Surprising Facts You Might Not Know About Japan’s Surrender


World War II ended 70 years ago with Japan surrendering to the Allied Powers. It was no easy task to get a nation whose culture said “death before dishonor” to surrender, and even though Japan is now one of America’s closest allies and a global economic power, the legacy of this moment in history remains controversial to this day. Should we have dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? To what extent does Japan owe an apology to China, Korea, and other countries its troops occupied and committed horrendous atrocities against their people? Should Japan honor convicted war criminals together with the rest of its war dead?

In spite of the fact that the fallout from Japan’s surrender continues to affect our world today, the story about it that we are told in our history books is an overly simplistic tale: “We dropped the atom bomb, and Japan gave up.” This glosses over so many important events and details that we can’t see the whole picture. For example…

It wasn’t just the atom bomb

Nagasaki atom bomb image from Wikimedia Commons

When the United States built the B-29 Superfortress, it gained the ability to reach Japan by air. No longer would the fact that Japan was an island on the other side of the Pacific Ocean protect it. In November 1944, American bombers began targeting Tokyo itself. Then on March 9, 1945, the United States dropped 2,000 tons of incendiary bombs on Tokyo, setting fire to the millions of mostly-wooden buildings in the city, killing 80,000-130,000 Japanese civilians and leaving the city in ruins.

Still, Japan fought on, but as the Allies advanced its ability to do so was wearing out. By the end of July, the Japanese Navy had practically ceased to exist from a military perspective. Both the Allies and Japan were preparing for an invasion.

That’s when the atomic bombs were dropped, but even then, there was another factor that forced Japan’s hand: the USSR. Up until this point, the Soviets had been neutral in the Pacific theater of the war, but on August 8, two days after the destruction of Hiroshima, the Soviets declared war on Japan. Soviet troops invaded Japanese-occupied Manchuria, easily outmatching the Japanese troops stationed there. It turns out that Japan had been hoping – planning, even – to convince “neutral” Russia to get the Allies to back down and negotiate a peace settlement that would preserve at least some of the gains Japan had made during the war. With this declaration of war, the Japanese leadership lost their last hope of an easy out.

The Emperor risked his life for peace

Hirohito image from Wikimedia Commons

Even with the war clearly lost, there were some in Japan’s military that believed it was better to go down fighting than surrender, especially since the Allies were demanding an unconditional surrender. When the Emperor Hirohito began preparations to accept the Allies’ terms and order the military to lay down its arms, conspirators within the Ministry of War and Imperial Guards drew up a plan to stop the surrender by staging a military coup and seizing power for themselves.

The so-called Kyujo incident began in the evening of August 14, mere hours after the Emperor made the formal decision to surrender, but before the decision had been publicly announced. The conspirators, who told themselves that “defeatists” had “kidnapped” the Emperor and were certain that the other generals would rally to their cause, attacked the Imperial Palace itself. They murdered the commander of one of the Imperial Guards divisions, and then forged fake orders commanding the palace police to let their soldiers through. Once inside the palace, they seized several of the staff and personnel on duty, and began hunting through the palace, room by room, for the Emperor, the recording he had made announcing the surrender, and two trusted palace advisers who knew of their Emperor’s plans. The rebels never found their targets, who were hiding in a secret underground chamber.

Indeed, other soldiers that were in on the conspiracy found that they had a similar lack of luck. The rebels went to seize the Prime Minister at his office, only to discover he was not there. They shot up and burned the building in frustration.

What these mutineers did not know was that all of the highest-ranking military commanders had sworn to carry out the Emperor’s order to surrender, and so were oath-bound to obey. This is why, rather than help the coup, the military moved to suppress it. One of the officials in the palace staff had tipped everyone off that the coup attempt was coming, so everyone had prepared for it. By 3 a.m., the rebels realized that the nearest Army forces were on their way to arrest or kill them. At 5 a.m., the mutiny’s leader, Maj. Kenji Hatanaka, burst into the studios of NHK, Japan’s national radio broadcaster, with a pistol in his hand. He demanded that they put him on the air so that he could explain his actions. Within an hour, he and his men had given up. Hatanaka and the other coup leaders all committed suicide.

In 1968, a film was made about the incident, called Japan’s Longest Day. A remake of the film is currently in the works, according to Variety magazine.

The end of the war didn’t happen all at once – and in one case, it didn’t quite happen at all.

V-J Day celebration image from Wikimedia Commons

The Emperor’s announcement was broadcast on August 15, 1945. In his speech, the first time most Japanese people had ever heard their emperor’s voice, he never actually used the words “defeat” or “surrender”, merely stating that he would accept the Allies’ terms.

This confused some of the soldiers, who continued fighting for several days. The last air battle between the Japanese and American air forces was on August 18. The fighting between Japanese and Soviet forces lasted until August 23. It wasn’t until August 28 that the U.S. occupation of Japan began – with a mere 150 soldiers. Of course, more followed; Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the man assigned as Supreme Allied Commander of the occupation force, arrived on August 30. The official surrender ceremony was held on September 2, 1945 aboard the USS Missouri.

Yet even holding a formal ceremony wasn’t the end of the story. When Germany surrendered earlier that year, they had already lost everything. Adolf Hitler was dead, Soviet troops occupied Berlin, German forces across Europe were giving up by the millions, all that was left to do was sign a piece of paper to make the inevitable official. Japan, on the other hand, still occupied vast swathes of territory in China, southeast Asia, and the Pacific. All of these forces spread across the Asian continent had to surrender, which meant (1) they had to be told the war was over, and (2) the Allies had to send somebody there to accept the surrender.

In China, this was a bit of a problem, since the country was divided between Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists. The United States told the Japanese troops in China to only surrender to the Nationalists, but not every unit listened, in part because often the nearest Nationalist troops were hundreds of miles away and the Communists were right there.

Japanese forces in southeast Asia surrendered in Singapore on September 12. Japanese troops occupying Taiwan surrendered on October 25. Yet even after this, there were quite a few holdouts scattered across remote Pacific islands who either hadn’t heard about the surrender or refused to believe it to be true. Still others decided that instead of surrendering, they would join up with whatever local wars were going on wherever they were stuck, fighting in guerrilla campaigns for various revolutionary movements. These holdouts kept coming out of the woodwork over the course of the next decade, and by 1956 most of them had surrendered or been killed in action. However, two soldiers were found on the island of Guam in May 1960, and a third was captured in 1972. The last confirmed holdout was Teruo Nakamura, who was found in Indonesia in 1974 and surrendered. Still, rumors persisted about others, and in 1991, two Japanese civilian contractors who had joined a Communist guerrilla terrorist group in Malaysia finally returned home after it had signed a peace agreement with Malay authorities.

Of course, once the war was over, it was time to establish peace with Japan. In 1951, the Treaty of San Francisco was signed by 48 countries, officially bringing the war to an end. Well, not quite. Not every country that was at war with Japan in World War II signed the peace treaty, most notably the USSR, China, and India.

India was the easiest of the three for Japan to deal with. It turned out India just wanted to meet Japan one-to-one as equals instead of imposing a treaty at a big conference. India and Japan signed their own peace treaty in 1952. The matter of China was a bit trickier, though. The problem was that since the Communist takeover of mainland China and Chiang Kai-Shek setting up shop in Taiwan, there was some confusion as to which regime represented “China”. Since this was the 1950s and the Cold War was in full swing, Japan initially sided with Chiang’s regime, signing the “Treaty of Taipei” with the “Republic of China” (meaning Taiwan). Then, this happened:

Nixon meets Mao image from the National Archives

And suddenly the world dropped Taiwan like a hot potato and decided to accept the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of China. Japan joined the Beijing bandwagon, first signing a joint communiqué in 1972, then an official peace treaty in 1978.

That just leaves the USSR, and the really big sticking point. On August 18, 1945, after the Emperor’s announcement of surrender, Soviet troops occupied a number of islands just north of Hokkaido. These islands, they claimed, were a part of the Kuril Islands that had once been under Russian rule and that the Allies explicitly agreed to give to the Soviets when the war ended. Japan claimed that these islands were not a part of the Kuril Islands, that they had always been Japanese, and that the Soviet Union was therefore illegally occupying their territory.

In 1956, Japan and the USSR signed an agreement to officially declare that they were no longer at war, and agreed that they should conclude a peace treaty to resolve the dispute. This peace treaty never came. To this day, no peace treaty has ever been signed between Russia and Japan, who still dispute those islands. At least in that sense, it seems World War II never really ended after all.