To many, Emperor Hirohito of Japan is remembered as a helpless figurehead during Japan's wars with China and the U.S. According to the received wisdom, he knew nothing of the plan to bomb Pearl Harbor and had no power to stop atrocities like the Rape of Nanking. The emperor was the mild-mannered little man who traipsed with Mickey Mouse in Disneyland and who brought peace through surrender, certainly not "one of the most disingenuous persons ever to occupy the modern throne." Herbert Bix's charged political biography, however, argues that such accepted beliefs are myths and misrepresentations spun by both Japanese and Americans to protect the emperor from indictment. Since Hirohito's death in 1989, hundreds of documents, diaries, and scholarly studies have been published (and subsequently ignored) in Japan. Historian Bix used these sources to develop this shocking and nuanced portrait of a man far more shrewd, activist, and energetic than previously thought. Caught up in the fever of territorial expansion, Hirohito was the force that animated the war system, who, acting fully as a military leader and head of state, encouraged the belligerency of his people and pursued the war to its disastrous conclusion. To the very end, Hirohito refused to acknowledge any responsibility for his role in the death of millions as well as the brutalities inflicted by his forces in China, Korea, and the Philippines. In fact, he worked with none other than General MacArthur to select his fall guys and fix testimony at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials--the emperor trying to protect the throne at all cost, the U.S. acting to ensure control of the Japanese population and the military by retaining Hirohito as a figurehead.
Not surprisingly, this hefty work of scholarship is making waves, as Americans and Japanese reconsider their roles in WWII and its aftermath. By placing Hirohito back in the center of the picture and puncturing the myths that surround him, Bix has effectively asked the Japanese to come out of their half-century repression of the past and face their wartime responsibility. Without doing so, he implies, the monarchy will forever impede the development of democracy. For those interested in Japan's wartime past and its influence on the present, this is fascinating, if lengthy, reading. --Lesley Reed
From Publishers Weekly
Bix penetrates decades of "public opacity" to offer a stunning portrait of the controversial Japanese emperor, "one of the most disingenuous persons ever to occupy the modern throne." Hirohito ascended to the Japanese throne in 1926 (at the age of 25) and ruled until his death in 1989. Bix closely examines his long, eventful reign, concentrating on the extent of the emperor's influence-which was greater than he admitted-over the political and military life of Japan during WWII. Bix's command of primary sources is apparent throughout the book, especially in the voluminous endnotes. From these sources, the author, a veteran scholar on modern Japanese history, draws a nuanced and balanced portrayal of an emperor who did not seek out war, but who demanded victories once war began and never took action to stop Japan's reckless descent into defeat. Bix makes Hirohito's later career intelligible by a careful exposition of the conflicting influences imposed on the emperor as a child: a passion for hard science coexisted with the myths of his own divine origin and destiny; he was taught benevolence along with belief in military supremacy. These influences unfolded as Hirohito was drawn into Japan's long conflict with China, its alliance with the fascist states of Europe, and its unwinnable war against the Allies. The dominant interest of the Showa ("radiant peace") Emperor, Bix convincingly explains, was to perpetuate the imperial system against more democratic opponents, no matter what the cost. Bix gives a meticulous account of his subject, delivers measured judgements about his accomplishments and failures, and reveals the subtlety of the emperor's character as a man who, while seemingly detached and remote, is in fact controlling events from behind the imperial screen. This is political biography at its most compelling. Agent, Susan Rabiner. (Sept.)
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