Tokyo, Japan July 18, 1944

On this date in 1944 Prime Minister, War Minister, Home Minister, and Chief of Army General Staff Hideki Tōjō was removed from office with the blessing of Emperor Hiro­hito (post­humously referred to as Emperor Shōwa). Up until this date the scrawny, owlish Tōjō had enjoyed the confi­dence of his emperor. Indeed, it was Hiro­hito who supported Tōjō’s Febru­ary 1944 pro­posal to allow the War Minister to assume the coun­try’s highest mili­tary office as Chief of the Imperial Army General Staff. The shattering Febru­ary 17–18, 1944, loss of Japa­nese naval bases on the Truk (Chuuk) Islands in the Caro­lines, which were located within Japan’s abso­lute defense perimeter, called for extraordinary measures in the emperor’s mind.

Concentrating Japanese military, civilian, and now army func­tions in one man in Febru­ary 1944 was intended to unite the mili­tary and the govern­ment to ensure a more robust manage­ment of Japan’s war effort against the Allies. Japan in 1943 and 1944 had been unable so far to stop or reverse Allied offen­sives in the South Pacific, and Hiro­hito felt he had to inter­vene in the long-standing rivalry between the Japa­nese Army and Navy, the latter which had lost the emperor’s trust, to ensure a unity of command under senior Army general Tōjō.

The anti-Tōjō group comprised many naval officers and senior civil­ian states­men, including Fumi­maro Konoe whom Tōjō had replaced in the prime minister’s slot in the run-up to the Pacific War. The twin defeats of the Japa­nese Fifteenth Army at Imphal and Kohima on the Burma-India border in June–July 1944 by Lt. Gen. William Slim’s British Four­teen Army and the annihi­lation of the Japa­nese 31st Army garri­son on Sai­pan in the same time period helped sway Hiro­hito into backing the anti-Tōjō coalition and force the removal of his faith­ful servant from all posi­tions of power on July 18, 1944. The possi­bility of ending hostil­ities, which gnawed on Hiro­hito’s mind for years, seemed closer at hand than any time since Decem­ber 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor.

Still, a year passed before Hirohito announced the first of two seidans (sacred imperial deci­sions) at a mid­night Imperial Con­fer­ence (Gozen Kaigi) of top govern­ment and mili­tary offi­cials on August 9/10, 1945, to termi­nate the war. “The time has come when we must bear the unbear­able,” was how the emperor put it to his audi­ence. Though an ever-shrinking minority, Japa­nese die­hard militarists were deter­mined to fight the Allies to the bitter end, which of course was what it had come down to following the atomic destruc­tion of Hiro­shima and Naga­saki on August 6 and 9, respec­tively. The second seidan on August 14 was Hiro­hito’s accep­tance of the Allies’ non­nego­tiable surrender terms. With the emperor’s next-day, first-ever radio broad­cast to his subjects, his four-minute jewel voice capit­u­lation speech (Gyokuon-hōsō), the Pacific War came to an abrupt end. The Allies arrested Tōjō and exe­cuted him on Decem­ber 23, 1948, but spared his chief patron the same fate.

Noriko Kawamura’s Emperor Hirohito and the Pacific War provides a realistic 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 month after month. Terri­fied by the pro­spect of “Japan’s anni­hi­la­tion,” as Hiro­hito himself put it, the emperor at last flexed his moral muscles in 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 and finan­cial (zaibatsu) 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

Two Notable Events in Mid-1944 Determining Japan’s Irreversible Fate

Gurkhas clearing Japanese from Imphal-Kohima road, Northeastern India, 1944Marines take cover behind M4 tank, Saipan, July 8, 1944

Left: Gurkhas advancing with M3 medium tanks to clear the Japa­nese from the Imphal-Kohima road in North­eastern British India. The thrashing Lt. Gen. William Slim’s British Four­teenth Army’s gave the Japa­nese 15th Army at Imphal and Kohima (March 9 to July 3, 1944) was the largest defeat to that date in Japanese history. Japanese casual­ties at Imphal numbered 55,000, including 13,500 dead. Casual­ties and losses at Kohima numbered upwards of 7,000. Most of these losses were the result of star­va­tion, malaria, dysentery, and exhaus­tion. Casual­ties among British, Gurkha, and Indian soldiers were 17,500 and just over 4,000 at Imphal and Kohima, respec­tively, almost entirely from battle. In subse­quent opera­tions in the Burma Cam­paign, the Japanese Army con­tinued to suffer mas­sive losses—a total of some 106,000 killed and wounded through August 1945. After the Battle of Meiktila and Man­dalay and Opera­tion Dracula (both occurring in January–March 1945) Japanese forces were all but driven from Burma.

Right: Beginning June 15, 1944, 71,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers under the com­mand of Marine Lt. Gen. Holland M. Smith began their success­ful amphib­ious assault on Saipan, at 15 miles long and 8 miles wide the largest Japanese island-for­tress in the Northern Marianas. Ameri­can air­bases there would put the Allies well within the range of an air cam­paign against Japan’s Home Islands by the U.S. XXI Bomber Com­mand using Boeing’s new B‑29 long-range bombers. In this photo U.S. Marines take cover behind a M4 Sherman tank while clearing the enemy from the northern end of Saipan, July 8, 1944. The loss of 29,000 service­men and 22,000 civil­ians during the Battle of Saipan (June 15 to July 9, 1944) was a heavy blow to Tōjō’s mili­tary and civil­ian adminis­tra­tion. (Ameri­can dead were 3,000, wounded 10,000, the highest casualty toll to date in the Pacific.) “Our war was lost with the loss of Saipan” was the senti­ment of many senior Japa­nese leaders, though Tōjō’s cabi­net insisted the war was still a draw and argued staying the course. In the face of intense poli­tical criti­cism, how­ever, the unpopular Tōjō sub­mitted his resigna­tion on July 17, 1944. Hirohito accepted it the next day.

History Channel Presentation: U.S. Captures Saipan, June 15, 1944