"To Bear the Unbearable": Japan's Surrender, Part II

Although a decision to continue the war would mean national suicide, members of the Japanese military came close to refusing Emperor Hirohito’s surrender order.

The Big Six finally gathered for the meeting reacting to Hiroshima on the morning of August 9. By then, they had learned of Soviet intervention into the war during the night. During the meeting news arrived of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. For the first time, they worked on terms to end the war. Before them was the Potsdam Declaration setting forth Allied conditions for ending the war. Three members advocated that Japan accept the Potsdam Declaration with the proviso that the imperial institution be retained: Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki and Navy Minister Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai.

Three members held out for three additional terms: Army Minister General Korechika Anami and the Chiefs of Staff of the Army, General Yoshijiro Umezu, and Navy, Admiral Soemu Toyoda. These additional terms included: 1) Japan would disarm her own forces; 2) Japan would conduct any “so-called” war crimes trials of her own nationals; and 3) there would be no occupation of Japan. This last term would assure the continuance of the Imperial system and Hirohito’s seat on the throne. These positions would be referred to as the “one condition” and the “four condition” Japanese peace terms. Under the Japanese governing system, however, the Big Six could only act when unanimous. With a three to three split, they were deadlocked.

Prime Minister Suzuki reported to Kido, the emperor’s key adviser, that the Big Six had agreed on the “four conditions” offer. Suzuki presumably chose this characterization as the lowest common denominator of unanimous agreement. This triggered a counterattack by other participants in the leadership, including former Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe and the former Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu. They prevailed on Hirohito that the Allies would treat the “four condition” offer as a rejection of peace. It was agreed to summon an Imperial Conference, one held in the emperor’s presence. There the split of the Big Six could be laid out and then the emperor invited to break the deadlock—an unprecedented action.

The Imperial conference convened just before midnight, August 9-10. Joining the Big Six was Baron Kiichiro Hiranuma (president of the Privy Council.) The divided Big Six and Hiranuma spoke. Notably, Army Chief of Staff Umezu characterized Soviet entry as “unfavorable,” but insisted it did not invalidate Ketsu Go, in which he still reposed confidence. His point was valid. The Soviets possessed immense ground power and tactical airpower, but their sealift was tiny, and hence their threat to reach the Home Islands was small. Hiranuma spoke pointedly of the deterioration of the “domestic situation,” particularly food supplies.

General view of the bombed main business district of Kobe, Japan. Image courtesy of the US Army Air Force.


At the end of the theatrical demonstration of the deadlock, the emperor spoke. He stated he had given serious consideration to the situation at home and aboard. He then announced his support of the “one condition” offer. He and Japan must “bear the unbearable.” The Big Six and later the full cabinet made Hirohito’s decision official government policy.

The American and Allied reply accepted the Japanese surrender offer, except that it stated clearly that the emperor would be subordinate to the occupation commander. This produced another dispute as to whether Japan could accept these terms. The emperor intervened again to announce he was satisfied with the American cable.

Why did the emperor decide to end the war? In his contemporary statements, he consistently cited three reasons. First, he had lost faith in Ketsu Go, referring to the long record of “discrepancy between plans and performance.” This statement delivered a crushing blow to the high command’s whole rationale to continue fighting. Second, the emperor cited the increasing devastation of conventional and nuclear bombing. Third, he referred to “the domestic situation”—the burgeoning fear of internal revolt. Later in a private letter to the Crown Prince he did not expect to be made public, the emperor stressed Japan’s deficiency in “science”—a euphemism that encompassed atomic weapons—and an underestimation of the United States and Great Britain. He did not mention Soviet entry into the war.

Map of bombed-out Japanese industrial districts, 1945. Image courtesy of the US Army Air Force.


Prime Minister Suzuki in a December 1945 interview also admitted something else. The advent of atomic bombs showed the Americans no longer needed to invade Japan. In other words, the Nagasaki bomb laid waste to the argument that the United States had no arsenal of powerful atomic weapons. If the Americans did not mount an invasion, Ketsu Go was bankrupt and the high command had no strategy short of national suicide.

Bomb-damaged oil refinery in Osaka, Japan. Image courtesy of the US Army Air Force.


But if Soviet intervention was not a key cause of Hirohito’s’ indispensable first step toward ending the war, it was not without importance.

When word of the emperor’s decision reached General Toroshiro Kawabe, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Imperial Army, he noted in his diary that he concurred with another senior general in doubting that the overseas commanders would comply with the emperor’s order. That these officers correctly doubted even an order from the emperor would secure compliance with key parts of the armed forces, was swiftly confirmed by messages from the commanders in China and the Southern Area, declaring they would not comply with the surrender. Their commands mustered between a quarter and a third of all Japanese servicemen. It took Hirohito’s personal emissaries to persuade these commands to surrender. Also, the emperor broadcast a message on August 17 to the armed forces citing Soviet entry as a reason to surrender but not mentioning atomic bombs. The stress on Soviet entry reflected the reality that it was a real threat to commands on the Asian continent while atomic bombs were not. That is the key role played by Soviet entry into the war.

Then, with the compliance of the Japanese armed forces with the surrender still dangling in the balance, the Soviets ill-advisedly chose to launch an amphibious attack in the Kuril Islands. The Japanese defenders quickly had the very modest Soviet landing force desperately trying to avoid annihilation. Anxiety in Tokyo soared, for fear news of a 'victory' against the Soviets in the Kurils might start unraveling the surrender. The heavily engaged Japanese forces ignored several orders, including one in the name of the emperor, to cease fighting. But eventually the Kuril Island defenders complied.

Finally, there was an attempted coup in Tokyo to halt the emperor’s intended recorded broadcast to the Japanese nation on August 15 announcing the surrender. It was extremely melodramatic but had little real chance of success and was quelled.

Next we will address why the end of the Asia Pacific War was miraculous deliverance from a titanic tragedy.

Meet the Author


Richard B. Frank is an internationally renowned expert on the Pacific war. After graduating from the University of Missouri, he was commissioned in the US Army, in which he served for nearly four years, including a tour of duty in the Republic of Vietnam as an aero rifle platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division.

Frank completed studies at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC. Soon afterwards he began research on his first book, Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle, which was published in 1990 and won the US Marine Corps’ General Wallace M. Greene Award.



"To Bear the Unbearable": Japan's Surrender, Part I

Japanese military leaders debated Japan's possible surrender up to the last moment. Emperor Hirohito's intervention was critical.



This article is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II made possible by Bank of America.