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Home > Books & Journals > Book Review Last Updated: 14:22 03/09/2007
Book Review #12: July 26, 2001

Commentary on "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan"

Toshio G. Tsukahira, Ph.D. (Los Angeles, California)

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


Herbert Bix, in his book, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), has written a useful biography of the Showa emperor Hirohito particularly by tracing the early education and training of the future monarch of modern Japan. Delving into hitherto unpublished materials, the author has depicted in illuminating detail the life of the emperor whose reign saw Japan develop as an imperialist power advancing its interests in Asia against the opposition of the Western powers, suffer defeat and occupation by the Allied Powers and eventually emerge on the world stage as a war-renouncing economic giant.

Mr. Bix has also written a political tract. He argues that Emperor Hirohito was personally an expansionist and played a pivotal role in the planning for and execution of Japan's aggressive war against China and the rest of Asia. He concludes that therefore the Emperor should have been tried as a war criminal. He further charges that for policy reasons the U.S. Government and General MacArthur as the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) deliberately propagated the myth that Hirohito was a powerless puppet in the hands of the Japanese militarists and ultranationalist expansionists and that his role was that of a constitutional monarch not a maker of policy.

The problem with this argument is that it attacks a straw man. No reputable scholar specializing in the history of modern Japan believes that the Emperor Hirohito was totally uninvolved in the direction of policy during the pre-WWII period, Nor did the U.S. Government believe that the Emperor, who ruled during the Manchurian Incident, the Japanese invasion of China and the Pacific War, had no awareness of nor interest in the decisions behind these actions.

The question of the Emperor's war guilt is an academic one. In a broad sense, he was as guilty as any of his generals and official advisers who were involved in policymaking. As the author's detained account makes clear, Hirohito demonstrated very little executive leadership Only in a rare instances when his advisors were deadlocked in crisis situations, such as the army revolt in February 1936 and the surrender decision in August 1945, did the Emperor act decisively. He exerted his influence for the most part by indirect means. Bix's own meticulous descrip-tion of the Emperor's role in the developments of the 1930s, including the Japanese takeover of Manchuria and actions and decisions that ultimately led to the Pearl Harbor attack, shows an often opportunistic, vacillating, and indecisive individual in situations where he in whose name actions were taken frequently had little control over the cour! se of events. Hirohito's main motivations were to protect and maintain the prestige and prerogatives of the imperial institution as it was shaped under his grandfather during the Meiji Period. Events often took place without his knowledge before the fact and often not necessarily to his liking, but it was clear that he personally approved the general thrust of the military extremists towards expansion and military action once he was convinced that there was a chance of success.

In sum, it is already a matter of historical record that Emperor Hirohito was actively involved in the Japanese governmental process that led to Japan's expansionism in Asia and ultimately to the Pacific War against the Allied powers. In the absence of direct evidence that he was directly and personally responsible for specific war crimes, the Emperor was not put before the War Crimes Tribunal by the Allied Powers because important practical considerations weighed against indicting him for actions done in his name. No evidence has been produced, not even by Mr. Bix in his detailed study, proving that Hirohito himself actually made key decisions initiating military aggression or was ever personally responsible for specific war crime offenses.

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