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How Japan surrendered

[The following post appeared on the moderated World War II newsgroup on the 50th anniversary of Fat Boy's detonation over Nagasaki. I trust the author won't mind my publishing it here: his essay is so thoughtful and clear that I wanted to share it. -- Dan Ford]

by Thomas Hamilton

This is a brief account of how and why Japan surrendered. The best account of these events is found in Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi by the Pacific War Research Society. The Society was a group of 14 Japanese historians who spent years interviewing every Japanese survivor involved in any way with the decision, except Hirohito. Their book was published in 1965. It was translated into English and published by Kondansha with the title Japan's Longest Day [JLD]. This is still the authoritative book on the subject. This post is condensed from JLD. If you have read JLD, don't bother with this post. Otherwise, here are the Cliff notes.

Japan in the summer of 1945 was governed, in the name of the emperor, by the Supreme War Council or Big Six. The SWC consisted of representives of the Army, the Navy and the civilian government. This body ruled by consensus. That is the six would debate amoung themselves until they all agreed on a course of action which could be presented to Hirohito. The most powerful person on the SWC was the Army Minister. It had become a rule of Japanese politics that the Army Minister was chosen by the Army and no cabinet could exist without an Army Minister. This meant that the Army could veto any decision by having its Minister resign.

The issue on the table in late summer of 1945 was the surrender of Japan. The SWC could not, did not achieve consensus.

It is a remarkable fact about the crisis which overtook the SWC in August 1945 that no one changed their opinion. The SWC members who advocated immediate acceptance of the Potsdam declaration stayed pro-peace throughout. More amazingly, the SWC members who opposed surrender before Hiroshima, continued to oppose it right up till August 14.


Foreign Minister Togo (the leader of the doves)
Prime Minister Admiral Suzuki (77 and very flaky)
Navy Minister Admiral Yonai


Army Minister General Anami (the leader of the hawks)
Army Chief of Staff General Umezu
Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Toyoda

It is a curious fact that the Navy was so important, even though it only had a few destroyers left.

Since these six people were unable to agree to end the war, there were two other sources of authority which could possibly break the deadlock, although, since Japan was already at war, the hawks had no desire to break the deadlock.


The Army was in physical control of the country and Tokyo. The Army had a tradition of murdering political opponents. Many middle level officers in the Army believed that the Army should murder all the doves and take control of the country. This would mean, in effect, kidnapping Hirohito. Many officers viewed this as preferable to surrender. Everyone believed that a surrender order would be followed by an immediate coup attempt and assasination spree.


Hirohito strongly wanted peace. In principle, he could have ordered the Army to surrender at any time. Under the Meiji Constitution he was explicitly Commander and Chief. However, it was not clear that the Army would obey him. If he ordered the Army to surrender, a successful coup would leave him a prisoner. He knew he only had one shot. He would have to stake his position and the lives of his fellow doves on one attempt to bulldoze the Army. The question was, when to try it. Hirohito was not isolated, he had the help of many senior politicians. He had friends in the Army. It just wasn't clear that he had enough to ride out a coup.

DOVE arguments:

Everyone agreed on the importance of protecting the 'national polity'. Doves emphasized the importance of the Monarchy. They argued that immediate surrender to the US was the best way to preserve the Monarchy. Peace feelers to the US from doves had been broken off at hawks insistence, but not before the US had communicated to the doves that Japan could surrender and keep an emperor. The doves also didn't like the Russians and would have preferred ending the war before they occupied any of Japan. (Even though Japan was still at peace with Russia, indeed trying desperately to negotiate with Stalin, Japan could see the Russians deploying massive forces on the border. The Russian attack was not a big surprise.)

HAWK arguments:

The hawks accepted that the war, and empire, were gone. They believed that the US would allow Japan to retain its government structure and independence if it were clear that the price of insisting on occupation was too high. They advocated a guerilla war. They believed that even if the emperor were hiding in the mountains with a few soldiers, that was preferable to having the public humiliation of the emperor subordinated to foreigners.

However, the hawks didn't think it would come to that. After all, all they wanted was a little area around Tokyo where the emperor and his soldiers could wave the flag unmolested. Was this too much to ask in exchange for thousands of US lives? The hawks thought US diplomatic concessions would be coming.

The hawks also thought the Soviets would help. They could pressure the US directly, although that was unlikely. More usefully, the Soviets could overrun Manchuria and Korea, scaring the US into coming to terms.

However, the hawks main hope was for a US invasion. Until the US invaded, Japan had no good way to kill Americans. However, if the US fought Japan's 2 million man home army in Japan's rugged terrain, Japan would kill plenty of Americans.

(Continued in part II)