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From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix
By TODD CROWELL

November 30, 2000
Web posted at 8:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 7:00 a.m. EST


Considering its delicate subject matter and the conclusions it draws, Herbert Bix's new biography of the late Showa emperor, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, has drawn surprisingly benign comments in Japan. "I did get a few strange telephone calls when the book first came out," Bix told me from his home in Tokyo. "But a lot of the Japanese who write or send me e-mails say that Gen. [Douglas] MacArthur was wrong when he insisted on protecting the emperor immediately after Japan's surrender."

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The book, which came out last summer, caused a considerable stir in the West and Asia with its conclusion that, far from being a passive figure manipulated by militarists, Hirohito actively participated in every phase of the war. The Japanese were a little slower to react. The Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading newspaper, did not run a lengthy review until November, which Bix says was very positive. Kodansha, one of Japan's leading publishers, has agreed to bring out a Japanese-language edition. Meanwhile, the English version is selling pretty well, ranking 12th in the Internet sales of foreign-language books in the country.

All of this suggests that the Japanese public are more open to a franker discussion of the emperor's role in the war years than is sometimes portrayed. Consider, for example, the controversy that accompanied Iris Chang's book The Rape of Nanking, which came out a few years ago. Few Japanese publishers would touch it. But then her book had a very strong polemical, in-your-face, tone that put off many Japanese, even those willing to accept her argument. Not that Bix doesn't have strong opinions. He argues that the American-Japanese whitewash of the emperor's role has stunted the development of Japanese democracy.

Bix has another explanation for the more positive acceptance of his version of events. "I think one reason Japanese feel comfortable with the book is because 90% of the sources are Japanese." A professor of history at Hitotubashi University, Bix draws on letters and diaries of imperial-court figures and government officials that have come into the public domain only since Emperor Hirohito's death in 1989.

Of course, the Japanese emperor is difficult subject for any scholars. The Imperial Household Agency denies archeologists access to ancient burial sites for fear, it is thought, that they might provide evidence tracing the imperial ancestry back to migrating Koreans. The annals of the Emperor Meiji were not published until a hundred years after the Restoration, and even now historians have been denied access to some of the diaries of his chamberlains. Hirohito is believed to have kept a personal diary since he was 11, but it's highly unlikely anyone outside the court will ever be allowed to read them.

Bix believes that there was a six-month "window of opportunity" immediately after the Japanese surrender in 1945 when the Japanese public would have accepted some kind of punishment of the emperor, possibly abdication in favor of his son, the current emperor, Akihito. Unfortunately, the U.S. government put too much trust in MacArthur's judgment that the emperor had to be protected and co-opted as a tacit partner in the Occupation.

In many ways, Bix's biography complements and enlarges on the recent Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Occupation years, Embracing Defeat, by John Dower. The latter's history goes into great detail about the extraordinary steps that MacArthur and his staff took to shield Hirohito from any kind of prosecution and to propagate the myth that he was a closet pacifist and helpless puppet of military. Writers who tried to debunk this myth, such as David Bergamini in his book Japan's Imperial Conspiracy, were dismissed as cranks.

I asked Bix why his book has been accepted with more respect than Bergamini's, even though they reach some similar conclusions. "Remember, Bergamini's book was published in 1971," he replied. "At the time very little had been written that contravened the MacArthur myth. His book took some courage, but embedded in it was a full-blown conspiracy theory that no sane person could accept. It had a strong moralistic tone, equating, say, Nanking with Hiroshima, and it made Hirohito out to be a dictator. Relying to a large extent on anecdotal evidence, it was easy to attack and put a lot of people off the idea of Hirohito's culpability in the war."

So was the emperor a puppet or a dictator? "It is hard for Westerners, and some Asians, to understand different styles of leadership," says Bix. "Hirohito was not the puppet he was portrayed to be after the war. But then people leap to the conclusion that he was a dictator, and that's not true either." It is commonplace to think of emperors as helpless figureheads manipulated by people behind the scenes. But throughout Japan's history, there have been times when power and authority have converged on the person of the emperor. The Meiji emperor was one such figure. Hirohito was another.


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