By Paul Hynes
Welcome to the latest in our series of first chapters showcasing our books. Today, we have Decisive Darkness, by Paul Hynes
In August 1945, Japan was hit with two nuclear weapons. This, along with the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, caused the government to surrender.
What if it had not?
Paul Hynes imagines a world in which a fanatical junta takes over Japan and pledges a fight to the bitter end. Using real-world plans relating to the invasion of the Home Islands, along with an extensive knowledge of American, British, Soviet and Japanese attitudes and capabilities at the time, Hynes crafts a story of harrowing losses, desperate measures, and unspeakable horror for the civilian population.
The Second World War never ended.
It is with this fact in mind that I hope you will read this book. What is covered throughout this study is the catastrophe that unfolded across Asia, where from the late summer of 1945 more Japanese died than those of any other nation in the world’s bloodiest conflict. It is a tale of Ketsu-Go, Operation Decisive, the meticulously planned armageddon that the junta at the heart of Japan hoped would save them.
It is the story of the plan’s failure and the national suicide that would follow as mindless fanatics locked the door on the burning house. How everything they had come to believe in was manifestly destroyed their own hands. How their descendants refuse to this day to acknowledge the nightmarish effect that their struggle has had on the once unique beauty of Japan, her culture, her role in the world and, most importantly, her people.
This is a story of darkness, that which lies within the minds of men, and how it was chillingly embraced by those who simply refused to follow any other road, a fanatical devotion to murderous insanity that was befitting of the ‘Decisive’ name that labelled their own belief in national salvation.
It is the darkness which these men inflicted, not only upon the oppressed peoples of Japan’s former empire, the laughably named ‘Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’, but also upon their own population and ultimately themselves.
It’s the story of how this same darkness ultimately came to infect their enemies; the victors of the war, nominally just, were driven to break every code they had set themselves and unleash horrors they had sworn never to use.
Life is never simply dark, of course; as is the case throughout human history, events which bring out the worst in people can bring out the best in others. The wool pulled away from eyes, the deceptions revealed and the revolutions they have caused may never have happened without the rejuvenating force in life which is chaos.
Nothing in history is ever truly bathed in light either; the mass movement of peoples, in their individual daily struggles to pursue happiness in life, to vast wars, revolutions and all other unbinding events on the global scale, affecting millions of people, can always be found to be interlinked.
It is for this reason that we find our tale starting with men who felt their nation was an expression of themselves, and how in their own suicidal delusions they took an entire people with them.
The Kyujo Coup and the ‘Regime of the Righteous’
In the telling of how Japan’s national disaster unfolded it is important that we recall how closely the nation came to a peace in the late summer of 1945, and how cruelly it was snatched away.
It was clear by the late summer of 1945 that the Japanese empire was facing oblivion. What had once seemed an unstoppable juggernaut, unflinching in their divine destiny to rule all of Asia, now found itself in lockstep with every advance of their increasingly numerous enemies. With four-fifths of Japan’s pre-war fleet and shipping sunk or destroyed, the United States of America and the British Commonwealth blockaded Japan with impunity, depriving Japan of the strategic materials that they had gone to war to secure, and the food that much of Japan’s population of over 70 million people relied upon.
Japan had gone to war with China originally on the basis of procuring a vast breadbasket, which would ensure that none of the localised famines which had blighted rural Japan in the early twentieth century would be repeated. Now these seemed destined to return; as the Japanese state continually lowered rations, malnourishment skyrocketed. In 1945 Japan recorded its worst harvest in decades, and the nation faced mass starvation.
Swarms of American bombers torched and scorched the landscape with little resistance. The Japanese air force, grounded due to the scarcity of fuel and ammunition, could only look up as the night sky was coloured with fire. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians had died in vast air raids that had been visited upon virtually every major Japanese city. Millions more were rendered homeless.
As the Imperial Japanese Navy ceased to be an effective fighting force, American and British ships had little else to do but unload their guns onto the cities and towns of the Japanese coast where bombers could not yet reach. Beginning in July, these bombardments caused fewer casualties than bombing but served to make it clear to the Japanese people that their armed forces were effectively helpless to defend them from allied attack.
The scale of this onslaught was unimaginable, bringing Japan’s economy and infrastructure to its knees; a conclusion to the war had to be reached, and quickly, before these factors combined to the ensure the complete collapse of the society that many had gone to war to protect. There were many who had had misgivings about Japan’s initial offensives against the British Empire and the United States, wary of their enemies’ industrial and military might.
As the war had progressed they had been increasingly vindicated; with the disaster of the American capture of the island of Saipan, which allowed them to establish the bases from which to bomb Japan, their influence increased. Shortly after the defeat at Saipan, Hideki Tojo, one of the major architects of the decision to pursue war beyond China, resigned as Prime Minister. Instead he was replaced with the divisive General Kuniaki Koiso, who promised to give "fundamental reconsideration" to Japan’s present conflict yet failed to make serious headway towards what those in the growing ‘Peace’ camp judged necessary – a negotiated peace with the Allies. Koiso himself had been replaced in the spring of 1945 following the Japanese failure to hold Okinawa island, the first piece of true Japanese territory the Americans had captured and the final stepping stone in their central Pacific advance. An American invasion of Japan beckoned.
There was only one hope that remained for the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War, an inner sanctum within the Cabinet which Koiso had created to better direct the war, the small cabal of men now in charge of directing Japanese policy. They believed, to varying degrees, that if they could hold on for long enough, Allied casualties would take their toll on American and British public opinion. Though the battle of Okinawa had been a disaster for the Japanese, the American forces had endured over 82,000 casualties – a grim showcase of the coming attractions that an invasion of Japan would offer.
Japanese propaganda infected the minds of those who dispersed it, that the Allies fundamentally didn’t have the stomach for such casualties, forcing the leaders of the Allied nations to accept a negotiated peace contrary to their demand for unconditional surrender. This belief was based on the notion of attrition, that as long as stunning defeats could be continuously inflicted on the enemy then Japan’s own suffering could be offset. This was a belief that had grown more prominent yet also more fanciful. Despite the fact that Japan’s prospects had worsened, the Allies reiterated their demand for unconditional surrender from the Potsdam Declaration.
The declaration, the result of the Potsdam conference held after the final surrender of Japan’s German ally, was misread as an Allied openness to leave some areas of Japanese society and governmental structure intact – including, most importantly to the Japanese, the Imperial system. The Allies were seen to be compromising; furthermore, the Soviet Union had not signed the declaration, indicating that they would continue to remain neutral in the Pacific conflict and perhaps mediate a ceasefire. Some believed they could even be brought onto Japan’s side, given the ongoing deterioration of relations in the wake of Germany’s collapse.
It was hoped that a final decisive victory could be won on Japanese soil to offset the last two years of humiliation, and that this would make the Americans increasingly malleable to what could be described as an honourable peace. These factors would contribute to the dawn that would follow Japan’s long night of defeat.
It would only grow darker. On August 6th the Americans destroyed the city of Hiroshima with an atomic bomb, a bomb the Japanese themselves had attempted to create but had lacked the proper resources to produce. Two days later the Soviet Union declared war, launching a vast invasion of Japanese occupied northern China, as well as within the Japanese Home Islands themselves as they landed on southern Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. On August 9th, despite hopes that the Americans might have only had one atomic bomb, a second strike destroyed the port of Nagasaki.
As the terrible shock of these events took hold the resolve of those who supported peace at any cost increased, while those who insisted there must be terms – or, indeed, no surrender at all – began to waver. By August 12th, after intense and increasingly heated discussion, it had become clear to a majority of the Supreme War Council that the situation was now so hopeless that unconditional surrender had become the only acceptable way to proceed. Nonetheless there were those who insisted that Japan must shrug off these further blows and continue to resist, calls that came most loudly from General Korechika Anami, Minister for War. A former bureaucrat, Anami was well known for being calm and composed in his manner but his fanaticism was unmatched in the higher echelons of Japanese society; he had climbed the ranks during the Japanese invasion of China and had been a leading proponent of expanding the struggle into Southeast Asia against the Americans and Europeans. Despite the ever-worsening situation, he had become the leading defender of continued struggle against increasing doubts from his colleagues on the Supreme Council. The Soviet entry into the war and the atomic bombings hardened opinions on both sides.
An extraordinary way to break the deadlock was found by those who favoured surrender – the Emperor was asked to give his own opinion. Despite being head of state, Emperor Hirohito had found throughout his reign that his position was largely titular, those who wished to venerate him as a god often being the most ardent that his opinions be ignored in the living realm. With his cabinet divided, they were told to listen as he declared that Japan must endure the unendurable and surrender, unconditionally, for the first time in her history. In the early hours of August 14th the foreign ministry transmitted orders to its embassies in Switzerland and Sweden to accept the Allied terms of surrender.
Later that day, the embassies would receive a contradictory message – despite a brief few hours of hope, some had chosen to ignore the Emperor’s will. The Second World War was not over.
The forceful seizure of power by the army, and the birth of the self-proclaimed ‘Regime of the Righteous’ was an entirely expected, if feared, reaction to the Emperor’s proclamation. General Anami, who would go on to become Prime Minister as Japan’s final battle commenced, has become something of a fictional bogeyman in most Western understandings of those final, terminal stages of the Japanese Empire. His role in the coup could be seen as essential, but the coup itself had very little connection to the War Minister right until the very end.
Attempted coup d'états had been common in recent Japanese history, though few were successful. The roots of the Gigun regime can be found in the agitations and patriotic delusions of young officers within the Imperial military, these motivations had often caused those coups which preceded the establishment of Anami’s regime. These were men brought up to revere the Emperor and trained in the knowledge that only they could crush his enemies. To them the concepts of democracy and civilian government were contemptuous at the best of times; when those same institutions announced their plans to accept defeat and surrender for the first time in Japanese history, some sort of incident had become all but a certainty. The Emperor’s personal intervention in favour of the surrender had made any hope of success seem bleak, yet only if it was accepted that every member of the Supreme War Council obeyed their Emperor’s wishes.
The personal intervention of General Korechika Anami, the Japanese War Minister and de facto head of the Armed Forces, would prove pivotal in transforming what might have been an isolated incident into the final subjugation of the last pretences of Japanese civilian government. With his backing, the perpetrators of the coup could go forward with the marshalled support of the majority of the Japanese forces in the Tokyo area, the Eastern District Army.
Whilst it was no secret to anyone that Anami continued to believe that Japan’s empire could be largely preserved in the wake of a decisive battle on Japanese soil, not to mention his own liability for war crimes due to previous atrocities committed in Japanese occupied China, it was assumed that his reverence to the Emperor indicated that he would acquiesce to the sovereign’s decision to back unconditional surrender. Despite the calamity that unfolded with his decision to ignore the Emperor’s will, what exactly made him discard this sworn duty to obey the Emperor is the subject of long standing dispute.
An increasingly shrinking minority have argued for decades that Anami himself at this time had been overcome with delusions of grandeur and wished to execute the Royal Family and re-establish the Shogunate, using the legitimacy of a crushing victory against the Allies to do so. A slightly more frivolous portion of popular historians have ascribed it to one of the coup’s lead perpetrators, Kenji Hatanaka, a man known for his silver tongue and literary talent; the bizarre story goes that he made a rousing case in favour of ignoring the Emperor’s wishes and strengthening his own belief in the decisive battle by regaling Anami with poetry of the glorious victories of the Russo-Japanese War. A more grounded analysis points to Masahiko Takeshita, Anami’s brother-in-law who enjoyed a close personal relationship with the general, a man who would have been able to focus a great deal of personal time on convincing the General of the plotters’ virtuous cause, if he had not been helping to organise the plot itself.
In spite of Takeshita’s potential influence, the general historical consensus is that Anami’s actions can be attributed to a fatal misreading of the Potsdam Declaration. There had been some pressure on President Truman for the largely American-drafted document to give some mention of American intentions towards the future of Japan’s Emperor, or at least an implication of the coming destruction that would be caused by the newly-discovered atomic bomb. Many American diplomats hoped that allowing Japan to be seen to preserve its independence would be honourable enough to make surrender palatable to the Japanese government, or at least that the power of the bomb would let them know that their defeat was inevitable. Neither made the final draft of the document, with the declaration largely repeating the condemnation of the Japanese enemy and the stated Allied aim of Japanese surrender without assurances or conditions of any type.
Whilst post-war sources have shown that the Allies had little enthusiasm for putting Emperor Hirohito on trial, their failure to mention this, and the stated aim within the declaration of "eliminating for all time the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest", led Anami to conclude that the Allies planned to entirely restructure Japanese society, much like they were already doing in Germany, and that the Emperor had been misled about this fact by the ‘traitors’ in the peace-supporting faction of the Supreme Council – individuals that he would now move against.
On the morning of August 15th, with Japan’s intent to surrender already broadcast to the Allies through the Swiss and Swedish embassies, the Japanese people heard a different announcement. Prime Minister Suzuki Kantarō had launched a coup in the early hours of the morning in conjunction with secret negotiations with the Allies for him to replace the Emperor as sovereign and rule an occupied Japan as their puppet, but the vigilance of the Japanese Armed Forces, and the conviction of the Japanese people, had stood in his way; the Emperor was now safe, and Suzuki was under arrest awaiting trial with his fellow co-conspirators. The new government under Prime Minister Anami would now oversee the war to its victorious conclusion.
This statement was only partially true; there was a coup ongoing that night, yet it was nothing to do with the Prime Minister. Without resistance, the Eastern District Army forces under Anami’s command had taken control of the city and had surrounded the Imperial Palace, where pro-Anami forces silently awaited orders to storm the ancient building and ‘rescue’ their Emperor. Prime Minister Suzuki, Foreign Minister Togo, and other individuals associated with the peace faction were arrested and speedily removed from the city on a strange tour of the outlying countryside until they eventually found themselves in a cavernous bunker overlooking Sagami Bay. The dignity of house arrest was withheld until the coup could be deemed a success.
The Emperor’s acquiescence to being taken hostage by those who had openly disobeyed his desire for peace would doom Japan to continued conflict. With his ‘support’ resistance was rendered treacherous, and this has thus caused many to blame the Emperor personally for the events that unfolded. Condemnations of the cowardice – or at the very least docility – of the Emperor’s actions should be held in check, however; from a heavily outnumbered position he can be considered as accepting only the inevitable. Had his guards fought there would only have been a bloodbath, one in which members of his own family may have been killed. Regardless of his own survival instinct, had he seen what was to come it is possible he would have acted differently, but as it was his calm exit from the palace into the hands of the plotters effectively justified the coup.
Given the Emperor’s surrender, the theatrics of the coup, the fictional plot of a Suzuki conspiracy and the arrest of the peace faction might have seemed unnecessary, but for the plotters at the time this security was not apparent – Japan had already announced her surrender, after all.
To the Allies the message was brief, reiterating the former Japanese peace terms, including the retention of the Emperor, no occupation of the Home Islands, and that only the Japanese would be responsible for disarmament and war crimes trials. With the Emperor effectively being held under house arrest, and the peace faction in the process of being purged from the highest echelons of Japanese society, the hope of peace which had seemed so assured the previous day now appeared to be further than ever.
The unenviable task of telling the American public that the war was in fact not over fell to a dismayed President Truman, who made his best efforts to relay to his own sadness to the American people but also his resolve to see the war through to a conclusive end. On the streets the sorrow quickly turned to anger, with a clear target in mind.
The Japanese-American community, which had spent years in American internment under suspicion of being enemy agents, had been undergoing a process of release since the spring. No longer considered a threat, many now found themselves endangered by the angry drunken mobs who had received the news that the war would continue. The violence spread throughout the west coast and sporadically moved east, as all people of East Asian appearance now found themselves vulnerable to a wave of hate attacks by American servicemen and civilians who were often still drunk from their celebrations of ‘victory’.
Whilst some have said that the worst of the rioting which followed these events has largely been exaggerated for dramatic effect on the basis of a few memorable photos of servicemen rioting in San Francisco, by August 16th there were already measures being pursued to return the Japanese population of the west coast, recently freed from internment, back into camps for the sake of law and order.
With the small gatherings of citizens baying for blood outside of the White House gates, Truman had had to embody calm in public in the hope that the American people would follow his lead – despite the fact that, as he and many of his colleagues would later admit, he was privately seething at the fact that the Japanese had left him to look like a fool. A cruel joke had been played on the American people and he had been an unwilling participant, promising that the bloodshed was now over only to have to inform the relieved citizenry their sons were now very much back in the firing line. Despite having only become President in April, he was well aware of the fact that the longer the war now progressed the more embittered the American public would become, not only against the Japanese but against his own administration. For all it may seem strange in the present, Truman was genuinely worried at the time that this would be the defining moment of his Presidency, yet already he was beginning to show signs of the greater destructive tendency that would make him America’s most controversial president to this day.
Shortly after hearing the news of the aborted peace, Truman ordered the next bomb to be used as quickly as possible on Tokyo, to wipe out the new Government and leave the survivors with no illusions as to the scope of American power. He was quickly brought his senses; Truman’s secretary of state, George C. Marshall, pointed out that bombing Tokyo would likely destroy the Imperial Palace and potentially take the Emperor with it, inspiring the remnants of the Japanese government to resist all the more fanatically. At this juncture there was still a great deal of hope amongst some in the Truman administration that the political situation in Japan was in flux, yet was still salvageable enough that a response which could be construed as an existential attack was not to be advised. There was also the less nuanced reality of the destruction of vast swathes of Tokyo by American bombing in the early months of 1945 – there simply wasn’t enough left to burn for the use of America’s only unused atomic bomb to be acceptable.
It was agreed that a third bombing would, and effectively had, to take place, both to bolster American morale after the devastating news that the war was not over, and to give the Japanese the impression that the Americans had a limitless supply of bombs that they would continue to drop until the Japanese surrendered, a “rain of ruin” that Truman had promised shortly before Anami’s coup. The target would also take on a strategic role, striking the Japanese preparations for defence of the Home Islands should America need to invade.
Captain William “Deak” Parsons, the man in overall charge of the transportation and handling of the bombs, had planned and organized the assembly facilities on Tinian Island to handle a steady stream of bombs in the wake of the Hiroshima attack, yet this was not yet feasible. The plutonium production facilities at the Hanford Site, the key to America’s young nuclear arsenal, was falling behind the promise of a continuous stream of new bombs despite working at full capacity; only one bomb was readily available on August 15th, the essential materials of which were already on their way.
Specially designed to carry the ‘Fat Man’ devices which had already destroyed Nagasaki and would form the basis of the continuing atomic assault on Japan, the B-29s nicknamed Spook and Jabbet were ordered to make the vast trip across the Pacific to the United States to transport the core of the third bomb (unceremoniously dubbed ‘Fat Man #2’), along with the other necessary components, within hours of the breaking news of Japan’s non-surrender. The dispersed Manhattan Project, the heavily secretive source of America’s first atomic bombs, speedily equipped the two bombers before they once again flew across the Pacific to Tinian Island. There the bomb would await preparations for its final destination, over the southern Japanese island of Kyushu.
Unlike most Japanese cities in 1945, the war had not actually reached Kokura. Isolated air raids had taken place in some areas, more for psychological reasons than anything else, despite the economic value of the city. Only two months previously, the nearby city of Yawata had been victimized by one of the notorious American firebombings that almost every large Japanese city had had to endure in the last year. The damage to Kokura was largely psychological as their sister city burned in the night, unaware that had they met Yawata’s fate the far worse blight the Americans had in store for them may have been avoided. Kokura, with the island’s largest arsenals, railroad shops and ordnance works – all effectively intact – was an obvious target for the list that American planners had drawn up when considering where the atomic bomb may be used.
The city had had been the target of the original Fat Man on August 9th, but heavy cloud cover had spared the city in favour of the bomb’s secondary target, the port of Nagasaki. Had the war ended on August 14th the town’s absurd luck of surviving an atomic attack due to bad weather might have been celebrated by later generations, but the successful coup had only ensured a delay for the city on the targeting schedule. On August 21st, luck – and time – ran out.
Read on in Decisive Darkness: Majestic