The ironical and poetic conclusion of Japan’s war was that the force of the sun, as Truman put it, would deal the final blow to the people led by the descendent of Amaterasu, the sun goddess. However, upon further study, this widely accepted historical reality twists in an unexpected manner: the decisive blow may have been dealt by Big Bear’s claws – the Soviet Union.
Far from attempting a revisionist account of history, the present article seeks to emphasize a little-known fact from the hectic days when Imperial Japan’s leaders were running around their offices trying to get their country a honorable retreat.
It seems that Japan’s decision to surrender was greatly impacted as much by the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as by the unforeseen event that took place on August 9th, 1945: The Soviet Union’s decision to declare war on Japan and enter Manchukuo. This thesis was initially proposed by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa in his exceptional 2005 book, ‘Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan’. However, the present article will focus more on the accounts of Japanese officials that witnessed the confusion that took over Imperial Japan’s ministries during these vital days prior to Nagasaki, accounts mostly based on Japan’s the Pacific War Research Society ‘Japan’s longest day’.
As such, it is useful to know that state-of-mind of Japanese militaries prior to the atomic bombings. Edward Drea’s 1992 book, ‘MacArthur’s Ultra: Codebreaking and the War Against Japan’, shared a ground-breaking report on how the Allied intelligence managed to track the Japanese military’s buildup in Kyushu. This suggested that the Japanese were determined to continue fighting until the very end. Furthermore, given the large following of the ‘orthodox’ argument of the atomic bomb, many more suggest the same. This account perfectly fits the mindset of the Japanese soldiers who closely followed the model of the bushido, and who were more than willing to sacrifice their lives in kamikaze attacks. In support of this observation, it must be noted that efforts to overthrow the government and continue the war were realized by rogue soldiers until the last minute before the Emperor broadcasted Japan’s surrender.
Still. On the 27th of July, 1945, news reached Tokyo that a declaration has been signed at Potsdam by the United States, Great Britain, and China, and the object of the declaration was an ultimatum addressed to Japanese Armed Forces to surrender unconditionally. While MOFA state-secretary, Shunichi Matsumoto, was quite thrilled to draft a preliminary response, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shigenori Togo, immediately understood that the declaration in its current form could not be accepted by the Imperial Army, and thus, if Japan was to accept it, she risked plunging into a civil war. Nonetheless, when compared with the wording used in the first Cairo Declaration, which urged ‘Japan’ to surrender unconditionally, the current one was directed at the Armed Forces, which suggested a softer tone. According to Japan’s the Pacific War Research Society, this adjustment in wording convinced Togo that there was room for negotiation.
Then and there, a race against the clock to win over the ‘good offices’ of the Soviet Union had started. The main objective was to get the Soviets to mediate the conditions of surrender and have the Allied Powers accept their two most important conditions. First and foremost, keep the Imperial structure and, secondly, to have their troops disarmed by Japanese militaries, not foreign occupants. According to this plan, Japan was going to continue fighting until she could obtain a promise that these conditions were to be met(having the Soviet Union mediate the whole process). Togo managed to convince the Prime Minister, Kantaro Suzuki, that the best course of action was to ignore (mokusatu) the Potsdam Declaration for the time being and wait for an answer from Moscow.
Then again, Japanese-Soviet relations during the Second World War were indeed strained, as they were carrying the burden left by the Russo-Japanese war from 1904-05 (in its aftermath large public campaigns of hate speech and propaganda were launched in both countries). Nonetheless, the Soviet-Japanese Border War (1932-39) offered a blessing in disguise, as far the World War went, thought the Japanese: The Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact was signed. According to this pact, during the World War II hostilities, the two states could freely attack each other’s allies, but not each other. This, of course, did not mean that Japan fully trusted the Soviet Union. In fact, Imperial troops were constantly keeping their eyes on Soviet activity to the East of Manchuria, and according to their estimates, they had nothing to fear until the spring of 1946. However, little did they know that at Teheran U.S.S.R. has promised the Allies to declare war on Japan, once Germany was defeated, and that at Yalta Stalin received generous concessions in the Far East as long as he would enterthe war with Japan.
Furthermore, previous Japanese efforts to have the U.S.S.R. support her cause bear no fruit. Kremlin ignored the Emperor’s initiative to send Prince Konoye to Moscow as a special representative, and according to Japan’s Ambassador to Moscow,Naotake Sato, there was no way to convince the Soviets to argue on their behalf or mediate. Togo asked him to follow instructions nonetheless. Despite knowing that such endeavour may lead nowhere, Togo also knew that the Japanese Military would not accept direct negotiations with the Americans or British. But even the military, lead by War Minister, Korechika Anami, was not so optimistic about the Soviet Union. Still, the Supreme Council and the Emperor himself continued to put their hopes in U.S.S.R.’s answer.
On August 6th, 1945, they received an answer from the United States. The Japanese witnessed a destructive power that went beyond the imagination of any mad scientist, and their first reaction was to wait. Soon, on August 8th, the Emperor and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, agreed that Japan was facing total destruction and that hostilities must be stopped as soon as possible. At the same time, at Moscow, Sato was invited in Vyacheslav Molotov’s office. As stated by Japan’s the Pacific War Research Society, the Japanese Ambassador tried to adopt a friendly demeanour, but his attempt was cut short – ‘(…) the Soviet Government declares that from tomorrow, that is from Aug. 9, the Soviet Government will consider itself to be at war with Japan.’
Up until this point, the Supreme Council entertained the idea of continuing the war in hopes of a better agreement. Yet, this final slap convinced almost all Cabinet members that if they were not to accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, Japan was most certainly facing total destruction. The Soviet decision is especially significant, since being at war with the Soviet Union had a discouraging effect on dissenting military groups within Japan as well. The strategic coordination of the Allied Forces, and the smart decision to encourage U.S.S.R. to declare war at the perfect time, caught the fierce Imperial Japan in a check-mate.
The irony of this account lies in the fact that, up to this day, the Russian Federation remains the only state that is still officially at war with Japan.