Looking at history: the argument for facts over theory


Positivism in historiography means an emphasis on facts over theory, documentary evidence over deductions from premises. It may also be called “nitty-gritticism,” George Akita suggests in “Evaluating Evidence,” a book that recounts the author’s dealing with primary sources and the problems he has come across in appraising them. His methodical account ends with criticism of two specific works that favored conjecture over discoverable facts and, accordingly, failed.

EVALUATING EVIDENCE: A Positivist Approach to Reading Sources on Modern Japan, by George Akita. University of Hawai’i Press, 2008, 267 pp., $50 (cloth)

Akita is in a position to argue for positivism. He was trained to study documents as a student, first at the University of Hawai’i, then at Harvard. The first fruit was “Foundations of Constitutional Government in Modern Japan: 1868-1900” (Harvard, 1967). It closely examined the writings of those involved in creating the Meiji government to debunk the prevailing notion that the framers of the Constitution and the advocates of political parties found each other’s ideas unacceptable.

Then, when he was in his early 50s, a Japanese historian friend asked him: “What do you intend to do for your second act?” The challenger was Takashi Ito, whose strict empiricism has riven his reputation — even abroad. For example, Xinhuanet.com (of China) lists Ito among Japan’s “rightwing revisionists,” while Newtaiwan.com describes him as “an authority on modern Japanese history,” admiringly noting that his “way of thinking is precise, his attitude toward life stern.” Such a schism between Marxist scholars and those who are not has been a standard feature of modern history writing in Japan.

Ito’s query, at any rate, led Akita to take a daring step late in his life. He joined a group of young Japanese academics deciphering and transcribing handwritten documents of such Meiji leaders as Aritomo Yamagata (1838-1922), Hirobumi Ito (1841-1909), and Soho Tokutomi (1863-1957). These documents — letters, diaries, and such — are mostly written in sosho, a flowing style of writing that is frequently hard for untutored Japanese to read, let alone non-Japanese.

The two works Akita chose to apply what he has gained from his lifelong pursuit of the positivist approach are John Dower’s lengthy introduction to “Origins of the Modern Japanese State” (Pantheon, 1975), which, Akita tells us, still elicits laudatory comments, and Herbert Bix’s “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan” (Harper-Collins, 2000), which, as most in the field know, won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

I have read neither Dower’s introductory essay nor Bix’s tome, but I’d like to comment on the latter. I have written perhaps a dozen essays on the Showa Emperor, having been unable to ignore the perennial debate on his war culpability. The debate more recently has extended to whether he tried to tone down his “war crimes” in the “record of the Showa Emperor’s monologues” (posthumously discovered in 1990).

I think Bix is wrong if his premises include, as Akita says they do, that Hirohito possessed immense powers and, because of his kami (“someone above”) status, assumed his commands or demands would be obeyed. The suggestion is that he should have been on top of the list of Japanese war criminals.

From what I have read, the only time Hirohito issued a command, rather than ask a question or state his view as was his constitutional role, was when the so-called 2.26 Incident broke out in 1936, but no one obeyed his command. Gen. Shigeru Honjo, chief aide-de-camp, who closely recorded Hirohito’s reactions in his diary, wrote that, the moment he learned of it, His Majesty demanded the rebellion be put down immediately. But nothing was done. He repeated the command a few more times, in the end (on the second day) declaring that he’d lead the Imperial Guard Division to suppress the 1,500 rebels. But no one budged to enable him to do so.

Akita does not say whether Bix cites Honjo on the event that changed the course of prewar Japan. But, if Bix does, he most likely denigrates the aide-de-camp’s credibility. He does not take kindly to sources that contradict his suppositions, Akita documents.

For all the 1,530 footnotes that have so awed the reviewers and journalists, Akita the positivist concludes that Bix is on too-shaky ground to make his case.

The accolades heaped upon Bix’s book, including a Pulitzer Prize, remind me: Americans continue to grab at the slightest hint that Hirohito, who was equated with Hitler and Mussolini during the war, wielded powers comparable to the two dictators’. This is the impression I’ve had ever since David Bergamini’s “Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy” (William Morrow, 1971) appeared.

Yes, Bix once dismissed the Bergamini book as “imaginatively constructed.” But we can do the same with Bix’s own book, Akita shows.

Bix believes in the efficacy of the “voiceless order technique,” among other things, as he liberally puts his imaginings and assumptions into others’ heads where evidence does not exist.