Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japanby Herbert P. Bix
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This is the rare work of impeccable scholarship that will also be fascinating to the general reader. Nearly every page of the book offers provocative insights about the man who was previously known in the Western world mainly as a stereotype. Herbert Bix offers a more complicated and convincing picture of an active political leader who shaped his country's fate in war and peace.
(James Fallows, author of Looking at the Sun: The Rise of the New East Asian Economic and Political System)
New York Times Book Review
U.S. New & World Report
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Read an Excerpt
The Boy, the Family, and the Meiji Legacies
Emperor Meiji's first grandson was born on April 29, 1901, within the Aoyama Palace in Tokyo. The moment was one of national delight, and virtually the entire nation celebrated, especially the court. The spirits of the reigning emperor's ancestors were duly notified that the blessed event had come to pass, and that the baby seemed hale and vigorous. An heir had been born; the ancient dynasty would continue, “unbroken,” for at least a few more generations. Scholars wise in the complexity of names and titles conferred. The infant, they announced, would be given the title “Prince Michi,” connoting one who cultivates virtue, and given the name “Hirohito,” taken from the terse Chinese aphorism that when a society is affluent, its people are content.
The young but chronically ill Crown Prince Yoshihito, next in line to the throne, was twenty-one that spring. The bloomingly fit Princess Sadako was just sixteen. In time she would bear him three more sons: Yasuhito and Nobuhito in 1902 and 1905 respectively, and Takahito (Prince Mikasa) in 1915.2 As for the baby's grandfather, Emperor Meiji, at forty-eight he had occupied the Chrysanthemum Throne for thirty-four years, and would continue to reign for eleven more.
According to custom, the children of Japanese royals were raised apart from their parents, under the care of an appropriate surrogate. Yoshihito had been taken while still a very small infant to be raised the time-honored way. Shortly after his birth in 1879, he contracted cerebral meningitis. Meiji insisted that he be treated according to traditional (Chinese herbal) rather than Western medicalpractice.3 The baby failed to respond quickly and thereafter struggled through a hard, painful, often bedridden childhood. At different periods lasting several years he could seem more or less normal, but there were other times when he was hopelessly afflicted, and he was never robust. He became a royal dropout after managing somehow to graduate from the primary course of the Peers' School (Gakushuin) and to finish one year of middle school.
Could the origin of the crown prince's problems have been in part genetic? Emperor Meiji had fathered fifteen children by five different women, and lost eleven of them. Yoshihito, the third son, was the only male to survive, and his mother was not the empress but one of Meiji's many concubines. Inevitably the court suspected that hundreds of years of imperial inbreeding had resulted in a genetic defect of some sort that might show itself in the generation that would be sired by Yoshihito.
Naturally enough Meiji and his advisers took extreme care in choosing the princess who would marry Yoshihito and bear his offspring. Their ultimate choice was Princess Kujo Sadako, a young girl from one of the highest-ranking court families. The Kujo were a branch of the ancient Fujiwara, a lineage that reached back to the late twelfth century, when its founding ancestor had become regent for the then-reigning emperor. Sadako had excellent evaluations at the girls' division of the Peers' School. Intelligent, articulate, petite, she was especially admired for her pleasant disposition and natural dignity. In all her attributes she was just the opposite of Yoshihito.
The couple, who had met on several chaperoned occasions, were married in early 1900. As the years passed, Sadako grew in self-confidence and maturity, and the wisdom Meiji had shown in choosing her for his son was more and more praised.Emperor Meiji, in consultation with Yoshihito and Sadako, had decided that his grandson Hirohito should be reared in the approved modern manner, by a military man. It seemed wise, therefore, that the parental surrogate be a married army or navy officer who could provide the child not only with a good family atmosphere but also a martial influence. His first choice, Gen. Oyama Iwao, declined to undertake this heavy responsibility. They then turned to the elderly Count Kawamura Sumiyoshi, a retired vice admiral and ex–navy minister from the former Satsuma domain (a feudal fiefdom equivalent to a semisovereign state), and asked him to rear the child just as though he were his own grandson. Kawamura, a student of Confucian learning, could be further trusted because he was a distant relation by marriage of Yoshihito's mother.6 On July 7, the seventieth day after his birth, Hirohito was removed from the court and placed in the care of the Kawamura family. At the time Kawamura allegedly resolved to raise the child to be unselfish, persevering in the face of difficulties, respectful of the views of others, and immune from fear.7 With the exception of the last, these were characteristics that distinguished Hirohito throughout his life.
Hirohito was fourteen months old when his first brother'Yasuhito (Prince Chichibu)'joined him at the Kawamura mansion in Tokyo's hilly, sparsely populated Azabu Ward. The two infants remained with the Kawamuras for the next three and a half years, during which time three doctors, several wet nurses, and a large staff of servants carefully regulated every single aspect of their lives, from the Western-style food they ate to the specially ordered French clothing in which they were often dressed. Then in November 1904, at the height of the Russo-Japanese War, the sixty-nine-year-old Kawamura died. Hirohito, age three, and Chichibu, two, rejoined their parents'first at the imperial mansion in Numazu, Shizuoka prefecture, and later in the newly built Koson Palace within the large (two-hundred-acre) wall-enclosed compound of the crown prince's Aoyama Palace. In 1905 Nobuhito (Prince Takamatsu) was born, and toward the end of that year joined his brothers at their Koson Palace home. Their care was directed at first by Yoshihito's newly appointed grand chamberlain, Kido Takamasa; later their own special chamberlain was appointed.
During this earliest formative phase of Hirohito's life, one of the chief nurses attending him was twenty-two-year-old Adachi Taka, a graduate of the Tokyo Higher Teacher's School and later the wife of Hirohito's last wartime prime minister, Adm. Suzuki Kantaro. Taka could well have been called his substitute mother. Remembering this period later in her own life, Taka contrasted Hirohito's calm, deliberate, sedate nature and body movements as a baby with those of the more energetic, curious, and temperamental Chichibu.8 The brothers were indeed very different emotionally, both as little boys and as adults. But young Hirohito was more assertive than she intimates, while the mature Showa emperor was the embodiment of energetic monarchism, and much more driven by emotions than nurse Taka ever foresaw.
What People are saying about this
(Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor, Dept. of Linguistics and Philosophy, M.I.T.)
(Lester C. Thurow, Lemelson Professor of Management and Economics, the Sloan School, M.I.T.)
(John W. Dower, author of Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II)
(Michael Schaller, author of Altered States: The U.S. and Japan since the Occupation)
(Andrew Gordon, Director, Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University)
(Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire)
Meet the Author
Herbert P. Bix grew up in Winthrop, Massachusetts, and earned his Ph.D. in history and Far Eastern languages from Harvard University. For the past thirty years he has written extensively on modern and contemporary Japanese history in leading journals in the United States and Japan. He has taught Japanese history at a number of American and Japanese universities, most recently at Harvard, and is currently a professor in the Graduate School of Social Sciences at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.
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This is a political, not personal biography, as little of Hirohito the man emerges from these pages. Perhaps that is just as well, since Hirohito the man seems to be completely subsumed by his role as emperor, the changing meaning of which Bix amply and adequately demonstrates. For a biography designed to place Hirohito's reign in proper historical perspective, the book at times lacks proper historical background - it is not sufficient to contrast Hirohito's reign with that of his grandfather, the Meiji Emperor, whose reign was so transformative of the Japanese monarchy. What of the emperors who preceded Meiji? What was the monarchy like under them? Moreover, for a reader essentially unfamiliar with the 'traditional' portrait of Hirohito as removed and uninvolved, the book rarely indicates where its findings specifically overturn that image. Rarely does one find a sentence along the following lines: 'In contrast to the prevailing view that Hirohito was not involved in matter X (source), document Y clearly indicates that he was'. One could read the entire book without getting the sense that it is 'revisionist', 'revolutionary' or anything of the sort. In fact, because of the lack of mention of the 'conventional wisdom' of his lack of culpability, the actions of many of the characters in dealing with Hirohito is almost inexplicable. Having said that, the book is meticulously detailed and well researched with one significant caveat - as Bix makes clear, Hirohto's own papers are sealed, and certain US Government files on Hirohito are still unavailable. These sources would likely be outstandingly rich, but perhaps the very fact of their remaining secret confirms Bix's revisionist portrait.
Herbert Bix's biography of Emperor Hirohito of Japan is an outstanding work, but it must be read with caution, a critical eye and an open mind. The work is permeated with a sense of Bix's righteous indignation at Hirohito's escape from censure for his part in Japan's role in China and in the Second World War and this seems to color his judgment when facts grow thin and motivations are evaluated. What Bix contributes to the historical record regarding Hirohito, the Japanese military, and Japan's wars is important and revealing. In Western culture the term 'emperor' connotes Rome with a sort of English royalty superimposed on it, a blend of the two greatest empires of the Western world. What gets lost in this merger is the memory that the emperor in the Roman system enjoyed a godhead and that the empire was partly a theocracy. Theocracy is a missing element in most evaluations of the seemingly insane strategic decisions that governed Japan's entry into, atrocities during, and conduct of World War II. The blind faith that overrode rationality in upper echelons of the Army and Navy makes more sense in the light of the theocratic Shintoist emperor system. Bound up with a system of belief in a state headed by a living god, the racist inhumanity of Japanese atrocities becomes more understandable, but not justifiable. The willingness to 'die for the Emperor' in banzai charges and kamikaze flights also becomes more clear. But where Bix's work raises question marks is in his evaluation of Hirohito's role. While Bix has unearthed an emperor who definitely had a hand in government and the fatal decisions that propelled Japan into war, and bore unacknowledged responsibility for those decisions, he has not necessarily proven Hirohito to be their animating force. But that is the light in which Bix evaluates those missing elements of the record that call for speculation. An alternative interpretation occurs which, while not going as far as Bix's evaluation, does not divorce Hirohito from his responsibility. Where Bix sees Hirohito as an animating force in the actions of Japan's ruling elites and militarists, too often that animation comes in the form of ratifying faits accompli. Too often intentions that Bix would have us believe were formed by Hirohito were initiated by others, sometimes without Hirohito's foreknowledge. What occurs is that, perhaps, Hirohito did not hold the initiative in the Japanese government. What becomes apparent in Bix's description of Hirohito's upbringing, personality and conduct, is that he was so insulated from reality that he never enjoyed an undistorted view of the world. He was certainly not the disconnected figurehead who only stepped in at the last moment to save Japan from more atomic bombs and partition with the Soviets. He was definitely active in charting Japan's course, but he did not necessarily hold the compass. Bix would have us see Hirohito as the ultimate master of indirect rule, served by private intelligence systems to feed him the truth and manipulating all from behind the scenes in ways to make governmental decision appear to be the unanimous work of others presented to him only for his purely ceremonial rubber stamp. But was this a mastermind at work, or a relatively intelligent but confused and uncertain man trying to keep his head above water in a political/religious system he nominally enjoyed power over, but in which his military routinely indulged in acts of grand insubordination, assassination and mutiny? Japanese emperors had been deposed before, and while Hirohito nominally controlled the military, it obeyed when it chose and the ruling elites talked behind his back of the emperor's less than godlike bearing. Had he been other than the awkward intellectual he was, Hirohito might w