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The longest day ever for Japan

by Hiroaki Sato

I recently stumbled upon a YouTube recording — actually, two — of the Showa Emperor telling his subjects over the radio that Japan was accepting defeat. The first one I heard was what appeared to be a cleaned-up version; the second was the one with static, bits of which I had heard before. This was, at any rate, the first time I heard the Aug. 15, 1945, address in its entirety.

Listening, I remembered New York Times columnist Paul Krugman not long ago quoting a sentence from it. That, in turn, brought to mind the drafting of the speech and its revision during which that sentence came into being. It reads: “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”

No, Krugman wasn’t talking about the Emperor’s war responsibility or anything of the sort. The liberal economist quoted the sentence to twit Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke for a “Hirohito feel,” for making a “locking-the-barn-door-after- the-horse-is-gone decision” on the U.S. mortgage industry (“Blindly into the Bubble,” Dec. 21, 2007).

“The Imperial rescript to end the war” was drafted as Japan was pushed ever closer to the brink. The Potsdam Declaration, issued on July 26 in the names of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek, threatened a “prompt and utter destruction” of Japan unless the country agreed to an “unconditional surrender.”

Although more than 60 percent of all cities had been leveled by then, the Cabinet that met to discuss the declaration was divided, as was the supreme war council made up of the Big Six: the prime minister, foreign minister, ministers of the army and the navy, and the chiefs of staff of the army and navy. So Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki announced his government would “ignore” the declaration.

That led to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki on Aug. 9. Also on Aug. 9, the Soviet Union, despite its neutrality treaty with Japan, invaded Manchuria. Late that night the supreme war council met, with the Showa Emperor in attendance. After more than two hours of the same people voicing the same opinions, Suzuki asked His Majesty for his view to resolve the impasse. The Emperor stated he was for suing for peace and explained why.

But that “holy decision,” made on the morning of Aug. 10, did not end the matter. President of the Privy Council Kiichiro Hiranuma asked to clarify one thing with the Allied Powers: the status of the Emperor. That meant more bombs raining down on Japan.

In fact, even after the U.S. obtained agreement on Hiranuma’s point from Britain, China and the Soviet Union and sent the reply to Japan, U.S. President Harry Truman chose to keep bombing, against the advice of Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal.

Still, the decision meant a need to compose an Imperial edict accepting surrender, and the task fell on Chief Cabinet Secretary Hisatsune Sakomizu. Official documents in those days were written in a style studded with classical Chinese words and phrases. And the more official the document, the greater the use of Chinese. Sakomizu, renowned for his intellect, had been trained in Chinese classics as a boy, but that was far from adequate.

The momentous task of drafting an instrument of surrender — the first in Japanese history — was not made any easier by the tears that Sakomizu was unable to hold back as he struggled with one draft after another, trying to incorporate as much of what His Majesty said as he could. When he finally finished it, he consulted two Chinese classicists.

The draft needed the Cabinet’s approval. It was during the approval session, on the afternoon of Aug. 14, that Minister of the Army Korechika Anami strongly objected to a sentence in Sakomizu’s draft: sensei hi ni hi nari, “the war momentum turns negative day by day.” Anami gave two reasons.

For one, His Majesty would be telling his subjects that the Imperial Headquarters, with its announcements of victory after victory, had been lying all along (as it indeed had). For the other, Japan wasn’t completely beaten. It was simply that the situation hadn’t turned for the better yet. Anami was adamant on the change. Some officers at his ministry were threatening to revolt if the government capitulated.

Equally adamant on not changing the wording was Minister of the Navy Mitsumasa Yonai. Yonai was among the three in the Big Six for accepting defeat; Prime Minister Suzuki and Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo were the other two. But Yonai had another meeting to attend, and the change was made after he left. Thus the sentence in question came into being: senkyoku kanarazushimo kouten sezu, which the news agency Domei rendered as “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”

The Cabinet deliberations followed the Imperial conference on the final demand for surrender the Allied Powers had sent. Again there was the three-three split, and again the Emperor sided with those for surrender. The meeting was over around noon. Some have called the next 24 hours “Japan’s longest day.”

Learning that the surrender was imminent, some army officers, in the process of trying to stop it, killed, of all people, Lt. Gen. Takeshi Mori, commander of the First Imperial Guards Division. They tried to kill Prime Minister Suzuki and President of the Privy Council Hiranuma, but succeeded only in burning down their houses.

The United States would not let up in the meantime. I remember Faubion Bowers, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s aide-de-camp and personal interpreter saying, in a 1995 talk, that a thousand warplanes were sent to bomb and strafe Japan on Aug. 14 and that some of the bombers had not still returned to their bases when the Emperor’s rescript, recorded late that day, was broadcast at noon the following day.

Translator and essayist Hiroaki Sato’s most recent book is “Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology.”