Tokyo, Japan August 29, 1944

From the summer of 1944 to the spring of 1945, Japanese forces con­tinued their retreat from mili­tary out­posts in South­east Asia and the Pacific. Japanese losses in person­nel, war­ships, and air­planes were mini­mized by front­line com­manders, who exag­gerated Japa­nese mili­tary successes against the Allied enemy in reports to Imperial Headquarters.

Emperor Hiro­hito (post­humously referred to as Emperor Shōwa) had long been troubled by the unfavor­able direction the Pacific War had taken, espe­cially following the Allied con­quest of Saipan in the Mariana Islands and the resig­nation of fire-breathing Prime Minis­ter and War Minis­ter Gen. Hideki Tōjō in July 1944. In the wake of Japa­nese losses in the Philip­pines in early 1945, Hiro­hito asked seven jushin (senior state­men), six former prime minis­ters and the former lord keeper of the privy seal, how Japan should bring an end to the war. Ordi­narily, it was a crimi­nal offense to talk about termi­nating hosti­li­ties (shūsen)—the mili­tary police could arrest any­one suspected of anti­war senti­ments. In his audi­ence with the emperor on Febru­ary 14, 1945, former Prime Minister Fumi­maro Konoe boldly advised ending the war at the ear­liest pos­sible oppor­tunity. This might be accom­plished by purging the mili­tary die-hards from posi­tions of power, which just might allow the coun­try to nego­ti­ate more favor­able peace terms. The purge, the prince hinted, could be carried out through a formal decree by the emperor, known as a seidan, in his role as diagensui (military commander in chief).

Already by this date, August 29, 1944, some end-the-war advo­cates in the Impe­rial Japa­nese Navy were quietly trying to move Japan’s deci­sion makers to wind down the war. The ques­tion was how and when. One of their chief sup­porters was the emperor’s brother, Prince Taka­matsu, whose ulti­mate objec­tive was defending Japan’s kokutai (national polity) in any peace deal with the Allies. Early peace nego­ti­ations based on a real­istic assess­ment of Japan’s perilous pros­pects for staving off defeat would best pre­serve the kokutai, he believed. Japa­nese defeats on the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa (Febru­ary 19 to June 21, 1945), the latter battle fought on Japan’s home turf, increased the influ­ence of the peace faction (mainly Navy and civil­ians leaders) over that of mostly Army hard­liners, among them Gen. Tōjō, while they weakened the country’s bargaining muscle.

By early March 1945 officials in the imperial palace and the Foreign Minis­try had reached a tacit understanding. The emperor would endorse the govern­ment’s decision to con­clude the war through an imperial seidan at the appro­pri­ate time. Opera­tion Meeting­house, the March 9/10, 1945, over­night onslaught by nearly 300 U.S. B‑29 heavy bombers that caused the most devas­tating destruc­tion of any city during World War II, caused Hiro­hito, who toured his capital on March 18, to cry: “Tokyo has been reduced to ashes.” Clearly time had run out for Hiro­hito and Japan’s senior leader­ship, though the Japa­nese cabinet still had not asked the emperor to inter­vene to change the direction of the war, now plainly lost. It was left to the emperor’s new prime minister, 77-year-old Adm. Kantarō Suzuki (in office from April 7 to August 17, 1945), and new foreign minister Shigenori Tōgō, the leading figure in the peace move­ment, to stop the war with Hirohito’s cooperation, but not before August 1945.

Firebombing Tokyo, 1945

Residents walk through rubble-strewn Tokyo following March 9, 1945, firebombing Emperor Hirohito touring Tokyo ruins, March 18, 1945

Left: Tokyo residents walk through a rubble-strewn neighbor­hood following the three-hour March 9 and 10, 1945, fire­bombing by 297 U.S. B‑29 four-engine Super­for­tresses loaded with napalm (jellied gaso­line). Oper­a­tion Meeting­house (“Meeting­house” being code for the urban area of the Japa­nese capi­tal) was the single most destruc­tive bombing raid in history: 100,000 peo­ple died; 25 per­cent of the city, 63 per­cent of its com­mer­cial area, and 18 per­cent of its indus­try were destroyed; and more than a million inhabi­tants made home­less. Tokyo was again fire­bombed on May 23 and 25, leaving three million now homeless.

Right: Hirohito inspecting the ruins of Tokyo on March 18, 1945, following the previous week’s fire­bombing of his capital. The emperor had not been out­side the imperial palace in five months, and the extent of Tokyo’s destruc­tion struck him as more horri­fying than that pro­duced by the Great Tokyo Earth­quake of 1923. The blast-and-burn cam­paign against Japan’s highly com­bus­tible cities, led by U.S. Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay of the XXI Bomber Command, a unit of the U.S. Twentieth Air Force, dramat­i­cally limited Japan’s options to avoid certain annihi­lation. In fact, an estimated four out of ten Japanese cities, containing lots of tightly packed, wooden structures, were destroyed in U.S. air attacks in 1944–1945.

Devastated Tokyo commercial district, March 1945 Charred remains of Tokyo civilians after March 1945 firebombing

Left: This aerial photograph shows what was left of one of Tokyo’s com­mer­cial and indus­trial districts (Chūō) along the Sumida River following the over­night March 9/10 fire­bombing. With the excep­tion of some con­crete buildings, the greater part of the district has been razed by U.S. bombers. The March fire­bombing has long been over­shadowed by the August 6 and 9, 1945, U.S. atomic bombing of Hiro­shima and Naga­saki, which collec­tively killed and wounded an esti­mated 225,000 people. The August tally is conser­va­tive owing to the destruc­tion and over­whelming chaos caused by the bombs, which made orderly counting impos­sible. The 1945 fire­bombing cam­paign, coupled with the Hiro­shima and Naga­saki atomic bombings, is thought to have killed more than one million Japa­nese civil­ians between March and the end of the war in August.

Right: The charred remains of civilians after the car­nage and destruc­tion wrought by 1,665 tons of bombs falling on Tokyo on the night of March 9/10, 1945. The majority of the bombs were 500-pound cluster bombs packed with napalm-carrying incen­diary bomb­lets, which punched through thin roofing material or landed on the ground, throwing out a jet of flaming napalm globs. The city’s fire defenses were overwhelmed. Crew ­members in the last of the three bomber streams over Tokyo reported smelling the stench of charred human flesh. Ceasing any longer to be a viable target, the Japa­nese capital—over 50 per­cent destroyed by the end of May 1945—was spared further incen­diary raids. One B‑29 flier quipped, “Tokyo just isn’t what it used to be.”

U.S. Army Air Forces Documentary on B-29 Raid on Tokyo Narrated by Future President Ronald Reagan

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