The story goes that fanatical Japanese militarists pressured the unwilling Emperor Hirohito into World War II, with a suicidal zeal that it took two atom bombs to destroy; and that American democracy reluctantly conceded the peace-loving monarch a non-political role in postwar Japan, in deference to his devoted subjects. Herbert Bix’s magisterial new biography—the first anglophone work to draw on the full array of court sources now available—proves every one of these propositions false.

Hirohito ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1926, after five years as regent to his mentally debilitated father Emperor Yoshihito. His legacy was mixed. The 25-year-old inherited a dynamic, industrializing economy, an expanding colonial empire and the imperial state system; but also, rising social tensions and popular discontent. Bix cites a widely circulated denunciation written some years earlier by Uchiyama Gudo, a young priest of the Soto Zen sect:

The Big Bullock of the present government, the emperor, is not the son of gods as your primary school teachers and others would have you believe. The ancestors of the present emperor came forth from a corner of Kyushu, killing and robbing people as they did. They then destroyed their fellow thieves . . . Although this is well known, university professors and their students, weaklings that they are, refuse to either say or write anything about it. Instead, they attempt to deceive both others and themselves, knowing all along the whole thing is a pack of lies.

‘Extremist thought is about to overwhelm the world; and an outcry is being made about the labour problem’, the young Hirohito had noted in an essay on the Paris Peace Conference in 1920. The response of the conservative court elite was a policy of ‘total national unity’, ‘military preparedness’, accelerated industrial growth and a deliberate project of rebuilding the emperor’s prestige as the embodiment of supreme military, political and religious power.

Slight, twitchy, shrill-voiced, near-sighted, physically awkward, reticent and tense, Hirohito was not the obvious candidate for divine martial-monarch. But he was intelligent enough and strong-willed, and he wanted to rule. Whereas his grandfather the Meiji emperor had been all too prone to indulge his prodigious appetites, Hirohito set self-discipline above pleasure: a frugal regime, daily exercise, a highly regulated timetable. His education had a strong military slant: lectured by admirals and generals on American theories of sea-power and the use of infantry (as well as constitutional and international law, Western history, diplomacy and political philosophy, race and imperialism, economics, contemporary events and natural science), he was given actual command of company-sized units of the Imperial Guard, and a trench was dug inside the palace compound so the 19-year-old prince could practise firing the machine-gun. Once he had assumed the throne, Hirohito was rarely out of uniform. The enthronement ceremonies orchestrated by the palace elite lasted a year, climaxing in the secret ritual of his deification—an ‘awe-inspiring mystery’ as the loyal press and newly established national radio had it—consummating his symbolic marriage to his progenitor, the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, while lying in the foetal position, wrapped in a quilt, on the sacred shinza bed.

In power, as Bix demonstrates, Hirohito was the ‘active agent’ of his and the ruling elites’ interests, ‘neither an arch-conspirator nor a dictator but a leading participant’ in the major political and military events of his reign: ‘Like a silent spider positioned at the centre of a wide, multisided web, Hirohito spread his filaments into every organ of state and the army and navy, absorbing—and remembering—information provided by others’. For the court elite, ‘constitutional monarchy’ was a protective façade, allowing the emperor to rule while remaining unaccountable.

Bix charts every oscillation of this weak but canny politician. From 1926, Hirohito and his advisors began a succession of anti-democratic initiatives to strengthen the kokutai—the emperor-based polity—and impose an aggressive, militarist-chauvinist nationalism from above. A policy of mass arrests, forced recantations and executions was pursued against Communists and labour and peasant activists. Hirohito’s prerogative of tosuiken—the autonomy of supreme command—was jealously guarded. Nervous about Western condemnations of the invasion of Manchuria, he was gleeful at the Kwantung Army’s success. His silent endorsement of the criminal depradations of his young officers in China encouraged them to worse excesses, in the name of ‘divine Japan’. As the conflict there developed into full-scale war, he was involved in decision-making on a daily basis, authorizing, inter alia, the use of poison gas and the final assault on Nanjing, and ‘signing off’ on the campaigns of annihilation against guerrilla bases that became known as the sanko, or three ‘alls’: kill all, burn all, loot all.