wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Ian Buruma

Inventing Japan

Suicide was the sacrifice demanded of all Japanese soldiers who were captured by the enemy. But it was demanded of civilians, too. By 1944, Japanese leaders knew that the war could not be won by conventional means, but diehards maintained that even if all Japanese had to die, the kokutai would survive forever. There could be no surrender. Thus an ancient privilege of the samurai caste became a national duty. When the Americans landed on Saipan, women and children were made to jump off the cliffs. Up to 170,000 civilians died in Okinawa. Thousands were driven into American machine-gun fire as cover for Japanese troops. Others were forced to make room in hiding places for soldiers by killing themselves and their families with razors, knives, or, if necessary, their bare hands. Hundreds of thousands more perished in the man-made firestorms of Tokyo, Osaka, or Fukuoka, and still Japan's Gotterdammerung was being blamed by the ruling elite on the insufficient spirit and loyalty of ordinary citizens.

Schoolchildren were ordered to write letters to Japanese soldiers at the front, telling them to 'die gloriously.' In 1945, military suicide tactics actually became national policy. The Divine Wind Special Attack Units were the brainchild of Admiral Onishi Takijiro, who committed suicide himself after Japan's defeat. Young men, often from the best universities, were pressured into volunteering for this last show of Japanese spirit. Submarines and fighter planes were constructed especially for the suicide missions. In fact, even though only one in three suicide fighters actually hit an American target, the tactic was damaging to U.S. ships and cost many lives. But even Admiral Onishi cannot have seriously thought it would win the war. He may have hoped that such tactics would, in the words of one elder statesman, develop a more 'advantageous war situation,' forcing the enemy to come to terms. The desired effect was certainly deadly, but it was also theatrical: a peculiar idea of Japaneseness, whose seeds were sown in the late Edo period but which became a national pathology in the late 1930s, had turned from outward aggression to pure self-destruction.

There was really just one man who could have put an earlier end to all this misery, and that was the emperor himself. Any decision by his war cabinet had to be unanimous; otherwise the government would fall. And on the all-important matter of ending the war, Hirohito's ministers were far from unanimous. In May 1945, Truman reiterated the Allied position that Japan surrender without conditions, after which the Allies would replace the militarist regime with a democratic government. Much against the wishes of Japan experts in the State Department, including the former ambassador to Tokyo, Joseph Grew, no promise was made to protect the imperial throne. Since the throne was the holiest shrine of the kokutai. the emperor was no more keen to accept an unconditional surrender than were his generals.

In June 1945, the imperial palace in Tokyo was hit by a bomb. Perhaps it was this that helped to concentrate the emperor's mind, or perhaps it was worrying reports that his subjects were beginning to get restless. The emperor had been startled by the lack of reverence—indeed, the air of almost hostile indifference—of the bombed-out people when he was whisked through the blackened ruins of central Tokyo. By this time the capital, as well as almost every other major city in Japan, was reduced to heaps of rubble. There was no sign of a civilian rebellion as yet, but the possibility could not be dismissed. Prince Konoe, the former prime minister, warned darkly of a communist revolution that would be an even greater threat to the kokutai than an Allied victory.

So the emperor decided to sue for peace without endangering his own divine right to rule. Overtures were made to Stalin, to see whether the Soviets could broker a peace. But Japanese offers were too vague and had come too late. The Soviets were not interested. Even as envoys went back and forth to Moscow, preparations were made for a fight to the end. What was left of the Japanese military industry cranked up production of human torpedoes, suicide planes, human rocket bombs, and special 'crash boats' for a final clash to the death with the invaders.

At the Potsdam Conference in July, Truman told Stalin about his 'new weapon of unusual destructive force.' Stalin already knew this from his spies, so he smiled his crocodile smile and wished the Americans good luck with it. The Potsdam Proclamation, issued by Truman, Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek, demanded an unconditional surrender. Still, no guarantees were given about the preservation of the throne, but the Allies promised to install a government 'in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people.' Some Japanese, such as Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori, realized this was the best Japan could hope for. To have insisted on accepting Allied terms, however, could have landed him and his like-minded colleagues in jail as 'defeatists.' The military supreme command was still adamant to persevere to the end. Prime Minister Suzuki Kantaro, a retired admiral, did what Japanese leaders had done so often before: he let things drift. The Potsdam Proclamation was ignored, Japanese preparations for a final battle continued, and on August 6 Truman unleashed his special weapon on the city of Hiroshima. In a flash, one hundred thousand, or possibly more, men, women, and children died. Two days later. Soviet troops invaded Manchukuo. Three days after the bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki was pulverized, too.

That night, after the news of the Nagasaki bombing had struck home, the emperor convened a meeting inside a stifling underground bunker with his Supreme War Leadership Council. The six members of the council sweated in their dress uniforms, while the emperor, sitting stiffly in front of a gilded screen, listened to their arguments. If consensus could not be reached on how to proceed, the government would fall and many more people would die. What followed was the grotesque culmination of a politics based on mystical dogma. All members agreed on one thing, the preservation of the kokutai. There was no agreement, however, on the meaning of that elusive thing. Foreign Minister Togo saw the imperial institution in terms of a secular, constitutional monarchy, an organ of state, as defined by the eminent Taisho-era jurist Minobe Tatsukichi. But his army and navy colleagues regarded the emperor's prerogatives in a divine light. His right to rule could not be compromised. Furthermore, the army minister would not accept an Allied occupation of Japan, let alone a war crimes tribunal.

So it had come down to this. Now that Japan faced total destruction after half a century of wars, it was down to a fundamental question about the definition of the Japanese polity. Millions of American, Chinese, European, Southeast Asian, and Japanese lives hinged on it. Admiral Suzuki, a vague Japanese consensus seeker of the old school, turned to the emperor to decide. The emperor still fretted about the sacred mystique of his office. If the enemy were to land near Ise Bay, they would be able to take over two of the most important Shinto shrines, where the sacred imperial regalia were kept. Under these circumstances, he later remembered thinking, protection of the kokutai would be difficult. He made the 'sacred judgment' that Allied terms should be accepted.

On August 15, millions of Japanese, many of them sobbing on their knees, heard the emperor's voice for the first time, on the radio. Many could barely understand his formal court language. The contents of his surrender speech were couched in terms similar to those of the Great East Asia propaganda. It was not just to stop further use of 'a new and most cruel bomb' that he had decided Japan should surrender, but 'to pave the way for a grand peace for all generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.'

The emperor left much unsaid. He did not mention the threat of a Soviet invasion or his anxieties about a rebellion among his own people. Like the war itself, its ending was seen by many Japanese as divine providence. But such providence too can be manipulated. Admiral Yonai, a member of the Supreme War Leadership Council, gave a candid account on August 12, 1945: 'I think the term is perhaps inappropriate, but the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war are, in a sense, gifts from the gods. This way we don't have to say that we quit the war because of domestic circumstances.'