GLOCOM Platform
debates Media Reviews Tech Reviews Special Topics Books and Journals
Summary Page
Search with Google
Home > Books & Journals > Book Review Last Updated: 14:22 03/09/2007
Book Review #9: June 4, 2001

"Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan"

by Herbert P. Bix

Reviewed by Tomohiko Taniguchi (GLOCOM Fellow)

adopted from "Insight Japan" with permission

Title: Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan
Author: Herbert P. Bix
Publisher: Harper-Collins Publishers
Date/Time: 2000
Pages: English text 800 pages (Hardcover)


The following passage appears in the middle of this extensive book, and pretty much sums up the view of the author, historian Herbert P. Bix. "[N]ot only as the force that animated Japan's entire war system, but as the individual with free agency who carefully examined and sanctioned the policies, strategies and orders for waging wars of aggression, Hirohito's responsibility was enormous".

This work mounts the most decisive attack ever by any Western historian against the conventional wisdom that the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito took very little lead himself, but was led by the militarists in dragging the nation into war. The attempt has been a huge success, with much praise bestowed by major reviewers in the US as well as the UK. It even won the Pulitzer Prize. "Now I've got it [Hirohito's role] finally", one Washington D.C. insider told me. Numerous readers may well have murmured the same thing to themselves on closing the book.

The Emperor emerges as the politico-military leader responsible for the alleged rape of Nanking, the Pearl Harbour attack, Guadalcanal, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, indeed almost all developments prior to and during the war. Yet he succeeded after the war in retaining the throne and deceiving the nation and the world about the true role he chose to play.

This allegation is not new to informed readers in Japan. The endnotes reveal that the existing studies on the subject, upon which the author relied heavily, came mainly from the publishers that have thrived by selling works of Marx and Engels, Lenin and Stalin. Many scholars of those studies have been associated with the Japanese Communist Party. The leftist school of historians in Japan has long sold the same line as the author.

Yet Bix took it one important step further. I shall liken his attempt to put the events that unfolded in Japan before and during the war to Western syntax where, unlike in Japanese sentences, a subject always precedes actions. The emperor knew everything. He sanctioned all decisions. Therefore he is the one guiltiest of responsibility for the war. Hence it is said that "During 1940 Hirohito also sanctioned the first experimental use of bacteriological weapons in China". This syllogism, however nicely it fits into English syntax, is unsustainable.

Being aware of this, the author established plots here and there in the earlier part of the book. One such example appears as follows:

"Like a silent spider positioned at the centre of a wide, multisided web, Hirohito spread his filaments into every organ of state and the army and navy, absorbing - and remembering - information provided by others".

These remarks, always with no substantive evidence, serve a dual purpose: to make the above syllogism effortlessly absorbable and to continuously impress upon the readers a subliminal image - as a Coca Cola billboard in a film makes the viewer thirsty - that Hirohito willingly did what he did.

Still, a careful reader would notice that Bix was less successful than first meets the eye in his attempt at pinning all the responsibility for war onto the emperor. In one part, he writes about the "influential groups" in Japan that advocated a peaceful course for Japan's territorial expansion, "Nevertheless, these same leaders were already beginning to be carried by the momentum of their choices" [italics added]. A balanced person could also tell so far as history is concerned, this is often the case: it is not any single individual but "the momentum" that is the cause. The history of Showa Japan was no exception.

Not only that, the author also had to leave mutually contradictory judgements unchallenged. In one part he says that Hirohito did this and sanctioned that. Yet in another part he says that it was "Hirohito and his entourage" who were the decision makers. Indeed how can one successfully reconcile the following two descriptions?

"The Emperor had tried very seriously to delay, cancel, guide and limit the invasion [of Jehol in China] according to his judgement of the international situation [to no avail]".

"...[The Emperor] had reminded all the close-knit elites that he was the reason the system worked" [the author"s italics].

If the latter had been the case, how could the Emperor not have stopped the invasion of Jehol at the outset?

People create a momentum, the unpredictable result of which then leads the same people to take another action. If to depict this complex course of developments is a burden any historian has to shoulder, Bix was too single-heartedly searching for a hero to be a historian.

This is the product of a hard working student of history who took countless notes from the preceding works by leftist Japanese historians. Many entries that the author drew from memoirs such as Kido's served a purpose that he adopted while reading those works, that is to make a convincing case that Emperor Hirohito was the most culpable war criminal. In describing Japan's negotiations with the US and others on the brink of Pearl Harbour, Bix calls the attempts "partly sincere, partly fraudulent". One can assume that these words also apply to the book per se. When a book is compiled this way, its message often comes to sound unusually convincing. It might well be that Bix learned a grammar of demagoguery as well from his fellow Japanese historians.

"At this bleak moment in the war, when Imperial Headquarters was about to turn to planning future ground battles on the home islands, Hirohito may have drawn comfort from learning...that army and navy preparations were well under way to retaliate for the anticipated B-29 bombing raids" [italics added], Bix says. The retaliation he refers to here is Japan's launching of the wind-carried balloon bombs, the likelihood of whose hitting the target was probably as high as that of winning the national lottery. To many Japanese readers, this must be amongst the most disturbing part of the book, for once again, this appears as a plot for subsequent developments: the Tokyo air raids and ultimately, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications