History, Literature, Politics

Book Review: Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan is the second book I’ve read about World War II and culpability. I apparently just can’t resist the urge to write essays after books like this, so here we go again. Since so much of what I got out of this book was spurred by the history it presented, I’m going to try and intersperse my thoughts with a condensed summary of it.

Aside from the prologue, which takes place just after Hirohito’s (arguably) extra-constitutional surrender, the book follows Hirohito’s life chronologically. Hirohito’s childhood was hardly idyllic. He spent most of it being educated. Meiji Era Japan drew heavily from Prussia and in Hirohito’s education, I saw an attempt to mold him into a Japanese Frederick the Great.

I think Dr. Bix is right to spend as much time on Hirohito’s childhood as he does. Lois McMaster Bujold once criticized authors who write characters that pop out of a box at 22, fully formed. It’s even more lamentable when historians do this.

The baby Hirohito

Had Dr. Bix skipped this part, we’d have no explanation for why Hirohito failed so completely at demonstrating any moral fibre throughout the war. In order to understand Hirohito’s moral failings, we had to see the failings in Hirohito’s moral education. Dr. Bix does an excellent job here, showing how fatuous and sophistic the moral truths Hirohito was raised with were. His instructors lectured him on the moral and temporal superiority of the Imperial House over the people of Japan and the superiority of the people of Japan over the people of the world. Japan, Hirohito was taught, had to steward the rest of Asia towards prosperity – violently if need be.

For all that Hirohito might have been a pacifist personally, his education left him little room to be a pacifist as a monarch.

This certainly isn’t without precedent. The aforementioned Frederick the Great was known to complain about his “dog’s life” as a general. Frederick would have much preferred a life of music and poetry to one of war, but he felt that it was his duty to his country and his people to lead (and win wars).

Hirohito would have felt even more pressure than Frederick the Great, because he probably sincerely believed that it was up to him to save Asia. The explicitly racist immigration policies of western nations, their rampant colonialism, and their refusal to make racial non-discrimination a key plank of the League of Nations made it easy for Hirohito’s teachers to convince him that he (and through him, all of Japan) was responsible for protecting “the yellow race”.

It is unfortunate that Hirohito was raised to be an activist emperor, because as Dr. Bix points out, the world was pretty done with monarchs by the time Hirohito was born. Revolutions and First World War had led to the toppling of many of the major monarchies (like Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany). Those countries that still had monarchies heavily circumscribed the power of their monarchs. There were few countries left where monarchs both ruled and reigned. Yet this is what Hirohito’s teachers prepared him to do.

After an extensive education, Hirohito entered politics as the prince-regent for his ailing father, the Taisho Emperor. As regent, he attended military parades, performed some of the emperor’s religious duties, appointed prime ministers, and began to learn how Japanese politics worked.

There was a brief flourishing of (almost) true democracy based on party politics during the reign of the Taisho Emperor. Prime Ministers were picked by the emperor on the advice of the genrō, an extraconstitutional group of senior statesmen who directed politics after the Meiji Restoration (in 1868). The incapacity of Hirohito’s father meant that the genrō were free to choose whomever they wanted. Practically, this meant that cabinets were formed by the leader of the largest party in the Diet (the Japanese parliament). Unfortunately, this delicate democracy couldn’t survive the twin threats of an activist monarch and independent military.

The prime minister wasn’t the only power centre in the cabinet. The army and navy ministers had to be active duty officers, which gave the military an effective veto over cabinets ­– cabinets required these ministers to function, but the ministers couldn’t join the cabinet without orders from their service branch.

With an incompetent and sick emperor, the military had to negotiate with the civilian politicians – it could bring down a government, but couldn’t count on the genrō to appoint anyone better, limiting its bargaining power. When Hirohito ascended to the regency, the army began to go to him. By convincing Hirohito or his retinue to back this candidate for prime minister or that one, the military gained the ability to remove cabinets and replace them with those more to their liking.

This was possible because under Hirohito, consulting the genrō became a mere formality. In a parody of what was supposed to happen, Hirohito and his advisers would pick their candidate for prime minister and send him to Saionji, the only remaining genrō. Saionji always approved their candidates, even when he had reservations. This was good for the court group, because it allowed them to maintain the fiction that Hirohito only acted on advice and never made decisions of his own.

As regent, Hirohito made few decisions of his own, but the court group (comprised of Hirohito and his advisors) began laying the groundwork to hold real power when he ascended to the throne. For Hirohito, his education left him little other choice. He had been born and raised to be an active emperor, not a mere figurehead. For his entourage, increasing Hirohito’s influence increased their own.

I’m not sure which was more powerful: Hirohito or his advisors? Both had reasons for trusting the military. Hirohito’s education led him to view the military as a stabilizing and protective force, while his advisors tended to be nationalists who saw a large and powerful military as a pre-requisite for expansion. Regardless of who exactly controlled it, the court group frequently sided with the military, which made the military into a formidable political force.

Requiring active duty military officers in the cabinet probably seemed like a good idea when the Meiji Constitution was promulgated, but in retrospect, it was terrible. I’m in favour of Frank Herbert’s definition of control: “The people who can destroy a thing, they control it.” In this sense, the military could often control the government. The instability this wrought on Japan’s cabinet system serves as a reminder of the power of vetoes in government.

In 1926, the Taisho emperor died. Hirohito ascended to throne. His era name was Shōwa – enlightened peace.

Hirohito after his enthronement ceremony

As might be expected, the court group didn’t wait long after Hirohito’s ascension to the throne to begin actively meddling with the government. Shortly after becoming emperor, Hirohito leaned on the prime minister to commute the death sentence of a married couple who allegedly planned to assassinate him. For all that this was a benevolent action, it wreaked political havoc, with the prime minister attacked in the Diet for falling to show proper concern for the safety of the emperor.

Because the prime minister was honour bound to protect the image of Hirohito as a constitutional, non-interventionist monarch, he was left defenseless before his political foes. He could not claim to be acting according to Hirohito’s will while Hirohito was embracing the fiction that he had no will except that of his prime minister and cabinet. This closed off the one effective avenue of defense he might have had. The Diet’s extreme response to clemency was but a portent of what was to come.

Over the first decade of Hirohito’s reign, Japanese politics became increasingly reactionary and dominated by the army. At the same time, Hirohito’s court group leveraged the instability and high turnover elsewhere in the government to become increasingly powerful. For ordinary Japanese, being a liberal or a communist became increasingly unpleasant. “Peace Preservation Laws” criminalized republicanism, anarchism, communism, or any other attempt to change the national fabric or structure, the kokutai – a word that quickly became heavily loaded.

In the early 1930s, political criticism increasingly revolved around the kokutai, as the Diet members realized they could score points with Hirohito and his entourage by claiming to defend it better than their opponents could. The early 1930s also saw the Manchurian Incident, a false flag attack perpetrated by Japanese soldiers to give a casus belli for invading Manchuria.

Despite opposition from both Hirohito and the Prime Minister, factions in the army managed to leverage the incident into a full-scale invasion, causing a war in all but name with China. Once the plotters demonstrated that they could expand Hirohito’s empire, he withdrew his opposition. Punishments, when there were any, were light and conspirators were much more likely to receive medals that any real reprimand. Dr. Bix believes this sent a clear message – the emperor would tolerate insubordination, as long as it produced results.

After the Manchurian Incident (which was never acknowledged as a war by Japan) and the occupation of Manchuria, Japan set up a client kingdom and ruled Manchuria through a puppet government. For several years, the situation on the border with China was stable, in spite of occasional border clashes.

This stability wasn’t to last. In 1937, there was another incident, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident.

When an unplanned exchange of fire between Chinese and Japanese troops broke out in Beijing (then Peking), some in the Japanese high command decided the time was ripe for an invasion of China proper. Dr. Bix says that Hirohito was reluctant to sanction this invasion (over fears of the Soviet Union), but eventually gave his blessing.

Japan was constantly at war for the next eight years. Over the course of the war, Dr. Bix identified several periods where Hirohito actively pushed his generals and admirals towards certain outcomes, and many more where Hirohito disagreed with them, but ultimately did nothing.

I often felt like Dr. Bix was trying to have things both ways. He wanted me to believe that Hirohito was morally deficient and unable to put his foot down when he could have stood up for his principles and he wanted me to believe that Hirohito was an activist emperor, able to get what he wanted. This of course ignores a simpler explanation. What if Hirohito was mostly powerless, a mere figurehead?

Here’s an example of Dr. Bix accusing Hirohito of doing nothing (without adequate proof that he could have done anything):

When Yonai failed to act on the long-pending issue of a German alliance, the army brought down his cabinet and Hirohito did nothing to prevent it. (Page 357)

On the other hand, we have (in Hirohito’s own words) an admission that Hirohito had some say in military policy:

Contrary to the views of the Army and Navy General Staffs, I agreed to the showdown battle of Leyte, thinking that if we attacked at Leyte and America flinched, then we would probably be able to find room to negotiate. (Page 481)

I really wish that Dr. Bix had grappled with this conflict more and given me much more proof that Hirohito actually had the all the power that Dr. Bix believes he did. It certainly seems that by Hirohito’s own admission, he was not merely a figurehead. Unfortunately for the thesis of the book, it’s a far leap from “not merely a figurehead” to “regularly guided the whole course of the war” and Dr. Bix never quite furnishes evidence for the latter view.

I was convinced that Hirohito (along with several other factions) acted to delay the wartime surrender of Japan. His reasoning for this was the same as his reasoning for the Battle of Leyte. He believed that if Japan could win one big victory, they could negotiate an end to the war and avoid occupation – and the risk to the emperor system that occupation would entail. When this became impossible, Hirohito pinned all his hopes on the Soviet Union, erroneously believing that they would intercede on Japan’s behalf and help Japan negotiate peace. For all that the atomic bombings loomed large in the public statement of surrender, it is likely that behind the scenes, the Soviet invasion played a large role.

Leaving aside for a minute the question of which interpretation is true, if Hirohito or a clique including him wielded much of the power of the state, he (or they) also suffered from one of the common downfalls of rule by one man. By Dr. Bix’s account, they were frequently controlled by controlling the information they received. We see this in response to the Hull note, an pre-war American diplomatic communique that outlined what Japan would have to do before America would resume oil exports.

At the Imperial Conference on December 1, 1941, Foreign Minister Tōgō misled the assembled senior statesmen, generals and admirals. He told them that America demanded Japan give up Manchuria, which was a red line for the assembled leaders. Based on this information, the group (including Hirohito) assented to war. Here’s a quote from the journal of Privy Council President Yoshimichi Hara:

If we were to give in [to the United States], then we would not only give up the fruits of the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, but also abandon the results of the Manchurian Incident. There is no way we could endure this… [I]t is clear that the existence of our empire is threatened, that the great achievement of the emperor Meiji would all come to naught, and that there is nothing else we can do. (Page 432)

The problem with all this is that Hull cared nothing for Manchuria, probably didn’t even consider it part of China, and would likely have been quite happy to let Japan keep it. By this point, the Japanese conquest of Manchuria had been a done deal for a decade and the world had basically given up on it being returned to China. Hull did want Japan to withdrawn from French Indochina (present day Vietnam) and China. Both of these demands were unacceptable to many of the more hawkish Japanese leaders, but not necessarily to the “moderates”.

Foreign Minister Tōgō’s lie about Manchuria was required to convince the “moderates” to give their blessing to war.

Hirohito presides over a similar meeting in 1943

A word on Japanese “moderates”. Dr. Bix is repeatedly scornful of the term and I can’t help feeling sympathetic to his point of view. He believes that many of the moderates were only moderate by the standards of the far-right extremists and terrorists who surrounded them. It was quite possible to have an international reputation as a moderate in one of the pre-war cabinets and believe that Japan had a right to occupy Chinese territory seized without even a declaration of war.

I don’t think western scholarship has necessarily caught up here. On Wikipedia, Privy Council President Hara is described as “always reluctant to use military force… he protested against the outbreak of the Pacific war at [the Imperial Conference of December 1]”. I would like to gather a random sample of people and see if they believe that the journal entry above represents protesting against war. If they do, I will print off this blog post and eat it.

Manipulation of information played a role in Japan’s wartime surrender as well. Dr. Bix recounts how Vice Foreign Minister Matsumoto Shinichi presented Hirohito with a translation of the American demands that replaced one key phrase. The English text of the demands read: “the authority of the Emperor… to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers”. In the translation, Shinichi replaced “shall be subject to” with “shall be circumscribed by”.

Hirohito, who (in Dr. Bix’s estimation) acted always to preserve his place as emperor accepted this (modified) demand.

Many accounts of World War II assume the civilian members of the Japanese cabinet were largely powerless. Here we see the cabinet shaping two momentous decisions (war and peace). They were able to do this because they controlled the flow of information to the military and the emperor. Hirohito and the military didn’t have their own diplomats and couldn’t look over diplomatic cables. For information from the rest of the world, they were entirely at the mercy of the foreign services.

One man rule can give the impression of a unified elite. Look behind the curtain though and you’ll always find factions. Deprived of legitimate means of conflict (e.g. contesting elections), factions will find ways to try and check each other’s influence. Here, as is often the case, that checking came via controlling the flow of information. This sort of conflict-via-information has real implications in current politics, especially if Donald Trump tries to consolidate more power in himself.

But how was it that such a small change in the demand could be so important? Dr. Bix theorized that Hirohito’s primary goal was always preserving the power of the monarchy. He chose foreign war because he felt it was the only thing capable of preventing domestic dissent. The far-right terrorism of the 1930s was therefore successful; it compelled the government to fight foreign wars to assuage it.

In this regard, the atomic bombs were actually a godsend to the Japanese leadership. They made it clear that Japan was powerless to resist the American advance and gave the leadership a face-saving reason to end the war. I would say this is conjecture, but several members of the court clique and military leadership actually wrote in their diaries that the bombs were “good luck” or the like. Here’s former Prime Minister Yonai:

I think the term is perhaps inappropriate, but the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war are, in a sense, gifts from the gods [tenyu, also “heaven-sent blessings”]. This way we don’t have to say that we quit the war because of domestic circumstances. I’ve long been advocating control of our crisis, but neither from fear of an enemy attack nor because of the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war. The main reason is my anxiety over the domestic situation. So, it is rather fortunate that we can now control matters without revealing the domestic situation. (Page 509)

Regardless of why exactly it came about, the end of the war brought with it the problem of trying war criminals. Dr. Bix alleges that there was a large-scale conspiracy amongst Japan’s civilian and military leadership to hide all evidence of Hirohito’s war responsibility, a conspiracy aided and abetted by General Douglas McArthur.

Hirohito and MacArthur

The general was supreme commander of the allied occupation forces and had broad powers to govern Japan as he saw fit. Dr. Bix believes that in Hirohito, McArthur saw a symbol he could use to govern more effectively. I’m not sure if I was entirely convinced of a conspiracy – a very good conspiracy leaves the same evidence as no conspiracy at all – but it is undeniable that the defenses of the “Class A” war criminals (the civilian and military leadership charged with crimes against peace) were different from the defenses offered at Nuremburg, in a way that was both curious and most convenient for Hirohito.

Both sets of war criminals (in Tokyo and Nuremburg) tried to deny the legitimacy of “crimes against the peace” and claim their trials were just victor’s justice. But notably absent from all of the trials of Japanese leaders was the defense of “just following orders” that was so emblematic of the Nazis tried at Nuremburg. Unlike the Nazis, the Japanese criminals were quite happy to take responsibility. It was always them, never the emperor. I don’t think this is just a case of their leader having survived; I doubt the Nuremburg defendants would have been so loyal if Hitler had lived.

Of course, there is a potential parsimonious explanation for everyone having their stories straight. Hirohito could have been entirely innocent. Except, if Hirohito was so innocent, how can we explain the testimony Konoe made to one of his aides?

Fumimaro Konoe was the last prime minister before the Pearl Harbour attack and an opponent of war with the United States. He refused to take part in the (alleged) cover up. He was then investigated for war crimes and chose to kill himself. Of Hirohito, he said:

“Of course His Imperial Majesty is a pacifist and he wished to avoid war. When I told him that to initiate war was a mistake, he agreed. But the next day, he would tell me: ‘You were worried about it yesterday but you do not have to worry so much.’ Thus, gradually he began to lead to war. And the next time I met him, he leaned even more to war. I felt the Emperor was telling me: ‘My prime minister does not understand military matters. I know much more.’ In short, the Emperor had absorbed the view of the army and the navy high commands.” (Page 419)

Alas, this sort of damning testimony was mostly avoided at the war crimes trials. With Konoe dead and the rest of Japan’s civilian and military leadership prepared to do whatever it took to exonerate Hirohito, the emperor was safe. Hirohito was never indicted for war crimes, despite his role in authorizing the war and delaying surrender as he searched for a great victory.

Some of the judges were rather annoyed by the lack of indictment. The chief judge wrote: “no ruler can commit the crime of launching aggressive war and then validly claim to be excused for doing so because his life would otherwise have been in danger… It will remain that the men who advised the commission of a crime, if it be one, are in no worse position than the man who directs the crime be committed”.

This didn’t stop most of the judges from passing judgement on the criminals they did have access to. Some of the conspirators paid for their loyalty with their lives. The remainder were jailed. None of them spent much more than a decade in prison. By 1956, all of the “Class A” war criminals except the six who were executed and three who died in jail were pardoned.

The business and financial elite, two groups which profited immensely from the war got off free and clear. None of them were even charged. Dr. Bix suggests that General McArthur vetoed it. He had a country to run and couldn’t afford the disruption that would be caused if all of the business and financial elite were removed.

This leaves the Class B and Class C war criminals, the officers who were charged with more normal war crimes. Those officers who were tried in other countries were much more likely to face execution. Of the nearly 6,000 Class B and Class C war criminals charged outside of Japan, close to 1,000 were executed. A similar number were acquitted. Most of the remainder served limited criminal sentences.

Perhaps the greatest injustice of all was the fate of Unit 731. None of them were ever charged, despite carrying out bacteriological research on innocent civilians. They bought their freedom with research data the Americans coveted.

For all that their defenses differed from the Nuremburg criminals, the Japanese war criminals tried in Tokyo faced a similar fate. A few of them were executed, but most of them served sentences that belied the enormity of their crimes. Life imprisonments didn’t stick and pardons were forthcoming once the occupation ended. And as in Germany, some of the war criminals even ended up holding positions in government. Overall, the sentences gave the impression that in 1945, wars of aggression were much less morally troubling than bank robberies.

I had thought the difficulties Germany faced in denazification – and holding former Nazi’s accountable – were unique. This appears to be false. It seems to be very difficult to maintain the political will to keep war criminals behind bars after an occupation ends, as long as their crimes were not committed against their own people.

In light of this, I think it can be moral to execute war criminals. While I generally oppose the death penalty, this opposition is predicated on there being a viable alternative to execution for people who have flagrantly violated the social contract. Life imprisonment normally provides this, but I no longer believe that it can in the case of war criminals.

The Allies bear some of the blame for the clemency war criminals received. Japan’s constitution required them to seek approval from a majority of the nations that participated in the Tokyo trial. Ultimately, a majority of the eleven nations that were involved in the tribunal put improved ties with Japan over moral principles and allowed clemency to be granted. This suggests that even jailing war criminals outside their country of origin or requiring foreign consent for their pardon can be ineffective.

With both of these options removed, basic justice (and good incentive structures) seem to require all major war criminals to be executed. A rule of thumb is probably to execute any war criminal who would have otherwise be sentenced to twenty years or more of prison. It’s only these prisoners who stand to see their sentence substantially reduced in the inevitable round of pardons.

I also believe that convicted war criminals (as a general class) probably shouldn’t be trusted with the running of a country. To be convicted of war crimes proves that you are likely to flagrantly violate international norms. While people can change, past behaviour remains the best predictor of future behaviour. Therefore, it makes sense to try and remove any right war criminals might otherwise have to hold public office in a way that is extremely difficult to reverse. This could take the form of constitutional amendments that requires all victimized countries to consent to each individual war criminal that wishes to later hold public office, or other similarly difficult to circumvent mechanisms.

This is one area where the International Criminal Court (ICC) could prove its worth. If the ICC is able to deliver justice and avoid bowing to political pressure in any of its cases, then the obvious way of dealing with war criminals would be to send them to the ICC.

The section of the book that covers the war crimes trials and post-war Japan is called “The Unexamined Life”. I think the title is apt. There’s no evidence that Hirohito ever truly grappled with his role in the war, whatever it was. At one point, in response to a question about his war responsibility, Hirohito even said: “I can’t answer that question because I haven’t thoroughly studied the literature in this field”. This answer would be risible even if Hirohito were completely blameless. If there was anyone who knew how much responsibility Hirohito bore for the war, it was the man himself.

In the constitution promulgated by the occupying Americans, Hirohito became a constitutional monarch in truth. Dr. Bix reports that Hirohito was miffed to find that he could no longer appoint prime ministers and cabinets. He adjusted poorly to his lack of role and spent most of the fifties and sixties hoping that he could be made politically useful again. This never happened, although some conservative prime ministers did go to him for advice from time to time. His one consolation was the extra-constitutional military and intelligence briefings he received, but this was a far nod from the amount of information he received during the war.

Ultimately, the only punishment that Hirohito faced was his irrelevance. That is, I think, too small a price to pay for launching (or at the very least, approving) wars of aggression that killed millions of people.

The last section of the book also includes the only flaw I noticed: Dr. Bix cites a poll where 57% of the population (of Japan) thought Hirohito bore war responsibility or were unsure whether he did. Dr. Bix goes on to claim that this implies that Hirohito’s evasive answers were out of step with the opinion of the majority of the Japanese population. I think (although I can’t prove; the original source is Japanese) that this is probably obscuring the truth.

Assuming that a decent fraction of the respondents were unsure, then we’re looking at a plurality (43%) of Japanese believing Hirohito bore no responsibility and smaller fractions unsure and believing he did. If at least 14% of the respondents were unsure (common for polls like this), then you could flip the stance of Dr. Bix’s sentence and have just as much proof. This sort of thing is a common enough tactic of people who want to stretch their data a bit further than it’s worth.

This shades into the larger issue of trust. How much should I trust Dr. Bix? He obviously knows a lot more about Hirohito than I do and he can speak and read Japanese (I cannot). This makes this book more authoritative than previous books by Americans that relied entirely on translations of Japanese scholarship, but it also makes verifying his sources more difficult.

I was able to find critiques of the book by Japanese scholars. That said, skimming through the titles of other works by the scholars has me fairly convinced that they come from the vein of Japanese conservatism that is rife with war apologism and historical revisionism.

On a whole, this has left me somewhat unsatisfied. I’m convinced that Hirohito was more than a harmless puppet leader. I’m also convinced he didn’t wield absolute power. By Dr. Bix’s own admission, he acted contrary to his own wants very often. For me, this doesn’t jibe with autocratic power. My best interpretation of Dr. Bix’s research is that Hirohito was an influential member of one organ of the Japanese state. He wielded significant but not total influence over national policy. I do not believe that Hirohito was as free to act as Dr. Bix claims he was.

I do believe Dr. Bix when he says that Hirohito’s role expanded as the war went on. If nothing else, he became the most experienced of all of Japan’s leaders at the same time as the myth of his divinity and benevolence became most entrenched. Furthermore, Hirohito and his retinue were most free to act when the army and navy were at loggerheads. This became more and more common after 1937.

Dr. Bix actually posits that these disagreements were the ultimate reason that Hirohito could grasp real power. The cabinet (which included civilian, army, and navy decision makers) was supposed to work by consensus. Where there were deep divisions, they would paper over them with vague statements and false consensus, without engaging in the give and take of negotiation that real consensus requires. Since everything was done in Hirohito’s name, he and the court group could twist the vague statements towards their preferred outcomes – all the while pretending Hirohito was a mere constitutional monarch promulgating decisions based on the advice of the cabinet.

This system was horribly inefficient and at least one person tried to reform it. Unfortunately, their “reform” would have led to a military dictatorship. Here’s a quote about the troubles facing one of the pre-war prime ministers:

“Right-wing extremists and terrorists repeatedly assailed him verbally, while the leading reformer in his own party, Mori, sought to break up the party system itself and ally with the military to create a new, more authoritarian political order.” (Page 247)

I’m used to seeing “reformers” only applied positively, but if you’re willing to look at reform as “the process of making the government run more effectively”, I suppose that military dictatorships are one type of reform. I think it’s good to be reminded that efficiency is not the only axis on which we should judge a government. It may be quite reasonable to oppose reforms that will streamline the government when those reforms come at the cost of other values, like fairness, transparency, and freedom of speech.

It’s my habit to try and draw lessons from the history I read. Because Dr. Bix’s book covers so troubled a time, I did not find it lacking in lessons. But I had hoped for something more than lessons from the past. I had hoped to know definitively how much of the fault for Japan’s role in World War II should lie at the feet of Hirohito.

Despite this being the whole purpose of the book, I was left disappointed. It is almost as if Dr. Bix let his indignation with Hirohito’s escape from any and all justice get the better of him. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan tried to pin almost every misdeed during Hirohito’s reign on the emperor personally. In overreaching, it left me unsure of how much of itself to believe. I cannot discount it entirely, but I also cannot accept wholesale.

It doesn’t help that Dr. Bix paints a portrait of the emperor so intimate as to humanize him. While Dr. Bix seems to want us to view Hirohito as evil, I could not help but see him as a flawed man following a flawed morality. As far as I can tell, Hirohito would have been happiest as a moderately successful marine biologist. But marine biology is not what was asked of him and unfortunately, he did what he saw as his duty.

Here I again wish to make a comparison with Eichmann in Jerusalem. Had Hirohito not been singularly poor at introspection, or had he not had “an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else” (while Hannah Arendt said this about Adolf Eichmann, I think it applies equally well to Hirohito), Hirohito could have risen above the failings in his moral education and acted as a brake on Japanese militarism.

Hirohito did not do this. And because of his actions (and perhaps more importantly, his inaction), terrible things came to pass.

The possibility for individuals to do terrible things despite having no malice in their hearts is what caused Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil”. Fifty years later, we still expect the worst deeds humans can commit to only come from the hands of monsters. There is certainly security in that assumption. When we believe terrible things can only be done deliberately and with malice, we allow ourselves to ignore the possibility that we may be involved in unjust systems or complicit in terrible deeds.

It’s only when we remember that terrible things require no malice, that one may do them even while being a normal person or while acting in accordance with the values they were raised with, that we can properly introspect about our own actions. It is vital that we all take the time to ask “are we the baddies?” and ensure that our ethical systems fail gracefully.

Obviously, Hirohito did none of this. That’s all on him. No matter how you cut the blame pie, Hirohito did nothing to stop the Rape of Nanjing, the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Bataan Death March,  and the forced massed suicides of Okinawans. Hirohito demonstrated that he had the power to order a surrender. Yet he did not do this when the war was all but lost and Japanese cities were bombed daily. He delayed surrender time and again, hoping for some other option that would allow him to cling to whatever scraps of power he had.

For all that Dr. Bix failed to convince me that Hirohito was one of the primary architects of the war, he did convince me that Hirohito bore a large measure of responsibility. I agree that Hirohito should have been a Class A war criminal. I agree that Hirohito escaped all but the faintest touch of justice for his role in the war. And I agree that Hirohito’s escape from justice has made it more difficult for Japan to accept the guilt it should bear for its wars of aggression.

Falsifiable, Literature, Model, Science

Pump Six and the Perils of Speculative Fiction

I just finished Pump Six, a collection of short stories by Paolo Bacigalupi. A few weeks prior to this, I read Ted Chiang’s short story collection, Stories of Your Life and Others and I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between them. Ted Chiang writes stories about different ways the world could work. Paolo Bacigalupi writes stories about different ways the future could happen.

These are two very different sorts of speculation. The first requires extreme attention to detail in order to make the setting plausible, but onceyou clear that bar, you can get away with anything. Ted Chiang is clearly a master at this. I couldn’t find any inconsistencies to pick at in any of his stories.

When you try to predict the future – especially the near future – you don’t need to make up a world out of whole cloth. Here it’s best to start with plausible near future events and let those give your timeline a momentum, carrying you to where you want to go on a chain of reason. No link has to be perfect, but each link has to be plausible. If any of them leave your readers scratching their heads, then you’ve lost them.

Predicting the future is also vulnerable to the future happening. Predictions are rooted in their age and tend to tell us more about the context in which they were made than about the future.

I think Pump Six is a book where we can clearly see and examine both of these problems.

First, let’s talk about chains of events. The stories The Fluted Girl, The Calorie Man, The Tamarisk Hunter, and Yellow Card Man all hinge on events that probably seem plausible to Bacigalupi, but that feel deeply implausible to me.

The Fluted Girl imagines the revival of feudalism in America. Fiefs govern the inland mountains, while there is a democracy (presumably capitalist) on the coasts. This arrangement felt unstable and unrealistic to me.

Feudal societies tend to have much less economic growth than democracies (see part 2 of Scott’s anti-reactionary FAQ). Democracies also aren’t exactly great at staying calm about atrocities right on their doorsteps. These two facts combined make me wonder why the (Coloradan?) feudal society in The Fluted Girl hasn’t been smashed by its economically (and therefore, inevitably militarily) more powerful neighbours.

In The Tamarisk Hunter, the Colorado River is slowly being covered by a giant concrete straw, a project that has been going on for a while and requires massive amounts of resources. The goal is to protect the now diminished Colorado River from evaporation as it winds its way into a deeply drought-stricken California.

In the face of a bad enough drought, every bit counts. But there are much more cost effective ways to get your drinking water. The Colorado river today has an average discharge of 640m3/s. In a bad drought, this would be lower. Let’s say it’s at something like 200m3/s.

You could get that amount of water from building about 100 desalination plants, which would cost something like $100 billion today (using a recently built plant in California as a baseline). Bridges cost something like $3,000 per m2 (using this admittedly flawed report for guidance), so using bridges to estimate the cost, the “straw” would cost about $300 million per kilometer (using the average width of the Colorado river). Given the relative costs of the two options, it is cheaper to replace the whole river (assuming reduced flow from the drought) with desalination plants than it is to build even 330km (<200 miles) of straw.

A realistic response to a decades long California drought would involve paying farmers not to use water, initiating water conservation measures, and building desalination plants. It wouldn’t look like violent conflict over water rights up and down the whole Colorado River.

In The Calorie Man and Yellow Card Man, bioengineered plagues have ravaged the world and oil production has declined to the point where the main source of energy is once again the sun (via agriculture). Even assuming peak oil will happen (more on that in a minute), there will always be nuclear power. Nuclear power plants currently provide for only ten percent of the world’s energy needs, but there’s absolutely no good reason they couldn’t meet basically all of them (especially if combined with solar, hydro, wind, and if necessary, coal).

With improved uranium enrichment techniques and better energy storage technology, it’s plausible that sustainable energy sources could, if necessary, entirely displace oil, even in the transportation industry.

The only way to get from “we’re out of oil” to “I guess it’s back to agriculture as our main source of energy” is if you forget about (or don’t even consider) nuclear power.

This is why I think the stories in Pump Six tell me a lot more about Bacigalupi than about the future. I can tell that he cares deeply about the planet, is skeptical of modern capitalism, and fearful of the damage industrialization, fossil fuels, and global warming may yet bring.

But the story that drove home his message for me wasn’t any of the “ecotastrophes”, where humans are brought to the brink of destruction by our mistreatment of the planet. It was The People of Sand and Slag that made me stop and wonder. It asks us to consider what we’d lose if we poison the planet while adapting to the damage. Is it okay if beaches are left littered with oil and barbed wire if these no longer pose us any threat?

I wish more of the stories had been like that, instead of infected with the myopia that causes environmentalists to forget about the existence of nuclear power (when they aren’t attacking it) and critics of capitalism to assume that corporations will always do the evil thing, with no regard to the economics of the situation.

Disregard for economics and a changing world intersect when Bacigalupi talks about peak oil. Peak oil was in vogue among environmentalists in the 2000s as oil prices rose and rose, but it was never taken seriously by the oil industry. As per Wikipedia, peak oil (as talked about by environmentalists in the ’00s, not as originally formulated) ignored the effects of price on supply and demand, especially in regard to unconventional oil, like the bitumen in the Albertan Oil Sands.

Price is really important when it comes to supply. Allow me to quote from one of my favourite economics stories. It’s about a pair of Texan brothers who (maybe) tried to corner the global market for silver and in the process made silver so unaffordable that Tiffany’s ran an advertisement denouncing them in the third page of the New York Times. The problems the Texans ran into as silver prices rose are relevant here:

But as the high prices persisted, new silver began to come out of the woodwork.

“In the U.S., people rifled their dresser drawers and sofa cushions to find dimes and quarters with silver content and had them melted down,” says Pirrong, from the University of Houston. “Silver is a classic part of a bride’s trousseau in India, and when prices got high, women sold silver out of their trousseaus.”

Unfortunately for the Hunts, all this new supply had a predictable effect. Rather than close out their contracts, short sellers suddenly found it was easier to get their hands on new supplies of silver and deliver.

“The main factor that has caused corners to fail [throughout history] is that the manipulator has underestimated how much will be delivered to him if he succeeds [at] raising the price to artificial levels”

By the same token, many people underestimated the amount of oil that would come out of the woodwork if oil prices remained high – arguably artificially high, no thanks to OPEC – for a prolonged period. As an aside, it’s also likely that we underestimate the amount of unconventional water that could be found if prices ever seriously spiked, another argument against the world in The Tamarisk Hunter.

This isn’t to say that there won’t be a peak in oil production. The very real danger posed by global warming and the fruits of investments in alternative energy when oil prices were high will slowly wean us off of oil. This formulation of peak oil is much different than the other one. A steady decrease in demand for oil  will be hard on oil producing regions, but it won’t come as a sharp shock to the whole world economic order.

I don’t know how much of this could have been known in 2005, especially to anyone deeply embedded in the environmentalist movement. As an exoneration, that’s wonderful. But this is exactly my point from above. You can try and predict the future, but you can only predict from your flawed vantage point. In retrospect, it is often easier to triangulate the vantage point than to see the imagined future as plausible.

Another example: almost all science fiction before the late 00s drastically underestimated the current prevalence in mobile devices. In series that straddle the divide, you often see mobile devices mentioned much more in the latter books, as authors adjust their visions of the future to take into account what they now know in the present.

Writing is hard and the critic will always have an easier time than the author. I don’t mean to be so hard on Bacigalupi, I really did enjoy Pump Six and it’s caused me to do no end of thinking and discussing since I finished reading it. In this regard, it was an immensely successful book.

Epistemic Status: The math is Falsifiable, the rest is a Model.

History, Literature

Book Review: SPQR

I just finished reading SPQR, by Professor Mary Beard. As a history of Rome, it’s the opposite of what I expected. It spends little time on individual deeds; there is no great man history here. More shocking, there is very little military history. As part of an audience taught to expect the history of Rome to be synonymous with the history of its military, I was shocked.

This book is perhaps best understood as a conversation with Romans masquerading as a political and social history of Rome. Prof. Beard sums this up in her epilogue: “I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans… but I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn – as much about ourselves as about the past – by engaging with the history of the Romans.”

Prof. Beard starts her history with the foundational myths of Rome: Romulus and Remus, the Rape of the Sabine Women, and the Seven Kings. She looks at themes of these myths and turns the speculations of ancient historians on its head. Rome was not beset by conflicts between powerful men because of a lingering proclivity for fratricide inherent to the successors of Romulus. The story of Romulus resonated and was passed down because Rome was beset by conflicts with powerful men. She shows us how this story was shaped by current events in every retelling, highlighting the differences in the versions told in the first century BCE and the first century CE.

This isn’t the only relationship Prof. Beard calls us to rethink. Ancient writers praised Romulus’s vision for Rome: somehow he picked the perfect spot for the city. We now know that Rome was not “founded” in the mythological sense, that it did not begin as barren hills colonized by a single pair of brothers. But Rome’s location shaped Rome’s development such that the location was indeed an ideal spot for the city Rome became. The spot seemed perfect in retrospect because it had created a people who would view it as perfect.

Prof. Beard later reminds us that Rome’s expansion wasn’t really planned either. While Hollywood may encourage us to think of Romans as motivated by a manifest destiny that caused them to attempt to rule the whole world, the historical reality was rather different. There was no cabal of senators in 300 BCE with a master plan for Roman expansion. Rome’s early expansion was done piecemeal and by accident. It was always in response to some crisis, to protect the commercial interests of some wealthy Roman, or because some consul wanted to be sure of a triumph when he returned to Rome. Manifest destiny came later, after Rome was already a far-flung empire.

And this far-flung empire was as responsible for shaping the politics of Rome as the politics of Rome were for shaping the empire. Republican institutions could not cope with the challenges of empire. There was a century of chaos as the empire grew beyond its ability to be governed and then a realignment of the government with the emperor at its head that ensured 200 years of stability and (internal) peace.

Of the traditions the emperor usurped, the most interesting was the right to be a voice for the people. Prof. Beard talks about the challenges of representation the Romans faced, challenges familiar to us even today, namely: what is the purpose of legislators? Should they be a conduit for the voices of their constituents? Or should the try and do what is best for their constituents? A source of instability in the first century BCE was populist politicians who cleaved to the first view.

By ending elections, the emperors didn’t disenfranchise the people as much as they broke the bonds between the populist politicians and the people. The emperor (in theory and often in practice) stood up for the common male citizen of the empire. The elites, on the other hand, were left to derive favour and legitimacy solely from the emperor. They lost their connection to the people and therefore lost any ability to challenge the emperor for popular support.

We see a similar thing today in one party rule (where dictators often style themselves “Protector of the People”) or in “democratic dictatorships”. These dictators try and set up a myth that only they will look out for the majority of people. They’ll claim that others can’t be trusted because they are in the sway of special interest groups and economic, racial, sexual, or religious minorities (the Jews are a perennial favourite here).

Speaking of racial and religious minorities, Prof. Beard covers them in some detail. She reminds her readers that Rome was a cosmopolitan and diverse city. Imagining classical people as monolithically white is just as much a mistake as imagining their buildings that way. But Prof. Beard cautions us to avoid swinging our perceptions too far in the other direction. Rome was unusually welcoming of foreigners for a classical culture, but it still had discrimination based on provincial origin. Provincials would never be truly Roman in the eyes of all of the senate. This didn’t stop some of them becoming emperor, including Septimus Sevurus from North Africa, but it did mean they would have faced snide remarks.

I wish I could describe how provincials below senatorial rank were treated, but Prof. Beard has little to say about this. I don’t think it’s her fault. She is explicit that the history we have is largely the history of the elites. It’s their letters and proclamations, monuments and mausoleums from which we gather the majority of our understanding of life in ancient Rome. From the common people, we must make do with far less evidence.

Evidence is a common thread throughout this book. It is in some places as much a work of historiography as history. Prof. Beard cautions us against too good to be true stories (they probably are) and against being too eager to make even simple conclusions, like believing that a certain bust is actually of a certain historical figure. She also drove home in a way that I had never experienced before the sheer paucity of evidence we have for Roman life and deeds before the mid-200s BCE.

Nowhere does evidence and its paucity become as important as understanding the emperors. She describes autocracy as “in a sense, an end of history… there was no fundamental change in the structure of Roman politics, empire or society between the end of the first century BCE and the end of the second century CE”. And given this, she devotes at most a few pages to the combined individual achievements of the first 14 emperors (the book only covers up to 212 CE).

Instead of giving the normal account of the lives of the emperors, their battles and their victories, Prof. Beard focuses on the structure of the empire. She takes advantage of its relatively fixed nature during the rule of the first 14 emperors to go into detail on various facets of life in the empire. What was it like in the provinces? For the urban poor? The provincial elites? The slaves? The women? Many of these people left little historical mark, but Prof. Beard tries her best to give them some voice.

Prof. Beard views the emperors as largely interchangeable. Instead of fixating on “good” and “bad” emperors and turning their lives into moral lessons, she looks at what caused emperors to be described as good or bad in the first place. She believes it is all about legitimacy. When the succession was orderly, the successor could draw legitimacy from his predecessor, so it was in his interest to trumpet his predecessor’s virtues (and imply that as the rightful successor, he too possessed them). When the succession was disorderly (say, as the result of assassination), then this route to legitimacy was closed and the new emperor had to instead frame his reign as a break with a worse past. His predecessor would be smeared to turn the irregularity of his succession to the throne into an advantage.

As evidence, Prof. Beard points out that most of the vices found in “bad” emperors (from infidelity to wanton murder of senators) can also be found in the “good” as long as you read their biographies closely. She contends that this shows a difference in what is focused on, not a difference in behaviour. She points out how imposters to Nero would periodically show up in the provinces long after his death. Hucksters wouldn’t impersonate a universally reviled man.

Even if this isn’t true, Prof. Beard has one final beef with the theory of good and bad emperors: only the senate really cared. We don’t see any historical evidence of incompetence gross enough to touch the empire, it did just as well under Nero as it did under Hadrian. So even if the emperor was as liable to kill senators as talk with them, this was largely a problem for a few of the very wealthiest Romans in Rome.

To the common people in Rome it wouldn’t matter if the emperor was a saint or a psychopath, because they would never interact with him. This was doubly true for the people in the provinces. The plight of the poor was just as bad under Marcus Aurelius as it was under Nero.

Had you told me at the start that the author believed we had nothing to learn directly from the Romans, I probably wouldn’t have started this book. That would have been a grave mistake. I’m left with a deeper understanding of Roman history, the challenges posed in constructing it, and the challenges Roman history poses to us in the present day. I am left prepared to more readily question the beatification of leaders and foundational myths. I am left more alert to the nuances of people power in populism. And I’m left with a colossal respect for Professor Beard’s skill both as a historian and as a popularizer of history.

Literature, Model

Levels of Reading or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and (Occasionally) Love Literary Fiction

Annoyed with me describing If on a winter’s night a traveller as “very literary” one too many times, my partner Tessa challenged me to explain what I meant by “literary”.

This presented a problem, because I’ve been using literary as a shorthand for “that type of book that people who review books for a living get really excited about but I never seem to like” – basically as a category label, not as a descriptive phrase. Even worse, If on a winter’s night a traveller didn’t really fit into the category anyway; it’s a book that I’m heartily enjoying.

To answer Tessa’s question, I had to abandon using “literary” as a category label and instead treat it as a handle for a concept. But first, I needed a concept.

Levels of Reading

Imagine you ask me to tell you a story and I start with these famous six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

How do you interpret this story?

You could just look at the plot, such as it is. Clearly someone is selling some baby clothes; not very interesting.

Or you could look at it from the perspective of someone who has an idea of the flow of stories. What are the implications of selling baby’s clothes that are never worn? Clearly this is telling us that someone has undergone a tragedy.

Or you could look at it as someone who knows they’re being told a story. What themes seem to be present? Have you read other similar stories? Is this an allusion to them? A deconstruction? Is the author doing something interesting with language?

As a reader, you can expect to fluidly move between these stances. Sometimes, when the action is intense, you will read the book mainly on the first level. But then when you catch a sign that the characters have missed, you might be tossed up to the second level and spend some time contemplating what is being foreshadowed. Or perhaps a chance word will force you to consider the story from a broader social context.

Okay, enough examples. Let’s formalize these reading levels!

I’m positing a model where there are three levels of reading. Any story can be read at any level and most stories are intended to be read at every level at least some of the time. What distinguishes genres like literary fiction from pulp novels is the expected default level and the level at which the reader is supposed to derive the majority of their enjoyment.

Aside: In a perfect world, people could pick whichever books draw them to the reading level they enjoy the most. Unfortunately, I think it is common to attach character judgements to people who have an aesthetic preference for books on a certain level. It’s all too easy to claim that someone who prefers to read at a different level than you do is somehow deficient in some virtue or is aesthetically stunted. Therefore, I’ve attached my estimation of the common judgements made of works that are meant to be read at each level, in the hopes that it will help both me and my readers notice these judgements and avoid perpetuating them.

Level 1

At level 1, the reader is focused solely on the immediate plot. What is going on? What are characters feeling? How does this make you feel? Here you are using your ability to read to connect words into coherent sentences that immerse you in the story.

Stories read mostly at this level: “Pulpy” fiction, “young readers” books, any science fiction or fantasy that sells a lot of copies but is never nominated for the Hugo Awards.

What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: “shallow” or “lacking in substance”, not appropriate for adults or appropriate only for reading while travelling or on vacation, indicative of unrefined tastes.

Level 2

At this level, the reader is focused on the form of the story. What is being foreshadowed? What character growth is being highlighted? Was that just a callback to the first book in the series? Here you are using your memory and intuitions to connect parts of the text to other parts of the text, even those you have not seen yet.

Stories read mostly at this level: “character-driven” fiction, classical tragedies, thrillers that rely on suspense and foreshadowing, most books that win Hugo Awards

What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: “watered-down”, overly conventional, clichéd/predictable, or pandering.

Level 3

At this level, the reader is focused on how the story interacts with the wider world. What sort of tone does the author set? What other works are alluded to, deconstructed, or reconstructed. What techniques are used and which techniques are ignored? What flourishes does the author use? Here you are using your knowledge of culture and conventions to understand the place of the work in the context of a larger corpus of related works.

Stories read mostly at this level: “experimental” novels, deconstructions, “literary” fiction, most books that win the John W Campbell Award.

What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: incomprehensible, dense, elitist, snobbish, lacking in plot, or read more for signalling than genuine enjoyment

“Literary” as a handle

With this model, I can now use “literary” in a descriptive sense. If I describe a book as literary, I’m really saying that I view the book as one meant to be primarily read and enjoyed on the third level.

Reflecting on this model has helped me systematize some of the things I get out of books. In general, I prefer works that are meant to be enjoyed and read mainly on the first two levels. I tend to feel that novels that expect me to engage with them primarily on the third level have abrogated their duty to entertain me. That said, I can like works that focus on level 3 when they cause me to ponder areas I’m already interested in.

This helps resolve the question that started this whole mess, namely: “if I generally dislike literary books, why am I enjoying If on a winter’s night a traveller”. It’s now clear that I like it because it engages with the experience of being a reader, an experience dear to my heart. If it spent the majority of its time demanding that I read it on the third level while failing to engage with topics I cared about, I think I’d be much less likely to enjoy it.

Understanding this gives me a better heuristic for making book buying decisions when the only information I have is reviews. In general, I should avoid books that are described with terms that suggest that the book should primarily be enjoyed on the third level, unless the book seems to require engagement with a topic I already care about.

On the other hand, I should look for indications that the book encourages readers to occasionally read on level 3. While I tend to rip through books written to be read mostly on level 1, the books that I come back to again and again spend most of their time on level 2, but use level 3 strategically to highlight themes and really drive their points home.

A final note: this model can be applied to any work of fiction, not just books. For example, Psycho Pass is an anime that exists primarily on level 2, but uses level 3 to great effect. Madoka Magica, on the other hand, is primarily on level 3; it would not be nearly as strong of work without the context of other magical girl anime within which it exists. It may even be possible to extend this model to music or art, but here I must plead ignorance and leave that labour to another.

Epistemic Status: Model