Staunch resistance from Army, Navy
How did the Japanese government interpret the Potsdam Declaration announced in July 1945? How did the government respond? Foreign Minister Togo focused on the fact that the declaration demanded “the unconditional surrender of all Japanese forces,” rather than “Japan’s unconditional surrender” as had been demanded in the 1943 Cairo Declaration by Britain, China and the United States. For Togo, the declaration looked moderate compared with how Germany was treated after its defeat because it appeared to leave control of Japan’s economy and industry in its own hands.
Togo believed Japan could expect the Soviet Union, which did not sign the declaration, to hold negotiations with the Allies more to its favor by further clarifying conditions for peace based on the declaration. Naval General Staff Chief Soemu Toyoda and Army General Staff Chief Yoshijiro Umezu opposed Togo’s idea of not rejecting the declaration but favored putting off an answer at least until Moscow responded to Japan’s request that it act as a mediator.
Toyoda was in a feisty mood at a Cabinet meeting on July 27, 1945. “The government needs to make a public announcement that the declaration is not to our advantage,” he said. After being persuaded by Togo, however, the Cabinet decided the government would not express its position on the declaration. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki said at a press conference on July 28, “Mokusatsu suru dake de aru (We will not pay attention to it).”
Since Suzuki used the Japanese word “mokusatsu”—which is expressed in the two Chinese characters of “kill” and “silence” to mean “pay no attention”—this was translated as “ignore” in English by a wire service. This “deliberately ignore” remark was taken by the Allies to mean Japan rejected the Potsdam Declaration and prompted the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States and Soviet entry into the war. Suzuki would be haunted by his remark. In his book, he wrote, “This comment was something that I’ve been regretting ever since.”
Suzuki asked Togo to be Foreign Minister when he was forming a Cabinet in April, but Togo, who hoped a peace deal could be reached quickly, initially declined the offer because Suzuki told him, “Japan could keep up the war for another two or three years.” Suzuki eventually managed to persuade Togo to take the post by promising he would leave diplomacy entirely to him. However, Suzuki did not even tell Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai what he was really thinking. Yonai was wary of Suzuki, and once told his aides, “The Prime Minister has a tough attitude.” In a postwar book, Rear Admiral Sokichi Takagi criticized the six leaders—Suzuki, Foreign Minister Togo, War Minister Korechika Anami, Yonai, Umezu and Toyoda—who formed the Imperial Supreme War Council, “There was no coordinator, liaison man or mediator.”
Suzuki’s lack of leadership disappointed Togo several times. A prominent example was during the Imperial Supreme War Council meeting on June 6. At the council, two reports—“Current situation of national power” and “Judgment on the state of the world”—were presented. The reports were compiled based on research conducted by Chief Cabinet Secretary Hisatsune Sakomizu on Suzuki’s orders. They were astonishingly honest in explaining that Japan had lost its ability to wage a war. The first contained grim findings about the country’s maritime transportation capability, saying, “Although we have vessels totaling one million tons, the shipping tonnage will be reduced to almost nothing by the year’s end.” National steel production “will drop to about one-quarter of last year’s production, and we do not expect steel ships will be able to be built after the middle of the current fiscal year.”
The report pulled no punches when describing how the food supply “is facing its most serious crisis since the war started.”Furthermore, it said, depending on circumstances such as enemy attacks and bad weather, “sporadic starvation could emerge.”
However, the council agreed that Japan could continue the war. Togo did raise an objection, but the meeting adopted a war leadership directive that said, “With our geographical advantages and people’s unity, the country will by all means accomplish the war’s aims.”
While Suzuki and Togo were waiting for an answer from the Soviet Union to their pleas to mediate in peace talks, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on the morning of August 6. Before dawn on August 9, Soviet troops rolled across the border into Manchuria. The situation became even more hopeless shortly after 11 a.m.on August 9 when the second atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki. Japan was defeated, beyond all shadow of doubt.
At 11:50 a.m. on August 9, the Imperial Supreme War Council convened with Emperor Showa in attendance. Yonai and Kiichiro Hiranuma, the President of the Privy Council, agreed with Togo’s proposal that Japan should accept the Potsdam Declaration with the sole proviso that the national polity, or more specifically the Imperial institution, be preserved. But Anami, Umezu and Toyoda dissented and insisted on four other conditions for the acceptance. They wanted disarmament to be carried out on Japan’s own initiative and for Japan to punish its own war criminals.
Yonai told Takagi around that time, “It might be inappropriate to say this, but I think the atomic bombings and the Soviet entry into the war are, in a sense, a godsend because we don’t have to say that we’ll stop the war due to the domestic situation.”
The meeting participants were unable to agree on what the nation should do, so Suzuki took the unprecedented step of asking the Emperor to make a decision. The Emperor said quietly Japan should accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. The council abided by the decision on condition that the declaration did not include a demand for a change in the Emperor’s prerogatives. Speaking after the war, Suzuki said, “I always believed a truly loyal retainer should leave judgment to His Majesty, the head of the state, if an argument that could greatly sway the nation’s destiny during an emergency could not be resolved.”
For Suzuki, a coup had been defused at the last possible moment. In his reminiscences, Vice Chief of Army General Staff Lieutenant General Torashiro Kawabe wrote of comments a dispirited Umezu made when he came back from the Imperial Supreme War Council meeting. “Since very long ago the Emperor had already lost all hope about the results of military operations. He has lost all faith in the military.”
On the morning of August 10, the government dispatched cables through Switzerland and Sweden to be transmitted to Britain, China, the Soviet Union and the United States in which Japan agreed to accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. The Allies’ formal reply on August 12 stated, “From the moment of surrender, the authority of the Emperor and the Japanese government to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers who will take such steps as he deems proper to effectuate the surrender terms.” Use of the ill-defined phrase “subject to” was Washington’s tacit approval that the Emperor’s status would be guaranteed even after Japan’s surrender.
However, the Imperial Supreme War Council and the Cabinet were unable to settle on an interpretation of the expression “subject to.”Suzuki opened a session of the Imperial Supreme War Council on August 14 and again he cordially asked the Emperor to make a decision on ending the war. At a Cabinet meeting later that day, ministers discussed an Imperial rescript on ending the war. Countersignatures of all Cabinet ministers were necessary for a rescript to be valid—if even one minister refused to countersign, the Cabinet could have resigned en masseand serious confusion would have ensued.
Anami’s next moves were telling. He left room in the middle of the discussion on the Imperial rescript and returned to the War Ministry, where he told his officers, “As servicemen, you must not oppose the Emperor’s wishes.”
In the early hours of August 15, a group of radical young Army officers killed Takeshi Mori, the Commander of the Imperial Guards Division, and temporarily took control of the division by issuing a fake order. They searched the Imperial Household Ministry for the Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War prerecorded by the Emperor in a bid to prevent it from being broadcast. They also went to Anami’s official residence and tried to convince him to rise up in revolt with them. However, Anami rejected their request and killed himself. A coup aimed at preventing the war from ending was barely averted.