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How Japan surrendered

[The following post appeared on the moderated World War II newsgroup on the 50th anniversary of Little 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. -- Daniel 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.

SWC DOVES:

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

SWC HAWKS

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

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.

THE EMPEROR

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.)

Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

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.

So, given this backdrop, let's look at some events:

POTSDAM PROCLAMATION:

The July 26 PP explicitly called for the "unconditional surrender of the Japanese Armed Forces". The cabinet correctly interpreted this as saying that the monarchy would not be eliminated. The foreign office pressed for immediate acceptance. The Army was unmoved. The SWC reached a consensus to do and say nothing. (This was there most common approach to all problems). Unfortunately, PM Suzuki said to reporters that the cabinet would 'mokusatsu' the PP. This harsh language, which was a slip from a well-meaning but senile dove, infuriated Togo because he knew it would get a bad reaction from the US. How bad, he couldn't imagine.

HIROSHIMA

Hiroshima was bombed on Aug 6. Nothing happened in Tokyo on the 6th or 7th. On Aug 8, Hirohito informed PM Suzuki that the war must be ended immediately. Suzuki was instructed to call an immediate SWC meeting for that purpose, "but the meeting had to be postponed because one of the members was unavoidably detained by 'more pressing business' elsewhere." [I, also, find this incredible, so I just quoted what JLD says]

RUSSIA

Russia declared war the afternoon of the 8th.

AUGUST 9

The doves woke up early this Thursday. Furious about the meeting that had been blown off, leading to Russian entry, Togo et al. managed to get an SWC meeting going by 10:30 AM. Immediately, the SWC split into its two familiar factions and started going over the familiar arguments. Halfway through the meeting a message arrived saying that Nagasaki had been bombed at 11:00 that morning. This changed no opinions. The SWC meeting broke up at 1:00 PM with no decision having been made.

That afternoon the arguments were repeated in a full cabinet meeting lasting from 2:30 to 10:00 PM. The Home Minister explicitly predicted that a coup would likely happen if the government ordered surrender. The meeting had no result.

Suzuki then, after consultation with Hirohito, called a SWC meeting for 11:50 PM, to be held in the presence of the emperor, an unprecedented, although perfectly legal, procedure.

AUGUST 10

For two hours the SWC went over the same arguments it had been arguing non-stop since mid-morning the day before. At 2:00 AM Suzuki turned to Hirohito, saying "your decision is requested". Hirohito said he supported Togo. He then left the room.

Suzuki then convened a cabinet meeting to prepare the formal note of surrender. By 4:00 AM the note had been approved by the cabinet and sent to the Foreign Office for translation and transmission. The FO had one last trick. The cabinet had demanded that the US respect "the powers of His Majesty". The FO translated that to English reading "the prerogatives of His Majesty." Since few hawks spoke English, they got away with it.

Tales of the Flying Tigers

Anami returned to the Army Ministry where he addressed senior personnel and explained the developments. A young officer demanded, "Is the Army Minister actually considering surrender?" Anami silenced the officer by smashing the table with his swagger stick. However, the young officers could still hope that the Allies would reject the note and a coup would be unnecessary.

The US delivered a massive bombing raid on Tokyo.

AUGUST 11

In Tokyo the leaders waited for the US reply. Anami made a belligerent public proclamation. Young officers began drawing up lists of doves to be killed.

AUGUST 12

The Byrnes reply came at 00:45. The FO diplomatically mistranslated it as well, substituting "controlled by" for Byrnes' "subject to" in the crucial phrase describing the Hirohito's relation with MacArthur.

This was the signal to start the same arguments all over again. There was now the added edge that the coup planning was in full process. Anami hoped to use the threat of the coup to prevent acceptance of the Byrnes note, but he also wanted to make sure there was no actual coup.

AUGUST 14

The Allies dropped leaflets describing the exchange of notes. This terrified the government. They were sure this would lead to a coup. So by 10:00 AM the SWC and cabinet were assembled for an Imperial Conference down in Hirohito's bunker. Hirohito announced his decision to accept the Byrnes note. He asked the cabinet to prepare an appropriate rescript for him to read to the nation.

That afternoon Hirohito recorded the rescript

Anami forced the top Army officers to sign a statement of loyalty. Anami was still consorting with the coup planners but Umezu definitely decided he was against a coup.

That night Anami went to his house and committed sepukku.

The coup began with junior officers seizing the Imperial Guards Division and the Imperial Palace. General Mori, commander of the Guards, was murdered. Meanwhile, a series of assasinations was attempted. PM Suzuki barely got out of his house alive before soldiers came, searched it, and burned it in frustration. He went into hiding at a friend's house.

AUGUST 15

Although the rebels had held the palace all night, the coup ran out of steam in the morning. General Tanaka of the Eastern District Army showed up at the palace. Hirohito and his hosehold were safe. Most of the plotters killed themselves.

At 12 noon, Hirohitos voice read the rescript ending the war on NHK.

Although sporadic mutinies contined for a few days, the situation was stable when the US arrived. General Umezu signed on the Missouri.

Buy it at Amazon

The book cited in the article is available in English as Japan's Longest Day. It should be in every serious World War II library. Out of print for several years, used copies are available at Amazon.com.

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