Japan is naive to expect Soviet mediation
On April 5, 1945, Ambassador to the Soviet Union Naotake Sato brought a disturbing message conveying the Kremlin’s decision not to extend the 1941 Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact from Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. The news could not have come at a worse time: U.S. forces had come ashore on Okinawa on April 1; and Germany, Japan’s European ally, was inching ever closer to defeat. The government feared the nation would be annihilated if the Soviet Union joined the war. However, the pact was still valid for another year. Molotov told Sato that the Soviet Union would honor the treaty for one more year if Japan did so.
It was only after the war was over that Sato learned of the secret pact agreed on by the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union at the Yalta Conference in February regarding Soviet participation in the war.
Sato reported to Tokyo that the Soviet Union aimed to ease the friction building between itself and the United States and Britain by telling Japan that it would not extend the pact, and in light of this, the Soviet Union did not actually intend to start hostilities with Japan for the time being. Bewitched by Sato’s incorrect report, the government put too many of its eggs in the Soviet Union’s basket.
On April 22, Torashiro Kawabe, new Vice Chief of the Army General Staff, and Seizo Arisue, chief of the Second Bureau (Intelligence), visited newly appointed Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo at his home. According to Arisue’s memoir, Kawabe told Togo, “You should do something drastic—offer the Soviet Union generous proposals and encourage it to stay neutral and mediate a peace settlement for us.” He said Japan could not help but forfeit Manchuria and Sakhalin for that purpose.
Army General Staff Chief Yoshijiro Umezu and Naval General Staff Vice Chief Jisaburo Ozawa later made similar proposals.
On April 8, the Army issued the Guidelines of the Final Operation Preparations to its units to reinforce military preparations in the Kanto area of Honshu and in Kyushu for the expected final battles on the mainland. The ground commanders wanted to inflict at least one devastating blow on the U.S. invaders to force the United States to agree to a settlement more favorable to Tokyo. Preventing Soviet participation in the war, which would seriously impede their final battle plans against the United States, was believed to be essential. Togo thought the military’s request was a “gift from God.” He decided to “use the military’s wishes to quickly lead the situation toward peace,” not just to prevent Soviet participation in the war.
“We must terminate the war at a time most preferable to Japan,” Togo, then Foreign Minister in the Tojo Cabinet, was quoted as telling Foreign Ministry officials on January 1, 1942.
Togo now moved behind the scenes to arrange a meeting of the Imperial Supreme War Council with the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, War Minister, Navy Minister and the Chiefs of the Army and Navy General Staffs on May 14, and successfully coaxed them into deciding what tack to take in negotiations with the Soviet Union.
The directions included preventing Soviet participation in the war, ensuring the Soviet Union would stay neutral, and ensuring the Soviets would mediate giving preferential conditions to Japan concerning the termination of the war. The military leaders said nothing. This was the moment that the government considered for the first time how to terminate the war. However, the government was not assured that its plan to win Moscow’s cooperation would succeed.
Togo was suspicious of the Soviet Union’s sincerity, but nonetheless thought the situation would be unsalvageable for Japan if Moscow completely sided with the enemy. “If any foreign country can lead the situation to a settlement that does not include our unconditional surrender, it is the Soviet Union,” he was quoted as saying.
While he was Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1938‐40, Togo had a hand in the establishment of the armistice agreement for the Nomonhan Incident, encouraged the government to reach a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union and negotiated with Moscow on the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact. Togo was convinced that he and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov were friends who “could confide anything in each other.”
However, Imperial Supreme War Council members failed to agree on what settlement conditions they would propose at mediation negotiations with the Soviets because Anami and Togo engaged in a heated war of words on the matter. Anami said, “Japan still controls vast enemy territories, yet our enemy has only touched part of our territory. We shouldn’t hold negotiations [with the Soviet Union] in the context of proposing peace.” Consequently, they decided not to ask the Soviet Union to mediate in the settlement, but to limit the objectives of the negotiations to preventing the Soviet Union from joining the war and to ensuring its neutrality on conditions preferential to Japan.
Togo set up talks with Soviet Ambassador Jacov Malik, and chose former Prime Minister Koki Hirota as Japan’s representative. However, the negotiations limped along and made little progress. On June 22, the day the guns were finally falling silent on Okinawa after months of bloody fighting, the Emperor summoned the war council members and stated, “This is not an order but simply part of our conversation... Regarding the termination of the war, conduct specific studies without being bound by conventional points of view, and make efforts to realize it [termination of the war].”
At the meeting, Yonai mentioned the plan to seek a settlement through mediation by the Soviet Union. Togo filled in the details of the plan. Asked by the Emperor of the military’s opinion, Umezu said, “We don’t have any objections, but we should be extremely careful about seeking peace negotiations.” The Emperor asked, “Of course we need to be circumspect, but would being too careful cause us to miss our chance?” Umezu replied, “It also needs to be done promptly.” When the Emperor asked Anami the same question, he simply stated, “I have nothing in particular to say.”
After the Emperor urged them to make efforts to terminate the war, Hirota finally offered Malik a peace plan on June 29, which included signing a Japanese-Soviet nonaggression pact, neutralization of Manchuria and Japan’s relinquishment of fishing rights in Soviet waters. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Sato was informed in late June of the Hirota-Malik meeting for the first time by a telegram from Togo. Sato later said, “I couldn’t help but think that it was childish to naively think we could pull the Soviet Union to our side while Japan was on the verge of collapse.”
Sato’s worst fears were realized when Molotov did not give a reply to Japan’s offer when they met on July 11. On July 13, Sato received a telegram from Togo which read, “It would be appropriate to inform the Soviet Union of the Emperor’s graceful wish concerning a termination of the war before the meeting of the three nations [the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union in Potsdam].” In short, Togo ordered Sato to directly tell Molotov that Japan wished to send Fumimaro Konoe as a special envoy to deliver the Emperor’s message. However, the Soviet Union rejected the offer on July 18, the day after the Potsdam Conference began.