Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Japan's Longest Day



When I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 2009 I was touched by the words and images with which it recalled the tragedy of the atomic bombing. After all, who wouldn’t be?


Beyond this, I was impressed with its emphasis on a hope for peace. Despite the Memorial's horrifying account of death and suffering, it offers no suggestion that one country (ours) was to blame for the civilian deaths. Whether this reflects Japanese courtesy and indirectness or an intentional decision to focus on universal principles, I don’t know, but for me it added to the exhibit's emotional power. 



There are other opinions. Susan Southard, in a recent New York Times story on “Nagasaki, the Forgotten City,” cites survivors of the Nagasaki bombing who deeply resent the slaughter brought about by America’s second atomic bomb, insisting that it did not help end the war. Both bombings are, to say the least, controversial, but in the case of the Nagasaki bombing, there is good evidence that it did not contribute to the Japanese decision to surrender. Actually, a decision to surrender had been reached by the key figures in the Japanese government before the Nagasaki bombing, but they were unable to go public with it at the time. Before they could formalize their acceptance of the Allies' demands, they had to neutralize certain recalcitrant elements in the military who were determined to fight on, unconcerned that one Japanese city after another might be pulverized into atom ash.



The struggle between the no-surrender fanatics and the civilian government pushed Japan perilously close to suicidal chaos as a 1965 study revealed. This study by a group of Japanese scholars, published under the title Japan’s Longest Day, describes the virtual kidnapping of Emperor Hirohito by militant die-hards and their attempts to block the civilian government’s plan to ensure their nation’s survival by seeking peace. According to this account, “Japan’s final struggle was not against the enemy but against herself…” Because, in August of 1945, “The still vigorous Imperial Army would admit neither defeat nor surrender—and it continued to insist that it, and it alone, knew what was best for the country.”



It might be said that the hero of the day was General Korechika Anami, the War Minister. Anami personally believed that Japan should fight fanatically on, even in the face of disaster, but, once Emperor Hirohito had decided on surrender, Anami demurred out of devotion to him.



The Emperor made a recording of his surrender announcement on August 14 that was to be broadcast to the entire Japanese population at noon on the following day. All Japanese were instructed to listen to the Emperor’s speech, though they were not told what he would say.



Once the Emperor’s speech was on vinyl, members of the imperial staff carefully hid the recording in the palace, knowing that fanatic die-hards from the military would want to seize it and keep it from the airwaves. 

The most relentlessly aggressive of these die-hards was Major Kenji Hatanaka. Knowing that the Emperor had made a prerecorded speech, he plotted to seize control of both the Emperor and the recording. He believed that Emperor Hirohito could be convinced to reverse his decision and support the no-surrender faction, at which point the army would commit itself to the final struggle.



Major Hatanaka believed that the Emperor had agreed to peace only because he had been surrounded by cowardly civilian leaders who had talked him into it. If Hirohito were to reverse himself, he thought, everything would be different. Japan would fight on. The destruction of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were of little concern to Major Hatanaka, except as evidence of the evil of Japan’s enemies. As Hatanaka’s accomplice, Lieutenant Colonel Jiro Shiizaki declared, “Heaven will reward our loyalty to our Emperor and our country. We are convinced of that.”



In 1967 Japan’s Longest Day was made into a film, a remarkable piece of work that portrays the August 14-15 struggle in vivid and historically accurate detail.* As it makes clear, there were some leaders in Tokyo to whom the atomic bombings were irrelevant. They believed not only that the Japanese military should fight on, but that Japanese civilians should pitch in as well, using whatever tools or weapons they could lay their hands on to resist the inevitable American invasion.



At first the conspirators’ plot  unfolded as planned. Shortly after midnight on August 14, Hatanaka and Shiizaki gained control of the Imperial Guard, whose duty was to protect the Emperor. Since the Commander of the Guards refused to cooperate, they shot him, and, when an aide rushed to the Commander’s defense, Shiizaki decapitated him with his officer’s sword.



The conspirators put the Emperor under what amounted to house arrest and then dispatched the Imperial Guards to ransack the innermost chambers of the palace in search of the surrender recording.



In the meantime, the Yokohama Guards joined the uprising and marched into Tokyo in search of the Prime Minister with the aim of killing him. When they arrived at his official residence, they set up machine guns and began blasting away at the building. Finally, realizing he had gone to his private residence, they headed off to track him down. Not finding him at home, they burned it to the ground. The Prime Minister managed to escape before they arrived, but only by the skin of his teeth.



Then, in an airfield just outside Tokyo, a Navy Captain launched a flight of kamikazes against American forces, vowing that the Navy would fight on even if the Army surrendered. He wrote a cable that included the words, “Japan is sacred and indestructible. If we unite for action, we will destroy the enemy. Of that there can be no doubt whatsoever.”



With the Emperor in the conspirators’ hands and his recorded speech somewhere under their noses (though they were having trouble finding it), it seemed that the no-surrender faction would have its way. But there was a hitch. War Minister Korechika Anami, having told the Emperor he would support the peace resolution, refused to join the conspiracy. This was a crushing blow, since his prestige was crucial to the entire scheme. Without his support, the army would not rise up. 

Major Hatanaka had dispatched Anami’s brother-in-law to plead with the War Minister to get on board with the plot, but Anami adamantly refused. Instead, he downed cup after cup of sake throughout the night, until, in the early morning hours of August 15, still sober despite the sake, and with an air of solemn dignity he committed seppuku with a dagger to his gut. He left behind two sheets of heavy Japanese paper, on one of which was a short poem honoring the Emperor, and on the other this: “For my supreme crime, I beg forgiveness through the act of death.”





                     War Minister Korechika Anami



Anami is played in the film by the great Toshiro Mifune, who brings dramatic intensity to this scene.



Toshiro Mifune in a Poster for "Japan's Longest Day"



Though Major Hatanaka’s men had searched all night for the Emperor’s prerecorded surrender announcement, they had failed to find it. When it became clear that the Army was not going to rise up despite the conspirators’ control of the Imperial Palace and the Emperor, Hatanaka proceeded to the Japan Broadcasting Corporation’s main station with the aim of sending out a message to the people of Japan, telling them to “refuse to accept the surrender that had been forced on them by the traitors around the Emperor…”



At the station, announcer Morio Tateno refused to allow Hatanaka to make his broadcast, even after the latter drew his pistol and pointed it menacingly at Tateno’s forehead.


    From The Longest Day - Hatanaka at the Studio


Ultimately, as the studio was taken over by troops loyal to the Emperor, Hatanaka gave up trying to broadcast his message. He and Shiizaki then went outside, mounted a motorcycle and a horse, respectively, and began riding through Tokyo tossing out leaflets encouraging citizens to refuse to surrender and to rise up against the traitors. They then returned to the gate of the Imperial Palace and, on the grounds outside, each committed suicide with a gunshot to the head. Shortly thereafter, at noon on August 15, the Emperor’s prerecorded message was broadcast to the public. This was the first time ordinary Japanese citizens had heard their Emperor’s voice, and virtually all of them did hear it, given that they had been instructed beforehand to pay careful attention. So ended Japan’s Longest Day.



     Listening to Emperor Hirohito, August 15, 1945




Clearly, the actions of Hatanaka and the other conspirators were unaffected by the Nagasaki bombing, and in that regard it can be said to have been entirely unnecessary. Of course, Americans could not have been aware of the struggle that was going on between the militarists and the civilians in the Japanese government. And from the American public’s point of view, the Japanese started the war and they got everything they deserved - an understandable sentiment given the hostile spirit of wartime, but one that does not stand up well after a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.



                            The Park

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*A final note: a remake of The Longest Day has just come out in Japan, just in time for the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. The new film is titled The Emperor in August. I look forward to seeing it.