Many Japanese people remember Aug. 15 as the day World War II ended. Sixty-nine years ago today, in a speech broadcast on the radio, Emperor Hirohito announced that Japan had notified the Allied powers of its acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration.
But the war did not quite end on that day for some Japanese, and the way they listened to the surrender speech impacted their lives after the war.
Novelist Kazutoshi Hando, 84, recalls that he tore a page out of his dictionary and rolled it to make a cigarette after listening to the Emperor, known posthumously as Showa, announce Japan’s surrender.
It was the first-ever puff for the 15-year-old Hando, now one of the best-selling and most reputable non-fiction authors to chronicle Japan’s history, with a heavy emphasis on World War II.
“I thought I was going to do everything I wanted after the Emperor’s radio broadcast, because I thought I will be taken to California or Guam as a slave,” Hando said.
Many people believed at the time that Americans would force Japanese women to become their mistresses and hold Japanese men in slavery if Japan lost the war, Hando said of the government propaganda.
“I later realized that what people said was all a lie — the government is always right, the kamikaze (divine wind) would blow, and they would never kill anybody,” said Hando, who went on to form Bungei Shunju magazine to stand as a watchdog against the government after he graduated from the University of Tokyo.
One of the things the veteran novelist also did not know back then was that the Emperor’s radio speech had taken place in spite of coup attempts by Imperial Japanese Army rebels.
Hando, who calls himself a “history detective” who investigates hidden facts buried in the past, later published a non-fiction book titled “Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi” (“Japan’s Longest Day”), chronicling how the decision to surrender was made and delivered to the public.
According to his book, young army officers thought the Emperor’s cronies had cajoled him into making the decision to surrender. So they plotted a coup to detain the Emperor, have him recant the decision and destroy the recording of his speech, which was to be broadcast at noon on Aug. 15, 1945.
The coup began between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. that day when junior officers seized the Imperial Guards Division after killing Takeshi Mori, general commander of the division. The rebels then issued a fake order in Mori’s name and attempted a series of assassinations, including that of Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki.
Soldiers also detained the president of NHK after the public broadcaster recorded the Emperor’s speech at the Imperial Palace. But he had left the recording in the palace, fearing the rebels might catch him.
A frantic search for the recording ensued before the rebels ran out of steam later in the morning, when Gen. Shizuichi Tanaka of the Eastern District Army showed up at the palace and quelled the coup. The Emperor and his household were safe, and the speech was aired from a broadcasting center right next to the Imperial Palace in Uchisaiwaicho in Chiyoda Ward.
Even after the broadcast, the war did not quite end for seaman Susumu Iida, who had been sent to New Guinea in January 1943 as a navy researcher to study natural resources. Iida did not listen to the speech when it was broadcast, but learned of the news from the officers.
“I couldn’t believe that Japan surrendered unconditionally. But I did not even know that atomic bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima,” said Iida, who was 22 years old at the time. “I was petrified for weeks.”
Japan had sent some 200,000 soldiers to the island, which was part of Japan’s last line of defense. But 90 percent of the soldiers would die, mostly from starvation and malaria, after the supply lines were cut after the Allied forces achieved aerial and maritime supremacy.
Even though Iida, now 91, was one of those who survived, his plight started when he was captured by Dutch forces in the western part of New Guinea after the end of the war. He was tried as a Class-B/C war criminal in 1948 for allegedly killing several civilians, which he calls a fabricated accusation.
Iida claims that a person he killed was suspected of attacking the Imperial Japanese Army, and that he was sentenced to 20 years with no witness allowed to testify at the trial. He was then locked up for almost 10 years in Java and in Sugamo Prison in Tokyo.
After his release, he devoted his life to fighting for social causes and logging memories of the war. Iida authored several books that provided accounts of the battle in New Guinea. He was also involved in the first successful lawsuit against the government over thalidomide, after his son was born with a birth defect from the sedative. But 69 years after the war, Iida questions whether Japan or the U.S. learned from his trial and from the Tokyo war crimes tribunal.
“Every year we have wars somewhere. Why is that?” Iida said. “I feel that the Allied powers have not learned from the double standard they applied in the trials. They speak of justice but that justice is causing problems.”
Meanwhile, in Manchuria, Hisae Sawachi, then 14, missed the Emperor’s radio broadcast as she was attending a meeting about disbanding a nursing unit where she had been trained at in Jilin. Her family moved to Manchuria in 1934 when she was 4.
On her way back home from the meeting, Sawachi, another reputable author who has investigated the war, was surprised when a Chinese child told her that Japan had surrendered, while waving Kuomintang government flag in her face. An army medic told her that it was a lie, but she learned it was true when her father confirmed it.
“I thought the kamikaze did not blow,” Sawachi said.
But she did not have any feelings about the news or even cry, although she never questioned that Japan would emerge victorious and called her mother unpatriotic when she said Japan might lose.
Japanese people in Manchuria became displaced after the Soviet Union launched an invasion on Aug. 9, 1945. Soviet soldiers started looting, murdering and raping the Japanese while the Chinese started rioting against their occupiers. Sawachi said a Russian soldier pointed his saber at her and even tried to kiss her when he broke into their house.
It was only when a Chinese man fed her a bowl of Japanese millet that she realized Japan had lost the war. She said the man saved her from another Chinese who tried to attack her when she was trying to sell fabric to earn money to buy food.
“I felt subservient because we were still eating rice with some sorghum when Chinese people showed kindness to feed me with Japanese millet. This is when I realized that we actually lost the war,” Sawachi said. “I also thought a country can collapse overnight. And a country can be very irresponsible.”
There were no Japanese soldiers to provide protection and little assistance from the government to take them home, but Sawachi’s family was lucky enough to return to Japan a little more than a year after the surrender.
Sawachi has distrusted the government ever since and continues to probe the war through her writing. One of her books, “Umi Yo Nemure,” debunks a long-believed theory that Japan could have won the Battle of Midway if it had only had five more minutes to prepare for the attack.
Sawachi is also a founding member of the Article 9 Association, which was established in 2004 to protect the war-renouncing clause in the Constitution. But now she senses a gloomy mood prevailing over Japan with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to exercise the right to collective self-defense.
“We did not lose a single member of the Self-Defense Forces after the war because we had the Constitution,” Sawachi said. “I think it’s quite egregious that the prime minister decided that SDF members can die defending another country.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.