Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

Narrated by: Jonathan Yen
Length: 29 hrs and 55 mins
4 out of 5 stars (60 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

In this groundbreaking biography of the Japanese emperor Hirohito, Herbert P. Bix offers the first complete, unvarnished look at the enigmatic leader whose 63-year reign ushered Japan into the modern world. Never before has the full life of this controversial figure been revealed with such clarity and vividness. Bix describes what it was like to be trained from birth for a lone position at the apex of the nation's political hierarchy and as a revered symbol of divine status. 

Influenced by an unusual combination of the Japanese imperial tradition and a modern scientific worldview, the young emperor gradually evolves into his preeminent role, aligning himself with the growing ultranationalist movement, perpetuating a cult of religious emperor worship, resisting attempts to curb his power, and all the while burnishing his image as a reluctant, passive monarch. Here we see Hirohito as he truly was: a man of strong will and real authority.

Supported by a vast array of previously untapped primary documents, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan is perhaps most illuminating in lifting the veil on the mythology surrounding the emperor's impact on the world stage. Focusing closely on Hirohito's interactions with his advisers and successive Japanese governments, Bix sheds new light on the causes of the China War in 1937 and the start of the Asia-Pacific War in 1941. And while conventional wisdom has had it that the nation's increasing foreign aggression was driven and maintained not by the emperor but by an elite group of Japanese militarists, the reality, as witnessed here, is quite different. 

Bix documents in detail the strong, decisive role Hirohito played in wartime operations, from the takeover of Manchuria in 1931 through the attack on Pearl Harbor and ultimately the fateful decision in 1945 to accede to an unconditional surrender. In fact, the emperor stubbornly prolonged the war effort and then used the horrifying bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, together with the Soviet entrance into the war, as his exit strategy from a no-win situation. From the moment of capitulation, we learn how American and Japanese leaders moved to justify the retention of Hirohito as emperor by whitewashing his wartime role and reshaping the historical consciousness of the Japanese people. 

The key to this strategy was Hirohito's alliance with General MacArthur, who helped him maintain his stature and shed his militaristic image, while MacArthur used the emperor as a figurehead to assist him in converting Japan into a peaceful nation. Their partnership ensured that the emperor's image would loom large over the postwar years and later decades, as Japan began to make its way in the modern age and struggled - as it still does - to come to terms with its past.

Until the very end of a career that embodied the conflicting aims of Japan's development as a nation, Hirohito remained preoccupied with politics and with his place in history. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan provides the definitive account of his rich life and legacy. Meticulously researched and utterly engaging, this book is proof that the history of 20th-century Japan cannot be understood apart from the life of its most remarkable and enduring leader.

©2016 Herbert P. Bix (P)2018 Tantor

Critic Reviews

"A historical bombshell.... Compelling.... The most controversial book yet on Japan's previous emperor." (The Economist)

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Japan's WWII

This is a book about World War II from Japan's perspective. This is an interesting story, but leaves the book with a misleading title.

The book is too long, given all the things that it doesn't cover. The book covers about a century of Japan's history (from the late 1800s to the late 1900s), but it gives almost no background on what else was going on in Japan during this era, or what influenced that era. Without being an expert on Japan's history, I felt like I was left with a lot of contextual gaps.

My point of comparison is Ron Chernow's "The House of Morgan." This too is a very long book that focuses on a similar length of time with an emphasis on a specific family. Chernow gives all the appropriate context, so that the book is more a history of the US during that era. It also is exceedingly readable, where Bix's text felt like more of a slog.

Ironically, I'm left feeling as though the US's decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan at the end of WWII was justified, which is a big surprise to me. World War II was preceded by adamant nationalism and imperialism across the globe. Japan was going to continue fighting WWII to the death, even though they effectively lost in 1944. The bombs helped to humble all parties involved. This is in no way a justification for nuclear war—nuclear war should never be an option. Instead, I'd like to call attention to the fact that global war places leaders in a position of needing to make impossible decisions.

The book opens with a bizarre tirade against the US military. Anger at the US military is justified; it's just confusing why the editors left it in a book that's supposedly a biography of a Japanese emperor.

Whereas I get the sense that it is the English throne's responsibility to serve the people of their nation, Japan flipped this dynamic on its head. It is the people's responsibility to serve the emperor, and the emperor serves his ancestors (a task which is often directly at odds with the needs of his nation).

2 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars

Ruined by narration

Jonathan Jen's narration made it hard for me to finnish, what is probably a great book. Bix give a very negative account of Hirohito. Other histories I've read don't give the emperor so much power. Reading this, one would believe Hirohito was responsible for Japan's war as well as it's defeat. If possible I recommend the print version. Even though , I disliked the narrative, the book was worth my credit. However I'm not sure of it's view of the emperor.

4 people found this helpful

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Interesting Western take on Hirohito

While the views expressed are undoubtedly western based, it is nonetheless an interesting story perspective.

1 person found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars

Incredibly biased and doesn't back up assertions

I've had to skip the first two sections. I've been fascinated by Japan and it's history, but this author's upfront opinions are painful and they seem to be conjecture with little fact. It's the equivalent of reading Mother Jones, Breitbart, or listening to AOC. I had to give it up after he said patents on new technology or drugs shouldn't be protected internationally - it's not fine to steal domestically, but it is fine to steal internationally?

I finally finished the rest of the book, which was quite interesting and seems to be one of the few fulsome books on the topic.

8 people found this helpful

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Skip the first two segments of this book

This is a good book full of great facts and well written. But the author is clearly far left and uses a Marxist Anti American lens to see the events of the world. I wish the author would of kept his political criticisms to his self and just focused on the main point of the book. Other than his repugnant and non-historical view of America in the early 20th century, he does a wonderful job in this book.

7 people found this helpful

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this is a painful anti American diatribe. b

the author makes clear his hatred for American policies. he leaves out Chinese communism and the effects therefore on current geopolitik..

avoid this

1 person found this helpful

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Far left anti American

I stopped listening after two chapters. The writer criticized the US
time and again. I would not recommend this book to anyone today except the anti American protesters.

1 person found this helpful