A brief review of the “explosive” events that lead to the unconditional surrender of Japan in World War II.
On March 11, 2011, the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan causes massive devastation, and the ensuing tsunami decimates the Tōhoku region of northeastern Honshu. On top of the already-horrific destruction and loss of life, the natural disaster also gives rise to a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The Fukushima disaster is considered the second-worst nuclear disaster in history, forcing the relocation of over 100,000 people.
During the emergency, each of the three operational nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant shut down successfully, but the backup power and cooling systems failed. As a result, residual heat caused fuel rods in all three reactors to partially melt down. As crews searched the rubble for survivors and the nation reeled from the earthquake and ensuing tsunami, the nuclear disaster unfolded over the course of several days. Reactors 1 and 3 exploded on March 12 and 14, respectively, prompting the government to evacuate everyone within a 20km radius. Another explosion in the building housing Reactor 2 on March 15 released even more radiation, and thousands of people left their homes as workers used helicopters, water cannons and seawater pumps to try to cool the overheating facility.
The full extent of the fallout became apparent over the ensuing months, with the government eventually evacuating all residents within a 30km radius of the plant. No deaths were initially attributed to the incident, although this was of little comfort to the 154,000 who were evacuated or the loved ones of the more than 18,000 people who lost their lives as a result of the earthquake and tsunami. Some have suggested that such a large evacuation was not necessary, as radiation levels appear to have dropped below what was expected in the immediate wake of the accident.
Though many were able to return to their homes, a 371-square-kilometer “difficult-to-return zone” remains evacuated as of 2021, and the true toll may not be known for decades. In 2018, the government announced that former plant worker who had served during the meltdown was the first death officially attributed to radiation from the disaster, which today is considered second only to Chernobyl in the ranking of infamous nuclear incidents.
READ MORE: History’s Worst Nuclear Disasters
On April 30, 2019, Japan’s 85-year-old Emperor Akihito steps down from the throne, becoming the first Japanese monarch to abdicate in over 200 years.
Akihito was born on December 23, 1933, the eldest son of Emperor Hirohito, who had ruled Japan since 1926. Akihito was born two years before the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the precursor to imperial Japan’s involvement in World War II. After World War II, as part of a sweeping set of reforms, the country adopted a new Western-style constitution, and the monarchy became purely symbolic (such as in England). Nevertheless, Akihito ascended to the throne after his father’s death in 1989.
While he had no political power, Akihito became an immensely popular figure in Japan. Unlike his father, who rarely appeared before the public, Akihito worked to move the imperial family “closer to the people.” He and his wife, Empress Michiko, made official visits to 18 countries and to all 47 Japanese Prefectures. He offered comfort after earthquakes, tsunamis and other tragedies, such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. A staunch pacifist, he repeatedly expressed remorse for Japan’s actions during World War II.
Citing poor health, the emperor announced his desire to step down in 2016. No emperor had abdicated since 1817. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, on April 30, 2019. A new Japanese imperial era, Reiwa, was officially established.
Several packages of deadly sarin gas are set off in the Tokyo subway system killing twelve people and injuring over 5,000 on March 20, 1995. Sarin gas was invented by the Nazis and is one of the most lethal nerve gases known to man. Tokyo police quickly learned who had planted the chemical weapons and began tracking the terrorists down. Thousands of checkpoints were set up across the nation in the massive dragnet.
The gas attack was instituted by the Aum Shinrikyo (which means Supreme Truth) cult. The Supreme Truth had thousands of followers all over Japan who believed in their doomsday prophecies. Because it claimed the personal assets of new cult members, the Supreme Truth had well over a billion dollars stashed away. Shoko Asahara, a forty-year-old blind man, was the leader of the cult. Asahara had long hair and a long beard, wore bright robes, and oftenmeditated while sittingon satin pillows. His books included claims that he was the second coming of Jesus Christ and that he had the ability to travel through time.
Japanese authorities raided the Supreme Truth compounds across the country, but could not find Asahara. At one camp at the base of Mt. Fuji, police found tons of the chemicals used to produce sarin gas. They also found plans to buy nuclear weapons from the Russians. The police eventually located Hideo Murai, one of the cult’s other top leaders, but when he was being taken into custody he was stabbed to death by an assassin who blamed Murai for the poison gas attack.
Shortly after, the police found a hidden basement at the Mt. Fuji compound where other cult leaders were holed up, including Masami Tsuchiya, a chemist who admitted making the sarin gas. Still, Asahara remained at large and the Supreme Truth made four more gas attacks on the subways, injuring hundreds more. Another potential deadly chemical bomb was defused in a subway restroom.The nation’s top police officer was shot by a masked terrorist, adding to the country’s unrest.
Finally on May 16, Asahara was found in yet another secret room of the Mt. Fuji compound and arrested. Along with scores of the other Supreme Truth leaders, Asahara was charged with murder. Their doomsday predictions had finally come true, albeit on a much smaller and more personal scale than they had envisioned.
READ MORE: 5 20th Century Cult Leaders
On January 14, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issues Presidential Proclamation No. 2537, requiring aliens from World War II-enemy countries—Italy, Germany and Japan—to register with the United States Department of Justice. Registered persons were then issued a Certificate of Identification for Aliens of Enemy Nationality. A follow-up to the Alien Registration Act of 1940, Proclamation No. 2537 facilitated the beginning of full-scale internment of Japanese Americans the following month.
While most Americans expected the U.S. to enter the war, presumably in Europe or the Philippines, the nation was shocked to hear of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In the wake of the bombing, the West Coast appeared particularly vulnerable to another Japanese military offensive. A large population of Japanese Americans inhabited the western states and American military analysts feared some would conduct acts of sabotage on west-coast defense and agricultural industries.
Official relations between the governments of Japan and the United States had soured in the 1930s when Japan began its military conquest of Chinese territory. China, weakened by a civil war between nationalists and communists, represented an important strategic relationship for both the U.S. and Japan. Japan desperately needed China’s raw materials in order to continue its program of modernization. The U.S. needed a democratic Chinese government to counter both Japanese military expansion in the Pacific and the spread of communism in Asia. Liberal Japanese resented American anti-Japanese policies, particularly in California, where exclusionary laws were passed to prevent Japanese Americans from competing with U.S. citizens in the agricultural industry. In spite of these tensions, a 1941 federal report requested by Roosevelt indicated that more than 90 percent of Japanese Americans were considered loyal citizens. Nevertheless, under increasing pressure from agricultural associations, military advisors and influential California politicians, Roosevelt agreed to begin the necessary steps for possible internment of the Japanese-American population.
Ostensibly issued in the interest of national security, Proclamation No. 2537 permitted the arrest, detention and internment of enemy aliens who violated restricted areas, such as ports, water treatment plants or even areas prone to brush fires, for the duration of the war. A month later, a reluctant but resigned Roosevelt signed the War Department’s blanket Executive Order 9066, which authorized the physical removal of all Japanese Americans into internment camps.
READ MORE: Life in WWII Japanese Internment Camps
Japanese troops land in Hong Kong on December 18, 1941, and slaughter ensues.
A week of air raids over Hong Kong, a British crown colony, was followed up on December 17 with a visit paid by Japanese envoys to Sir Mark Young, the British governor of Hong Kong. The envoys’ message was simple: The British garrison there should simply surrender to the Japanese—resistance was futile. The envoys were sent home with the following retort: “The governor and commander in chief of Hong Kong declines absolutely to enter into negotiations for the surrender of Hong Kong…”
The first wave of Japanese troops landed in Hong Kong with artillery fire for cover and the following order from their commander: “Take no prisoners.” Upon overrunning a volunteer antiaircraft battery, the Japanese invaders roped together the captured soldiers and proceeded to bayonet them to death. Even those who offered no resistance, such as the Royal Medical Corps, were led up a hill and killed.
The Japanese quickly took control of key reservoirs, threatening the British and Chinese inhabitants with a slow death by thirst. The Brits finally surrendered control of Hong Kong on Christmas Day.
The War Powers Act was passed by Congress on the same day, authorizing the president to initiate and terminate defense contracts, reconfigure government agencies for wartime priorities, and regulate the freezing of foreign assets. It also permitted him to censor all communications coming in and leaving the country.
FDR appointed the executive news director of the Associated Press, Byron Price, as director of censorship. Although invested with the awesome power to restrict and withhold news, Price took no extreme measures, allowing news outlets and radio stations to self-censor, which they did. Most top secret information, including the construction of the atom bomb, remained just that.
The most extreme use of the censorship law seems to have been the restriction of the free flow of “girlie” magazines to servicemen—including Esquire, which the Post Office considered obscene for its occasional saucy cartoons and pinups. Esquire took the Post Office to court, and after three years the Supreme Court ultimately sided with the magazine.
In Tokyo, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, representing the U.S. government, signs the Treaty of Kanagawa with the Japanese government, opening the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to American trade and permitting the establishment of a U.S. consulate in Japan.
In July 1853, Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay with a squadron of four U.S. vessels. For a time, Japanese officials refused to speak with Perry, but eventually they accepted letters from U.S. President Millard Fillmore, making the United States the first Western nation to establish relations with Japan since it was declared closed to foreigners in 1683.
After giving Japan time to consider the establishment of external relations, Perry returned to Tokyo in March 1854, and on March 31 signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, which opened Japan to trade with the United States, and thus the West. In April 1860, the first Japanese diplomats to visit a foreign power reached Washington, D.C., and remained in the U.S. capital for several weeks discussing expansion of trade with the United States.
On August 6, 1945, the United States becomes the first and only nation to use atomic weaponry during wartime when it drops an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Approximately 80,000 people are killed as a direct result of the blast, and another 35,000 are injured. At least another 60,000 would be dead by the end of the year from the effects of the fallout.
Since 1940, the United States had been working on developing an atomic weapon, after having been warned that Nazi Germany was already conducting research into nuclear weapons. By the time the United States conducted the first successful test (an atomic bomb was exploded in the desert in New Mexico in July 1945), Germany had already been defeated. The war against Japan in the Pacific, however, continued to rage. President Harry S. Truman, warned by some of his advisers that any attempt to invade Japan would result in horrific American casualties, ordered that the new weapon be used to bring the war to a speedy end.
On August 6, 1945, the American bomber Enola Gay dropped a five-ton bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. A blast equivalent to the power of 15,000 tons of TNT reduced four square miles of the city to ruins and immediately killed 80,000 people. Tens of thousands more died in the following weeks from wounds and radiation poisoning. Three days later, another bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, killing nearly 40,000 more people. A few days later, Japan announced its surrender.
” data-full-height=”775″ data-full-src=”https://www.history.com/.image/c_limit%2Ccs_srgb%2Cfl_progressive%2Ch_2000%2Cq_auto:good%2Cw_2000/MTU3ODc4NjAwODI5OTcwMTQz/image-placeholder-title.jpg” data-full-width=”1024″ data-image-id=”ci0230e5c1d05926df” data-image-slug=”Image placeholder title” data-public-id=”MTU3ODc4NjAwODI5OTcwMTQz” data-source-name=”Bettmann/Getty Images” data-title=”Crew of the Enola Gay”>
” data-full-height=”2000″ data-full-src=”https://www.history.com/.image/c_limit%2Ccs_srgb%2Cfl_progressive%2Ch_2000%2Cq_auto:good%2Cw_2000/MTYwNjczNDg4MjUwNjExMjQ2/hiroshima-bombing-gettyimages-568884199.jpg” data-full-width=”1336″ data-image-id=”ci023ad3afe000262e” data-image-slug=”Hiroshima Bombing-GettyImages-568884199″ data-public-id=”MTYwNjczNDg4MjUwNjExMjQ2″ data-source-name=”Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images”>
” data-full-height=”1470″ data-full-src=”https://www.history.com/.image/c_limit%2Ccs_srgb%2Cfl_progressive%2Ch_2000%2Cq_auto:good%2Cw_2000/MTYwNjczNzMxOTkwMDcwODMw/hiroshima-gettyimages-78964772.jpg” data-full-width=”2000″ data-image-id=”ci023ad3e89000262e” data-image-slug=”Hiroshima-GettyImages-78964772″ data-public-id=”MTYwNjczNzMxOTkwMDcwODMw” data-source-name=”Popperfoto/Getty Images” data-title=”Utter Destruction in Hiroshima”>
” data-full-height=”2000″ data-full-src=”https://www.history.com/.image/c_limit%2Ccs_srgb%2Cfl_progressive%2Ch_2000%2Cq_auto:good%2Cw_2000/MTYwNjczNzMxOTkwMDA1Mjk0/hiroshima-gettyimages-50772770.jpg” data-full-width=”1572″ data-image-id=”ci023ad3e8a000262e” data-image-slug=”Hiroshima-GettyImages-50772770″ data-public-id=”MTYwNjczNzMxOTkwMDA1Mjk0″ data-source-name=”Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images” data-title=”Disfigured”>
The Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
In the years since the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, a number of historians have suggested that the weapons had a two-pronged objective. First, of course, was to bring the war with Japan to a speedy end and spare American lives. It has been suggested that the second objective was to demonstrate the new weapon of mass destruction to the Soviet Union.
By August 1945, relations between the Soviet Union and the United States had deteriorated badly. The Potsdam Conference between U.S. President Harry S. Truman, Russian leader Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill (before being replaced by Clement Attlee) ended just four days before the bombing of Hiroshima. The meeting was marked by recriminations and suspicion between the Americans and Soviets. Russian armies were occupying most of Eastern Europe. Truman and many of his advisers hoped that the U.S. atomic monopoly might offer diplomatic leverage with the Soviets. In this fashion, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan can be seen as the first shot of the Cold War.
If U.S. officials truly believed that they could use their atomic monopoly for diplomatic advantage, they had little time to put their plan into action. By 1949, the Soviets had developed their own atomic bomb and the nuclear arms race began.
READ MORE ABOUT THE BOMBINGS OF HIROSHIMA AND NAGASAKI:
On August 8, 1945, the Soviet Union officially declares war on Japan, pouring more than 1 million Soviet soldiers into Japanese-occupied Manchuria, northeastern China, to take on the 700,000-strong Japanese army.
The dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima by the Americans did not have the effect intended: unconditional surrender by Japan. Half of the Japanese inner Cabinet, called the Supreme War Direction Council, refused to surrender unless guarantees about Japan’s future were given by the Allies, especially regarding the position of the emperor, Hirohito. The only Japanese civilians who even knew what happened at Hiroshima were either dead or suffering terribly.
Japan had not been too worried about the Soviet Union, so busy with the Germans on the Eastern front. The Japanese army went so far as to believe that they would not have to engage a Soviet attack until spring 1946. But the Soviets surprised them with their invasion of Manchuria, an assault so strong (of the 850 Japanese soldiers engaged at Pingyanchen, 650 were killed or wounded within the first two days of fighting) that Emperor Hirohito began to plead with his War Council to reconsider surrender. The recalcitrant members began to waver.
In Tokyo, Japan, the International Military Tribunals for the Far East begins hearing the case against 28 Japanese military and government officials accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity during World War II.
On November 4, 1948, the trial ended with 25 of 28 Japanese defendants being found guilty. Of the three other defendants, two had died during the lengthy trial, and one was declared insane. On November 12, the war crimes tribunal passed death sentences on seven of the men, including General Hideki Tojo, who served as Japanese premier during the war, and other principals, such as Iwane Matsui, who organized the Rape of Nanking, and Heitaro Kimura, who brutalized Allied prisoners of war. Sixteen others were sentenced to life imprisonment, and two were sentenced to lesser terms in prison. On December 23, 1948, Tojo and the six others were executed in Tokyo.
Unlike the Nuremberg trial of Nazi war criminals, where there were four chief prosecutors, to represent Great Britain, France, the United States, and the USSR, the Tokyo trial featured only one chief prosecutor–American Joseph B. Keenan, a former assistant to the U.S. attorney general. However, other nations, especially China, contributed to the proceedings, and Australian judge William Flood Webb presided. In addition to the central Tokyo trial, various tribunals sitting outside Japan judged some 5,000 Japanese guilty of war crimes, of whom more than 900 were executed. Some observers thought that Emperor Hirohito should have been tried for his tacit approval of Japanese policy during the war, but he was protected by U.S. authorities who saw him as a symbol of Japanese unity and conservatism, both favorable traits in the postwar U.S. view.