This isn’t exactly “hot off the presses,” but I just finished “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan” by Herbert Bix. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001. I got it for Father’s Day and have been reading it on and off ever since. (The kids thought I’d be interested because I spent a fair amount of time telling them about Dan Carlin’s excellent Hardcore History podcast series called “Supernova in the East” about the rise of Japan between 1853 – 1945).
The Hirohito book is plenty readable and the subject matter is very interesting. Even so, at nearly 700 pages and with me being mostly unfamiliar with the many personalities involved, it was a bit of a slog. The book spends a good amount of time on Hirohito’s upbringing and sets the stage with enough detail about the Meiji era as well as his father’s reign and how those informed the early part of Hirohito’s reign. One thing leads to another and, before long, Japan’s acquisition of chunks of China is proceeding apace. Then it has the tiger by the tail. Domestic politics were such that Hirohito and those in his circle didn’t see a way (and it’s not clear they had any appetite to do so in any event) to back away from imperial expansionism without support at home collapsing. They seemed to have kind of known that they had no clear exit plan once they attacked the U.S.
The hope seems to have been that they would strike a devastating blow, expand rapidly, and then when the U.S. geared up for war, they could back off from some of their acquisitions into a more defensible position and then negotiate a more favorable peace than would have been possible had they not attacked in the first place. But, among other things, Japan had trouble retreating to more defensible areas in a timely fashion. The WWII geeks will have far more detail about the military history of the period. This has plenty, but the main focus is (as the title would suggest) Hirohito.
Bix makes the case that Hirohito was far more involved in the decision making leading up to and during the war than was acknowledged in the post- war period. Following Japan’s surrender, it was a useful fiction for MacArthur and the U.S. to pretend that Hirohito was mainly a figurehead who, left to his own devices, would have preferred peace. This allowed the U.S. to leave Hirohito in place where he could be influential in getting the Japanese people to come to terms with the post-war status quo. This was beneficial to Hirohito inasmuch as he was allowed to remain on the throne and not be tried for war crimes.
The book mostly ends around 1952 when the Treaty of San Francisco ended post-war occupation of Japan. There is very brief discussion of the next 37 years or so of Hirohito’s life. I’m glad to have read it. I don’t see myself re-reading it.