Tokyo, Japan · August 12, 1945

In 1945 the endgame in Europe was to take Berlin, the epi­center of Nazi resis­tance, which the Red Army did in the last week of April. On May 7 and 8, 1945, Adolf Hitler’s poli­tical heir, Adm. Karl Doenitz, surren­dered Nazi Ger­many uncon­di­tionally to the Allies. The end­game in the Pacific War seemed to be the incin­er­ation of Japan. As Presi­dent Harry S. Truman said on August 6, following the atomic bombing of Hiro­shima: “We are now pre­pared to oblit­er­ate more rapidly and com­pletely every pro­duc­tive enter­prise the Japanese have above ground in any city.”

On this date in 1945 in Tokyo, Japa­nese Emperor Hiro­hito (post­humously referred to as Emperor Shōwa) in­formed his family of his deci­sion to order his coun­try’s sur­render to the Allies. Until August 9, the Supreme Coun­cil for the Direc­tion of the War had set four pre­con­ditions for Japan’s sur­render. But on this day the em­peror ordered his Lord Privy Seal to “quickly con­trol the situ­ation” in light of the Soviet Union’s entry into the war on August 9. (August 9 was also the date the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb on Japan, this on the city of Naga­saki. A third bomb was being readied for delivery on August 17 or 18.) Then Hiro­hito held an Imperial con­fer­ence that included both the war coun­cil and the entire cabi­net during which he autho­rized Foreign Minis­ter Shige­nori Tōgō (the same per­son who had signed the decla­ra­tion of war on the U.S. in 1941) to notify the Allies that Japan would accept the terms of the Pots­dam Decla­ra­tion of July 26, 1945 (“uncon­di­tional sur­render” over “prompt and utter destruc­tion”) on one condi­tion: that sur­render did not com­pro­mise the prerogatives of the emperor as a sovereign ruler.

The Allies’ ulti­ma­tum seemed to leave in­tact the prin­ciple of the pre­ser­vation of the Throne—in fact, the Pots­dam Decla­ra­tion made no direct men­tion of the em­peror at all. So on August 14 Hiro­hito recorded Japan’s capitu­la­tion announce­ment, which was broad­cast to the nation the next day. Speaking frankly to his sub­jects, al­beit in for­mal Japa­nese that few ordi­nary people could easily under­stand, Hiro­hito acknowl­edged the awe­some destruc­tion caused by two atomic bombings and the poten­tial for further destruc­tion, saying, “Should we con­tinue to fight, not only would it result in an ulti­mate col­lapse and oblit­era­tion of the Japa­nese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”

The Inescapable Annihilation or Unconditional Surrender of Japan, August–September 1945

Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the WarSigning the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, September 2, 1945

Left: Emperor Hirohito’s Rescript on the Termi­na­tion of the War. The rescript was written on August 14, recorded on a phono­graph record, and broad­cast to Japa­nese citizens at noon on August 15, 1945. Hiro­hito’s Gyokuon-hōsō (lit. “Jewel Voice Broad­cast”) made no direct refer­ence to Japan’s sur­ren­der or defeat. Neither did it contain the words “apolo­gize” or “sorry.” Instead, the emperor said he had in­structed his govern­ment to accept the terms of the Pots­dam Decla­ra­tion fully. This cir­cum­lo­cution con­fused many listeners who were not sure if Japan had sur­ren­dered or if the emperor was exhorting his sub­jects to resist an enemy in­vasion. The poor audio quality of the radio broad­cast, as well as the for­mal courtly lan­guage in which the speech was delivered, added to the confusion.

Right: Recently appointed Foreign Minister Mamo­ru Shige­mitsu, along with Army gene­ral and Supreme War Council mem­ber Yoshijirō Umezu, signs the Japa­nese Instru­ment of Surrender on board USS Missouri as Gen. Rich­ard K. Suther­land and Toshi­kazu Kase, a high-ranking Japa­nese Foreign Minis­try offi­cial, watch. Tokyo Bay, Septem­ber 2, 1945. Both Shige­mitsu and Umezu were tried as war crimi­nals at the Inter­na­tional Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo and imprisoned.

Footage of the Moment the Japanese Surrendered Aboard the USS Missouri