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'Hirohito And The Making of Modern Japan' by Herbert P. Bix

Hirohito's hold on Japan

Sunday, October 29, 2000

By Len Barcousky, Post-Gazette Staff Writer


Hirohito And The Making of Modern Japan

By Herbert P. Bix



You know you are in for a rough read when a biographer warns that his subject “was a reticent person who spoke most eloquently sometimes by not speaking at all.” Just a few pages later, Herbert P. Bix writes that “there is as much to be learned from what [Emperor Hirohito] does not say and do as [from] what he does.”

More than a decade after his death in 1989, Hirohito’s private papers, letters, recorded “conversations” and even his personal file in the U.S. National Archives all remain sealed. The emperor likely kept diaries, but those volumes, too, remain closed to historians.

Despite the handicaps under which he labored for a decade, Bix has produced an interesting and valuable work. He requires almost 700 pages to tell the story, and he makes good use of them. His book has a comprehensive index and includes two dozen well-chosen photographs.

This is not to say Bix has produced a page-turner. Many readers will start to feel woozy after the fifth or sixth Japanese Cabinet change during the 1930s. I had to check back regularly in my scribbled notes to review the meanings of kokutai -- national polity or principles of the state -- and its relationship to kodo, the imperial way with the emperor at its center.

An experienced teacher of Japanese history, Bix does a good job in setting Hirohito in his time and place. Born in 1901, he was the grandson of the so-called Meiji Emperor, a fearsome figure who began to modernize Japan at the same time as he restored power to the monarchy.

Meiji was followed by Hirohito’s father Yoshihito, a sickly man who reigned briefly and then was replaced by Hirohito as regent. When his father died in 1926, Hirohito became emperor at 25.

Bix writes in his introduction that his book incorporates the work of many contemporary Japanese historians. His goal was to revise the traditional image most Westerners have of Hirohito. As Bix interprets the evidence, Hirohito was not a benign figurehead betrayed by his generals but an active player in murderous aggression.

It is undeniable that the first two decades of his reign saw the violent expansion of the Japanese empire into Manchuria and China. Bix shows that Hirohito was consulted on and approved the Japanese military adventures that reached their peak with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the invasion of the Philippines.

Bix makes a convincing case that Hirohito had to know about massacres of Chinese civilians yet said nothing. He had the authority to reduce the mistreatment of prisoners of war, but he did not. He was best positioned to urge his generals to seek peace at least a year before the war ended, and he delayed.

Whatever his sins of commission and omission, they were overshadowed by the need of postwar Japanese leaders and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Allied occupation forces, to maintain the emperor as a rallying point and symbol of the nation.

Hirohito understood subtleties. As part of a Japanese-American effort to avoid the emperor’s indictment as a war criminal, Hirohito had to explain, in writing, his role during the war in Asia. When he summoned his secretaries, they found him dressed in fine white silk. That was no accident, Bix writes. His attire was a symbol not of repentance or regret but of ritual purity.

It is surprising to read that Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of Nationalist China, was almost as important in saving Hirohito from indictment or abdication as MacArthur. That is because Chiang saw him as a bulwark against his real enemies, the Chinese communists.

Bix makes a strong but ultimately unconvincing case against Hirohito as a major war criminal. There is no doubt that he was briefed about major events, including the attack on Pearl Harbor, but less evidence that his approval was more than a formality.

“As the matter has gone this far, it can’t be helped,” he said, when forced to accept a new American-sponsored constitution for Japan. Those same words might also sum up his reign.

Ultimately, Hirohito appears more like the King Victor Emmanuel. The Italian monarch was willing to share Benito Mussolini’s early triumphs but was even more eager to distance himself from the dictator when the war turned against Italy.

Despite his maneuvering, Victor Emmanuel lost his throne at war’s end. But Japan was not Italy.

To understand the difference, consider the jaw-dropping statements by the new Japanese prime minister at two news conferences a few weeks after war in the Pacific ended.

Rather than complaining that Hirohito had misled his people into starting and supporting a war that killed millions, he apologized to his emperor. “So I feel at this time the entire nation -- the military, the government officials, and the people -- must thoroughly reflect and repent,” Prime Minister Higashikuni said.

Of the emperor, he said, “We deeply regret having caused him so much concern.”

Hirohito died at 87 after 62 years on the throne, the longest reign in Japanese history. If there was one lesson from his reign, it may be this: Being emperor of Japan means never having to say you are sorry.

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