Pu Yi as Witness

In his 1946 testimony at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (the Tokyo Trials), Pu Yi, the former Emperor of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, proved to be an exceptionally difficult witness. The following extract from the IMFTE Proceedings (p. 4,085) seems to capture the obdurate and unproductive nature of his eight-day appearance at Tokyo.

Q. On what date was Manchukuo established as a country?

A. Please don’t ask me any more about the question of dates.

Reading through this material is, frankly, rather painful for the student of history, for Pu Yi is constantly interrupted, disingenuous about the state of his own notes, fearful, and shifty.

While my main interest in revisiting Pu Yi in the context of war crimes proceedings is connected to his appearance at the 1956 Shenyang Trials, his 1964 autobiography also offers the reader certain food for thought in this regard. Whereas in Tokyo, he had played the part of a wholly traumatized individual who had blotted out whole years of his once-remembered life (surely a familiar refrain for contemporary coaxers and readers of North Korean defector narratives), at times in his autobiography, written under the guidance of the Chinese Communist Party following his 1959 special pardon, Pu Yi recalls things with exceptional clarity. In the case of his return to the throne in 1931-32, Pu Yi is even able to recall his personal psychology in an almost Jungian fashion:  “I had been dreaming of re-ascending the throne for several nights running,” he wrote (vol. 1, p. 219).

Pu Yi is then perilously being smuggled in a car boot out of the Japanese concession at Tianjin, noting that “underneath the friction between the Japanese government and army there lay unity” (vol. 1, p. 233), thus speaking to debates over unitary vs. fragmentary views of the Japanese war effort.

When Pu Yi finally gets aboard a ship in Tianjin and lands at the northeastern port of Yinkou, there are no cheering crowds to welcome him, just Japanese agents. Other small details are interesting: Pu Yi breaks cigarettes in half when he gets made or upset (vol. 1, p. 240).He has very distinct views about the Manchukuo flag — he hates it — and about the need for a rectification of names. Speaking from a deep well of tradition (and thus in utter futility) he tells Itagaki Seishiro:

If names are not right, then speech will not be in order, and if speech is not in order then nothing will be accomplished. The people of Manchuria are not longing for me as an individual, but for the Great Qing Emperor (vol. 1., p. 245).

Later in the same conversation, he rages that “there are no good National Assemblies” (vol. 1, p. 246). Pu Yi seemed to see himself, at least in this reading, as the avatar of the 大清 (Great Qing), not as the front man for a new experiment in multiethnic metropolitan modernity undergirded by exploitation of massive natural resources and the sinews of Japanese technical and military expertise.

Manchukuo is then declared (vol. 2, p. 253). In Pu Yi’s telling, it is an inglorious beginning: “Itagaki had provided Japanese prostitutes for the guest, and he fondled and embraced them without bothering about the conventions of polite behavior.” Itagaki quickly becomes drunk. One of the prostitutes, making small talk with Pu Yi in distinctly unfluent Mandarin, asks if he is in trade.

For legal scholars, there is an absolutely dynamite moment with respect to command responsibility. Pu Yi writes: “If one compares the Kwantung Army to a source of high-tension electric current and myself to an electric motor, then Yoshioka was a wire of high conductivity” (vol. 2, p. 253).  This is the kind of statement the prosecutors at Tokyo would have salivated to hear at the time, but naturally Pu Yi said no such thing at the time, insisting that he was but a victimized and fully-controlled front.

While he is on the one hand “an electric motor” in his Autobiography, he is also preoccupied. Pu Yi seems rather focused in this text on his petty punishments for servants, and his Buddhist neuroses. While the extensive writing on these things (vol. 2, pp. 304-312) is clearly part of the CCP’s efforts to induce guilt among the gentry for having mistreated servants and peasants, it is also clear that he is able to argue thereby that he was disconnected in his petty tyranny from such functional issues as Unit 731, and movements of troops. Of course he must have been at least reading newspapers from his imperial quarters in Changchun/Xinjing, which was the center of a thriving publishing industry, as scholars like Norman Smith have demonstrated.

Citation: Pu Yi, From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi , 2 vols, (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1964).

Image credit: Pu Yi in captivity in 1956 Fushun, image by Dave Lancashire, via William Carter.

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