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 states­men), 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

Firebombing Tokyo: Residents walk through rubble-strewn Tokyo following March 9, 1945, firebombing Firebombing Tokyo: 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 out of 3.5 million residents (half the population in 1940) 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.

Firebombing Tokyo: Devastated Tokyo commercial district, March 1945Firebombing Tokyo: 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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