Pyeongtaek, South Korea – Aug. 15 marks the 75th anniversary of the announcement of Japan’s surrender to Allied forces in World War II. On this day in 1945, the Japanese population heard the Emperor’s voice broadcast over the radio for the first time in history as he resolved the nation to end the war by “enduring the unendurable” and “suffering what is insufferable.”
While many know of the Emperor’s speech and understand that it initiated the transition to a Japan under occupation forces, fewer will recall just how tenuous the circumstances really were leading to that radio broadcast. Instead, the anniversary of the war’s end tends to see a revisiting of the same debates over nuclear weapons, Yasukuni Shrine and lingering historical issues among regional powers.
However, an examination of the circumstances that underwrote the events between the decision to end the war on the morning of Aug. 14 and the broadcast the next day offer another option for reflection and discourse. What happened in the lead-up to Japan’s surrender reveals just how complex the situation was even at the end of the war and presents perhaps a few other takeaways for those reflecting on the anniversary this year.
The day between the government’s decision to end the war and the radio broadcast has become known as “Japan’s longest day” because of the mayhem and uncertainty that precipitated the surrender. It was a period that witnessed an attempted coup, the successful and attempted assassinations of multiple government leaders, ritual suicides and a recorded Emperor’s speech that barely evaded interception.
To understand the events of that day, it is important to set the scene leading up to it. By early August 1945, the situation for Imperial Japan was dire. The empire was in shambles. Japan’s air force and navy were rendered useless. Its major cities endured bombing after bombing. Japan’s axis partners had surrendered in early May. On top of that, the country saw its worst harvest since 1910, 40 percent below the normal yield.
That did not stop Japanese leaders from preparing for a fight to the end. In addition to the millions of soldiers on Japan’s home islands that the government had mobilized, the People’s Volunteer Corps Law enabled officials to raise local militias and conscript all 15 to 60-year-old males and 17 to 40-year-old females. And so they did: Even my own grandmother as a young woman in Yokohama had to partake in mandatory lessons to learn how to fight with a bamboo spear.
The government’s policy at the time was that of ichioku gyokusai (“the honorable death of 100 million”), in that if Allied troops wanted to conquer Japan, they would have to go through every man, woman and child. Of course, many Japanese like my grandmother saw the futility of it all, but that viewpoint was far from universal. A farmer from Kyushu later confided in a letter to Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the occupation era, “The former prime minister, Kantaro Suzuki, said Kyushu would be the decisive battle. … To sever my worldly attachments, I was ready to kill my two darling grandchildren first and then fight to the end for my country.”
For gyokusai to work, it did not require every single person to be committed to it, just enough civilians who believed in it and enough military and police to force capitulation. To understand how devastating this policy really was, one need only look at the Battle of Okinawa, which witnessed one-third of the Okinawan population perish in a horrific, protracted conflict.
On the other end of the spectrum within the Japanese government were those officials seeking a way to end the war. They understood how dire the situation was, but held firm on principal conditions for any surrender agreement: one, preservation of the imperial dynasty; two, voluntary demobilization of Japanese troops; three, administering self-regulated punishment to persons responsible for the war, and four, a guarantee of no occupation.
The Allies of course had a different ultimatum. In late July 1945, the Allies issued the Potsdam Declaration. This statement called for Japan’s unconditional surrender, but importantly, this strongly worded message was also carefully crafted. There were clear indications that the Allies did not intend to dissolve Japan, and in subsequent negotiations via diplomatic correspondence, the U.S. government suggested that the “Emperor and the Japanese government … shall be subject to the Supreme Commander.” This was a signal that at least the country of Japan and its imperial institution could potentially be retained.
Japanese leaders took their time deliberating a formal response. Finally, on the morning of Aug. 14, Japan’s Supreme War Council issued its final vote on whether to accept the terms of surrender from the Allies’ Potsdam Declaration or to continue the war effort. There was no consensus in the council. In fact, the vote was split 3-to-3 and if any of the council members were to have resigned in protest, it would have forced the formation of a new Cabinet and delayed the decision even further. To break the impasse, the Emperor voted for the first time ever as the tiebreaker: He chose to end the war.
Following that decision, the government recorded the Emperor’s speech that would be broadcast on Aug. 15, but word quickly spread, and mayhem ensued. A group of military officers in the imperial guard attempted a coup with the intent of intercepting the recording and purging all officials that voted in favor of ending the war.
This group of radical young officers led by Maj. Kenji Hatanaka approached the minister of war, Korechika Anami, who refused to support the coup and later committed seppuku (ritual suicide) that night. The group proceeded anyway, murdering Lt. Gen. Takeshi Mori of the First Imperial Guard Division and his brother-in-law before occupying the Imperial Palace in an attempt to find and destroy the recording of the Emperor’s speech. Fortunately, one of the recordings survived hidden underground.
Meanwhile, another group attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki and Kiichiro Hiranuma, president of the Privy Council. Both men narrowly escaped the would-be assassins. The coup ended with the broadcast of the speech and the suicide of Hatanaka and many of his co-conspirators.
This incident offers a few important points to reflect upon on this anniversary of Japan’s surrender.
The first is that uncertainty characterized war’s end. The storyline these days often jumps directly from atomic bombings to surrender broadcast to Occupation, but there were no foregone conclusions at the time. Every step was another further into uncharted territory, with plenty of spoilers to peace waiting in the wings. In fact, there were six more notable incidents involving revolting Imperial military forces between Aug. 15 and 24.
This leads to the next point: Whatever the Emperor’s role was in initiating and advancing the war, it was paramount in ending it. All major accounts of the meeting of the privy council suggest that this was the first time that the Emperor ever rendered a vote, and it was in favor of surrender. His broadcast across the radio was equally critical, as it did two key things.
First, it presented the critical decision to change course that many Japanese leaders were unprepared to do, and it came from the constitutionally and ideologically highest source of power. Second, it eliminated doubt over the legitimacy of the surrender order; after all, it was the Emperor’s vote in the council that decided it and the Emperor’s voice that conveyed it. Of note, the Emperor followed his Aug. 15 broadcast by issuing subsequent rescripts directly to the military on Aug. 17 and 25, urging them to obey the surrender order. In short, the Emperor’s function at war’s end reflects the importance of eliminating domestic opposition to peace before engaging in the peace process.
The final observation is that peace is never easy or certain. In Japan’s case, it took two first-ever occurrences (the Emperor’s tie-breaking vote in the council and his radio broadcast) and the quelling of an attempted coup. For the Allies, it required careful consideration of Japanese interests and just enough signalling of concessions to make surrender palatable for Japanese leaders.
In the end, peace required both sides of the conflict to demonstrate skill, leadership and something that is often unthinkable in war: hope. After all, it is far easier to predict the impact of a bomb than an olive branch. Leaders must have hope that peace will bring better outcomes than war and must be able to inspire hope in others to foster commitment to the peace process.
We often remember the part of the Emperor’s speech referring to “enduring the unendurable,” but we do not recall the words that preceded it often enough: “We are keenly aware of the inmost feelings of all ye, Our subjects. However, it is according to the dictate of time and fate that We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come …”
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow and is a former officer in the U.S. Air Force.
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