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Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction: Herbert Bix

May 17, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: This year’s Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction went to Herbert Bix for his book “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan.” Hirohito was Japan’s emperor for 62 years from 1926 until his death in early 1989. The prevailing view had been that he was little more than a figurehead during the tumultuous years leading up to and during World War II. Drawing on newly available papers and diaries, Bix’s book argues that Hirohito was actually deeply involved in Japan’s planning and prosecution of the war. Herbert Bix is professor of history and sociology at Binghamton University in New York, and he joins us now. Welcome, Professor Bix, and congratulations.

HERBERT BIX: Thank you for having me.

MARGARET WARNER: As I said in the introduction, as we all know, the myth about Hirohito is that he was essentially a puppet, a figurehead, and that during this period leading up to the war and during the war, he was really manipulated by the militarists who were running the show. Now you conclude something quite different. tell us about it.

HERBERT BIX: Yes, indeed. He was neither a politically impotent figurehead, he was not a pacifist nor an anti-militarist; indeed, he wasn’t even a normal constitutional monarch in any conceivable western sense. He was a complex and highly conflicted and stubborn and nervous man who had been educated from early childhood to play a civil and a military and a religious role. The emperor my biography presents is – rather than being a politically impotent figurehead, was an active, hands-on interventionist and dynamic emperor.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just interrupt you there and go back to some of the events that we’re all very familiar with. Leading up to and during World War II – for instance the aggression against China in the 30s – did you find that that could not have happened but for his at least collaboration with the military/

HERBERT BIX: Indeed. Hirohito from the moment the China incident spread to the South of China to Shanghai urged a decisive blow be struck against the national government, Chiang Kai-shek, and thereafter, it was Hirohito who legitimized the war to chastise China, and he made it immoral in the eyes of most Japanese people.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, what about the bombing of Pearl Harbor?

HERBERT BIX: In the case of the Japanese attack on the American Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hirohito was deeply involved in every stage of decision making leading to the decision to attack Pearl Harbor. He was involved through I emphasize a process of informal bringings. Now, to westerners at that time Hirohito seemed to be just a puppet of the military’s, but I argue that, on the contrary, Japan never had a military dictatorship, and Hirohito – once he intervened forcefully against the wishes of his top military commanders and put down an army revolt in February 1936 – from that moment on when he began performing in his role as supreme commander of Japan’s armed forces – gradually, very gradually, playing a role which accustomed him to intervening and guiding strategy. And so once the Pearl Harbor attack plan was presented to him and he understood it and was persuaded of the scenario that Japan could fight the United States to a – at least to a draw – never win but the American people, he believed, would tire of the war, and Britain would be defeated, go down, and therefore Japan would be able to secure its lines – sea lines of communications and carve out a greater East Asia co-prosperity sphere.

MARGARET WARNER: But what about the abuse of prisoners during World War II/

HERBERT BIX: As the war unfolds, on schedule for the first six months, Hirohito watches every phase and offers guidance when the Japanese army invaded the Philippines and Manila fell – McArthur and his forces, General McArthur and his forces retreated to Bataan – the army wanted to ignore the American remnant in Bataan Peninsula, Hirohito insisted that Bataan be taken and this led to the infamous Bataan Death March.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, also here in the West, the image was that, as you said earlier, he was a pacifist and that ultimately he did surrender and that he had done so maybe over the wishes of the military, and you actually fault him for prolonging the war.

HERBERT BIX: That’s right. Far from being the hero who ended the war, rather than see his people suffer any longer, it’s his vacillation and refusal to accede to advice offered in February 1945, before the American incendiary B-29 raids on major Japanese cities began. He refused to accede to such advice, and he missed subsequently many other opportunities to end the war until it was too late.

MARGARET WARNER: Why – once the war was over – was (a) his role not fully understood and he not prosecuted as others were for war crimes?

HERBERT BIX: This occurred – the granting of immunity to the first acts as head of state to fall into allied hands was a very calculated decision on the part of General McArthur and the United States, America’s allies acceded to American wishes on this point – they believed that Hirohito could be used to effect occupation reforms. I argue that we could have had the same political outcome, a militarily – Japan militarily aligned to the United States and anti-Communists if Hirohito had been held accountable for the crimes committed under his rule, the American rule was to protect Hirohito, shield him from the military, international military tribunal, the Tokyo trials, and we did this. McArthur granted him other immunities. This was done – these were exercises in real polity and I believe that they had the most profound consequences for Japanese democracy and I believe also that the American government obstructed the Japanese people’s struggle to come to terms with their past. A seal was put on the study of Japanese and the teaching of Japanese history in the high schools, whole generations went through school and didn’t learn about the history of the 30s and early 40s. Only in the 1980s when the Cold War begins to wind down does the seal break and the textbook issue arise in Japanese politics and in Japanese relations with its neighbors. I say throughout most of the Cold War the American government bettered the Japanese government as it pursued a double standard on the war, telling the Japanese people that the war fought in the name of the emperor was a just war for self defense but for foreign consumption the Japanese successive conservative governments told the world that Japan had fought and apologized for the war of aggression.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, you’ve been living in Japan until recently. What has been the reaction of the Japanese people to this book?

HERBERT BIX: The reaction has been amazingly positive. The book in English has been a best seller in Japan ever since it came out. The response that I’ve received in the form of letters and phone calls and visits to my office from Japanese elderly and middle aged Japanese and some younger people has been extremely positive. There are some Japanese who have a visceral dislike of the emperor, regard him as a moral coward who never apologized to the Japanese people and never acted to take accountability for the war fought in his name.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Professor Bix, thank you very much, and, again, congratulations.

HERBERT BIX: Thank you for having me.