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Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (Herbert Bix)

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction, 2001, Bix puts the Showa emperor back at the center of World War II in the Pacific. Click on the cover image or title to order this book from Amazon.

Portrait of the emperor as warlord

Douglas MacArthur ran a tight ship in occupied Japan. He kept the Russians out, for one thing, to the everlasting benefit of Japan and the world. And he made sure that the Showa emperor--Hirohito by name, though few Japanese knew that--wasn't tried as a war criminal, but instead remained on the throne as a human monarch instead of the god he had previously been, the better to keep the populace in line and ease the chore of the American occupation. To accomplish this feat, MacArthur (and the Japanese) had to paint a picture of Hirohito as a passive onlooker to the aggressive war waged by his nation from 1931 to 1945.

Naturally, there soon sprang up a minor scholastic industry to debunk MacArthur and the lovable dunce he helped create. David Bergamini ( Japan's Imperial Conspiracy, Edward Behr ( Hirohito: Behind the Myth, and mostly recently Sterling and Peggy Seagrave ( The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History of Japan's Imperial Family)--with escalating hysteria, they accuse Hirohito of war crimes and MacArthur of grand theft.

Now Herbert Bix has turned the tide and given Hirohito his due. Unlike the Seagraves (and, I think, Behr) he not only reads Japanese but teaches at a Japanese university and is married to a Japanese woman. In the Seagraves' book, you search hard for any reference to a Japanese-language source. In Bix's book, you have to search equally hard for a reference to English-language sources. He has written his massive study (688 pages of text and nearly 90 of citations) almost entirely from documents published in Japan, hence never before accessible by those of us who don't speak the language. The result is a magnificent biography of Hirohito and an intriguing prosecutor's brief--the brief that might have been presented at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal but wasn't.

But if I were on the Hirohito jury, I don't think I could vote to convict on the basis of this brief. So opaque is the Japanese language, so convoluted are Japanese politics, and so thorough-going was the Japanese (and American) conspiracy to whitewash the emperor in 1945-46, that there simply isn't a smoking gun. It's almost entirely suggestion and possibility, and at almost every turn of events there is the alternate possibility that Hirohito was just following along, a useful fool to the militarists just as later he was MacArthurs's useful fool. The reviewers on Amazon seem to leap upon Bix's study as proof positive of Hirohito's criminality. I just can't see it, though the book is certainly provocative and a valuable addition to the literature, in a way that Behr's and the Seagraves' are not.

The book is not without stumbles. Once or twice I was so baffled by a sentence that I went back and parsed it, only to find that it had two verbs where one was needed. And occasionally it is marred by the brain-dead editing that seems common to the publishing industry today, as in this weird sentence on page 671: "In October 1944 China tested its first atomic bomb." Huh? What university did that editor graduate from?

Nevertheless--buy, read it, and admire it. This is by far the best study of Hirohito that we have, or are likely to get.