C&B Notes

Failure to Capitulate

Japan’s imperialist pride did not die easily at the end of WWII, even after the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  A group of military leaders almost took control of the Japanese government in an effort to prevent Emperor Hirohito’s surrender in mid-August 1945.  The “what-ifs” are profound, as Japan’s post-war identity likely would have been markedly different if this coup had been successful.

The main actors from that August night are long dead, but one man still living spoke with almost all of them.  In the mid-1960s, Kazutoshi Hando interviewed the protagonists for his book Japan’s Longest Day, a classic account of the hours leading up to the surrender.  “Even 20 or 30 years later the plotters still thought it was wrong for Japan to capitulate,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times.

The book — remade as a film for the 70th anniversary — is almost unbearably tense. The fanatics plead with the head of the army to lead their coup, only for him to commit ritual suicide instead, while gangs of students roam the streets seeking to assassinate the prime minister.

It is often assumed that Japan’s surrender was inevitable after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but even after the devastation of those cities half of the cabinet refused to accept the allies’ terms.  The deadlock was only broken when the prime minister in an unprecedented step asked the Emperor, a constitutional figurehead, to decide whether to surrender.  The surrender came as a shock to a military that was planning to fight to the last man.

A successful coup was plausible.  “The plotters probably thought they had a 50:50 chance,” says Mr. Hando.  The moment of greatest danger came on the morning of August 14 when the rebel officers knew the cabinet would meet at the prime minister’s residence.  They planned to confine all members of the peace faction then install a military government.  If that had happened, says Mr. Hando: “There would have been no way to form a new cabinet with the power to surrender.  It would have ended as it did in Nazi Germany.”  The Allies would have invaded Japan to be met by waves of suicide attacks.  But the prime minister got wind of the danger and had his colleagues meet at the Imperial Palace instead.  The plotters seized the palace later in the night in a desperate attempt to prevent the Emperor’s broadcast of surrender.

In the book it is striking just how little the atomic devastation of two cities seemed to play on the minds of the politicians planning surrender and the officers trying to stop them.  Years after writing Japan’s Longest Day, Mr. Hando says he came to think the atomic attacks were more significant: they shocked Japan’s top brass, who had been told such weapons could not be ready in time for the war, but now feared an atomic attack on Tokyo.  But he says Japan’s leadership had a sketchy understanding of what nuclear weapons really meant: it took until three days after Hiroshima, for example, to confirm the weapon used was atomic. “The leaders understood better than the general public, but there were still many who didn’t comprehend it fully,” says Mr. Hando.