Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. – Review

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. – Review – book review

Richard Halloran

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. By Herbert P. Bix. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. 800 pages. $35.00.

In Tokyo on a gray November afternoon in 1971, Emperor Hirohito of Japan sat before foreign correspondents in the splendor of an audience room in the Fukiage Palace and defended his role as a constitutional monarch throughout his reign. Noting that his grandfather, the Emperor Meiji, had established a constitutional monarchy in the late 19th century, Emperor Hirohito asserted, “I acted that way during wartime and at all other times.”

When an American correspondent rose from the semicircle facing the emperor to ask whether His Majesty had not stepped out of that constitutional role in deciding to end Japan’s fighting in World War II, the emperor caught the thrust of the question as it was translated into Japanese. The usually shy monarch sat bolt upright and looked directly into the eyes of the questioner, his body language exclaiming, “Yes, there’s something I want to say about that.”

In this first ever press conference for foreign correspondents, the emperor reached back to 26 February 1936, when young army officers rebelled against the government. “Some of the leaders of the government were missing,” he said. “Therefore, I had to take decisive action on my own.” Turning to August 1945, when Japan’s political and military leaders were split over whether to accept an Allied demand to surrender, the emperor said, “Prime Minister [Kantaro] Suzuki left everything to my discretion, so I had to make a decision.”

Even there, however, the emperor sought to slip back into his constitutional role, adding, “But the decision was taken on the responsibility of Prime Minister Suzuki.”

Herbert Bix, the author of Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, flatly rejects the contention that Hirohito was merely a figurehead. Bix asserts that from Hirohito’s ascension to the throne in 1926 to Japan’s surrender in 1945, “He was at the center of his nation’s political, military, and spiritual life in the broadest and deepest sense, exerting authority in ways that proved disastrous for his people and those of the countries they invaded.” Contrary to the emperor’s avowal, Bix insists that almost everything Hirohito did in those years “departed from the precedent set by his grandfather, the Meiji emperor.” In particular, he made critical decisions that led Japan into war with the United States and Britain. “Having made his choice,” Bix asserts, “Hirohito dedicated himself totally to presiding over and guiding the war to victory at all costs.”

This account by Bix, a historian at Harvard and Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, stands in marked contrast to a widely accepted view of Japan’s emperor. Edwin O. Reischauer, the Harvard don and onetime American ambassador to Japan, wrote, “All power stemmed from the emperor, but he exercised no power.” Hugh Borton, a respected historian, thought so little of the emperor’s role that he was barely mentioned in Borton’s book, Japan’s Modern Century. Frank Gibney, a journalist with five decades of experience in Japan, wrote last year: “There is no doubt that Hirohito the man wanted peace. There is equally no doubt that this shy, reclusive family man, who could be goaded to act decisively only in extremis, lacked the courage to enforce his wishes.” Sam Jameson, then of the Los Angeles Times and perhaps the most meticulous foreign correspondent in Japan in the postwar years, wrote in his 1989 obituary of Hirohito that “neither he, nor any of the 123 rulers… who preceded him, had really exercised the power that seemingly had been given them.”

Bix’s thesis is not new, even if he claims that some of his sources are original. David Bergamini, a journalist with Life magazine, placed Hirohito at the core of a cabal in his 1971 work Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy. Edward Behr of Newsweek wrote in 1989 in Hirohito: Behind the Myth that the emperor was a “shrewd and skillful manipulator” who “was capable of decisive and ruthless action.” A Japanese scholar, Daikichi Irokawa, wrote a scathing attack on the emperor in 1995, The Age of Hirohito.

This book by Bix suffers from questionable scholarship. There is no bibliography. Many of the extensive footnotes are given in romanized Japanese, rendering them useless to anyone who doesn’t read Japanese. Factual errors are sprinkled through the text. To cite but one, he says Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was “designated to lead the attack” on Pearl Harbor; the admiral was in Japan when the surprise raid was launched.

Some of the author’s historical judgments are also dubious. He underplays the role of Admiral Yamamoto, who sought to prevent the war but was overruled, mainly by army generals, and whose death at the hands of the Americans stunned Japan. Bix slights the motives of Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka, who hated the United States because he had been badly treated while living in America as a boy. In a footnote, Bix contends that the Soviet Union “did most of the fighting against Nazi Germany” in World War II, a conclusion not likely to sit well with the American, British, and Canadian soldiers who landed at Normandy and fought to the Elbe.

Bix acknowledges that many of his conclusions lack documentary evidence–e.g., Hirohito “left behind no abundance of texts with his signature on them.” His text is peppered with phrases such as “little is known,” “difficult to assess,” and “cannot be proven.” This is not entirely the author’s fault, as many documents were destroyed between Japan’s surrender on 15 August 1945 and the arrival of the Occupation’s advance party on 28 August. Consequently, Bix has contrived a case built on shaky circumstantial evidence.

In the end, this is an unconvincing book.

Richard Halloran, formerly with The New York Times as a foreign correspondent in Asia and a military correspondent.

COPYRIGHT 2001 U.S. Army War College

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group