The Death of an Emperor by Thomas Cramp - review by Francis King

Francis King

Not Such a Bad Fellow

The Death of an Emperor


Constable 234pp £14.95 order from our bookshop

Soon after I arrived in Japan in the early Sixties, I read in one of the English-language newspapers the headline: ‘Emperor Gives Woman Professor Crabs.’ Beneath the headline there was a blurred photograph of the diminutive emperor handing over two crabs, apparently of a rare species, to a bulky fellow marine biologist from England. I at once had the feeling, confirmed by a reading of this book, that Hirohito would have been far happier giving people crabs than giving his nation a lead.

Hirohito’s early story, as Crump skilfully retells it, is bleak. At the age of three months, in accordance with prevailing custom, the Emperor-to-be was removed from the household of his parents and was transferred to that of a retired admiral. At the age of three years, the admiral having died, he moved on to a household of his own, where he lived under the austere tutelage of Marquis Takamasa Kido. At the Peers’ School he fell under the influence of its head, General Nogi, who had played a decisive part in the winning of the Russo-Japanese War. But he lost this heroic father-figure, surprisingly adept at flower-arranging, the tea ceremony and the cultivation of bonsai, when he and his wife committed ritual suicide on the death of the Emperor Meiji. Hirohito was engaged to his future wife for almost six years, and during that period he saw her on fewer than a dozen occasions.

When, after an unprecedently long reign of sixty-seven years, the Emperor finally succumbed to an illness gruesomely prolonged by countless blood transfusions; the press of the world, which had for so long been indulgent to him, in effect began to spit on his corpse. In this country the Sun and

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