Aug. 15, 1945,dawned for the Japanese with a momentous but enigmatic piece of news. National radio announced at 7:21 that morning that all citizens must listen respectfully to an address by His Majesty the Emperor to be broadcast at noon.
The voice of the emperor, who was considered divine, had never been heard by ordinary people. It could only mean some fearsome development in the war that Japan had been fighting for the past 14 years, ever since its troops moved into Manchuria in 1931. Perhaps, many people thought, it was news of an American assault on the home islands and a command to fight to the end.
"People believed there would be a final fight on the imperial soil. The enemy would come and there would be a great battle," recalls Shoji Takahashi, who was then a 23-year-old Army captain at a vehicle repair school in Tokyo.
Many Japanese already knew the war was going badly. Just the day before, 800 American B29 bombers had appeared over the Tokyo area, unloading another torrent of bombs. The city was now largely defenseless. Raids had already laid waste to 50 percent of it.
In 3 1/2 years of fierce fighting following the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, Japanese troops and naval forces had been pushed back time and again in the Pacific and Southeast Asia with enormous losses. Despite military censorship, word of the defeats had leaked back to the homeland.
Still, surrender was not in the vocabulary of the average Japanese. In its 2,000-year history, the country had never been occupied by a foreign power. It still had 3 million soldiers in China, Korea, Southeast Asia and countless Pacific islands and 3 million more in the home army, waiting for orders to fight.
People believed that victory or death were the only possible outcomes for a war seen as a holy crusade to safeguard kokutai, or national essence. Although the enemy had more soldiers, weapons and supplies, Japan's fighting spirit could prevail, in the way that a single kamikaze ("divine wind") plane could sink a great warship.
Military men were still clinging to hope of a "decisive battle" that would force the United States to give Japan an honorable peace. They were remembering the peace that followed the great defeat Japan had inflicted on an Imperial Russian fleet in the Straits of Tsushima 40 years earlier.
But as the sun rose on Aug. 15 (It was still Aug. 14 in the United States), starting another hot, humid day in the capital, the Japanese Cabinet had already reached the final, wrenching decision to surrender.
The process had begun the previous spring, following the appointment of Kantaro Suzuki to the office of prime minister. His unspoken objective was to find a way out of war, hopefully salvaging some measure of Japanese honor along the way.
The best hope, Tokyo believed, lay with the Soviet Union, which had stayed neutral in the Pacific war. Moscow would want Japan to remain independent to act as a buffer against U.S. power in the coming era, it was reasoned. Starting in June, overtures were made to Moscow for its intercession with the United States on Japan's behalf.
Moscow ignored them and American forces continued to advance. Then, in early August, came a series of terrific blows that crushed these fragile hopes. Within a three-day period, atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviets declared war and smashed through Japanese lines in Manchuria.
Japan would probably have quit sooner had the Allies made it clear that their demand for unconditional surrender of Japan's forces would not mean the removal of the emperor from his throne. After the Nagasaki bomb on Aug. 9, Japanese military leaders held out for a continued fight on the grounds that Japan without the emperor would not be Japan.
It was Hirohito himself who in the end brought peace. The long war had been prosecuted in his revered name, and, in one of the few decisive acts of his reign, he put it to an end.
On Aug. 14, the Cabinet and emperor met in secret in an underground bunker on the Imperial Palace grounds to discuss a message sent by the Allies in response to a Japanese query about the emperor's future role. The ultimate form of government, the message said, will "be established by the freely expressed will of the Japanese people."
One by one, civilian Cabinet members reluctantly argued for surrender; military men pressed for a fight to the end. The meeting was split and turned to the emperor.
"If the war continues our entire nation will be laid waste," he said, according to historian John Toland. "Hundreds of thousands more will die. I cannot endure this." The war must end, and now, he said. Several of the ministers began weeping.
Now came the task of telling the people that the struggle to which 3 million soldiers and civilians had been sacrificed had been for nothing. The emperor offered to do it himself with a radio address, in part from fear that soldiers might otherwise conclude that traitors had taken control of the government and stage a coup.
Those fears were real. Word of the surrender decision had begun to leak. On the 14th, soldiers seized the palace grounds in an attempt to keep the war going. The next morning, a mob sacked the home of Prime Minister Suzuki just minutes after he escaped in a car.
At noon on Aug. 15, the Japanese people dutifully assembled at friends' houses, in government offices, in schools and on parade grounds around the country. Soldiers overseas crowded around radio receivers. An announcer gave the order to stand. A hush fell over the nation and the imperial voice was heard.
It began: "After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in our empire today, We have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure."
Tora Awazu, a 43-year old housewife for whom life was a daily battle to avoid air raids and find food for her six children, listened in the house of friends.
"We heard the voice of his majesty and I cried," she recalled.
Reception was bad on many radios. To obfuscate things further, the emperor was speaking in his usual vague manner and in the archaic language of the court, unintelligible to most of his subjects. People listened and wondered.
"The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage . . . . the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed incalculable.
" . . . . It is according to the dictate 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 insufferable."
The word "surrender" never passed his lips. Instead, the emperor referred to accepting the Allies' Joint Declaration, the call for unconditional surrender of its forces made at the summit conference held in Potsdam, Germany in July.
Capt. Takahashi heard the speech with 500 students in the yard of a Tokyo vehicle repair school.
"The sun was burning down on us. Everyone was sweating as if in a bath," he remembers. Slowly, the message of surrender began to sink in. "All of our strength suddenly vanished," he recalled.
All over the country, people cried that day. At Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the souls of Japan's war dead are believed to rest, people prostrated themselves and wept.
But after the initial shock, most Japanese seemed to have felt a wave of relief, a sense of liberation from the air raids, the diets of sweet potatoes and the certainty of impending death in battle with the enemy.
Hajime Suzuki, son of the prime minister and his personal secretary, remembers a feeling of relaxation pouring over him when it became clear the war was finally over.
"I saw the lights in the streets, in the houses. For some reason, they made me feel so happy," he said.
For military men, acceptance was much harder. Masatoki Shirai, an Army lieutenant colonel stationed in Tokyo, went to the War Ministry that night. There, clerks were burning mountains of documents in the courtyard. He gazed on the flames.
"We did not think of the future," he recalled. "We thought, this is the end."
Some soldiers, including Adm. Takijiro Onishi, the founder of the kamikaze corps, slit their bellies open in ritual suicide, both in personal anguish and to take responsibility for the defeat. Others tried to rouse their comrades to revolt.
But with the word having come from the emperor's mouth, resistance was morally impossible. The Asahi Shimbun newspaper told its readers that day: "If the great voice says go forward, we must obey. If the great voice says stop, we must also obey. That is the only way of the imperial people."
The Japanese took it to heart. When U.S. occupation troops began arriving two weeks later at former kamikaze headquarters at Atsugi air base, they were greeted, historian Toland has written, by a reception party offering orange punch.