Seeking an end to the war
What was Emperor Showa’s stance on ending the war? In the early days of the war, Japanese were swept up by reports of victories by the seemingly invincible Japanese forces. Emperor Showa also was greatly satisfied by the battle reports. However, the Emperor made reference to an end to the war when he told Prime Minister Hideki Tojo on February 10, 1942: “Devise measures [to enter talks for ending the war] without any oversight, depending on [the attitude of] the other side, even though it might not be good to see the campaign to secure natural resources in the south [Southeast Asia] end while still incomplete and unsuccessful.”
As defeat in the Battle of Guadalcanal looked almost certain in the autumn of 1942, the Emperor began to worry that the tide of the war had begun to shift. On March 30, 1943, the Emperor told Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Koichi Kido about his gloomy prognosis for the war, “Our prospects for this war are not bright,” the Emperor told Kido. “It will be difficult to recover the air power we lost in the Battle of Midway. Without air supremacy, our troops everywhere will meet defeat in battle.” Kido responded, “I think our only recourse is to inflict devastating damage on the enemy and then use that opportunity to push for peace.” “I hope that’s possible,” the Emperor said.
Since around summer 1943, jushin senior advisers, including Fumimaro Konoe and Keisuke Okada, who were seeking an early end to the war, an anti-Tojo group in the Navy, and the Kodo-ha (Imperial Way Faction), which was an anti-mainstream group in the Army, had secretly been plotting to overthrow the Tojo Cabinet. The Kodo-ha was a right-wing group of junior and field officers seeking to restore the Emperor as an absolute ruler with the Army as his main instrument of policy. Initially, the Emperor trusted Tojo, saying “He worked diligently and spoke thoughtfully and in great detail.”
The Emperor had three main reasons why he wanted the Tojo Cabinet to remain in place:
Konoe, meanwhile, was worried that information such as the mounting frustration with the Tojo Cabinet might not be reaching the Emperor. Konoe tried to tell the Emperor through Prince Takamatsu, a younger brother of the Emperor, that discontent with the Tojo Cabinet was rising. However, the Emperor objected to being fed such information via an informal route and expressed his displeasure with Prince Takamatsu by telling him, “I won’t listen to what an irresponsible Imperial Family member says to me.”
However, after hearing Japanese forces had been wiped out in Saipan in July 1944, the Emperor began having second thoughts about the Tojo Cabinet. In February 1945, the Emperor asked each jushin senior adviser for his opinion, but he did not immediately accept Konoe’s beseeching him to end the war as quickly as possible to avert the possibility of a communist revolution in Japan.
It was not until June 1945 that the Emperor took steps to bring peace. Germany had surrendered in May and Japan’s defeat in the bloody Battle of Okinawa was becoming a matter of when, not if. The mainland was being clinically bombarded by heavy air raids almost daily.
On June 8, the Emperor summoned Kido after an Imperial Supreme War Council meeting. “It was decided that we will continue the war until the end,” the Emperor said pensively, referring to the council, “It seems everyone was waiting for someone else to say something.”
Kido, disappointed and frustrated by what he had just heard, drafted later that night “a tentative plan to cope with the current situation” to try to end the war. The plan stated, “We’ll ask for a courageous decision from the Emperor and we believe there is no way other than striving to save the difficult situation based on the following steps.” The plan incorporated a policy to ask the Soviet Union to act as a mediator through a personal letter written by the Emperor and to enter peace negotiations with the Allied Powers. Kido mentioned the plan to the Emperor the next day, June 9. “The Emperor looked delighted [with the plan] and I was told to get started immediately,” Kido said.
Around that time, the Emperor was given many discouraging reports on the war from Army General Staff Chief Umezu, who had returned from Manchuria, Navy Admiral Kiyoshi Hasegawa, who had inspected domestic war factories, and Prince Morihiro of Higashikuni (Higashikuni-no-miya Morihiro), an Army officer who married the eldest daughter of Emperor Showa. “I heard that we are making shovels from the iron of bombs dropped on us by the enemy,” the Emperor said. “I’m certain it’s impossible to maintain a war footing under such circumstances.”
On June 22, the Emperor summoned Prime Minister Suzuki and five other key members of the Imperial Supreme War Council and asked them to do their utmost to end the war without sticking to the decision made at the Imperial Supreme War Council on June 8.
On July 26, the Potsdam Declaration was announced and moves to end the war entered their final phase. The Cabinet meeting on August 9 became bogged down until late at night as ministers wrangled over whether to accept the declaration. An agreement had to be reached before an Imperial Supreme War Council meeting could be convened.
Suzuki and others were counting on settling the matter with the Emperor’s “divine decision” that they hoped would be given at an Imperial Supreme War Council meeting. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hisatsune Sakomizu had already obtained the signatures of the Army and Navy General Staff Chiefs in advance by telling them, “I’ll confer with you before an Imperial council meeting is convened.” The military was surprised at a sudden convening of the Imperial Supreme War Council, but Suzuki overrode them and the meeting went ahead.
At the meeting of the Imperial Supreme War Council held in an air-raid shelter in the Imperial Palace at about midnight on August 9, opinions were split over whether to accept the Potsdam Declaration. Suzuki did not express his opinion. Instead, he left the matter up to the Emperor. The monarch finally spoke at the end of the meeting. “I agree with the opinion of the Foreign Minister [Togo],” he said.
Togo’s plan was for the government to accept the Potsdam Declaration under the understanding that it did not comprise any demand that prejudiced the prerogatives of the Emperor as a sovereign ruler.
“You talk about a battle on the mainland, but the most important preparation—building the defenses at Kujukurihama [on the Pacific coast of Chiba Prefecture]—has yet to be completed, and divisions that will be involved in this battle are inadequately equipped and will not be ready until after mid-September,” the Emperor said. “Increasing aircraft production is not going as well as we expected. Reality does not always pan out as we plan. Given that, how can we win the war? I think now is the time that we have to bear the unbearable. Remembering the spirit of Emperor Meiji (1852–1912) at the time of the Tripartite Intervention, I agree with the draft plan, holding back my tears.”
As the significance of this decision sank in, the silence was broken by the sobs of some of those in attendance. At a Cabinet meeting that started at 3 p.m., terms for accepting the Potsdam Declaration that were approved at the Imperial Supreme War Council earlier in the day were formally decided as the government’s policy. At an Imperial Supreme War Council meeting on August 14, Anami, Umezu and Toyoda objected to the acceptance of the declaration but the Emperor made an Imperial decision after the request by Suzuki. On August 15, 1945, the Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War prerecorded by the Emperor was broadcast over the radio. On September 2, Japan signed the instrument of surrender aboard the USS Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay. Three years and eight months had passed since the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941.
According to a survey conducted by the Health and Welfare Ministry in 1977, the wars of the Showa Era, including the Sino-Japanese War, claimed the lives of 3.1 million Japanese. That included about 2.1 million servicemen and civilian military employees and about 200,000 paramilitary personnel who died in the fighting, including about 50,000 people from Korea and Taiwan. The dead included an estimated 800,000 civilians, including about 500,000 on the mainland and 300,000 outside Japan in places such as in Manchuria.