Peter Gay's Bourgeoisie


Elizabeth: The Young Gloriana

Direct Testimony, 1307

Founding Ambiguities

Getting Business Going

Greatness Recollected


Impresario of Art

James Madison

Pazzi v Medici

Paris 1919



Tsushima and Tsar Nicholas

A. N. Wilson's Victorians


When I sat down to write about Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, by Herbert P. Bix (HarperCollins), I was under the mistaken impression that it had won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for History. Happily, things aren't as bad as that. Thanks to Google (and a very reasonable distrust of impressions that aren't backed up in black and white), I discovered that the award that Hirohito did win was the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography/
Autobiography. Whatever the relative merits of the NBCCA and the Pulitzer, the difference between biography and history is a serious one, although arguably there shouldn't be a difference at all. Ideally, a biography is the history of one life. In practice, though, few biographies exhibit the temperament or the method of history. Mr Bix's book certainly doesn't.

Until about ten years ago, the word 'tendentious' was not in my vocabulary, and when I encountered it in Susan Reynolds's brilliantly scrupulous Fiefs and Vassals (Oxford, 1994), I didn't know what to make of it. Eventually I grasped that the word is used to bracket evidence and arguments that are too biased to be trusted. Tendentious evidence isn't necessarily false, but by itself it conveys a false understanding. 'Tendentious history' smacks of the oxymoronic. While nobody can completely suppress bias, we expect historians to bend over backward in the pursuit of comprehensive justice. Having an axe to grind is the besetting sin of political pamphleteers.

Hirohito could hardly be more tendentious. Bix believes that the late Emperor of Japan was villainously complicit with the nationalists whose schemes and propaganda swept his country's military into China and across the Pacific. He has written his book to demonstrate that Hirohito was not a benignant figurehead. Not surprisingly, the evidence marshaled in his book is very largely circumstantial; Hirohito left few fingerprints on the historical record. Bix's project parallels that of Holocaust scholars who seek to establish that Hitler knew that masses of Jews were being gassed at camps such as Auschwitz. But whereas Ian Kershaw convinced me, in Hitler 1936-45: Nemesis (Norton, 2000), that Hitler did indeed know, it's unlikely that Bix will convince me of anything.

I write this not quite half way through the very thick Hirohito. I dread the job of reading the rest of it. The book is not only slanted but hard to read. Bix has so completely focused his attention on Hirohito's state of mind that he doesn't bother to portray the men with whom the emperor interacted. What we get instead is a parade of names to which political convictions have been tacked on. More colorless narrative cannot be imagined. Here's the last paragraph that I've read so far (it appears on page 313): "Following the February 26, 1936, uprising, under the prime ministerships of Hirota and Hayashi, the emperor and his entourage became more supportive of reinforcing his theoretically unassailable powers from below. In this context the Ministry of Education accelerated efforts to further the nation's spiritual mobilization for a possible protracted war, and on May 31, 1937, published and distributed for school use an estimate three hundred thousand copies of Kokutai no hongi (The Fundamentals of the national polity). Eventually more than two million copies were sold nationwide." Trust me, this sort of writing is very representative of Hirohito. It shouldn't occur in books that win prizes. (June 2001)

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