For large sections of Japanese society, the unthinkable happened 75 years ago today when an official radio broadcast announced Japan’s unconditional surrender, marking the end of World War Two.
Japanese people, especially its soldiers, were indoctrinated from an early age to believe that surrender to an enemy was a great, even unbearable, shame. It was better to die in battle or even take your own life by ritual suicide – known as ‘seppuku’ or ‘hara-kiri’ – which was an honourable death compared to falling into the hands of an enemy.
It made the Japanese into fanatical warriors, prepared to fight to the death to preserve their honour – but it was also their nation’s undoing. After witnessing ferocious resistance and suffering heavier-than-expected casualties in taking a string of Pacific islands, especially Iwo Jima, the Allied Generals realised an invasion of the Japanese mainland would result in massive troop losses.
Instead the USA resolved to drop its newly-developed atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This graphic demonstration of previously unimagined destructive power would, it hoped, force the Japanese to admit defeat.
It worked, and on August 10th Japan’s ambassadors submitted a formal declaration accepting the Allies’ terms of unconditional surrender. At that stage it was still secret and fighting continued against American forces in the South Pacific and Soviet troops in Manchuria. But on the afternoon of August 14th, Japanese radio announced that an Imperial Proclamation would soon be made by Emperor Hirohito formally accepting the terms of unconditional surrender.
The announcement was met with disbelief and anger by many Japanese troops, especially those still unaware of the devastating impact of the atomic bombs and the threat of more to come. More than a thousand enraged troops attempted to storm the Imperial Palace, determined to seize the proclamation – which had already been recorded by the Emperor – to prevent it being transmitted to the Allies. They were repulsed by soldiers still loyal to their emperor, who was worshipped as a living god. Several of the leaders of the attempted coup later committed suicide.
That evening, General Anami, a senior member of Japan’s War Council who vehemently opposed surrender, also committed ritual suicide. He said it was to atone for the army’s shameful defeat and spare himself having to hear his emperor speak the words of surrender. Several other senior military figures took their own lives, as did the most fanatical among Japan’s rank and file troops.
While Japan sank in shame, it was a very different story in Europe and the USA, where huge celebrations began at news of Japan’s surrender, finally bringing an end to almost six years of warfare. In Britain, August 15th was designated ‘VJ Day’ – Victory over Japan Day – with people turning out in their thousands to celebrate in the streets. It was also the day that Emperor Hirohito’s proclamation was broadcast to his people.
The humiliation wasn’t over for Japan, whose senior military and government representatives had to attend the formal surrender ceremony (pictured above). It was held aboard the American battleship USS Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay, on September 2nd, 1945. The Allies did not insist on the Emperor attending in person, even though some senior figures had called for it.
Other smaller surrender ceremonies took place in many former Japanese strongholds in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. They usually consisted of the local commander of Japanese armed forces formally surrendering his sword to a senior Allied officer before signing the instrument of surrender.
In a handful of isolated Japanese outposts, particularly small islands in the South Pacific, Japanese troops fought on. They were either unaware the war was over or refused to believe their nation had surrendered, suspecting it was enemy propaganda to trick them into giving up. The last confirmed Japanese ‘holdout’ finally emerged from his hidden retreat in Indonesia in December 1974, more than 29 years after the war ended.