“Despite Japan’s downfall, not all were committed to ending hostilities. In fact, many nationalists sought to fight on.”
BY AUG. 15, 1945, Japan was finished.
After three and a half years of total war against the United States, the once-mighty empire had been reduced to ruins.
All told, the fighting in the Pacific cost Japan 50,000 aircraft, 3,000 tanks and more than 300 warships, including 19 carriers and eight battleships. Worse, at least 2 million Japanese troops perished in the savage fighting. By the war’s final year, not even the nation’s homeland was safe. Strategic bombing had destroyed most major cities and industrial centers; Hiroshima and Nagasaki had both vanished into mushroom clouds; and nearly a million civilians were dead and millions more homeless. And with Okinawa and Iwo Jima in American hands, Allied ships, vehicles and soldiers were massing for the final amphibious assault on Japan.
In late July, the U.S., Britain and China had announced in the Potsdam Declaration that the Allies would accept nothing short of an unconditional surrender from Tokyo, while the recent declaration of war by the Soviet Union only promised to widen the conflict.
By early August, even Emperor Hirohito was calling on the leadership to seek terms. Even Japan’s prime minister, Kantarō Suzuki, and his hawkish military cabinet, known as the “Big Six”, finally conceded defeat. It was agreed that the emperor would formally announce Japan’s surrender over the radio at precisely noon local time on Aug. 15. (LISTEN TO THE AUDIO HERE)
Yet amazingly, despite Japan’s downfall, not all were committed to ending hostilities. In fact, many nationalists sought to fight on.
The very night before Tokyo planned to publicly agree to the Allied ultimatum, a clique of officers in Japan’s War Ministry led by a 22-year-old army major named Kenji Hatanaka moved to overthrow the government. The group’s objective was to block Hirohito’s scheduled announcement of capitulation and continue the war to the bitter end. The faction was confident that once the ruling regime had been brought down, the Japanese people would unite and continue the struggle no matter the outcome.
Just after midnight on Aug. 15, the conspirators marched onto the grounds of the Kyūjō or emperor’s palace. After quietly killing the guard’s divisional commander for refusing to support their putsch, Hatanaka and his fellow comrades searched the residence for Hirohito’s audio message that was slated to be broadcast within hours. Unable to locate the recording (power outages resulting from Allied bombings made the search impossible), Hatanaka dispatched his officers to nearby Yokohama to find and kill the prime minister. The assassins failed to locate their target.
With local army units en route to crush the uprising, the emperor’s rebel guards melted away.
Undeterred, Hatanaka fled to the headquarters of Japan’s national broadcaster in hopes of rallying support from there. Despite his brandishing a pistol, the increasingly desperate major was barred from getting on to the airwaves. He was last seen at daybreak riding through the streets of the bombed out capital on a motorcycle tossing resistance leaflets to war weary civilians. With army troops closing in, Hatanaka finally shot himself in the head. An hour later, Hirohito’s pre-recorded message went out.
Japan had surrendered. Yet even this official announcement of capitulation didn’t put an end to the unrest.
Fanning the Flames
Nationalist dissidents throughout the country continued to urge defiance for days after Hirohito spoke. Crowds gathered to protest the armistice while rogue elements of the air force dropped leaflets across the country denouncing the surrender. The largest of these incidents took place on Aug. 24 in the remote Shimane prefecture.
A 25-year-old fanatic named Isao Okazaki led the uprising, which became known as the Matsue Incident. An ultranationalist, Okazaki was imprisoned for two years in 1943 for plotting against the Japanese government – it seems the ruling dictatorship wasn’t militaristic enough for his liking. Now with Tokyo having submitted to the Allies, the young activist hoped to depose the regime and see his country continue the struggle. Just days before an American occupation force was to arrive on Japanese soil, Okazaki and 40 armed followers fanned out across the city of Matsue to seize the offices of the civil authorities, as well as a power plant and the local newspaper. One local resident was killed in the take-over. The rebellion ended hours later as Okazaki and his followers attempted to occupy the local radio station, which in the interim had been surrounded by police and a detachment of soldiers. The group surrendered without incident. All were arrested, tried and imprisoned.
Despite the war’s official end, pockets of Japanese soldiers stationed throughout the Pacific famously continued to fight on long after VJ Day. While some were unaware of the surrender in Tokyo, others simply refused to lay down their arms. American and Allied troops continued to clash with these holdouts for months and years after the war. Consider these:
• A group of nearly 50 Japanese infantrymen waged a guerrilla war against American occupiers on Saipan until finally surrendering to Marines in December of 1945.
• More than 30 hid in the jungles of Peleliu until March of 1947 before they too turned themselves over to the Americas.
• Two Japanese troops stayed at their battle stations on Iwo Jima until January 1949, while nearly 20 remained at large on an island in the Marianas until June of 1951.
• For the next 20 years, small groups as well as lone soldiers would emerge from the wilderness under white flags. Most famously, Lt. Hiroo Onada surrendered on Lubang in the Philippines not long after a Japanese backpacker stumbled across his basecamp in 1974. It still took personal orders from his then retired commanding officer before Onada finally agreed to call it quits. To read the full story and see a picture of his final surrender, click here. That same year, a Taiwanese-born private in the Japanese army was discovered and detained by authorities in the wilds of Indonesia.
• The last believed holdout was a captain by the name of Nakahara. Presumed to be hiding somewhere on the island of Mindoro in the Philippines, a Japanese-led rescue team set out to find the missing officer in 1980. The searchers stumbled upon what was believed to be his hut in April of that year. Nakahara himself was never found.
(Originally published July 10, 2015)