The Emperor’s Secrets

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

by Herbert P. Bix
HarperCollins, 800 pp., $35.00

Japanese reporter to Emperor Hirohito: “Your majesty, at your White House banquet you said, ‘I deeply deplore that unfortu-nate war.’ Does your majesty feel responsibility for the war itself, including the opening of hostilities? Also, what does your majesty think about so-called war responsibility?”

Emperor Hirohito: “I can’t answer that kind of question because I haven’t thoroughly studied the literature in this field, and so don’t really appreciate the nuances of your words.”

—Tokyo, 1975


So was Bergamini right after all? Perhaps I should explain. David Bergamini, an American journalist who was born in China and spent part of h is childhood in Japanese POW camps, published in 1971 a book of 1,239 pages, entitled Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy. For five years Bergamini had poured over “30,000 pages” of Japanese documents and US intelligence reports, “140,000 pages of collater al reading,” “272 reference books,” “50,000 pages of testimony” from the Tokyo war crimes trial, “5,613 pages of diaries” kept by high Japanese officials, and a whole lot more besides, and then had a revelation: “Countless ‘incidents’ which had once seeme d unfathomably Oriental began to make hard rational sense. Everything fell into place and reinforced my simple perception of the obvious: that Hirohito had, indeed, been Emperor.”1

In short, Bergam ini had uncovered a conspiracy. Far from being a hapless, pacific victim of “military cliques,” Emperor Hirohito and his courtiers had been plotting a war against the West since the 1920s. He “had inherited from his great-grandfather [the Meiji Emperor] a mission, which was to rid Asia of white men.” The unsavory truth, as revealed by Bergamini, was that

Hirohito had not only led his nation into war by stamping military orders but, through his coterie, had also intimidated those who oppos ed him by conniving in bizarre Oriental intrigues, including religious frauds, blackmails, and assassinations.

No sooner had the book appeared than another type of “coterie,” of American experts on Japan, sought to discredit Bergamini and his revelations. Sloppy scholarship and the odd Sax Romer–like tone of Bergamini’s prose—all those “bizarre Oriental intrigues”—made him a fairly easy target. James B. Crowley, a professor of Japanese history at Yale, led the assault in < i>The New York Times. Other heavy guns, such as the Harvard professor and former US ambassador Edwin O. Reischauer, followed. Crowley thundered: “If this latest conspiratorial view of the Pacific war gains any popular acclaim or credibility, th is reception, not Hirohito’s alleged conspiracy, deserves closer attention.”2 Bergamini died a bitter man, “driven to an early death,” according to a more sympathetic journalist and fellow biographer of H irohito, “by the weight of negative critical abuse.”3

Poor Bergamini—but was he right? Last year a book emerged from the ranks of American historians of Japan which argues that Hirohi to was indeed much more involved in wartime decisions than was previously assumed. The author, Herbert P. Bix, does not exactly prove Bergamini right, however. There was…

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