October 17, 2011

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert Bix is somewhat misnamed, as 600 of 700 pages deal with the first half of Hirohito's life, from 1901–1950. 1950–1989 constitutes a long footnote. It's more Hirohito and the Making of WWII. Bix's analysis of WWII sets this hefty biography apart from previous efforts and the prevailing wisdom.

In short, Bix argues that the Showa Emperor, rather than being a passive pawn of the Tojo militarists, was deeply involved in every aspect of WWII. He was, to mix modern terms, an "activist" emperor who hung onto power as long as he could and deeply resented giving it up.

Perhaps Bix's most disturbing claim is that Hirohito himself was responsible—contrary to the propaganda fashioned both by MacArthur's GHQ and the Imperial staff and Hirohito himself—for delaying surrender until after Nagasaki, while he attempted to secure (largely through fruitless negotiations with the Soviet Union) the continuation of his reign in a post-war Japan.

Bix is not as compelling a writer as John Dower (Embracing Defeat). For one thing, Dower draws from a wider spectrum of secondary materials, such as mass-media publications, to flesh out his arguments. Bix's primary sources—diaries and interviews by members of the Imperial household, the parliament and the cabinet—bring us eyeball-to-eyeball with the day-to-day machinations that drove both the war and the peace, but it also results in dryer prose. It's all "inside politics."

And unlike with Germany, one finds not so much a banality of evil arising out of deliberate, malicious intent, but rather a banality of evil rising out of ego and incompetence and self-ingested propaganda and raw political power struggles. Japan's war-era cabinets tossed around prime ministers like juggling balls.

One apt criticism of Bix's approach is that his focus is so narrow that he never pulls back far enough to examine in any kind of depth the horrifying consequences of this Machiavellian, play-king gamesmanship.

But as does Dower, Bix concludes that the Tokyo trials ended up a farce to equal any Stalinist show trial. The real quest for the truth was corrupted by MacArthur's desire to use Hirohito for his own purposes, and, as Bix notes, Hirohito was only too happy to be used if it'd get him off the hook (and sell his subordinates down the river in the process).

To make matters worse, a dozen judges from Pacific Rim nations showed up at the trials, all with competing agendas.

The Nationalist Chinese, who had collected mountains of evidence of war crimes, checked their severest indictments in hopes of securing Japan's backing against the Communists. The OSS spirited away all the hard evidence of Japan's battlefield use of biological and chemical weapons. An iconoclastic judge from India was hardly upset that the British had spent four years getting their butts kicked by Asians.

Of course, MacArthur made sure that his battlefield enemies in the South Pacific were summarily tried and executed. Bix does credit MacArthur for being as aggravating to the Japanese as he was to the Joint Chiefs. The Japanese navy had anticipated a winner-take-all contest with Nimitz in the central Pacific, believing that the ultimate objective of naval warfare was "to win by hurling a large, powerful fleet into a single decisive battle."

After Pearl Harbor, every time the Japanese navy maneuvered itself into such an engagement, it lost, and badly. Equally unprepared to support a land war against MacArthur at the same time, it ended up throwing away a third of its resources in the process.

Perhaps Bix's most astute observations comes in the parallels he draws between MacArthur and Hirohito. They were diametrical opposites in terms of physical presence and personality, but both saw themselves at the center of all victory—the sole reason any great effort should and would succeed—while ascribing failure to dark forces and political conspiracies and placing the blame on their subordinates (and expecting them to do impossible things).

In the end, Hirohito's fascination with his own manufactured image as a divine emperor, combined with his incompetence (rarely questioned by his handlers), both led to the war and guaranteed that Japan would never win it. MacArthur's ego and presumptuousness (bolstered by a powerful cohort of ideological sympathizers in the State Department) meant that the emperor, and by extension the nation, would never take responsibility for it.

That is the Showa Emperor's true legacy, and one that unfortunately continues to this day.

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# posted by Anonymous Anonymous
11/25/2011 6:54 PM   
Lately, I have been reading about WWII, the War in the Pacific. I found a web site that compares the tonnage of ships and airplanes manufactured by both Japan and the United States. Basically, Japan was destined to lose this war from the very beginning.

See http://www.combinedfleet.com/economic.htm

R in Seattle