On 6 August 1945 an American aircraft dropped
the first atomic bomb on the Japanese military base of Hiroshima, killing between 75,000 and 100,000 people and obliterating the city. The Japanese made no immediate response. Three days later a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki causing comparable devastation. Shortly after, Emperor Hirohito of Japan broke imperial tradition by broadcasting a speech to his people announcing Japan’s surrender in World War II.
America had been at war with Japan since the Japanese attack on the US Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941. Throughout their battles with the Americans, the Japanese demonstrated their commitment to death rather than surrender (which they considered dishonourable). Despite heavy bombing ofTokyo in March 1945, in which 83,000 Japanese civilians died, the Japanese continued to fight. Although the Americans were gradually winning the war they knew that there would be huge allied losses in trying to capture Japan.
President Truman, who had succeeded Roosevelt on his death in April 1945, argued that using the atomic bomb would prevent the massive loss of allied soldiers’ lives, as well as saving the lives of thousands of captured soldiers and civilians being used as slave labour or dying of disease and starvation in Japanese prisons of war. Truman wanted to beat Japan without Russia’s help and at the Potsdam Conference on 24 July mentioned only briefly to Stalin that the US had ‘a new weapon of unusual destructive force’. In early August the bombs were dropped, forcing the Japanese to surrender, and the world entered a new phase of history.
Born in 1901, Michinomiya Hirohito was the 124th Emperor of Japan and the first Japanese Crown Prince to travel abroad when he visited Europe in 1921. As a young man he began a lifelong interest in marine biology and became a respected authority on the subject. Hirohito became Emperor in 1926 and opposed Japan’s drift towards war through the invasion of Manchuria and alliance with Germany throughout the 1930s.
Although the Japanese constitution gave him supreme authority (the Japanese Emperor was traditionally believed to be divine), in reality Hirohito was only able to ratify policies and was powerless against the Japanese army’s increasing aggression.
In 1945 when Japanese leaders were divided between surrendering or fighting a desperate defence of their islands, Hirohito supported those urging peace.
After his broadcast accepting the Potsdam Declaration a new constitution was drafted by the occupying US forces and the Emperor’s powers were entirely removed. Hirohito was allowed to keep his throne but in 1946 made a statement disclaiming his divinity. Increasingly, the Japanese royal family made attempts to become closer to its people and, in 1958, Hirohito’s son married a commoner. In 1972 Hirohito visited Europe and briefly met President Nixon in Alaska. He made an official visit to the US in 1975. Emperor Hirohito died in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo in 1989 after a long illness.
To our good and loyal subjects. After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in our empire today, we have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.
We have ordered our Government to communicate to the Governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that our empire accepts the provisions of their joint declaration.
To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations as well as the security and well-being of our subjects is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by our imperial ancestors and which we lay close to the heart.
Indeed, we declared war on America and Britain out of our sincere desire to ensure Japan’s self-preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandisement.
But now the war has lasted for nearly four years. Despite the best that has been done by everyone – the gallant fighting of our military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of our servants of the State and the devoted service of our 100 million people – the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.
Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilisation.
Such being the case, how are we to save the millions of our subjects, nor to atone ourselves before the hallowed spirits of our imperial ancestors? This is the reason why we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the joint declaration of the powers.
‘We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come.’
We cannot but express the deepest sense of regret to our allied nations of East Asia, who have consistently cooperated with the empire toward the emancipation of East Asia.
The thought of those officers and men as well as others who have fallen in the fields of battle, those who died at their posts of duty, or those who met with untimely death and all their bereaved families, pains our heart night and day.
The welfare of the wounded and the war sufferers, and of those who lost their homes and livelihood, are the object of our profound solicitude. The hardships and sufferings to which our nation is to be subjected hereafter will certainly be great.
We are keenly aware of the inmost feelings of all of you, our subjects. However, it is according to the dictates of time and fate that we have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable. Having been able to save and maintain the structure of the Imperial State, we are always with you, our good and loyal subjects, relying upon your sincerity and integrity.
Beware most strictly of any outbursts of emotion that may engender needless complications, or any fraternal contention and strife that may create confusion, lead you astray and cause you to lose the confidence of the world.
Let the entire nation continue as one family from generation to generation, ever firm in its faith of the imperishableness of its divine land, and mindful of its heavy burden of responsibilities, and the long road before it. Unite your total strength to be devoted to the construction for the future. Cultivate the ways of rectitude, nobility of spirit, and work with resolution so that you may enhance the innate glory of the Imperial State and keep pace with the progress of the world.
On 6 August 1945 an American aircraft dropped