Aug. 15 — Japan’s longest day — still resonates

by Reiji Yoshida

Aug. 15, 1945, a scorcher without a cloud in the sky, is one of the most emotional dates for the Japanese people, as it is considered the day the nation surrendered and ended World War II.

To be historically accurate, the Allies were notified of the capitulation the previous night, and the official surrender came weeks later.

Here are some questions and answers about Aug. 15, often dubbed “Japan’s longest day.”

What happened on Aug. 15, 1945, and why is it remembered as the day of surrender?

At noon, a radio recording of Emperor Hirohito (known posthumously as Showa) was aired nationwide announcing the surrender. Prompted by an advance notice of an important message from the Emperor, a vast number of people listened closely to their radios. Many were shocked and started to cry as the man worshipped as a living god uttered those fateful words. Because many people still believed Japan would win the war, they were overwhelmed by a deep sense of emptiness and only gradually came to the realization they had been fooled by government propaganda.

But others felt liberated, free at last from fear of the war and the massive U.S. air raids that laid waste to the major cities.

“(The war) has ended, ended! I’m alive, and I have survived!” cartoonist Osamu Tezuka shouted on the night of Aug. 15, 1945, as he watched the city lights of Osaka in “Kamino Toride” (“Paper Fortress”), his autobiographical “manga” comic book.

Exactly when did Japan surrender to the Allied powers?

The government delivered to the Allied powers its intention to surrender around 11 p.m. Aug. 14, hours after a conference attended by the Emperor made the final decision to accept the Potsdam Declaration, which demanded unconditional surrender.

Technically, the war continued until Sept. 2, when the Japanese representatives signed the document of surrender on the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Were battles still waged even after Aug. 15?

Yes, fighting went on in Manchukuo (now northeastern China) and the Kuril Islands as the Soviet Union continued to advance into Japan-held areas.

Ignorant of international law, Tokyo did not even try to conclude a ceasefire agreement with the Soviet Union. The government believed that announcing its intention to accept the Potsdam Declaration would be enough to stop the Soviets from advancing.

On Aug. 17, many units of the Japanese army in Manchukuo laid down their weapons following an order from Tokyo, despite the continuing Soviet offensive.

“It’s easy to start a war but difficult to end it,” writer and historian Kazutoshi Hando wrote in his book “Showa-shi” (“The History of Showa”), published in 2004.

“A war won’t end completely until ‘an instrument of surrender’ is signed. Japan in fact didn’t know that,” he wrote.

How much damage did Japan suffer from Aug. 15 to Sept. 2?

It is hard to come up with reliable data covering just that period.

But from the Soviet Union’s declaration of war on Aug. 8 through Sept. 9, an estimated 80,000 Japanese soldiers were killed. According to the health ministry, another 574,538 were taken prisoner and sent to Siberia for forced labor.

It is believed more than 100,000 of those prisoners died in concentration camps in Siberia, according to Hando.

Meanwhile, of the 1.5 million Japanese civilians living in Manchukuo, more than 180,000 are believed to have died in the chaos following the collapse of the puppet state and the invasion of the Soviet Red Army.

At home, was the army willing to end the war?

No. Testimony shows that most military brass were reluctant to surrender up to almost the last minute.

But the Emperor, prompted by Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki, finally expressed his opinion supporting surrender during the divided top government conference on Aug. 14.

It was extremely rare for the Emperor to intervene in a Cabinet meeting. No one opposed him, which provided the final push for the government to accept the Potsdam Declaration.

After the fateful decision had been made, young army officers tried to stop the surrender by attempting a coup d’etat.

Just past midnight on Aug. 15, a group of young officers shot to death a military division chief guarding the Imperial Palace, starting a rebellion against the government.

They stormed into the palace and looked in vain for the phonograph recording of the Emperor’s message announcing the surrender that was scheduled to be aired at noon.

Some 20 other soldiers raided the NHK radio station in the Uchisaiwaicho district to prevent the broadcast and instead air a statement calling on military units across the country to join their rebellion.

However, NHK officials refused to cooperate and no other army unit took part. The last-minute rebellion was subdued by around 7 a.m.

How do the Japanese people today look at Aug. 15, 1945?

It is remembered as the landmark day when contemporary Japan started.

After the defeat, Japan became a full-fledged democracy with a new pacifist Constitution during the Occupation. It was also the day when Japan started rebuilding economically as most of the infrastructure in the major cities had been burned to ashes by air raids.

For many people, the day is also a time to look back at the wartime years. Newspapers and TV shows still carry war-related stories, and for the relatives of dead soldiers, Aug. 15 is the day their memories are most vivid.