It’s horribly embarrassing for me to say it, but the only thing that I can think of to say about this book is that it is very, very, very dense.
I don’t use that word as a pejorative (though, of course, I also don’t mean it for a compliment). I’m not a high school student terrified of a thick book. Similarly, I’m also not an intellectual who can devour rich works of non-fiction in an afternoon. Instead, I use the word in a purely descriptive sense. This book is dense: it’s filled with meticulously researched facts written in a dry and scholarly style. Dates, names, events, and quotations fill every page. It’s a lot to absorb, and many (if not most) paragraphs required me to read them a few times to really get a feel for what was happening. Which is to say that it took me far longer to read than I would have expected from a book that’s under 700 pages. Again, I don’t consider this a negative: it’s purely an observation. And given how much work I had to put into reading it (keeping the Japanese names straight in my head required far more mental effort than I’m proud to admit), it tends to stand out in my mind when I think about this book.
That said, the book is very good and I’m glad that I put in that work. As a traditionally-educated American*, I don’t know much about Japanese history. After reading this book, I still don’t know much about Japanese history; but I do know a little bit more about the narrow time period of the Shōwa reign. Among other things, I’ve never really had a good handle on why Japan chose to enter the second World War. I’ve never thought to ask how Asian nations (with histories far longer than the American one I’m so used to) relate to each other. And after the War, what were US-Japanese relations like from the Japanese side? While I certainly don’t have all the answers for this (I’ve only read one book on it!), I think I have a bit more context for these ideas. Why, just today, I was able to have an intelligent conversation about what it means for modern-day Americans to honor the patriotism of Zero pilots and how Japan’s constitutional monarchy developed (and differs from the British system I’m more familiar with).
Sure, I haven’t devoted my life to studying these topics. And sure, I’m probably more wrong than I’m right about a lot of it. But, I think I have a broader context for understanding these things now than I did before. And, considering how one of "these things" is a war that completely redefined global politics into our current times, having a bit more context isn’t a bad thing at all.
The book itself is well-written (though dry in a scholarly way). It’s not a particularly easy read, but I think it rewards the effort one spends to read it. I have read at least one paper critiquing Bix’s methods and conclusions. So I don’t know that this work will definitely stand the test of time as historical consensus develops on the issues that Bix tackles. But it won the Pulitzer. That has to stand for something, right?
In the end, this isn’t a "must-read" book like some others that I’ve reviewed here. It’s hard work and it covers a narrow slice of history that may not be interesting to everyone. But if you are interested in Japan or a small slice of Eastern history meeting Western (or if you just want to read a good non-fiction book), I’d definitely recommend it. At the very least, I enjoyed it.
*Read: poorly-educated American