It was August 15, 1945, shortly before noon. What followed would never be forgotten.
Aihara Yu was twenty-eight years old then, a farmer's wife in rural Shizuoka prefecture. Through the decades to come, the day would replay itself in her memory like an old filmstrip, a staccato newsreel in black and white.
She was working outdoors when a messenger arrived breathless from the village. It had been announced that the emperor would be making a personal broadcast at noon, he exclaimed before rushing off. Everyone was to come and listen.
The news that America, the land of the enemy, had disappeared into the sea would hardly have been more startling. The emperor was to speak! In the two decades since he had ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne, Emperor Hirohito had never once spoken directly to all his subjects. Until now the sovereign's words had been handed down in the form of imperial rescripts--as printed texts, pronouncements humbly read by others.
Half a century later, Aihara could still recall every detail. She rushed to the village, repeating over and over to herself a line from the Imperial Rescript on Education, which everyone knew by heart from daily recitation during their school years. "Should any emergency arise," it went, "offer yourselves courageously to the State." She knew the country's situation was desperate and could only imagine that the emperor was going to exhort every Japanese to make even greater efforts to support the war--to be prepared, indeed, to fight to the bitter end.
The villagers had gathered around the single local radio over which the single state-run station was received. Reception was poor. Static crackled around the emperor's words, and the words themselves were difficult to grasp. The emperor's voice was high pitched and his enunciation stilted. He did not speak in colloquial Japanese, but in a highly formal language studded with ornamental classical phrases. Aihara was just exchanging puzzled glances with others in the crowd when a man who had recently arrived from bombed-out Tokyo spoke up--almost, she recalled, as if to himself. "This means," he whispered, "that Japan has lost."
Aihara felt all strength drain from her body. Before she knew what happened she found herself lying face down on the ground. Others who collapsed around her--as she later pictured the scene--lay on their backs. The emperor's voice was gone, but the radio droned on. An announcer was speaking. One of his sentences burned itself into her mind, where it would remain for the rest of her life: "The Japanese military will be disarmed and allowed to return to Japan."
With this, Aihara Yu experienced a flood of hope. Her husband, who had been drafted into the army and sent to Manchuria, might soon return! All that day and through the night, she prayed, "Please, my husband, don't commit suicide." Japanese fighting men had been indoctrinated to chose death over surrender, a path Aihara feared her husband might take as a proper and moral response to this extraordinary moment.
For three years, Aihara continued to pray for her husband's return. Only then did she learn that he had been killed in a battle with Soviet forces five days before she was summoned from the fields to hear her sovereign's voice. The war had, after all, permanently shattered her life.
The millions of Japanese who gathered around neighborhood radios to hear that broadcast were not "citizens" but the emperor's subjects, and it was in his name that they had supported their country's long war against China and the Allied Powers. In Japanese parlance, it had been a "holy war"; in announcing Japan's capitulation, the forty-four-year-old sovereign faced the challenge of replacing such rhetoric with new language.
This was a formidable challenge. Fourteen years earlier, in the sixth year of his reign, Emperor Hirohito had acquiesced in the imperial army's takeover of the three Chinese provinces known collectively as Manchuria. Eight years previously, Japan had initiated open war against China in the emperor's name. From that time on, Hirohito had appeared in public only in the bemedalled military garb of commander in chief. In December 1941, he issued the rescript that initiated hostilities against the United States and various European powers. Now, three years and eight months later, his task was not merely to call a halt to a lost war, but to do so without disavowing Japan's war aims or acknowledging the nation's atrocities--and in a manner that divorced him from any personal responsibility for these many years of aggression.
It was Hirohito himself who first broached the idea of breaking precedent and using the airwaves to speak directly to his subjects. The text of his announcement, not finalized until close to midnight the previous night, had been composed and delivered under great pressure. Much intrigue was involved in recording and then hiding it from military officers opposed to a surrender. Despite its chaotic genesis, the rescript emerged as a polished ideological gem.
Although many shared Aihara Yu's difficulty in comprehending the emperor's words, his message (which was simultaneously transmitted to Japanese overseas by shortwave radio) was quickly understood by everyone. Sophisticated listeners such as the Tokyo man in her village explained the broadcast to their puzzled compatriots. Radio announcers immediately summarized the rescript and its import in everyday language. Newspapers rushed out special editions reproducing the emperor's text accompanied by editorial commentary.
Like insects in amber, lines and phrases from the broadcast soon became locked in popular consciousness. The emperor never spoke explicitly of either "surrender" or "defeat." He simply observed that the war "did not turn in Japan's favor, and trends of the world were not advantageous to us." He enjoined his subjects to "endure the unendurable and bear the unbearable"--words that would be quoted times beyond counting in the months to come.
With this rescript, the emperor endeavored to accomplish the impossible: to turn the announcement of humiliating defeat into yet another affirmation of Japan's war conduct and of his own transcendent morality. He began by reiterating what he had told his subjects in 1941 when Japan declared war on the United States--that the war had been begun to ensure the survival of Japan and the stability of Asia, not out of any aggressive intent to interfere with the sovereign integrity of other countries. In this spirit, Hirohito now expressed deep regret to those countries that had cooperated with Japan "for the liberation of East Asia." With reference to the recent atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the emperor went on to present Japan's decision to capitulate as nothing less than a magnanimous act that might save humanity itself from annihilation by an atrocious adversary. "The enemy has for the first time used cruel bombs to kill and maim extremely large numbers of the innocent," he declared, "and the heavy casualties are beyond measure. To continue the war further could lead in the end not only to the extermination of our race, but also to the destruction of all human civilization." By accepting Allied demands to end the war, the emperor declared it was his purpose to "open the way for a great peace for thousands of generations to come."
He then proceeded to offer himself as the embodiment of the nation's suffering, its ultimate victim, transforming the sacrifices of his people into his own agony with a classical turn of phrase. When he contemplated those of his subjects who had died in the war, the bereaved kin they left behind, and the extraordinary difficulties all Japanese now faced, he exclaimed, "my vital organs are torn asunder." For many of his listeners, this was the most moving part of the broadcast. Some confessed to being overcome by a sense of shame and guilt that, in failing to live up to their sovereign's expectations, they had caused him grief.
To evoke such emotions in August 1945 was an impressive accomplishment. Close to 3 million Japanese were dead, many more wounded or seriously ill, and the country in ruins as a consequence of the war waged in the emperor's name, yet it was his agony on which his loyal subjects were expected to dwell. That this was the first time the emperor had spoken directly to the public made the appeal all the more effective. Perhaps he was indeed not just a symbol of their suffering, but the most conspicuous victim of the lost war. Certainly his subjects could imagine that previous imperial exhortations to fight and sacrifice had not reflected his true intentions, but had been extracted by evil advisers. Only now, as sentimental royalists would soon put it, were people actually hearing the sovereign's true voice. It was "as if the sun had at long last emerged from behind dark clouds."
Although the emperor reaffirmed his faith in "the sincerity of my good and loyal subjects" and assured them that he would "always be with" them, he also admonished them not to fall out among themselves in the chaos and misery of defeat. It was essential to remain united as a great family, firmly believing in "the invincibility of the divine country" and devoting every effort to the reconstruction of a nation that would preserve its traditional identity while keeping pace with "the progress and fortune of the world."
Behind these brave but nervous words lay a gnawing fear of future revolutionary upheaval in defeated Japan--a dire prospect the emperor had been warned about for months. This was, then, not merely the official closing statement of a lost war, but the opening pronunciamento of an urgent campaign to maintain imperial control as well as social and political stability in a shattered nation.
Responses to the emperor's broadcast varied greatly. Some residents of Tokyo did make their way to the imperial palace, still standing amid a ruined cityscape. (U.S. policy makers had excluded this as a bombing target, although part of it had been inadvertently destroyed anyway). Photographs of them kneeling on the gravel in front of the palace, bowing in sorrow for having failed to live up to the emperor's hopes and expectations, later were offered as a defining image for the moment of capitulation.
This was, in fact, a misleading image. The number of people who gathered before the imperial residence was relatively small, and the tears that ordinary people everywhere did shed reflected a multitude of sentiments apart from emperor-centered grief: anguish, regret, bereavement, anger at having been deceived, sudden emptiness and loss of purpose--or simple joy at the unexpected surcease of misery and death. Kido Koichi, the lord keeper of the privy seal and Emperor Hirohito's closest confidant, captured the palpable sense of relief in a diary entry in which he noted that some people were actually cheering in front of the palace. It was clear, he observed with some ambivalence, that they felt a great burden had been lifted.
As Aihara Yu's prayers indicated, it did not seem unreasonable to anticipate that great numbers of Japanese might chose death over the dishonor of defeat. Through the long years of war, fighting men had been forbidden to surrender. There was no greater shame than this, they were told. As the war drew closer home, civilians had also been indoctrinated to fight to the bitter end and die "like shattered jewels," as the saying went. In the wake of the emperor's words, however, the number who actually chose the jeweled path was fewer than had been imagined. Several hundred individuals, most of them military officers, committed suicide--just as many Nazi officers did on the capitulation of Germany, where there never had existed a comparable cult of patriotic suicide.
Indeed, at the official level, the most notable immediate response to the momentous broadcast of August 15 was pragmatic and self-serving. Military officers and civilian bureaucrats throughout the country threw themselves frenetically into the tasks of destroying their files and disbursing vast hoards of military supplies in illicit ways. Although the emperor's broadcast put an end to the American air raids, it was said, with a fine touch of hyperbole, that the skies over Tokyo remained black with smoke for days to come. Bonfires of documents replaced napalm's hellfires as the wartime elites followed the lead of their sovereign and devoted themselves to obscuring their wartime deeds.
The victors did not witness these bonfires, for the first major contingents of Allied occupation forces did not arrive in Japan until two weeks after the emperor's broadcast. With them came a new, imperious figure of authority in the person of General Douglas MacArthur, who had been designated the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan. On September 2, in an imposing ceremony on the deck of the U.S. battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, MacArthur, representatives of nine other Allied powers, and Japanese officials signed the instruments of surrender.
The ceremony was laden with symbolism. Missouri was the home state of President Harry S. Truman, whose major decisions regarding Japan had been to use the atomic bombs on two Japanese cities and to hold firm to the policy of "unconditional surrender" of his deceased predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt. One of the flags displayed on the Missouri was the same Old Glory that had been flying over the White House on December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Another, rushed by plane from Annapolis, was the standard with thirty-one stars used by Commodore Matthew Perry on his flagship Powhatten when his gunboat diplomacy forced Japan to end more than two centuries of feudal seclusion. The appearance of Perry's small, mixed fleet of sailing vessels and coal-fueled, smoke-belching "black ships" in 1853 had propelled Japan onto its ultimately disastrous course of global competition with the Western powers. Now, a shade under a century later, the Americans had returned with a gigantic navy, army, and air force that reflected technology and technocracy of an order Perry could not have envisioned in his wildest dreams--flaunting the commodore's old flag as a reprimand.
Two Japanese officials signed the surrender documents: General Umezu Yoshijiro, representing the imperial armed forces, and the diplomat Shigemitsu Mamoru, representing the imperial government. Shigemitsu had lost a leg in 1932 in a bomb attack by a Korean protesting Japan's colonization of his country, and his awkward gait on the rolling deck of the American battleship conveyed an uncanny impression of a crippled and vulnerable Japan. Those present to sign the surrender documents, however, stood in the shadow of those who were missing: for the emperor did not participate in these proceedings, nor did any representative of the imperial family or the Imperial Household Ministry. This concession on the part of Allied authorities caught observers in the camps of both victor and vanquished by surprise. Until the end of the war, even unabashedly proimperial American officials such as the former ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew had assumed that the emperor would and should sign the formal articles of surrender. And even after the Japanese learned that the emperor would be personally spared this ordeal, they still assumed that an intimate representative from the court, perhaps blood kin to the sovereign, would be required to sign the surrender documents on his behalf. The emperor's complete exclusion from the great morality play of September 2 was a heartening signal to the Japanese side, for it intimated that the victors might be willing to disassociate the emperor from ultimate war responsibility.
In his address on the Missouri , MacArthur spoke eloquently about the hope of all humanity that "a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past--a world founded upon faith and understanding--a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish--for freedom, tolerance and justice." In words directed explicitly to his fellow Americans, he reported that "the holy mission has been completed," and warned that the utter destructiveness of modern war meant that "Armageddon will be at our door" if the world did not learn to live in peace. Where defeated Japan was concerned, the supreme commander declared that the terms of surrender committed the victors to liberate the Japanese people from a "condition of slavery" and to ensure that the energies of the race were turned into constructive channels--what he referred to as expanding "vertically rather than horizontally." These were stern but solemn and hopeful words, and their high-minded tone offered a modicum of further comfort to Japanese leaders who were still nervously attempting to gauge what the victors might have in store for them.
Still, to most patriots the surrender ceremony "spelled doom," as one American general present on the Missouri put it. "Although the inscrutable faces of their representatives gave no indication of their feelings," he recalled, "their demeanor was so extremely somber as to indicate that they fully realized that their once-proud empire had been humbled into dust and that their national hopes and aspirations were at an end." The future remained terribly uncertain, and the enormity of the nation's humiliation had only begun to sink in. The country's utter subjugation was reinforced by the dramatic setting of the surrender ceremony itself. The imperial navy had long since been demolished. Apart from a few thousand rickety planes held in reserve for suicide attacks, Japan's air force--not only its aircraft, but its skilled pilots as well--had virtually ceased to exist. Its merchant marine lay at the bottom of the ocean. Almost all of the country's major cities had been fire bombed, and millions of the emperor's loyal subjects were homeless. The defeated imperial army was scattered throughout Asia and the islands of the Pacific Ocean, its millions of surviving soldiers starving, wounded, sick, and demoralized. But Tokyo Bay was clogged with hundreds of powerful, well-scrubbed American fighting ships. At a thunderous theatrical moment, the sky was all but obscured by a fly-by of some four hundred glistening B-29 bombers accompanied by fifteen hundred Navy fighter planes. The imperial soil was being desecrated by the landings of wave upon wave of well-fed, superbly equipped, supremely confident GIs--an army of occupation whose numbers, in a short time, would surpass a quarter of a million. A country that had celebrated its mythic "2,600-year anniversary" in 1940, and prided itself on never having been invaded, was about to be inundated by white men.
In Japanese eyes, the inescapable impression of September 2, 1945, was that the West--which meant, essentially, the United States--was extraordinarily rich and powerful, and Japan unbelievably weak and vulnerable. This was a simple observation, but it carried enormous political implications. The scene in Tokyo Bay, coming in the wake of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, offered a stunning lesson in the kind of material strength and affluence that might be attained under American-style democracy. Although it took a while for this equation of democracy with wealth and power to sink in, it took very little time for the scale of Japan's defeat to become apparent. Nine days after the surrender ceremony, MacArthur observed at a press conference that Japan had fallen to the status of "a fourth-rate nation"--a blunt statement of reality guaranteed to tear asunder the vital organs of every Japanese leader from the emperor on down. From the moment Commodore Perry had forced Japan open, its leaders had been obsessed with becoming an itto koku, a country of the first rank. Indeed, fear that such status was being denied Japan was commonly evoked with great emotion as the ultimate reason for going to war against the West. Japan would be relegated to "second-rate" or "third-rate" status, claimed Prime Minister Tojo Hideki among others, if it failed to strike out and establish a secure imperium in Asia. Like a reopened wound, the term yonto koku --"fourth-rate country"--immediately became a postsurrender catchphrase. Shortly after this, MacArthur framed the nation's plight in even more alarming terms, evocative of the wrathful God of the Old Testament. Speaking about the demobilization of Japan's armed forces, he declared that "they are thoroughly beaten and cowed and tremble before the terrible retribution the surrender terms impose upon their country in punishment for its great sins."
In the weeks that followed, the victors continued to be taken aback by the extent of the country's devastation. In mid-October, in a memorandum to President Truman summarizing conversations with MacArthur and his aides, the special presidential envoy Edwin Locke, Jr. reported that "the American officers now in Tokyo are amazed by the fact that resistance continued as long as it did." Indeed, so great was the economic disarray, he added, that in the opinion of some Americans the atomic bombs, "while seized upon by the Japanese as an excuse for getting out of the war, actually speeded surrender by only a few days." Locke went on to note that "the entire economic structure of Japan's greatest cities has been wrecked. Five millions of Tokyo's seven million population have left the ruined city." Later investigative missions from Washington, led by analysts for the prestigious U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, similarly concluded that presurrender estimates of Japan's capacity for continuing the war had been greatly exaggerated. This was ex post facto conjecture, but it reflected a common observation that Japan at war's end was vastly weaker than anyone outside the country had imagined--or anyone inside it had acknowledged.
Virtually all that would take place in the several years that followed unfolded against this background of crushing defeat. Despair took root and flourished in such a milieu; so did cynicism and opportunism--as well as marvelous expressions of resilience, creativity, and idealism of a sort possible only among people who have seen an old world destroyed and are being forced to imagine a new one. In such circumstances, it was hardly surprising that few Japanese had the energy, imagination, or desire to dwell on how many other lives they had shattered in the course of carrying out their emperor's holy war.
The ravages of war can never be accurately quantified. Even when large bureaucracies are put to the task of calculating total casualties and estimating the extent of physical destruction, the results are typically a potpourri of implausibly precise numbers masking areas of uncertainty. In defeated Japan, it took years to arrive at generally accepted estimates of the price Japan paid for its lost war.
The number of deaths usually cited for the armed forces--1.74 million up to the time of surrender--is probably fairly accurate. On the other hand, estimates vary considerably where civilian deaths in air raids are concerned. When war-related military and civilian deaths outside Japan after August 15, 1945 are taken into consideration, the picture becomes even murkier. Japan's postsurrender governments tended to be evasive on such painful matters. All told, probably at least 2.7 million servicemen and civilians died as a result of the war, roughly 3 to 4 percent of the country's 1941 population of around 74 million. Millions more were injured, sick, or seriously malnourished. Approximately 4.5 million servicemen demobilized in 1945 were identified as being wounded or ill, and eventually some three hundred thousand were given disability pensions.
In the most sweeping of material calculations, it was estimated that the Allied assault on shipping and the bombing campaign against the home islands destroyed one-quarter of the country's wealth. This included four-fifths of all ships, one-third of all industrial machine tools, and almost a quarter of all rolling stock and motor vehicles. General MacArthur's "SCAP" bureaucracy (SCAP, an acronym for Supreme Command[er] for the Allied Powers, was commonly used to refer to MacArthur's command) placed the overall costs of the war even higher, calculating early in 1946 that Japan had "lost one-third of its total wealth and from one-third to one-half of its total potential income." Rural living standards were estimated to have fallen to 65 percent of prewar levels and nonrural living standards to about 35 percent.
Sixty-six major cities, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had been heavily bombed, destroying 40 percent of these urban areas overall and rendering around 30 percent of their populations homeless. In Tokyo, the largest metropolis, 65 percent of all residences were destroyed. In Osaka and Nagoya, the country's second and third largest cities, the figures were 57 and 89 percent. The first American contingents to arrive in Japan--especially those that made the several-hour journey from Yokohama to Tokyo--were invariably impressed, if not shocked, by the mile after mile of urban devastation they encountered. Russell Brines, the first foreign journalist to enter Tokyo, recorded that "everything had been fattened ... Only thumbs stood up from the flatlands--the chimneys of bathhouses, heavy house safes and an occasional stout building with heavy iron shutters." The first photographs and newsreel footage from the conquered land captured these endless vistas of urban rubble for American audiences thousands of miles away who had never really grasped what it meant to incinerate great cities.
Even amid such extensive vistas of destruction, however, the conquerors found strange evidence of the selectiveness of their bombing policies. Vast areas of poor people's residences, small shops, and factories in the capital were gutted, for instance, but a good number of the homes of the wealthy in fashionable neighborhoods survived to house the occupation's officer corps. Tokyo's financial district, largely undamaged, would soon become "little America," home to MacArthur's General Headquarters (GHQ). Undamaged also was the building that housed much of the imperial military bureaucracy at war's end. With a nice sense of irony, the victors subsequently appropriated this for their war crimes trials of top leaders. Railways still functioned more or less effectively throughout the country (Tokyo residents, for example, had been able to ride directly to distant Hiroshima to see if their kin had survived the atomic blast). Outside of devastated poor people's neighborhoods, most utilities including electricity and water were also still in working order. Wittingly or not, U.S. bombing policy, at least in the capital city, had tended to reaffirm existing hierarchies of fortune.
Close to 9 million people were homeless when the emperor told them they had fought and sacrificed in vain. "In every major city," as one American described the scene, "families were crowded into dugouts and flimsy shacks or, in some cases, were trying to sleep in hallways, on subway platforms, or on sidewalks. Employees slept in their offices; teachers, in their schoolrooms"--if, of course, they were fortunate enough to still have offices or schoolrooms to sleep in. The streets of every major city quickly became peopled with demoralized ex-soldiers, war widows, orphans, the homeless and unemployed--most of them preoccupied with simply staving off hunger. Yet even these individuals were relatively fortunate. At least they were in their own country.
Copyright © 1999 John W. Dower. All rights reserved.