SIX - Japan: The Atomic Bombs and War’s End

There was a loud boom—of course there was. A 30,ooo-pound bomb had exploded less than a mile above the city. But what people in Hiroshima remembered most about the morning of 6 August was silence. A fisherman tending his nets on the Inland Sea, 20 miles from Hiroshima, heard a great explosion, but few in Hiroshima claimed later to have heard any noise at all. The silence that followed the bombing, with its blast and light and burning heat, was profound. ‘The hurt ones were quiet,’ wrote John Hersey, albeit in retrospect. ‘No one wept, much less screamed in pain; no one complained; none of the many who died did so noisily; not even the children cried; very few people even spoke.’ Dr Michihiko Hachiya, who was among the bombed that morning and worked heroically to treat the wounded, observed that ‘one thing was common to everyone I saw—complete silence’. Kenzaburo Oe was a boy on the quiet island of Shikoku in August 1945. He became a writer, and discovered the victims of Hiroshima in 1963. (Oe, too, found and recorded silences from that day: the silence of those with terrible injuries, of those who had suffered unimaginable loss, of those who ‘raising both hands skyward and making soundless groans’, jumped into the (Ota River ‘as though competing with one another’—even the silence, jealously insisted upon, of those survivors who steadfastly refused to talk about their experiences that day, demanding silence as their right as victims.1

1. Japan in retreat

By August 1945 Japan’s military position was parlous. Since the reversal at Midway Island in June 1942, victories had been few and short-lived, stalemates generally the best that could be hoped for, and defeats had come

with greater frequency and often catastrophic results. The American and Allied conquests in the Pacific from late 1942 on—at Guadalcanal and New Guinea, Tinian and Saipan, the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa— were, of course, devastating Japanese defeats. An old poem, set to music in 1937, began with the words ‘Umi yukaba’ (in English ‘Across the sea’); Japanese soldiers said or sang it to their families before they left for the front. By 1943 it had become a melancholy phrase of parting, and it introduced radio descriptions ‘of battles in which Japanese soldiers “met honorable death rather than the dishonor of surrender” ’. In mid-1943 the American General Douglas MacArthur launched Operation Cartwheel against Japanese forces in New Guinea. Beaten by Australian units at the coast town of Finschhafen, the Japanese retreated (a ‘fighting withdrawal’, they called it) toward the interior of the island. The Japanese main force crossed a steep gorge and blew up the suspension bridge over it, stranding thousands of their straggling comrades. Masatsugu Ogawa was one of those left behind. He recalled men dying in droves, their corpses stinking in the hot sun, stripped of their useful gear by the living and covered by so many worms they looked silver from a distance. Ogawa prayed that his artillery, much reduced, would not fire at the enemy, for one Japanese shell inevitably attracted hundreds in return. Men lost their minds; Ogawa and his fellow soldiers shot them to put them out of their misery. Of the 7,000 soldiers assigned to Ogawa’s 79th Regiment over the course of the campaign, 67 survived.2

Recognizing that Saipan would provide the Americans with airfields within a bomber’s distance of Japan, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo declared it ‘an impregnable fortress’ in the spring of 1944 and sent thousands of troops to reinforce it. Among them was Takeo Yamauchi, a Russian-language student and closet socialist who reluctantly accepted conscription and arrived at Saipan on 19 May. The Americans launched an air attack on 11 June and sent in the marines four days later. A squad leader, Yamauchi nevertheless had no appetite for battle, and when the armies clashed at close range he, along with several others, headed for the relative protection of the mountains to their rear. They encountered a fellow soldier from their squad, who started to tell them ‘glorified stories of bravery’. Yamauchi told the man to shut up. He wandered the island for days, doing his best to avoid having to fight as men died around him. Overwhelmed, discouraged, and hungry, he surrendered to US forces on 14 July. He was unusual. The Japanese government later estimated that, of the 43,682 men sent to defend Saipan, 41,244 died, along with some 14,000 civilians. The fall of the ‘impregnable fortress’ brought down Tojo’s cabinet.3

Emperor Hirohito now ordered his armies to raise the cost of America’s island campaigns, if nothing else buying time to prepare for the defense of the home islands. That is what General Tademichi Kurabayashi did on Iwo Jima in February and March 1945, sacrificing his entire force of 20,000 while inflicting heavy casualties (7,000 dead, up to 19,000 wounded) on the Americans. Okinawa came next. Kikako Miyagi was a 16-year-old schoolgirl when the land assault began on 1 April. Mobilized into the Himeyuri Student Corps (boys the same age entered the Blood and Iron Student Corps), Miyagi was pressed into service as a nurse in a cave at the south end of the island. The wounded started coming, ‘thousands of them’, she remembered, men a little older than herself with toes, arms, even faces missing. The older girls had the task of restraining men whose limbs were being amputated. The relative respite at night gave the girls a chance to carry corpses outside, where they threw them into shell craters. At the end of May they withdrew; the wounded were given cyanide, told to die gloriously, and left where they lay. Miyagi walked, staggered, crawled, trying to stay alive and avoid capture by the advancing American ‘demons’, whom she was sure would defile and kill her. Finally, on the first day of summer, she was captured, still gripping a grenade but too exhausted and frightened to pull the pin. She was well treated and later reunited with her parents.4

Those few who survived these terrible battles, including Ogawa, Yamauchi, and Miyagi, could not have been optimistic that Japan would hold out, and had seen enough of war to turn away from it in revulsion. Had they known the state of the Japanese atomic-bomb projects, NI and F, they would have been even more certain that the game was up. As noted in Chapter Three, the Japanese program had never flourished, despite the ingenuity of its leading scientist Yoshio Nishina, the respected ‘Old Man’ of Japanese physics. Short of money, short of uranium ore and the equipment needed to separate from it fissionable U-235, short of electricity and basic lab equipment, and short especially of confidence that a bomb was worth pursuing, scientists had let the two parallel projects languish. By the time the Americans had laid siege to Okinawa, Nishina’s Riken Institute, in the Koishiwa District of Tokyo, had produced but a fleck of U-235. Then, on the night of 13 April, Curtis LeMay’s bombers attacked. Nishina, along with over 600,000 others, were burned out of their homes. Much of the Riken was destroyed. At the end of the month, Nishina summoned to his office Masashi Takeuchi, who had been in charge of uranium separation despite being out of his depth. Takeuchi, said Nishina, had failed. He must now resign. He did so the next day, and transferred to the Navy, where he worked to improve radio communications. Nishina moved his family to a Riken building the fires had spared and resumed desultory work on fission. (When the Los Alamos theoretician Robert Serber visited Nishina at the Riken several weeks after war had ended, he found that the remaining scientists were growing vegetables on the grounds. ‘They were just trying to live,’ Serber explained.)5

But the suffering of Japanese soldiers and civilians and the absence of an atomic bomb were not enough, in the spring of 1945, to shake the cabinet’s resolve to fight on, if the alternative was unconditional surrender. That is not to say that the Japanese leadership remained altogether insensitive to the nation’s declining military fortunes, nor that there was unanimity among policymakers concerning the response to the decline. On 5 April, just days after the Americans had landed on Okinawa, the cabinet of Prime Minister Kuniaki Koiso fell, in part because of its inability to devise a plan to take the country out of war. Koiso was replaced by Kantaro Suzuki, an aging admiral whose wife had been the boy Hirohito’s most influential nurse, and with a reputation for loyalty to the emperor and battlefield bravery. Suzuki was not himself committed to an early peace—indeed, he told associates that he thought the war should continue for two or three more years—though he was willing, or in any case found it necessary, to place in his cabinet two men known to favor a settlement: as navy minister, Mitsumasa Yonai, and as foreign minister, Shigenori Togo, who insisted that, as a condition of their signing on, Suzuki authorize an honest investigation of Japan’s military and diplomatic situation. Suzuki also appointed, as army minister, General Korechika Anami, who was known to be a hardliner on the war and who extracted from Suzuki a promise to fight on until the war was won. Anami’s place in the cabinet guaranteed that the high-level struggle over the fate of the fast-eroding empire was certain to continue.6

At least equally crucial in determining Tokyo’s position toward Allied surrender terms was the attitude of Emperor Hirohito. In the years following the end of the Pacific War, Americans and Japanese together promoted the useful fiction that Hirohito had never been more than a figurehead, a symbol of transcendent greatness to which the Japanese people might rally, but someone detached from the messy and controversial details of day-to-day decisionmaking. The fiction of imperial detachment was useful to Hirohito himself and to his advisers, who naturally wished to keep the Emperor free of stain from the failed war and preserve his reputation and influence once the conflict had ended. It was useful as well to General Douglas MacArthur and other architects of the American occupation of Japan, because the Emperor offered a stable (and conservative) touchstone for Japanese society, and not incidentally a powerful, anticommunist presence in Japanese politics after 1945. The historian Herbert Bix has in recent years forcefully corrected the impression of Hirohito as a passive monarch. In fact, argues Bix, the Emperor was energetically engaged in wartime policymaking. Hirohito ‘gradually became a real war leader,’ writes Bix, ‘influencing the planning, strategy, and conduct of operations in China and participating in the appointment and promotion of the highest generals and admirals.’ He was aware of the situation on the battlefield and, guided by his leading adviser, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Marquis Koichi Kido, made vital interventions in policy decisions at the top level, including those involving the termination of the war. Hirohito was neither prime minister nor commander-in-chief. But he did make the decision to go to war with the United States by attacking Pearl Harbor in later 1941, and on the day itself Hirohito dressed in his naval uniform and, according to Bix, ‘seemed to be in a splendid mood’.7

Even after touring his ravaged capital following the American incendiary attack of 9-10 March 1945, Hirohito seems to have believed that his people’s morale was holding up and that a final battle for the homeland was a reasonable prospect. His falling-out with Prime Minster Koiso and his choice of Suzuki to replace him reflected a desire to fight on; as he took office, Suzuki told an interviewer that he remained confident of victory. But by June the tide had shifted. Defeat on Okinawa, no matter how costly to the Americans, was a devastating blow to the leadership. Even before its magnitude became clear, the unconditional surrender of Japan’s German ally had dampened spirits considerably. Along with leaving Japan to face the United States alone, it also raised the distressing possibility that the Soviet Union would abrogate its April 1941 Neutrality Pact with Japan, even though it had another year to run. Several Japanese leaders suspected that the Soviets had agreed, at Yalta in February, to enter the war against Japan in exchange for Asian territorial concessions made by Roosevelt and Churchill. (They were right.) On 5 April the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, called in the Japanese ambassador to Moscow, Nao-take Sato, and informed him that the Soviet Union was renouncing the Neutrality Pact. The situation had changed since 1941, Molotov declared: Russia was now allied with the United States and Britain, against whom the Japanese were fighting. Sato remonstrated, to the extent of getting Molotov to agree, with great reluctance, that the Pact would remain in force through the end of its term in 1946. This concession would require what Stalin called ‘strategic deception’, since the Soviets were already mobilizing to attack Japanese forces in China.8

The Soviet decision to abandon the Neutrality Pact, in a year’s time or immediately, came as a blow to the Japanese leadership’s wishful thinkers, who had previously imagined that their nation could, by concentrating solely on defending the home islands against the Americans, wear the enemy down and win improved surrender terms. Soviet involvement against them meant disaster. The new situation encouraged the quickening of‘peace feelers’ undertaken by an assortment of Japanese officials in a variety of European capitals. (Since the Americans had cracked Japanese codes and the Japanese knew it, ‘secret’ discussions with European diplomats were intended for American ears.) Foreign Minister Togo directed Ambassador Sato to try to persuade the Russians to stay out of the war, then went behind Sato’s back to instigate private discussions between the Soviet ambassador in Tokyo Iakov Malik and former prime minister Koki Hirota, with an eye toward possible Soviet mediation. Japanese representatives in Stockholm, Bern, and at the Vatican attempted to pursue with diplomatic counterparts the definition of unconditional surrender. None of these efforts bore fruit. Stalin was by now bent on war with Japan as soon as his armies were ready and satisfactory arrangements made with the Chinese. The multi-splendored peace feelers spread throughout Western Europe were never authorized by the cabinet or the Emperor and were renounced when discovered.9

The ‘peace faction’ did assert itself more and more as summer arrived. Talks with the Russians grew frantic; even as Stalin, through Molotov, put Sato off, the Emperor himself decided that Soviet mediation was essential and dispatched to Moscow Fumimaro Konoe, the respected former prime minister whose advisers and friends had been drafting position papers calling for significant Japanese concessions. By late June, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa has written, Japan had reached ‘the crucial moment when Hirohito became actively involved in the effort to terminate the war’. The Emperor was deeply worried about the preservation of the ‘national polity’, or kokutai, meaning largely his own position in postwar Japan. The nation experienced a flurry of acts of lese majeste, ongoing since the beginning of the war but increasingly troubling to the authorities by 1945. A Home Ministry report noted then that ‘antiwar thoughts and feelings finally have come to the point where they even curse and bear resentment against His Majesty’. Hirohito was derided, in letters, comments, and graffiti, as a ‘fool’ (baka), ‘stupid fool’ (bakayaro), and ‘big stupid fool’ (daibakayaro),or even ‘Little Emperor’. When Hirohito toured Tokyo following the first great B-29 raid in March, he claimed to find no diminution of popular morale. But an aide had noticed that the vacant expressions of those picking through the rubble ‘became reproachful as the imperial motorcade went by... Were they resentful of the emperor because they had lost their relatives, their houses and their belongings?’ That he felt compelled to ask the question was itself significant.10

And yet, despite a certain degree of realism about Japan’s situation, a growing understanding that the Soviets were no friends and the Americans unyielding in their demand for unconditional surrender, the cabinet, as a group, would not let go its insistence on negotiating terms for the nation’s capitulation. While Hirohito (in mid-June), his advisers, and key members of the cabinet sought Soviet help to bring the war to an end, they were not prepared during June and July to accept the American conditions for doing so. From Moscow, Sato, ever the realist, implored his superiors ‘to make the great decision’ to surrender unconditionally. ‘If the Japanese Empire is really faced with the necessity of terminating the war,’ he wrote to Togo on 12 July, ‘we must first of all make up our own minds to terminate the war.’ ‘I send this telegram,’ Sato finished, ‘in the belief that [it] is my first responsibility to prevent the harboring of illusions which are at variance with reality.’ Togo replied five days later. After reminding Sato that the Emperor himself sought Soviet mediation, he added: ‘Please bear particularly in mind, however, that we are not seeking the Russians’ mediation for anything like an unconditional surrender,’ which remained unacceptable. Indeed, not even the ‘peace faction’ could agree on what concessions to make. Sato wrote back on the 19th, charging that officials in Tokyo were ‘out of touch with the atmosphere prevailing here’. Nevertheless, Togo responded on the 21st: ‘With regard to unconditional surrender we are unable to consent to it under any circumstances whatever. Even if the war drags on and it becomes clear that it will take much more than bloodshed, the whole country as one man will pit itself against the enemy in accordance with the Imperial Will.’ The Americans read these exchanges. President Truman, meanwhile, was now at Potsdam, and he had learned on 16 July that the atomic bomb had been successfully tested.11

Postwar critics of the US decision to drop the atomic bombs charged, among other things, that Japanese peace feelers were genuine in the summer of 1945, that Hirohito urgently sought to end the war as long as his position was guaranteed, and that he could and would have pulled the cabinet with him to surrender if the Americans had offered him assurances much like those belatedly provided after the a-bombs had fallen and the Russians had entered the war. That is possible—it is difficult, after all, to predict the emotional and psychological impact such a concession would have had on the Emperor and those advising him—but the evidence suggests it is unlikely. For one thing, while the peace faction was riven with disagreement over what conditions should be attached to Japan’s concession, the influential hardliners, including General Anami, Yoshijiro Umezu, and Soemu Toyoda, were united in their determination to prevent capitulation and to fight to the end. (Premier Suzuki waffled between the groups.) The final condition—the guarantee of the emperor—emerged as an option by itself only after the bombs had been dropped; previously it was accompanied by others, including an American promise not to occupy Japan, which was clearly unacceptable to Washington. There remained in Tokyo, despite Sato’s forceful missives from Moscow, fond hope that the Russians might take a hand in negotiations, and might at least refrain from attacking Japan. The Americans listening to the decoded intercepts of Japanese correspondence concerning terms thus heard not a clear, single message but a cacophony of voices, clashing and confusing, insusceptible to careful reading of a sort the Americans were disinclined to do anyway.

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