The Greater America

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (Herbert Bix)

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 in Japan's Imperial Conspiracy, Edward Behr in Hirohito: Behind the Myth, and most egregiously Sterling and Peggy Seagrave in The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History of Japan's Imperial Family -- with escalating hysteria, as if each trying to outdo the other, they accused Hirohito of war crimes and MacArthur of grand theft.

Then came Herbert Bix to turn the tide and give 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.

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Flying Tigers

On this website: Front page | Flying Tigers | Chinese Air Force | Japan at War | Brewster Buffalo | Glen Edwards & the Flying Wing | Vietnam | War in the Modern World | Bluie West One | Poland 1939-1948 | Book Club | Book reviews | Question? | Google us | Website & webmaster | Site map

Other sites: Flying Tigers: the book | Daniel Ford's blog | Daniel Ford's books | Facebook | Piper Cub Forum | Raintree County | Reading Proust | Expedition Yacht Seal

Posted June 2019. Websites © 1997-2019 Daniel Ford; all rights reserved.