On September 2, 1945, aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Japan formally surrendered to the Allies, bringing an end to World War II. More than 250 Allied warships lay at anchor in Tokyo Bay. The flags of the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China fluttered above the deck of the Missouri. The Japanese envoys, Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and Gen. Yoshijiro Umezu, signed their names on the Instrument of Surrender. Afterwards, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Commander in the Southwest Pacific and Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, and ten other representatives of Allied nations also signed. As the 20 minute ceremony ended, 450 carrier planes from the Third Fleet passed in massed formation over the Missouri. A few minutes later, Army Air Forces B-29 bombers flew by. This noisily impressive demonstration underscored the power that had brought Japan and the Allies to this time and place. 

The lead up to this historic and necessary moment had been trying. 

By the summer of 1945, the defeat of Japan was a certain and known fate to everyone but the Japanese, for whom surrender would have been deeply shameful and dishonourable. The Japanese navy and air force were destroyed. The Allied naval blockade of Japan and intensive bombing of Japanese cities had left the country and its economy devastated. At the end of June, the Americans captured Okinawa, a Japanese island from which the Allies could launch an invasion of the Japanese home islands. U.S. General Douglas MacArthur was put in charge of the invasion, which was code-named “Operation Olympic,” and set for November 1945. 

The invasion of Japan promised to be the bloodiest seaborne attack of all time, conceivably 10 times as costly as the Normandy invasion in terms of Allied casualties alone. On July 16, a new option became available when the United States secretly detonated the world’s first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. Ten days later, the Allies issued the Potsdam Declaration, demanding the “unconditional surrender of all the Japanese armed forces.” Failure to comply would mean “the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitable the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland.” On July 28, Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki responded by telling the press that his government was “paying no attention” to the allied ultimatum. U.S. President Harry Truman ordered the devastation to proceed, and on August 6, the U.S. B-29 Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing an estimated 80,000 people and fatally wounding thousands more. Thousands of Japanese civilians died while their leaders delayed peace negotiations and their refusal to admit surrender cost many lives. The Japanese people learned of the surrender negotiations for the first time when, on August 14, B-29s showered Tokyo with thousands of leaflets containing translated copies of the Potsdam Declaration. Later that day, the emperor called another meeting of his cabinet and instructed them to accept the Allied terms immediately, explaining, “I cannot endure the thought of letting my people suffer any longer. If the war does not end, the whole nation would be reduced to ashes.”

After the Hiroshima attack, a faction of Japan’s supreme war council favored acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, but the majority resisted unconditional surrender. On August 8, Japan’s desperate situation took another turn for the worse when the USSR declared war against Japan. The next day, Soviet forces attacked in Manchuria rapidly overwhelming Japanese positions there, and a second U.S. atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese coastal city of Nagasaki. 

Signing japanese surrender on board USS Missouri, 2. September 1945

Just before midnight on August 9, Japanese Emperor Hirohito convened the supreme war council. After a long, emotional debate, he backed a proposal by Prime Minister Suzuki in which Japan would accept the Potsdam Declaration “with the understanding that said Declaration does not compromise any demand that prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as the sovereign ruler.” The council obeyed Hirohito’s acceptance of peace, and on August 10, the message was relayed to the United States. 

Early on August 12, the United States answered that “the authority of the emperor and the Japanese government to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers.” After two days of debate about what this statement implied, Emperor Hirohito brushed the nuances in the text aside and declared that peace was preferable to destruction. He ordered the Japanese government to prepare a text accepting surrender. 

The only question remaining now was if Japan’s military leaders would allow the emperor to surrender. Loyalty to the emperor was an absolute in the Japanese military, but so was the refusal to surrender, and now that the two had come into conflict, open rebellion was a possible result. The emperor recorded a message in which he personally accepted the Allied surrender terms, to be broadcast over Japanese radio the following day. This way, everyone in Japan would know that surrender was the emperor’s personal will. Some within the Japanese military actually attempted to steal this recording before it could be broadcast, while others attempted a more general military coup in order to seize power and continue the war. Other elements of the Japanese military remained loyal to the emperor. On August 15, 1945, the emperor’s broadcast announcing Japan’s surrender was heard via radio all over Japan. For most of his subjects, it was the first time that they had ever heard his voice. The emperor explained that “the war situation has not developed necessarily to Japan’s advantage.” Over the next few weeks, Japan and the United States worked out the details of the surrender, and on September 2, 1945, the formal surrender ceremony took place on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri. Supreme Commander MacArthur signed on behalf of the United Nations, declaring, “It is my earnest hope, and indeed the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion, a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past.”

Japanese representatives on board USS Missouri (BB-63) during the surrender ceremonies, 2 September 1945. Standing in front are: Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu (wearing top hat) and General Yoshijiro Umezu, Chief of the Army General Staff. Behind them are three representatives each of the Foreign Ministry, the Army and the Navy. They include, in middle row, left to right: Major General Yatsuji Nagai, Army; Katsuo Okazaki, Foreign Ministry; Rear Admiral Tadatoshi Tomioka, Navy; Toshikazu Kase, Foreign Ministry, and Lieutenant General Suichi Miyakazi, Army. In the the back row, left to right (not all are visible): Rear Admiral Ichiro Yokoyama, Navy; Saburo Ota, Foreign Ministry; Captain Katsuo Shiba, Navy, and Colonel Kaziyi Sugita, Army. (Identities those in second and third rows are from an annotated photograph in Naval History and Heritage Command files.) Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

sources

History. Japan surrenders, bringing an end to WWII. History. A&E Television Networks. 2019. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/japan-surrenders

Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1994. https://www.osti.gov/opennet/manhattan-project-history/Events/1945/surrender.htm

National Archives. Japan Surrenders. Archives.gov. 2017. https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/japanese-surrender-document