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Herbert P. Bix

Bix examines ‘Empire Building in America and Japan’

by Ethan Day

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and sociologist Herbert P. Bix delivered his final lecture as a Binghamton University faculty member to a room filled to capacity with colleagues and former students on Nov. 1. True to the introduction given by John Chaffee on his fellow professor’s endless enthusiasm, the retiring Bix devoted his talk to research of the present, rather than reflection of the past.

Bix first arrived on campus in 1988 as a visiting associate professor to the history department. After this year-long engagement ended, Bix wouldn’t return to Binghamton until 2001, when he became a permanent faculty member. He is best known for his book "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan," which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2001. The book – and an entire career marked by new arguments and conclusions – makes Bix worthy of praise, Chaffee said.

“This book caused a major stir when it first came out, and to my mind it’s particularly noteworthy for its eminently human portrayal of Emperor Hirohito, and specifically for his well-documented contention that Hirohito was not simply a figurehead, but an active participant in wartime activities,” Chaffee said. “This is something that had not been suggested in any comparably scholarly way by any other research.”

The accolades for this book hardly marked the end point for Bix’s career. His more recent research has dealt at great length with the Tokyo War Crimes Trials and issues of international law. Bix has also increasingly turned to his newer role as a public intellectual – an analyst of international relations, and a critic of U.S. foreign policy and Japan’s post-Fukushima policies. And even in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities conference room, addressing an event to celebrate his past accomplishments, Bix’s interests were clearly focused on what’s next.

“Let me get right to it,” Bix said. “Here’s a prospectus that I wrote and sent off to publishers looking for a contract. This book concerns political crisis and the growth and consolidation of authoritarian, super-legal state power in two countries.”

Bix’s opening remarks signaled to the audience that the evening would not likely include a discussion about his plans for a quiet retirement. He titled his lecture “Empire Building in America and Japan: The Breakdown of Constitutional Order,” and began an in-depth review of this current work which he hopes will soon result in another published book.

“Imperial Japan’s experience with emergency power tells us much about where America is headed,” Bix said. “Conversely, the behavior of American elites at home and abroad frame particular moments of the 20th and 21st centuries and illuminate overlooked aspects of both Imperial and pacifist Japan.”

Known to have presented new and pioneering ideas in works past, the Harvard University-educated professor wasted no time in assuring those in attendance that his latest research comparing Japan and the United States would follow in that tradition.

“In its comparison of the United States and Japan over the entire course of their respective modern histories, the manuscript offers an unconventional and revealing look at both countries,” he said. “Through its analysis of how the authoritarian state develops, it achieves dramatic new insights. This is a story of how the building of armed forces for domestic repression and their deployment abroad led, in two very different countries, to the creation of a foreign policy structure that strengthens authoritarianism, centralization and militarism.”

Bix went on to strongly suggest that his work on this subject is designed, in part, to provide American scholars and students with a view not commonly found when addressing constitutional breakdown.

“Americans are unaccustomed to seeing themselves measured against nations such as Japan during that country’s militaristic pre-democratic phase, let alone during and after the ideological cold war with the Soviet Union,” he said. “In this sense, Empire Building in America and Japan intends to shatter illusions and break a mold that has long restricted American thinking.”

Bix transitioned his talk – and upcoming book – seamlessly from a discussion of past practice and its results, to an exploration of questions holding great importance and relevance for today.

“How can elites in high executive positions operate at their own discretion beyond morality and law without legal governance degenerating into tyranny, and how can removing the constitutional protection of due process and justifying such action in the light of ‘national security’ make Americans safe?” Bix asked. “How can elites not refrain from proliferating and misusing military and economic emergency powers?”

American influence on Japan is also a related topic of critical importance according to Bix. During the lecture he provided a preview of chapter six – one of the longest chapters – which will speak to what he sees as the ongoing problem of American influence on the Japanese government.

“It addresses the process in Japan from 1990 to the present whereby those who control Japan’s constitutional pacifist state continually deepen their subservience to the United States,” Bix said. “I document the ways in which different conservative cabinets – under constant American pressure – stepped up their efforts to organize the Japanese state for military interventions in alliance with the West.”

The audience was given what may have been an unintentional insight into Bix near the end of his remarks. After finishing his chapter by chapter summary, he said of the conclusion, there isn’t one yet. And if the vitality and passion Bix showed through his last lecture is any indication, the same may be said of the conclusion to his illustrious career.

“I haven’t written the conclusion; I sent this prospectus off without one because I am constantly changing it.”

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Last Updated: 3/1/17