Thursday, April 3, 2014

Royal Profile: Prince Yasuhiko Asaka of Japan

One of the more interesting but also controversial members of the Imperial Family in the latter days of the Empire of Japan was HIH Prince Yasuhiko Asaka. He was born on October 20, 1887 in Kyoto, the eighth son (out of roughly eighteen children) of Prince Kuni Asahiko (a former Buddhist priest). His mother was the lady Tsunoda Sugako and his father was the adopted son HM Emperor Ninko, father of HM Emperor Komei and grandfather of HM Emperor Meiji. This made Prince Yasuhiko a member of one of the four main collateral branches of the Japanese Imperial Family, eligible for a place in the imperial succession. One of his nieces, a daughter of one of his half-brothers, was Princess Nagako who would eventually become Empress Kojun as consort to HM the Showa Emperor. As a prince of the Imperial Family, during the Meiji era, he was always expected to be a soldier. He went to school at Gakushuin Peers’ School, where the Japanese nobility and Imperial Family were educated before going on to the Central Military Preparatory School to begin the foundational training for a military career.

On March 10, 1906 HM Emperor Meiji granted him the title of Prince Asaka and gave him permission to start his own branch of the Imperial Family as had been done by his father before him. Still, for Prince Yasuhiko, responsibility came first and he carried on with his education, attending the Imperial Japanese Army Academy, graduating on May 27, 1908, receiving his commission as a second lieutenant on December 25. With his education completed, the following year he married HIH Nobuko, Princess Fumi, the eighth daughter of Emperor Meiji, on May 6, 1909. Eventually the couple would have four children; two girls (the eldest and youngest) and two boys. Outside of the domestic setting, Prince Yasuhiko continued with his military career, proving himself an intelligent and determined officer and he was promoted to full lieutenant by the end of 1910. In 1913 he earned promotion to captain, in 1918 to major and in 1922 to lieutenant colonel. Part of that time was spent far away from his home and family as from 1920 to 1923 the Prince, along with a brother and cousin, went to study at the famous French military academy at Saint-Cyr, a school founded by Napoleon and which is still the preeminent French military academy.

Prince Asaka studied tactics and did quite well but had a brush with death, being severely injured in a car accident while traveling in Normandy in which his cousin, Prince Kitashirakawa, was sadly killed. Princess Asaka rushed to France to be at his side and care for her husband herself and while he did recover the Prince would walk with a limp for the rest of his life. After leaving France, the Prince and Princess Asaka traveled to the United States. He was greatly impressed by the industry and technology of America, as well as the architecture as, upon returning to Japan, he had a new home built for his family in Tokyo in the Art Deco style that was all the rage in America (this home later became the official residence of the prime minister and today houses the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum) in 1925. Sadly, not long after his grand, new home was finished in 1933 Princess Asaka died at only 42-years old. A devoted and compassionate woman, not a few have wondered if the life of the Prince would have unfolded the same way had her presence not been deprived from him and her family.

Grieved, Prince Asaka threw himself totally into his military career. A colonel in 1925, by 1929 he was a major general and the following year became an instructor at the Army Staff College. In 1931 he was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of the prestigious First Imperial Guards Division. In 1935, in recognition of his achievements and how much his advice was valued, he was given a seat on the Supreme War Council by HM the Showa Emperor. However, the trust the Emperor had in him was shaken by the events of the February 26 Incident. This was an attempted coup led by a faction of young officers called the “Righteous Army” whose stated goal was to get rid of the politics and corruption they felt was restricting the government, purge all western influences and have the Emperor take personal control of things in a “Showa Restoration” (assuming of course the Emperor would pursue the course they thought best). However, the coup attempt did not go totally as planned, the Prime Minister survived the assassination attempt and when HM the Emperor was presented with the demands of the plotters, all that mattered was that discipline and order had been violated and His Majesty ordered the uprising suppressed firmly and swiftly. When Prince Asaka showed some support for the young officers by advising the Emperor to accede to their wishes and form a new government, this attitude was noted.

Because he was seen as being partial to the politics of the right-wing, which the Emperor viewed as somewhat improper for a member of the Imperial Family, the trust that had existed between the two was somewhat diminished. Yet, while some factions, like those involved in the February 26 Incident, did have some radical ideas included in their manifesto, few could doubt that had the best interests of their country and people at heart. In any event, because of his perceived political ties, Prince Asaka was ordered out of Tokyo and transferred to the Japanese Central China Area Army in 1937. It is important to remember, in light of later events, that most viewed this as something of a ‘step down’ and was therefore, a sort of disciplinary action for straying into the political realm. Fortunately for Japan, Prince Asaka was a skilled soldier, unfortunately, his greatest success would be followed by a scandal that has haunted his country ever since. The army was, at that time, engaged in a fierce battle against the nationalists of the Republic of China who were fighting in front of their capital city, the city of Nanking. The commander of the army, General Matsui Iwane, was old and in poor health and relinquished command to his deputy, Prince Asaka who directed the final attack that saw the Chinese forces broken and the Japanese conquest of Nanking.

Everyone is probably familiar with at least some version of the story about what happened next. To this day the “Rape of Nanking” is a cornerstone of anti-Japanese sentiment in Communist China, however, their claims are undoubtedly immensely exaggerated. It seems clear that some terrible atrocity did happen in Nanking but the accounts vary wildly and in subsequent studies a great deal of the supposed “evidence” has been found to have been fabricated or tampered with. In the end, General Matsui was executed for the crime by the Allies after the war, however, in spite of, or perhaps even because of that, some have since argued that Prince Asaka was the one responsible for what did (or did not) happen when the Japanese occupied Nanking. This is not the place to go into the details of that whole controversy, however, as it concerns Prince Asaka himself, it must seem extremely improbable to any dispassionate observer that the Prince would actually order any such act of brutality. People have pointed to his far-right political ties (real or perceived) as evidence to condemn him but, actually, this shows how unlikely it is that the Prince would commit such a crime. After all, he was in China in the first place because he was, effectively, being punished and pushed out of the imperial inner-circle because of those right-wing ties. For someone who was, effectively, “on probation” one might say, ordering such an atrocity, especially at that particular time, would seem impossible to believe. Setting morality aside for the moment, simple self-interest would suggest that the Prince had the most reason to deplore such a violation of discipline and the code of military justice.

In any event, both General Matsui and Prince Asaka were recalled to Japan in the aftermath of the incident and while he remained on the Supreme War Council and was promoted to full general in 1939, he never held an active military command again. Still, his devotion to the august Emperor and Empire of Japan never wavered and as the war dragged on Prince Asaka showed himself willing to cross into the political realm if he felt the survival of the country depended on it. This happened in 1944 when Prince Asaka, along with three others, worked together to bring down the war-time government of Prime Minister and former General Hideki Tojo on the basis that Japan was clearly losing the war. Nonetheless, after the war Prince Asaka was interrogated by the American forces, mostly regarding the events at Nanking, but he was not brought to trial, General Matsui instead being tried and executed. Some have since accused General MacArthur of covering up for the Prince because he was a member of the Imperial Family but, in fact, it would have been very difficult to hold Prince Asaka to blame in any event based on the precedent already set by the Allied forces in the immediate post-war military trial of General Yamashita who was held to blame for crimes committed without his orders and without his knowledge by troops under his command (as ridiculous as that still sounds). So, General Matsui, even if he was absent during the event, would still have had to be executed or else it would have highlighted what a gross injustice the execution of General Yamashita had been. These arguments also take for granted the guilt of Prince Asaka when, in fact, there is no evidence that he ordered any acts of brutality and he had absolutely no motive to do so, in fact, he had every motivation to avoid such a thing.

However, Prince Asaka was punished anyway in a manner of speaking. According to new rules handed down by the American occupation regime, all collateral branches of the Imperial Family were stripped of their status and HIH Prince Yasuhiko Asaka became, legally, a simple commoner. He was banned from holding any public office or taking part in politics, all of his property was confiscated and of course he no longer had a career in the army as the Imperial Japanese Army was totally disbanded and remains so to this day. Yet, in spite of all this, Prince Asaka did not resort to bitterness or xenophobic hatred. On the contrary, he turned his thoughts to more spiritual matters and, undoubtedly to the surprise of a great many people, converted to Christianity and became the first member of the Japanese Imperial Family to be baptized into the Roman Catholic Church on December 18, 1951. When not attending mass his leisure time was spent focused on a new hobby. He became an avid golfer and dabbled in designing golf courses, one of his designs being the Plateau Golf Course in the beautiful Hakone area. For a man who had survived a tumultuous political climate, a deadly car accident and the battlefields of China, he lived a long life in his retirement. He died at home of natural causes at the age of 93 on April 13, 1981. Unfortunately, he remains a controversial figure but I have no doubt that his soul was in better standing that those who would be his judges in the end.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting man, he was. His actions after the war tell of someone that has no reason to feel guilty. So, perhaps, he didn't have anything but titular power in his Nanjing post.

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