The messy drama in Tokyo that led to Japan’s unconditional surrender in WWII

Japanese military and civilian leaders in the dock at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. It was fear of a scene like this that helped stiffen the resistance to unconditional surrender. Image:

Few people today wonder what led to Japan’s unconditional surrender in World War II. The United States dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Emperor caved. Job done. But of course the reality was far more complex. And the outcome was anything but certain.

Twenty-two years after the war ended, American historian William Craig revealed how that decision came about. He dug into hidden documents and spoke with dozens of those who played pivotal roles at the time both in Japan and the US. Day-by-day, and often hour by hour, Craig reconstructed the events that unfolded in Tokyo as the Empire of Japan pondered the Allies’ inflexible demands. He focused on the fateful days between August 9, 1945, when Fat Man detonated over Nagasaki, and August 15, when Emperor Hirohito radioed a message to Switzerland accepting the Allied terms of surrender. The story Craig tells in The Fall of Japan is at once compelling, disturbing, and illuminating. This book is a stellar example of how history can shine a bright light underneath the surface myths and reveal the messy human reality of the past.

What really led up to Japan’s unconditional surrender

Hirohito’s role was largely ceremonial

Diplomats struggled to reach a peace agreement

The military was fanatically committed to continuing the war

Japanese troops entering Manchuria in 1931. Image: Wikipedia

Ever since the renegade Kwantung Army attacked Chinese troops in the Mukden Incident in 1931, the Japanese military had been in the driver’s seat in Tokyo. For fourteen years, the army and navy dominated government policy, often in bitter conflict with each other. Of the two, the army was, if anything, more powerful. But the power dynamics were complex. Within both services, there were senior officers (most notably the late Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto) who recognized the suicidal folly of attacking the United States at Pearl Harbor.

Among the civilian leadership, too, opinion was divided. But as fighting raged across the Pacific, the dissenters remained quiet. A succession of Prime Ministers were forced to bow to the will of the Army, not least in fear of their lives if they contradicted the generals. And when the emperor consulted privately with members of his cabinet during the final months of the war, virtually all advised continuing to fight. Only one urged a negotiated settlement — even though unconditional surrender alone was on the table.

Only when all hope was lost did Hirohito speak out

Hirohito informed the war cabinet that “I have studied the terms of the Allied reply and . . . I consider the reply to be acceptable. . . I cannot endure the thought of letting my people suffer any longer. . . At this point, the Emperor broke down” in tears, Craig reports. “Instead of rising to bow before the Emperor, most sat crying into their hands. Two men slid onto the floor. On elbows and knees, they cried uncontrollably.” But their devotion to the emperor prevailed.

The leadership, even the most fanatic militarists, acceded to his wish for a settlement — but the opposition in much of the officer corps remained steadfast. And fanatic junior officers — colonels, majors, captains — organized first one coup attempt, then another. Craig follows their activities almost hour by hour during those fraught six days from the sixth through the fifteenth of August. They came perilously close to assassinating the leaders of the peace faction, kidnapping Hirohito, and closing off all hope of dealing with the Allies.

“The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”

Master of the phonograph record of Hirohito’s surrender broadcast. Image: Wikipedia

Fanatic younger officers rampaging through the Imperial Palace failed to find the phonograph record of the emperor’s message to the people of Japan announcing the surrender. But it was a close call. And they did murder one of the most powerful members of the cabinet. Others in the leadership committed suicide, unable to face the reality of surrender or consumed by guilt over the loss. Finally, however, the Japanese people heard Emperor Hirohito’s high-pitched voice on the radio for the first time ever, declaring that the war was over.

Even the words Hirohito spoke reflected the deep divisions within the empire’s leadership — and his own ambivalence — as well as a cultural bias against directness. “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage,” he announced, “while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest” and thus “we have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.” Not only did Hirohito avoid using the word “surrender.” He also failed to acknowledge that by accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, he was bowing to the inevitability of Japan’s unconditional surrender.

The Fall of Japan: The Final Weeks of World War II in the Pacific by William Craig (1967) 394 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Why the Japanese resisted unconditional surrender

Fear of being accountable for war crimes

“By the time the war was over,” the British site Forces War Records reports, “a total of more than 30,000 POWs had died from starvation, diseases, and mistreatment both within and outside of the Japanese Mainland.” But none of this was unknown to either the military or the civilian leadership in Tokyo. And it was fear of being held to account for these crimes against humanity that played a leading role in Japan’s ferocious resistance to unconditional surrender even when all hope of victory was long gone.

Fear that the emperor would be deposed

The Imperial Palace in Tokyo, where much of the action in this book took place. Image: Japan Rail Pass

But most accounts single out another concern that motivated the resistance to unconditional surrender among the Japanese leadership. To their minds, the imperial dynasty represented twenty-six hundred years of Japanese history. It was unthinkable that ending the war might bring that dynasty to an inglorious end. Even the most determined members of the peace faction in Japanese diplomatic circles emphasized the importance of preserving the emperor’s role in their overtures to the Allies through neutral Switzerland and Sweden.

But the root cause of the resistance was fanaticism

Emperor Hirohito and General Douglas MacArthur at their first meeting in the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Sept. 27, 1945. Image: U.S. Army

A rich source of insight and perspective

The fateful role of the American Air Force

US Army photo of Tokyo after the March 1945 firebombing. Image: Japan Times

Continuing resistance by Japanese soldiers

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