I recently read a fascinating book describing Japan’s decision to surrender at the end of World War II. The book, “Japan’s Longest Day,” was published 20 years after the end of the war and written by 14 Japanese historians, members of The Pacific War Research Society, who spent years researching the history of Japan’s surrender.
The book focuses on August 14-15 as the longest day when the Japanese government — with great difficulty and amidst deep controversy — came to a decision, but also describes the two weeks leading up to that point.
Japan faced this choice after the Allies issued the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, 1945 reaffirming the demand for unconditional surrender. Rejection, said the Allies, could lead to “prompt and utter destruction.”
Japan ignored the ultimatum.
Japan’s day of decision also followed closely on the heels of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, also on August 9.
This book was not written by historians from outside of Japan looking to justify or criticize the American use of atomic bombs. Rather, the analysis was first published in Japanese in 1965 to understand how the decision to surrender was made. The English language version was produced by Kodansha International three years later.
The book convincingly refutes a number of commonly made arguments about the end of World War II: that Japan was set to surrender even before the dropping of the atomic bombs, that American leaders knew about this prospective capitulation, and that President Harry Truman ignored this information, choosing instead to explode the bombs as a show of strength to the world and to intimidate the Soviet Union.
The final decision on whether to accept allied terms came down to a Supreme War Council known as the Big Six. Contrary to accounts of Japanese leaders on the verge of surrender, the Big Six remained split down the middle about whether to capitulate despite devastating attacks on Japan by both conventional and atomic bombs, the defeats of Japanese forces across Asia, the Soviet Union’s decision to intervene on the side of the allies and an impending Allied invasion of the Japanese mainland.
Prime Minister Baron Kantaro Suzuki, Minister of Foreign Affairs Shigenori Togo and Minister of the Navy Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai favored surrender, while Minister of War General Korechika Anami, Chief of the Army Staff General Yoshijiro Umezu, Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Soemu Toyoda proposed to continue waging war.
The full Cabinet was also split.
The first official reaction to the demand for surrender came from Prime Minister Suzuki on July 28: the Japanese government rejects surrender and will continue prosecuting the war until victory.
Earlier, Japanese officials had hoped to avoid unconditional surrender, seeking better terms from the Soviet Union’s “good offices” (still officially a Japanese ally) — without knowing that Stalin had agreed months before to join the war against Japan within two or three months of Germany’s surrender.
The Supreme War Council continued to dither even after the first atomic bomb devastated Hiroshima and the second bomb Nagasaki, and with Manchuria for all practical purposes in Soviet hands. The Army Chief of Staff argued that Japan had still not lost the war and that Japanese troops in the homeland were capable of holding back or even repulsing an Allied invasion.
The Japanese governmental tradition was to rule with unanimity: longtime practice dictated that no decision should be presented for approval to the Emperor, the Voice of the Crane, without a unanimous cabinet. To present the supreme leader with a divided cabinet was unthinkable. Yet in the midst of this crisis, the government was paralyzed by an intractable difference of opinion.
With the leadership unable to agree, in an action unprecedented in modern Japanese history, the divided Supreme Council met with the Emperor late on August 9. The Army Chief of Staff insisted that the Japanese armed forces remained more than a match for the enemy, while surrender would dishonor the Japanese who had died in the war.
The Emperor broke the tie, and agreed with those who favored surrender: “I give my sanction to the proposal to accept the Allied Proclamation.”
But despite the Emperor’s decision, the inconclusiveness continued. The Supreme Council and the Cabinet remained split on whether to accept the Allied terms of surrender.
Younger officers denounced the government for its decision. They promised to continue the war, and to assassinate leaders who stood in their way. Some of the officers even made plans to stage a coup.
The Emperor was forced to reiterate his decision to accept Allied terms, which he decided to do late on August 14. “If we continue that way, Japan will be altogether destroyed.”
Even then, surrender was not assured. Many younger officers believed that the Emperor was being misled and were determined to “protect” him by removing the “traitors” in government.
The Emperor prepared a statement that he would record for a radio broadcast to the Japanese people – a first for a public that had never heard him speak publicly. But even that did not settle the issue for the younger coterie that was determined that Japan should continue fighting.
A regiment of the First Imperial Guards Division seized the Emperor’s residence to isolate him from the rest of the country and government. A search party was launched to find and destroy the Emperor’s recorded statement before it could be broadcast to the country.
After a number of tense hours, the coup was turned back, the recording retrieved from its hiding place and the Emperor’s voice was heard on the radio for the first time: “To our good and loyal subjects . . .”
Thus Japan’s surrender finally became official, but up to the very end, it was far from a sure thing.