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Journal of World History 10.1 (1999) 263-265

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Emperor Hirohito and Shòwa Japan: A Political Biography. By Stephen S. Large. London: Routledge, 1992. Pp. xii + 249. $18.95 (paper).

The questions surrounding the role of Japanese emperor Hirohito in the rise of Japanese militarism in the 1930s and Japanese participation in World War II have resounded from the immediate end of thewar to this day. Part of the problem with this debate is that it hasposed as opposites issues that in reality have rested more easily together. The dichotomy between rational Western political liberalism and "irrational" Eastern political nationalism and authoritarianism is one of the bases for the accusation that the Showa emperor is to blamefor Japanese fascism and war. According to this distinction, the absolute ruler of Japan, Hirohito, governed as an evil autocrat, unhindered by liberal political impulses. Stephen Large, in Emperor Hirohito and Shōwa Japan, puts this mistaken assumption to rest by showing [End Page 263] that Emperor Hirohito became committed to constitutional monarchy in Japan even before he took the throne. He was to reign, not to rule, as a limited, not an absolute, monarch. But this dichotomy poses a deeper problem: what if intense nationalism and liberalism are more compatible than scholars have assumed? Then the debate over the emperor's role and Japan in the 1930s and 1940s cannot be boiled down to a choice between liberal democracy or fascist aberration, but can be seen as part of the basic patterns of nationalism in the modern world.

Under this new framework, one can no longer dismiss the Japan of the 1930s as a period of "atrocious Emperor system fascism," but instead must see it in other terms. First, Large identifies the rise of a Japanese "civil religion" of nationalism. This belief has been identified in other nations, such as the United States and Britain, as indispensable to the building of the modern nation. Second, historian of Japan Andrew Gordon has used the term "Imperial Democracy" to define greater democratic participation in the Taisho period (1912-26) while there was still greater patriotic devotion to the emperor. Finally, scholars must continue to focus on Japan's vision of its role in greater east Asia in this period. Even Large succumbs at times to the rationality-irrationality part of this dichotomy. In a discussion of the intense debate within Japan over Minobe Tatsukichi's organ theory in 1935, Large suggests that if Minobe's view had won, Japan's course would have been rationality, and when Minobe was ultimately discredited, "it correspondingly meant that irrationality would prevail."

Overall, however, Large has made an immense contribution to the debate over the role of the emperor in World War II. He may well have ended the debate among serious scholars. This book, winner of the Ōhira Masayoshi Memorial Prize, is a very readable, balanced, and interesting account. In addition, Large is a capable researcher on the central question of the emperor's role in World War II. He paints a clear picture of an emperor who was quite limited in his powers to change the course of Japanese policy and history. Foremost is Hirohito's acceptance of the concept of constitutional monarchy, which in turn served as a self-imposed limit on his willingness to step in at crucial moments, such as the Manchurian incident of 1931 and the decision to bomb Pearl Harbor ten years later. Prince Saionji, the last of the elder statesmen, or genro, who were the real rulers of Japan at the end of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, was committed to the British system of constitutional monarchy and evidently exerted tremendous influence upon Hirohito even before he took the [End Page 264] thronein 1926. Interestingly, Hirohito sided mostly with the liberals in the run-up to military domination of Japanese politics in the 1930s. He wholeheartedly supported Minobe's organ theory, which argued for limits upon the power of the monarchy, and was shocked and dismayed at the public denunciation of this distinguished constitutional scholar...