I think of the 48 hours beginning at midnight Saturday, 12 August 1945 (Washington time), when the reply to Japan's surrender offer was dispatched, as a sort of geopolitical waltz. President Harry Truman was leading Emperor Hirohito across the ballroom floor, the pair trying to avoid the unpredictable choreography of the other spinning couples, some of whom had been set in motion by leadership on both sides . And now it was again the turn of the Japanese leadership to take the lead.
The American reply was received on Sunday, 13, August, Tokyo time. When an aide expressed concern about the lack of a clear statement guaranteeing the Imperial throne, Hirohito observed, “That's beside the point. It would be useless if the people didn't want an Emperor. I think its perfectly all right to leave the matter up to the people.”
The young man raised in privilege, willing to support the privileged elite of army officers who murdered their way to power in the 1920's, invaded Manchuria in 1931, perpetrated the “Rape of Nanking” in 1937 and the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, had at last come to the conclusion that the true salvation of the Chrysanthemum Throne depended not on the privileged elite of army officers, but on the nation. It might have been better if he had come to that conclusion in 1931, but humans are rarely if ever “better”.
Beyond the view of the privileged army officers, their wars were destroying Japan. Because of the bombing, most of the nation's urban residents were homeless, sleeping in subways, train stations or shanty towns. And so much food had been stockpiled to sustain a final battle that by August of 1945 most Japanese were clinically malnourished, receiving their full ration of 1,000 calories a day only half the time.
The domestic rice crop had first failed in 1943, but imports had prevented starvation. Still, the predicted harvest of 1944 was less than 10% of what it had been in 1937. And the actual harvest was barely 60% of predicted levels. In 1944 the police in the prefecture (county) of Osaka estimated half of all economic crimes involved the theft of food. Standard white rice had become so rare an item in Japan it acquired a new name - Silver Rice. By late summer of 1945, on any given day 15% of all civil servants were absent, looking for Silver Rice. Japanese bureaucrats expected 10 million to die of starvation during in the coming winter and spring of 1946, even without an invasion.
Between 1940 and the end of the war, the average 12 year old boy, measured in preparation for induction into the army, had lost almost a foot in height and 9 pounds in weight. It would be “better” for Japan if the war ended. But the elite were not yet ready to admit that what threatened Japan was not the Americans, nor even the Soviets. It was them.
At the full cabinet meeting that afternoon, the military insisted the American reply was insufficient, and the war must continue. Again Prime Minister: Kantarō Suzuki was forced to ask the Emperor to settle the issue.
Hirohito assured the room, “My own thoughts have not undergone any change.” Then he went a step further., saying, “In order that the people may know my decision, I request you to prepare at once...so that I may broadcast to the nation.” As soon as the Emperor left the room, Suzuki pressured all to sign a promise to support the Emperor's decision. And once again the hardliners were forced to sign, so as not to offend the Emperor. Only then, at 11 that Monday night, 13 August, did Suzuki issue the acceptance though the Swiss. Washington intercepted that message at 2:49 Washington time, Monday morning, 13 August..
It took most of the rest of the day to prepare the Emperor's statement, and at 10:00 that night, 14 August Tokyo time, a team from NHK radio recorded Hirohito's message onto a pair of gramophone disks.. So desperate was the Emperor to end the war quickly, and so worried about the loyalty of the social elite – the officer corps – that he entrusted the recordings to his court chamberlain, Yoshihiro Tokugawa. Without telling anyone, Tokugawa hid both disks in a safe in the office of a secretary to the Empresses.
A half hour before Hirohito began his recording session, Major Kenji Hatanaka (above), leading the 2nd Regiment of the First Imperial Guards surrounded the Imperial Palace, claiming they were reinforcements for the battalion already on duty.
He then lied to the commander, Colonel Haga, telling him they were under orders from War Minister General Korechika Anami to seize the palace and protect the Emperor. Then using Haga's office Hatanaka called Anami at home, expecting the hard liner to support his actions.
But Anami had decided to resolve the conflict between his own refusal to accept defeat and his promise to support the Emperor's decision, by killing himself. Anami chose to continue his ritual suicide, rather than either supporting the coup or ordering Hatanka to stand down.
It was after 1:00 in the morning of Wednesday, 15 April, when Major Hatanaka entered the office of the Guards Division commander, Lieutenant General Takeshi Mori, to urge him to join coup. Mori ordered Hantaka to return to his barracks. After arguing for a few minutes, Hantaka grew frustrated and drew his sword . The General's brother-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel Michinori Shiraishi, jumped in front of Mori, to block the blow. Hatanaka's fellow conspirator, Captain Shigetarō Uehara, shot the colonel dead Hantaka then cut General Mori down with several swings of his sword.
Over Mori's bloody coprse, Hantaka forged Order Number 584, authorizing the Guards division to seize the palace and the NHK offices and transmitters.
After 2:00 a.m. Hatanaka's troops entered the palace grounds, disarmed the guards and barricaded the gates. Hatanaka and other officers then began a desperate search for the Emperor, and the wax recording disks. They arrested 18 palace staff members, but never found Hirohito (he was hiding in a bomb shelter), but they did arrest Chamberlain Tokugawa Hatanak, threatening to disembowel him if he did not hand over the recordings. But the terrified Chamberlain refused to admit he even knew where the disks were.
At the same hour an assassination squad burst into the home of Prime Minister Suzuki (above). But warned moments before the old admiral had escaped. So the assassins satisfied themselves by machine gunning the home and then burning it down. Another team sent to murder Baron Hiranuma Kiichirō found their target had also escaped. So they burned down his home as well..
About 3 that morning, Colonel Haga found out the truth about General Anami, and ordered Major Hatanaka to leave the palace grounds at once. And learning that troops were on the way to arrest him, the rebellious Major headed for the NHK offices. Pulling a pistol Hatanaka tried to force the staff to give him air time.
But the workers were able to stall until they could connect the mad man by phone with a superior officer, who ordered him to leave. With no where else to go, and no one else to threaten, Major Hatanaka drove to the plaza in front of the Imperial Palace, where he shot himself, insisting, in his death poem, that he had nothing to regret.. By dawn of 15 April, 1945, the coup was all over.
And at noon NHK broadcast the “Gyokuon-hōsō “, the Jewel Voice Broadcast. After it had ended, announcers were required to make it clear to the average Japanese citizen that the nation had surrendered.
The war had left 1,750,000 soldiers, sailors and Japanese civilians dead– 4% of their 1941 population.
The population was exhausted, physically and emotionally. Many, including 15 year old Kazutoshi Hando, now expected to be “taken to California or Guam as a slave,” It was also common to believe Japanese women would now be forced to become mistresses. They had been assured this would happen. And they were simply too exhausted to care anymore.
In his his private diary, General Hideki Tojo had nothing but contempt for those who had died fighting his war. The man who had launched the war against Manchuria, China, America, Britain and France, confided to his diary, “The Japanese government has accepted the notion that Japan is the loser...Without fully employing its abilities even at the final moment, the imperial nation is surrendering to the enemies' propaganda...I never imagined such torpor in the nation's leaders and its people." Even at this moment he was refused to accept that the failure had not been the nation that bleed and murdered to support his dreams, but his own.. That night first year army private Michi Fukuda, witnessed “...many soldiers beating up several of the mean-spirited officers, who were screaming, “Forgive me, forgive me!" After ten years of militant fantasies, and brutality, the long shadow of rebellion was frightening Emperor Hirohito.
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