The Samurai, or ‘Bushido’, code of honour stresses “honour unto death”. Japanese people were brave and self-sacrificing, and if they died, they vowed to take 10 enemies with them. Japanese people didn’t lose; they certainly did not give up. That is what made Emperor Hirohito’s radio broadcast on 15th August 1945, which brought World War II to a close, so incredible, and why many Japanese citizens found the surrender difficult to accept.
With an illegal surprise attack on the US Fleet in Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941 by 200 Japanese aircraft, in which 2,400 servicemen were killed and eight battleships sunk or damaged without prior declaration of war, Japan burst into the Second World War. The country fought bravely and brutally, and despite the fact that the Japanese forces were, by 1945, hopelessly out-matched, refused to stop fighting. That is, until two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6th and 9th August respectively, killing 115,000 people and injuring 60,000 more, and the Soviet Union declared war on Japan on 8th August. It was too much to endure, and the country was broken. On 14th August Japan bowed to the inevitable, an unconditional surrender was agreed.
However, many soldiers refused to accept defeat. Before the Emperor went on the radio, an attempt was made by junior army officers to capture him and prevent him from exercising his influence. When the plan failed, a wave of people committed suicide outside the Imperial Palace in protest. On 24th August, a Kamikazi raid by junior airforce officers was launched to try and sink USS Missouri, which was carrying the papers of surrender to Tokyo Bay to be signed. Once they were signed, the people reacted with disbelief and shame, and many vowed to fight on regardless (in fact, one or two soldiers held out in the jungles of the Philippines for decades, with intelligence officer Hiroo Onoda famously only being coaxed out of hiding when his former commanding officer travelled to the Philippines to rescind his original orders in person in March 1974). However, as well as courage and honour the Bushido code demands respect and obedience to one’s superiors. That is why the Emperor felt he had to step in.
As ‘The World War Two Collection: the Judgement of Nuremburg 1945’ explains, Japan’s entry into the war was assured by the signing of the Tripartate, or Axis, Pact between Germany, Italy and Japan on 27th September 1940. The three nations vowed to cooperate for the next 10 years, and the German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, immediately set about encouraging Japan to launch an attack on British possessions in the Far East. At first the German policy was to try and keep the US out of the war, but on 4th April 1941 von Ribbentrop was present when Adolf Hitler promised Yosuke Matsuoka, the Japanese Foreign Minister, that Germany would “strike without delay” in the event of an attack on Singapore leading to war between Japan and the US. From then on he did his best to persuade Japan to actively engage with the US, and he was overjoyed when the attack on Pearl Harbour happened. Germany did indeed declare war on the US on 11th December 1941, following the US’s declaration on Japan on the 8th.
From that time on, Japan began invading Far East territories. As outlined in ‘Campaigns of World War II Day by Day’, edited by Chris Bishop and Chris McNab, the Philippines capital of Manila fell to Japan on 27th December 1941; on 11th January 1942, the Malayan capital of Kuala Lumpur; by mid-February, Borneo, Sarawak and Celebes were under Japanese control; on 15th February Singapore surrendered; by 8th March the Dutch East Indies had fallen, and Burma followed suit on 15th May; finally, from May-August 1942 many of the Pacific islands became Japanese. It’s no wonder Japan had been tempted to attack, after seeing the German forces sweep through Europe with little difficulty. The country wanted to emulate Germany’s success and build itself a great empire.
However, Japan had reached its zenith in terms of success before the end of 1942, and even as they gained land, the Japanese suffered heavy losses. The United States Armed Forces were neither weak nor lacking in resources, and they began to push back. The Battle of the Coral Sea, from 3rd to 9th May 1942, was technically a win, but a costly one for the Japanese. They failed to reach the capital of Papua New Guinea, and one of their large carriers, Shoho, was sunk while another, Shokaku, was damaged. Although the Japanese succeeded in sinking US carrier Lexington in return, 86 aircraft had been lost in the fight, and had these planes been available at the Battle of Midway on 4th June, it’s possible that the US would have lost. As it was, half the Japanese carrier fleet fell in this second battle. An attempt had been made to lure part of the US Navy away towards the Aleutian Islands, but this failed thanks to US Code Breakers, who had uncovered the plan and pre-warned the Pacific Fleet. Three aircraft carriers therefore remained in the Midway area, 150 US aircraft launched an attack on the Japanese carriers, and three fell.
The US Navy now had the Japanese on their back foot, and the Americans were able to start ‘island hopping’, cutting off Japanese supply lines as they went and drawing ever closer to the Japanese mainland. Their first counter-offensive was the Battle of Guadalcanal, launched on 7th August 1942, in which 19,000 US Marines landed in the Solomon Islands. The first Japanese counter-attack was made with only 6,000 troops, and they were inevitably annihilated. Although larger attacks were later launched, the US had now had time to prepare and reinforce, and by February 1943 the Japanese were forced to cut their losses and abandon the island, and with it an important Japanese air base. Battle after battle hereafter saw the US forces creep forwards, until in 1944 they pulled close enough to Japan to start bombing raids. The British Forces, meanwhile, launched their lengthy campaign to retake Burma, and by the end of 1945 retook Hong Kong and Singapore too.
The Japanese surrender, therefore, was not simply a response to the overwhelming devastation of the atomic bomb. It was something that had been coming for a while. From 17th July-2nd August 1945, the heads of government of the USA, USSR and UK met at the Potsdam Conference in Berlin. Weeks earlier, on 8th May 1945, Germany had surrendered unconditionally to the allies, and they discussed how to punish that country, and how to end the rest of the war. Japan was issued an ultimatum to surrender, or meet “prompt and utter destruction”, but remained silent. This was the Japanese pride at work- surrender meant disgrace, and they were unhappy with the ‘unconditional’ demand; however, it is debatable as to whether the nation’s leaders might have reacted differently, had they been forewarned of the power of the weapon facing them. The bomb was dropped without further ado.
At noon on 15th August, the people of Japan heard for the very first time the voice of their divine Emperor, who put the good of his country above the degradation of personal disgrace. While German’s war had been lost on the battlefield, and the rebellion of the troops had provoked ultimate surrender, in this case the decision came from the top. ‘Images of War 1939-1945’, issue 51, quotes the Emperor as saying, “To avoid further bloodshed and perhaps even the total extinction of human civilisation, we shall have to endure the unendurable and suffer the insufferable.” The Emperor’s word was law. The Japanese war was over, and on 2nd September 1945, the formal documents were signed aboard USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Unconditional surrender was declared after the loss of over 20 million lives in the Far East.