By 1945 Japan was a beaten nation, but not willing to admit it. American forces, despite their overwhelming superiority were still several hundred kilometres from Japan. But starting in February 1945, a chain of events that is little known and sometimes completely ignored, led to an unexpectedly abrupt ending to the Pacific War. And the event that delivered the coup de grace was not of American making.
It was Soviet.
But to understand how this came about we must first understand two things:
- The mentality of wartime Japan
- The deterioration in Russo-Japanese relations as World War 2 drew to a close
Nothing scared Japan more than a foreign power invading. When Japan was planning its spectacular rampage across the Pacific, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet famously warned that Japan had six months to year to win the war, after which American industrial power would simply overwhelm them. His strategy was to knock the American fleet out of the war from the outset and at the same time push the perimeter of Japanese occupation as far away from Japan as possible. In April 1942 a daring air raid on Japan launched from an American aircraft carrier set in motion a plan to lure the American carriers into a trap and destroy them. It was an unmitigated disaster – not only did the Americans figure out was happening, they sent four of Japans six fleet carriers to the bottom, something Japan never recovered from. The timing of this exactly six months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour was uncanny. Japan still had a formidable navy, but its ability to wage the offensive campaign that Yamamoto decreed necessary was gone. From February 1943 the perimeter would be slowly but relentlessly pushed back towards Tokyo. By the time the war ended, Japan would be surrounded, under constant bombardment with an invasion looming.
But why was Japan scared of an invasion? To answer that, one needs to look briefly at Japans history.
For a thousand years the Japanese home islands had been spared the ravages of the continental wars in Asia and Europe. The Mongol fleet that had attempted to invade Japan in 1282 was smashed by a typhoon, which the Japanese called the Divine Wind (Kamikaze) The Japanese wartime religion of Shinto decreed that to surrender was to commit a dishonourable act. The Japanese airman wore no parachute because if he was to retain his honour, he had to either die or return victorious. The Japanese soldiers on many islands killed themselves rather than surrendering to the Allies. So did civilians, and it is recorded that after Saipan fell in 1944 scores of Japanese civilians were seen jumping off cliffs to their deaths. Thus as the Allies closed on Japan, the fighting got more and more bitter. At the height of the naval battle in Leyte Gulf in October 1944, the Japanese introduced the kamikazes as a weapon of war, deliberately crashing planes into American warships. As 1944 drew to a close instances of the Baka human flying bomb assailing American ships were recorded. The Japanese navy, despite the lack of fuel had suicide submarines that would use the last remaining fuel to crash into Allied ships. The Ketsu-Go plan for the defence of Japan was going to involve a militia of 28 million civilians.
No. To surrender would be the most absolutely dishonourable thing that could happen.
But geopolitical circumstances were conspiring in ways to short circuit Japan’s final desperate defence that that few today fully acknowledge and the consequences of which still reverberate through northeast Asia to this very day.