. MacArthur invited both Catholic and Protestant missionaries, even soliciting help from New York’s Cardinal Spellman.

MacArthur, an Episcopalian, was sometimes an outspoken Christian though seemingly an often indifferent churchman who preferred working in his office to worship on Sundays. After he conquered Seoul from the North Koreans, he led the South Korean parliament, which presumably was mostly non Christian, in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. South Korea’s founding president, Singman Rhee, was famously Methodist and sometimes attended Foundry Methodist Church when in Washington, DC. In retirement, MacArthur and his wife attended majestic St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan. Episcopal clergy and bishops presided over his funeral services in New York and Norfolk, Virginia. At his service in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, the longest serving U.S. Senate chaplain, Frederick Browning Harris, also longtime pastor of Foundry Methodist, delivered the eulogy.

Of course, the movie shows no religious aspects to the occupation of Japan, in keeping with Hollywood policy of usually ignoring faith. But all human stories are ultimately spiritual, and MacArthur and the occupation of Japan are no exception.

(Photo with Cardinal Spellman)