The Emperor's Speech: 67 Years Ago, Hirohito Transformed Japan Forever

The four-minute radio address ended a war, obliterated the 20-year imperial ideology, and began Japan's rebirth into what it is today. 

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On this day in 1945, one week after atomic bombs had obliterated the cities of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, radios across Japan crackled with another shocking announcement, one that would come to change the course of Japanese history perhaps as much as did the atomic bombs Little Boy and Fat Man. At noon, Emperor Hirohito spoke directly to his subjects for the first time in his reign. His announcement would shock Japan, but it would also transform it, altering in a few short minutes the entire mission of the Japanese nation in ways that it, and the world, still feel today.

Hirohito was more than Japan's head of state. He was its divine monarch and the personification of both the nation and its spiritual imperative for imperial expansion, "the literally living embodiment of Japan past and present, a paradigm of moral excellence," according to Herbert Bix's Pulitzer-winning biography. Hirohito both embodied and galvanized imperial Japan's race-based nationalism, its radically militarist ideology that had led it to sow war and much worse across Asia.

Hirohito personally sat, according to Bix, "at the center of his nation's political, military, and spiritual life in the broadest and deepest sense" during the expansion that "cost nearly 20 million Asian lives, more than 3.1 million Japanese lives, and more than 60,000 Western Allied lives." The Pacific War was, in the ultra-nationalist ideology that gripped Japan for the first half of the 20th century, a "holy war," and waged in Hirohito's name.

Japan's war-rattled civilians had good reason to fear that Hirohito's radio address might bring terrible news. Surrender was officially forbidden in the Japanese military, and in the closing years of the war, Japanese civilians were told that they too might have to choose death to protect the dignity of the nation and the sanctity of the imperial ideology. "The hundred million," the propaganda's term for the civilians at home, might have to embrace a death that would be beautiful in its tragedy, "like shattered jewels."

As the American military pressed in, Japan's war machine had turned inward, as John W. Dower documented in his masterful, Pulitzer-winning history. "Japanese died in hopeless suicide charges, starved to death in the field, killed their own wounded rather than let them fall into enemy hands, and murdered their civilian compatriots in places such as Saipan and Okinawa," he wrote. At home, "They watched helplessly as fire bombs destroyed their cities -- all the while listening to their leaders natter on about how it might be necessary for the 'hundred million' all to die 'like shattered jewels.'"

And this is what many Japanese feared their emperor would ask of them, Dower wrote: to "fight to the bitter end and die" as they'd been indoctrinated, or to end the imperial mission by their own hands in ritual suicide rather than allow foreigners that right.

When the emperor's voice beamed across the country (audio here), and out beyond it on shortwave signals for the troops stationed throughout East Asia, it was the first time that the vast majority of his subjects heard him. High-pitched, stilted, and in a classical Japanese more difficult to understand than what most people spoke in conversation. Still, the message was clear: surrender. The unthinkable.

"We have ordered our government to communicate to the governments of the United States, Great Britain, China, and the Soviet Union that our empire accepts the provisions of their joint declaration," he said, referencing the allies' demand for unconditional surrender. But perhaps even more surprising than Hirohito's call for capitulation were the terms he used, which seemingly reversed the entire ideology of war and expansion that had been synonymous with his rule.

"To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations, as well as the security and wellbeing of our subjects, is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by our imperial ancestors and which lies close to our heart," he explained. "The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization."

He declared that the military would be disarmed, suggesting this would happen not because disarmament had been forced upon Japan (it had), but because Japan had made the difficult choice to privilege peace. It wasn't wholly true, but it helped replace the imperial ideology of war with an ideology of peace that persists to this day.

Hirohito, after years of indirectly pressing his citizens to carry the burdens of war and imperialism, of an ideology that demanded international primacy, now asked them directly to carry the very different burdens of peace, humility, and lower status. "The hardships and sufferings to which our nation is to be subjected hereafter will be certainly great," he warned. "However, it is according to the dictates of time and fate that we have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is not sufferable." He ended by urging his long-suffering citizens to "Cultivate the ways of rectitude, foster nobility of spirit, and work with resolution" so as to "keep pace with the progress of the world."

To "endure the unendurable and suffer what is not sufferable" would become a sort of national motto in the following seven years of American occupation, "quoted times beyond counting" in Japanese media, according to Dower, such that it "carried a clear sense of purpose." It came to describe not just the humiliation of defeat, the pain of accepting what 20 years of ultranationalism had indoctrinated into Japanese as the ultimate pain, but Japan's struggle to find an entire new identity and place in the world.

"Enduring the unendurable" also meant surviving Japan's near-total collapse. The allied bombing campaign had destroyed one third of the nation's wealth, according to the American occupation authority's estimates, roughly comparable to the U.S. great depression. Urban living standards plummeted to 35 percent of pre-war levels. In the country's 60 or so largest cities, bombing had destroyed nearly half of the structures, rendering 30 percent of its residents immediately homeless. Food became scarce, and Dower documents some Japanese cities recommending "emergency diets" of "acorns, grain husks, peanut shells, and sawdust" as well as "silkworm cocoons, worms ... or a powder made by drying the blood of cows, horses, and pigs." Disease and starvation spread.

Meanwhile, millions of Japanese soldiers and colonists abroad found, with the empire's collapse, that they had no way to go home and little or no rights in the newly independent colonies. As many as 68,000 Japanese in China were conscripted into the communist insurgency, Dower reports, and around 1.6 million Japanese in the Soviet Union were made to contribute labor. Of those, 300,000 never returned home. In the 1980s, the Soviet government released the names of 46,000 who had been bured in Siberia; the rest have never been accounted for.

Hirohito's historic address marked the end of World War Two and the end of imperial Japan's ultranationalist ideology, but it was also a beginning: of the American occupation and of a new Japan. "The losers wished to both forget the past and to transcend it," Dower wrote, and Japan set about to rise out of the ashes of its own destruction, this time with ideals and goals almost the polar opposite of before. "The ideals of peace and democracy took root in Japan -- not as a borrowed ideology or imposed vision, but as a lived experience and seized opportunity."

In a generation, Japan achieved both full democracy and the amazing, much-studied "economic miracle". This is still the Japan of today: developed, democratic, and peaceful. The factors, internal and external, that led the country from an ultranationalist war machine to a land of passivity and high-tech exports are as numerous as they are impossibly complicated. But the moment, 67 years ago today, when Hirohito's near-falsetto came over the airwaves and commanded Japanese to "endure the unendurable" are a central inflection point in the Japanese death and rebirth that played such a major role in the 20th century.