Tokyo, Japan August 8, 1945

On this date in 1945, Japan’s Foreign Minister Shige­nori Tōgō, the govern­ment’s leading civil­ian propo­nent of a peace settle­ment with the Allies, visited Emperor Hiro­hito (post­humously referred to as Em­peror Shōwa) at his palace to brief him on Hiro­shima’s ruin by (as Hiro­hito later char­ac­terized it) “a new and most cruel bomb.” That city of 340,000–350,000 people had been rubbed out in a blinding, instant flash on the morning of August 6. It wasn’t until the next day, how­ever, that officials in Tokyo received the initial damage reports, partial and a bit confusing. Prime Minister Kantarō Suzuki’s cabi­net reviewed the reports against the back­drop of U.S. Presi­dent Harry S. Tru­man’s demand for Japan’s imme­diate surren­der, as stated in the Pots­dam Declara­tion. The July 26 ulti­matum by the U.S., Great Britain, and China assured Japan of that country’s “prompt and utter destruc­tion” if it did not surren­der. (The three sig­na­to­ries ruled out nego­ti­a­tion and third-party medi­ation.) Citing U.S. Japa­nese-langu­age radio broad­casts and Amer­ican B‑29 leaf­let drops that described Hiro­shima’s awful fate, with more bombing promised, Tōgō pressed his case for ending the war by quickly surrendering the country and, in the process, calming the emperor’s now panicky subjects.

The elderly prime minister, after reviewing the text of the Pots­dam Decla­ration, ignored it, “killing it with silence” (moku­satsu, i.e., silent contempt). Suzuki scornfully dismissed it as a rehash (yakin­aoshi) of the Allies’ earlier declara­tion, issued by the same parties, on Novem­ber 27, 1943, in Cairo, Egypt. “We will do our utmost to fight the war to the bitter end,” Suzuki told the Japa­nese press. The Japanese-run Hong Kong News called the decla­ra­tion a piece of unqual­i­fied impu­dence. Mean­while, Foreign Minis­ter Tōgō vainly sought to learn the Soviets’ take on the 1945 ulti­ma­tum: the Soviets were not a party to it, so con­ceiv­ably they might medi­ate favor­able sur­ren­der terms with the Amer­i­cans in return for Japanese-held terri­tory in East Asia. Most mili­tary officers, espe­cially army officers, opposed laying down their arms at all.

In spite of the catastrophe inflicted on Hiro­shima two days earlier, mem­bers of the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War (Saikō sensō shidō kaigi) were dead­locked regarding what steps the govern­ment should take. Calling an Imperial Conference (Gozen Kaigi) on the night of August 9/10, Hiro­hito, in an unprec­e­dented act, per­sonally inter­vened by issuing a sacred impe­rial decision (seidan) to end the war and ruling out approaching the Soviet Union or neu­tral Sweden and Switzer­land for better surren­der terms than out­lined by the Pots­dam Decla­ra­tion. “I have given serious thought to the situ­a­tion pre­vailing at home and abroad,” he told his august audi­ence, “and I have con­cluded that con­tin­uing the war can only mean destruc­tion for the nation and a pro­lon­ga­tion of blood­shed and cruelty in the world. I can­not bear to see my inno­cent peo­ple suffer any longer! Ending the war is the only way to restore world peace and relieve the nation from the dreadful distress with which it is burdened.”

By now the Soviet Union had entered the war against Japan by invading Japa­nese-occupied Man­chu­ria on the Chi­nese main­land (August 8/9), and a second U.S. atomic bomb had leveled another Japa­nese city (Naga­saki) on August 9. Hiro­hito, who had expressed an interest in diplo­matic maneu­vers to end the war back in early June, ordered an Imperial Rescript drafted, which was submitted to the Suzuki cabi­net. On August 14 the emperor recorded his nation’s capitu­la­tion announce­ment, which was broad­cast to his subjects on August 15. From being an enthu­si­astic supporter of the Pacific War in 1941, Hiro­hito managed to quit the war with­out quite losing it. In the role of a life­time, Hiro­hito seized—how­ever unde­served—the high moral ground from his enemies by playing on the meaning of his name (Hiro­hito means “abun­dant bene­vo­lence”), claiming that his sei­dan had broken the impasse in Japan’s mili­tary-domi­nated govern­ment and restored peace to his war-weary land. He acted above all, he told his sub­jects, to save the nation from “ulti­mate collapse and oblit­eration” by paving “the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come.”

Shocking Japan into Surrendering, August 1945

U.S. air-dropped leaflet, August 1, 1945Post-Hiroshima air-dropped leaflet, August 1945

Left: This leaflet by the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI) was dropped on Hiroshima, Naga­saki, and 33 other Japa­nese cities on August 1, 1945. It shows five B‑29s dropping in­cen­diary bombs over Yoko­hama on May 29, 1945. The Japa­nese text on the reverse side of the leaf­let carried the warning: “Read this care­fully as it may save your life or the life of a rela­tive or friend. In the next few days, some or all of the [12] cities named on the [front] side will be destroyed by Amer­i­can bombs. . . . We can­not pro­mise that only these cities will be among those attacked [Hiros­hima was not named on the front—ed.] but some or all of them will be, so heed this warning and evacuate these cities immediately.

Right: An OWI leaflet dropped from a B‑29 on Japan after the bombing of Hiro­shima. Translation: “Notice to the Japa­nese People! Eva­cuate the city imme­di­ately. What this leaf­let con­tains is ex­tremely impor­tant, so please read care­fully. The Japa­nese peo­ple are facing an ex­tremely impor­tant autumn. Your mili­tary leaders were pre­sented with thir­teen arti­cles for sur­render [i.e., Potsdam Declaration] by our three-country alli­ance to put an end to this un­pro­fit­able war. This pro­po­sal was ignored by your army leaders. Because of this the Soviet Republic inter­vened. In addi­tion, the United States has deve­loped an atom bomb, which had not been done by any nation before. It has been deter­mined to em­ploy this fright­ening bomb. One atom bomb has the de­struc­tive power of 2000 B‑29s. This frightening fact should be under­stood by you by observing what kind of situ­a­tion was caused when only one was dropped on Hiro­shima.” This leaflet caused widespread panic in many Japanese cities.

Emperor Hirohito and Imperial Conference (Gozen Kaigi), 1943?Emperor Hirohito: Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War

Left: Wartime photograph of Emperor Hirohito in a brown Army uniform, presiding head of an Impe­rial Con­ference (Gozen Kaigi), seated on his throne on a small, raised plat­form in front of a folding screen at one end of the high-ceiling confer­ence room. To the emperor’s left and right, behind long tables, sat his impe­rial gene­rals, admi­rals, and minis­ters. Con­vened by the Japa­nese govern­ment in Hiro­hito’s pres­ence, Imperial Con­ferences were extra­consti­tutional con­fer­ences that focused on foreign affairs of grave national impor­tance. In the early morning hours of August 10, Hiro­hito, at the request of Prime Minis­ter Suzuki, addressed the forum in a voice euphe­mis­tically called the “Voice of the Crane” and cast the die for embracing the Pots­dam Decla­ra­tion and ending the war. Alluding to the num­ber of U.S. air raids “esca­lating every day” (but not to the ghastly fate of Hiro­shima and Naga­saki), the emperor opined: “I do not wish my people to fall into deeper dis­tress or destroy our cul­ture, nor do I wish to bring misery to man­kind. The time has come when we must bear the unbear­able.” Suzuki and his cabi­net met imme­diately after­wards and unani­mously endorsed the emperor’s per­sonal opinion (seidan), turning it into a state deci­sion to neu­tralize mili­tary hard­liners. Four days later, in a second Imperial Con­ference, Hiro­hito accepted U.S. surrender terms regarding occu­pa­tion of the coun­try and limits on his author­ity and the author­ity of the Japa­nese govern­ment to rule the state. Again, the emperor’s seidan was trans­formed into an official government decision.

Right: Emperor Hirohito’s Rescript on the Termi­na­tion of the War. The rescript was written on August 14 by Hiro­hito’s minis­ters of state at his direc­tion, recorded on a phono­graph record at the Tokyo facil­i­ties of the Japan Broad­casting Cor­por­a­tion by a tear­ful emperor in his high, shaking, un­famil­iar voice, 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 with­out describing them. 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 his­toric radio broad­cast, as well as the for­mal courtly lan­guage in which the speech was delivered, added to the con­fusion. A radio announcer’s rereading of emperor’s rescript in ordinary Japanese attempted to clarify its meaning.

Planning the Defeat of Japan Down to the Last Bomb, a U.S. War Department Presentation (in color)