Tokyo, Japan · June 22, 1945

Beginning in the summer of 1944 Japanese mili­tary prowess fast approached ter­mi­nal collapse in the Pacific. Between mid-June and early August, Saipan and Guam in the Mari­anas fell to superior Amer­i­can forces. Peleliu and Angaur in the Palau Islands were in Amer­i­can hands by the end of Novem­ber 1944. In the Philip­pines, Leyte Gulf, Luzon, and Manila were wrestled from the Japa­nese, though the con­test on Luzon Island lasted to the end of the war. Between late Febru­ary and mid-June 1945 Japa­nese garri­sons on Iwo Jima and Oki­nawa in the Volcano and Ryu­kyu island groups, respec­tively, fell to the enemy, now within easy striking distance (540 miles) of Kyū­shū, the southern­most of the four Japanese main islands.

Emperor Hiro­hito (post­humously referred to as Emperor Shōwa) was rattled enough by Amer­i­can landings in January 1945 on Japa­nese-occupied Luzon, the main Philip­pine island, that he discretely met in Febru­ary with seven senior states­men (jushin), six of whom were former prime ministers, querying them on how the country should bring an end to the war. The emperor had long harbored a desire to restore peace between Japan and its enemies, dating as far back as the day after Pearl Harbor in Decem­ber 1941, but now more pressing than ever in light of his coun­try’s worsening mili­tary situ­ation. Always his mili­tary advisers recom­mended against entering into peace nego­ti­ations with the Allies with­out notching one last victory. Hiro­hito told his mili­tary aide-de-camp on Febru­ary 14, 1945, that he was unsure if his subjects “will be able to endure until then.”

The rivalry between the Army and Navy played out on the battle­field but also at the highest levels in Tokyo. As early as August 29, 1944, Navy person­nel began con­ducting a clande­stine survey of poli­tical and mili­tary leaders on what needed to be done to end the war. The more fana­ti­cal than real­istic Army was deter­mined to keep fighting to the bitter end, the battered Navy less so. A cabi­net change on April 7, 1945, placed end-the-war advo­cates in the prime minister’s and foreign minister’s chairs with a mission, many higher-ups assumed, to end the war.

Despite the growing influence of the peace faction among Japan’s deci­sion makers, on June 8 the coor­di­nating body between Prime Minis­ter Kantarō Suzuki’s cabi­net and Imperial General Head­quarters—the Supreme War Leader­ship (or Direction) Coun­cil (Saikō sensō shidō kaigi), which was the highest decision-making body in Japan—formally reaffirmed the long-standing deci­sion to engage the enemy to the last man. It was a set­back. The next day Hiro­hito’s right-hand man at the imperial palace, Kōichi Kido, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, drafted “A Working Plan to Termi­nate the War.” The plan secured the approval of the emperor, the prime minis­ter, and the navy and foreign minis­ters by the time Hiro­hito called the Supreme War Leader­ship Council into ses­sion on this date, June 22, 1945, to over­turn the earlier bel­li­cose fight-to-the-finish deci­sion and prod coun­cil mem­bers to search for a political, not military, solution to terminate the war.

The tortuous path to peace took under two months, and in the waning days required Hiro­hito to issue two momen­tous and unprec­e­dented “sacred imperial deci­sions” (seidans) before consensus was reached to sur­ren­der Japan uncon­di­tionally as required by the Allies in their Pots­dam Decla­ra­tion of July 26, 1945. Endorsed on August 10 and 14, 1945, by two Imperial Peace Con­fer­ences and the Suzuki cabi­net, Hiro­hito announced the state decision the next day, August 15, to his war-weary subjects in a first-ever radio broadcast by a Japanese emperor.

Noriko Kawamura’s Emperor Hirohito and the Pacific War provides a con­vincing reapprai­sal of Japan’s Hiro­hito few Westerners would recog­nize when­ever they are reminded of Pearl Harbor and the Pacific con­flict. This owes largely to Kawa­mura’s drawing on a huge number of primary and secondary Japanese-language sources—some of them only recently avail­able to scholars. Mining them Kawa­mura draws a portrait of an emperor person­ally against waging war with the West, all the while offi­cially sanc­tioning (as required by the Japa­nese [Meiji] consti­tu­tion) state decisions that led to the events of Decem­ber 7, 1941. Once Japan’s leaders launched their nation’s high-risk cam­paign to seize Western colo­nial interests, Hiro­hito assumed the mantle of supreme com­mander in chief (daigensui) of all Japa­nese armed forces, again as required under the consti­tu­tion. Kawa­mura por­trays Hiro­hito growing ever more skep­ti­cal of a favor­able mili­tary out­come as Japanese vic­tories over the enemy proved more elu­sive by the month. Terri­fied by the pro­spect of “Japan’s anni­hi­la­tion,” as Hiro­hito himself put it, the emperor at last issued a set of imperial prerog­a­tives (sei­dans), taking on the fire-breathers in the war faction to end the con­flict he never wanted. To his dying days in January 1989 the Hiro­hito of Kawa­mura’s account privately agonized over his not nipping in the bud the cala­mity that his pro-war mili­tary and their ultra­nationalist supporters were poised to inflict both on his loyal sub­jects and on tens of millions more who would suffer, be injured or maimed, or lose their lives in the Pacific War.—Norm Haskett

Milestones on the Road to Unconditional Surrender

Emperor Hirohito and Imperial Conference (Gozen Kaigi)Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War

Left: Wartime photograph of Hirohito, seated in middle, as presiding head of an Imperial Con­ference (Gozen Kaigi). Convened by the Japa­nese govern­ment in the imperial palace in Hiro­hito’s presence, Imperial Con­ferences were extra­consti­tutional con­ferences that focused on foreign affairs of grave national impor­tance. In the early hours of August 10, Hiro­hito, at the request of Prime Minister Kan­tarō Suzuki, addressed the forum and resolved to embrace the Pots­dam Declara­tion under one condi­tion: preser­ving the emperor’s prerog­a­tives as sover­eign ruler­. Suzuki and his cabi­net—which included four members of the Supreme War Leader­ship Council—met imme­diately after­wards and unani­mously endorsed Hiro­hito’s seidan, delivered in the emperor’s role as supreme mili­tary com­mander, and turned it into an offi­cial state deci­sion to neu­tralize mili­tary hard­liners. Four days later, in a second Imperial Con­ference that included Suzuki’s cabi­net, Hiro­hito accepted U.S. sur­ren­der terms regarding the occu­pa­tion and disarm­a­ment of his coun­try and limits on his author­ity and that of the Japa­nese govern­ment to govern the state. The emperor’s second seidan was again transformed into an official government decision.

Right: Emperor Hirohito’s Rescript on the Termi­na­tion of the War. The rescript was sanctioned by the emperor and approved by the Japanese cabinet on August 14 following the second Imperial Peace Con­fer­ence. It was recorded by Hirohito in his high, shaking, un­fa­mil­iar voice on a phono­graph record and broad­cast to the nation at noon on August 15, 1945. In his Gyokuon-hōsō (lit. “Jewel Voice Broad­cast”) Hiro­hito 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 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.

Newsreel of Japanese Surrender Ceremony Aboard USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, September 2, 1945