70th Anniversary of Japan’s WW2 surrender: Survivors recall the drama and horror of the days after Hiroshima and Nagasaki

'Japan under this leadership wants to forget the past and move on. But that cannot be allowed to happen'

David McNeill
Tuesday 11 August 2015 20:58
World War II, after the explosion of the atom bomb in August 1945, Hiroshima, Japan
World War II, after the explosion of the atom bomb in August 1945, Hiroshima, Japan

Katsumoto Saotome was a schoolboy in Tokyo when he heard the reedy voice of Japan’s Living God. He could understand little of what was said in the crackly, 41/2-minute radio broadcast, but the tone of resignation was clear. The war, Emperor Hirohito famously lamented in his high-pitched, courtly Japanese, had developed “not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”. The enemy had deployed a “new most cruel bomb” that could result not just in the obliteration of the nation but the “total extinction of human civilisation”. The word “surrender” was never uttered but the war was finally over. It was noon on 15 August 1945.

Saotome, then 12, was astonished. Like many Japanese, he knew the war was lost but thought the emperor was going to ask him to die. Tens of thousands of people had been flung against the enemy like chaff. A civilian militia of children, women and the elderly armed with little more than bamboo spears, was training to fight the Allies to the end; to die like a “shattered jewel”, urged wartime propagandists.

The Americans had burned most of Japan’s cities to the ground, overrun Okinawa in the south-west and were set to invade the mainland. Now it was over.

“What had it all been for?” wondered Saotome.

Hirohito’s assessment vastly underplayed the carnage from the war. American bombers had napalmed Tokyo four months earlier, killing 100,000 in a single night, many of them children, and reducing much of the city to ruins. Thousands of bodies, too charred to identify, had been dumped into mass graves near Saotome’s home. Over 60 more cities met the same fate before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated by atomic bombs in August, each taking 100,000 lives in an instant. About three million Japanese were dead or missing, millions more injured or homeless; at least a quarter of all national wealth had been destroyed. Five million people had fled the capital for the countryside.

In the searing late summer heat, rotting bodies were still being cremated in makeshift pyres across the country. In Hiroshima, 13-year-old Shoji Sawada listened to the emperor on the radio in his grandmother’s house. A week earlier, his trapped mother had screamed at him to run away as post-atomic-bomb fires consumed their house, and burnt her alive.

“My heart was too broken to take in what the emperor was saying.”

In Nagasaki, Hirotami Yamada, then 14, had cremated his sister and baby brother, burying their bones in an empty milk can. He recalls a mix of feelings as the news of surrender filtered through: grief, bewilderment, emptiness, relief and – above all, exhaustion.

“There were many different emotions,” recalls Koji Kitahara, then a 23-year-old sailor assigned to protect supply ships. “Some people were ashamed and wanted to continue; others were angry, at their superiors – or at the enemy.”

Such sentiments sometimes turned vengeful: Furious Japanese soldiers responded in one case by blindfolding and executing 17 Allied POWs. But emotions could just as easily turn inward: after the emperor’s speech, hundreds of military personnel took responsibility for the defeat by disemboweling themselves in an excruciating form of ritual suicide known as seppuku.

Unknown to most, the imperial broadcast almost never happened. Tensions between military leaders opposed to capitulation and politicians desperate to sue for peace dragged on for six days after the bombing of Nagasaki.

The Americans were rumoured to be preparing to drop another Atomic bomb. The emperor, alarmed by the prospect of a Soviet invasion from the north, had already made his decision to end the war but the military wanted a guarantee that he would be protected.

The tensions erupted on the night of 14 August: a group of military officers tried to seize the recording of the emperor’s speech, stored in Tokyo’s Imperial Palace. They stormed the palace, killed a guard, and looked in vain for the recording, which was locked in a safe in the Grand Chamberlain’s office. The coup d’etat narrowly avoided, the ringleader shot himself in the head.

On the same night, 900 US warplanes dropped a carpet of bombs across the country, killing thousands more civilians.

In the tense period between the imperial broadcast and the arrival of the Allied forces, legions of starved de-mobbed soldiers began the journey home from Japan’s doomed empire, leaving behind millions of dead, and tales of atrocities across Asia that haunt diplomatic ties to this day. Over six million Japanese were abroad when the war ended; a year later, two million remained, some stranded forever. Tens of thousands of Japanese civilians fled to the mountains, fearing retribution by the approaching occupation force.

Girls were advised to dress modestly to avoid rape. Over 50,000 women were recruited to the Recreation and Amusement Association, a government-run prostitution service to channel the sexual urges of the occupiers into “designated lower-class female bodies”.

World War II Japan, U.S. Soldiers recreation

General Douglas MacArthur, the war hero appointed by US President Harry Truman to oversee the Allied occupation, spearheaded the invasion two weeks later. As news cameras whirred, he emerged from a plane on a military airstrip west of Tokyo, corncob pipe dangling from his Mount Rushmore features, a theatrical entrance designed to convey authority and power to the cowed enemy.

A few days later he presided over the formal Japanese surrender aboard the US warship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

The Japanese delegation, who were incongruously dressed in formal tuxedos and top hats, were so afraid they would be lynched aboard the ship that they had reportedly drawn up their wills. Japan’s “utter subjugation” was reinforced by the dramatic setting of the surrender, wrote the historian John Dower.

With Japan’s once mighty armed forces demolished, scuttled or scattered across Asia, Tokyo Bay was clogged with hundreds of American fighting ships.

At one point, a thunderous squadron of 400 B29 bombers and 1500 Navy fighter planes roared overhead. Japan was about to play reluctant host to over a quarter of a million “well-fed, superbly equipped, supremely confident GIs”. A country with a mythic 2,600-year imperial reign that had prided itself on never being invaded, aysaid Dower, “was about to be inundated by white men”.

The key person missing from this lopsided power play in Tokyo Bay was the Emperor. Even before Hirohito’s broadcast, Japan’s elite planned to protect him from trial by portraying him, improbably, as a pacifist manipulated into a disastrous war by his military brass.

The Americans, after a brief debate about whether to try and hang him for war crimes, shepherded his transition to constitutional monarch – a unifying force in a country in danger of being pulled apart by class and politics. The man in whose name millions died was turned into a symbol of peace, his military regalia swopped for Western suits. “My father used to tell me that the emperor did his best for Japan but he was manipulated by militarists,” says Sugako Fujita.

By closing ranks to conceal the emperor’s role in planning and waging war, Japan’s elite “hoped to protect the throne, its occupant and their own rule,” said Herbert Bix, author of the Pulitzer winning Hirohito And the Making of Modern Japan. To shield the state and themselves, “they destroyed and hid massive amounts of documentary evidence pertaining to war atrocities, massacres, sexual slavery, the treatment of war prisoners”…as well as to Hirohito’s command of military detail. The emperor, he concludes, was the centrepiece of Japan’s attempt to whitewash the past.

In the first weeks of messy peace, once unthinkable alliances were formed. British forces, in delicious irony not missed in Japan, employed 300,000 Japanese troops to keep order in the former European colonies of Dutch East Indies, Malaya and French Indo-China.

The nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, 9th August 1945 during world war two

In another instance of collaboration with the once hated former enemy, British and Japanese soldiers fought side-by-side against Indonesian rebels. A Japanese commander was even recommended for the Distinguished Service Order, says Garren Mulloy, a Japan-based military historian. The decoration was never awarded because it was considered too politically sensitive. The most unlikely alliance of all was with the Americans. Initially intent on punishing Japan, Washington switched priorities after the Communist victory in China in 1949. Instead of a humiliated enemy, it now wanted a loyal Pacific bulwark against Red Beijing and Moscow. Only 14 of Japan’s wartime leaders were executed but many more were rehabilitated, including former minister of munitions Nobusuke Kishi, one of the dozen men who signed the declaration of war against the US in December 1941.

Kishi, grandfather of the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, would go on to become prime minister himself and help smooth Japan’s remarkable transition to American Cold War ally. But he was clear that Japan would eventually re-arm and recover its greatness.

In the coming years, with this US sponsorship, Japan engineered probably the most remarkable feat of economic regeneration in history, climbing from basket case to the world’s second-largest economy in just three decades.

It barged its way into the club of rich nations with a breed of capitalism very different from the other developed industrial countries, says Karel Van Wolferen, bestselling author of a number of books on Japan.

The country was made strong by a system of industrial planning dominated by bureaucrats who controlled policy-making and finance. “The Japanese economy is basically a war economy operating in peacetime,” Van Wolferen famously said.

The country’s economic activities were rationalised into a system of unlimited industrial expansion in the pursuit of market share, under the guidance of a bureaucratic apparatus heavily influenced by centralised wartime controls. Massive state-directed investment into key industrial sectors such as steel, cars and information technology was co-ordinated by bureaucratic agencies. The Bank of Japan controlled the supply of investment funds to city banks and their corporate clients, guiding and nurturing preferred industries and phasing out obsolete ones. It was a system that had been tried first in Japan’s wartime colony, Manchuria, by none other than Kishi.

Although touted as a rare example of Asian democracy, ordinary people had little say in how this system was run. The bureaucrats ran it with the country’s business leaders, holding down wages and consumption to generate funds for their holy grail – overtaking the advanced economies of the West.

The system proved ruthlessly efficient in increasing the country’s wealth and grabbing market share abroad. When at one point in the late 1980s, Japan seemed on course to overtake the declining United States as the world’s number-one economy, some predicted that history would come full circle: Japan had lost in the battlefields of Asia but won the economic war against America.

Yet, even as the US and European business press filled up with of images of Godzillas and giant Sumo wrestlers stalking Wall Street and gobbling up famous assets such as Columbia Pictures, the economy was already peaking. In the subsequent two decades, Japan’s stock market and assets deflated and its once fearsome economic engine slowed. In 2011, Japan was overtaken by China as the world’s second-largest economy. Shinzo Abe’s return to power in late 2012 appeared to give the country its best chance in years to revive its former glories. “We must restore Japan’s honour,” he said after taking office. “Japan is not, and will never be, a tier-two country.”

Under Abe, Japan’s stock market has finally regained its late-1980s valuation and its largest corporations have regained some of their vigour. Global investors have been cheered by his turbo-charged monetarist project to end years of deflation. Yet, many of the war’s elderly survivors fear the prime minister, born nine years after the carnage of WW2 ended, is dangerously nostalgic for Japan’s great power status.

One of Mr Abe’s first actions after wining power in 2012 was to visit the grave of Nobusuke Kishi, where he pledged to recover Japan’s “true independence”. Mr Abe belongs to the same political tradition as his grandfather, rejecting much of the accepted Western narrative on the war. His supporters are resentful that Japan took all the blame for attempting to “liberate” Asia from Western colonialism while America was never called to task for its own misdeeds. The roots of their revisionism go all the way back that carefully phrased capitulation by the emperor. “The US committed cruel massacres by fire-bombing Tokyo and dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” said Naoki Hyakuta, a novelist close to the prime minister.

Above all, they dislike the US-designed constitution, written in 1946, which neutered the military with a pacifist clause and imported alien, liberal concepts of education and family law. Mr Abe has struggled throughout his term to shrug off these pacifist shackles and beef up the military with a series of sharp rises in defence spending, made with China in mind. Parliament is finally set to allow the nation to engage in collective defence with the US.

Under Mr Abe, the government has imposed stricter control over school history textbooks. Schoolchildren already know little about the horrors that took place before the Americans arrived, says Tomiichi Murayama, former prime minister. “The government could never decide if it was a good war or a bad war,” he says.

Mr Saotome, now 83, fears this amnesia is accelerating as Japan reaches a turning point. After 1945, he turned to writing novels and later began cataloguing the firebombing of Tokyo. The older he got, he says, the harder it became to banish the thoughts of all those 100,000 people, snuffed out in a single night. “It was as though they had never occurred.”

The final years of his life are dedicated to keeping alive the memories, not just of the horrors inflicted on his country but of the crimes it perpetrated on others. The swindling survivors of the conflict that tore East Asia apart are nearing the end of their lives. Soon, he fears, official narratives will replace their stories. “Japan under this leadership wants to forget the past and move on. But that cannot be allowed to happen.”

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