Japan's Imperial Conspiracy Revisited

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."

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.

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